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US, international forces operate as a combined force in exercise Virtual Flag: Coalition

  • Published
  • By Deb Henley, 505th Command and Control Wing Public Affairs
  • 705th Combat Training Squadron

“Fight’s on” loudly echoed across the battlespace kicking off exercise Virtual Flag: Coalition 23-1 at the Distributed Mission Operations Center at Kirtland Air Force Base and distributed sites across four countries, during the first day of an 11-day exercise.

VF:C is one of the U.S. Department of Defense's largest exercises combining U.S. forces from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Space ForceU.S. NavyU.S. Army, and U.S. Marines with international partners from the Royal Air ForceRoyal Navy, Royal Australian Air ForceRoyal Australian ArmyRoyal Canadian Air ForceRoyal Canadian Navy, and Royal Canadian Army against an acute threat in a high-end fight across warfighting domains, in a large-scale theater and spectrum of conflict.

“Exercise Virtual Flag: Coalition is the preeminent, Five Eyes, distributed mission training, interoperability exercise fostering multi-national cooperation, and trust demonstrating Canada’s commitment to our coalition partners,” said RCAF Lt. Col. Steve Camps, RCAF Aerospace Warfare Centre Exercise and Simulation Branch head, Air and Space Integration Program, 8 Wing, Canadian Forces Base Trenton. 

Approximately 400 coalition and joint warfighters accomplished 6,400 joint training events for 43 units using seven networks and 23 different systems connected at 20 distributed sites worldwide. These sites all around the globe, from simulators to allied Air Operations Center facilities, are connected to the DMOC through information system networks.

"Distributed training allows us to integrate almost unlimited players and participants. Participants that normally couldn't train together are now able to train together with the DMOC's network support structure,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Christopher Hawzen, 705th Combat Training Squadron VF:C exercise director, Kirtland AFB. “We can connect multiple platforms across the coalition and put them in a scenario that is more representative of wartime conditions in a much larger AOR [area of responsibility] with no constraints on fuel, time or airspace, and no risk to life or aircraft, which are limitations with live-fly exercises."

Scenarios were both virtual, meaning there is a person in a simulator attacking or defending, and constructive, meaning computer-generated threats were pitted against the combined force. 

“VF:C's realistic, high-end training environment tested U.S., U.K., Australian and Canadian forces' ability to combine and develop their strengths to the maximum effect,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Butler, 705th CTS/DMOC commander, Kirtland AFB. 

Within the exercise, there are three participating “teams,” also referred to as “cells;” there is the blue cell (forces being trained), red cell (aggressors, threat emulation team, opposition forces) and white cell (constructive players that fill out the friendly forces so there is enough reality to the scenario).

For the first time, a portion of VF:C's white force cell was distributed from Australia, where fighters “flew” from the Australian Air Warfare Center. These new distributed capabilities expand the AAWC's ability to provide better-quality training for the RAAF while using the DMOC to provide the environment to test and develop the new capability.

“The expansion of the distributed white force increases the capability of the AAWC and the DMOC. As a result, we can provide additional white force/blue and red air capability/replication without the need of additional resources for future VFs,” said Hawzen.

“Virtual Flag: Coalition enabled the ADF [Australian Defence Force] to rehearse realistic multi-domain missions against a near-peer opposing force in a complex training environment that is difficult to replicate in a live training context,” said RAAF Wing Commander Michael Tully, Advanced Training and Test Environment staff officer. “It provides a high-value opportunity for the ADF to operate in a coalition air support operational environment.”

Tully continued, “The exercise promoted the continued cultivation of international partnerships with our coalition partners and sustained the development of distributed mission training capabilities within air forces.  VF:C also provided further enhancement of Australia’s interoperability with the U.S. Air Force and Navy, Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Air Force.”

Personnel from the 392nd Combat Training Squadron at the DMOC – Space at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, provided real-time exercise data to Kirtland’s DMOC throughout VF:C 23-1 which strengthened C2 for the combined force at Kirtland AFB and 20 distributed locations.

Each year, the United Kingdom Space Command evaluators use the DMOC’s AOC to train and evaluate two Qualified Space Instructors Course students, two for their final certification. During VF:C, the U.K.’s Space students participate in the exercise planning and executing the mission as space duty officers.

“We utilize this unique and rich training environment to evaluate our students as one of the summative parts of the course resulting in the awarding of the coveted Space Weapons Officer ‘whisky patch,” said RAF Squadron Leader Laura Ridley-Siddall, Air & Space Warfare School officer commanding Space, Air & Space Warfare Centre Cranwell. “After 12–24 months of demanding training, two students were awarded the prized QSI patch following successful completion of their evaluations at VF:C, while two further QSIC students from the junior course have undergone evaluations.”

During VF: C 23-1, the DMOC was used to train and evaluate U.K. Space students and successfully integrated coalition space specialist teams in a simulated operational environment. This year the space team was 13 strong, including space specialists from the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada. 

“Not simulated anywhere else, this exercise enables coalition space specialists to integrate their effects into a joint environment and to plan and execute multi-domain integration plans and operations against a simulated near-peer adversary in a contested operational setting,” Ridley-Siddall said. “The wealth of experience that coalition partners obtained from this exercise is invaluable, and the support that the DMOC staff offered the exercise participants is not duplicated anywhere else.” 

Using the DMOC's live, virtual, and constructive environment, the combined force conducted operations across warfighting domains practicing large-scale operational warfare and increasing combat effectiveness in a highly contested environment.

“Virtual Flag: Coalition provides operational and tactical warfighters outstanding training in a synthetic, theatre-level, joint, coalition, contested and degraded combat environment, significantly enhancing Canada’s Force Generation and Readiness,” said RCAF Maj. Gary Stone, RCAF Aerospace Warfare Centre A7, Air and Space Integration Program, 8 Wing, Canadian Forces Base Trenton. 

U.K. contingents have been completing training at VF:C for many years; during this iteration, the U.K. team focused on the delivery of Qualified Space Instructor assessments, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems, or RPAS, operations, air-land Integration from Army Division and sub-Brigade-levels which also included U.S. Marine Corps brigade combat teams and Canadian Army brigades well as introducing integrated cyber operations. 

“Exercise Virtual Flag: Coalition is a highly valuable training event that allows units from U.K. defense to practice tactical employment of our capabilities within a large coalition environment,” said RAF Squadron Leader Graham Orme, Headquarters Air and Space Warfare Centre, 92 Squadron, Headquarters Air and Space Warfare Centre, VF:C 23-1 U.K. detachment commander, RAF Waddington. “The synthetic battlespace allows for excellent instructional supervision and feedback whilst offering a safe environment to develop and test novel tactics.”

Orme continued, “The breadth of coalition experience and involvement makes the exercise a truly unique opportunity that continues to prepare our warfighters of the future.”

VFC is a complex and integrated LVC training exercise involving networking and interoperability specializing in simulation and training systems integration, including the Joint Terminal Control Training Rehearsal System, a 270-degree dome simulator, within the DMOC. The dome simulation provides enhanced immersion for joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs, to include what is known as form, fit, and function; allowing JTACs to train in the same combat gear they wear in combat, including their body armor, helmet with night vision goggles, ruck or assault pack, and even a rifle with realistic weight and recoil. JTACs also have electronic interfaces which display the currently fielded radio, GPS, and targeting equipment and use an infrared radar pointer to mark a target during a night simulation.

“The value of having JTACs operate in the dome sim at VFC is the full integration/linkage of the entire tactical C2 chain. From the airborne C2 asset down to the forward ground-based controller, there are actual humans at each echelon making real-time decisions that reverberate up and down the tactical C2 chain,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Gary Demmons, 705th CTS tactical air control party/senior enlisted leader, Kirtland AFB. “In training exercises that are not as fully integrated as VF:C, the majority of interactions or injects run off a script which provides training for only one specific tactical C2 function.”

“Exercise VF:C provides a fantastic chance for the ALI [Air-Land Integration] Cell members to conduct high-end joint mission planning and execution with partner and allied nation colleagues. These exercises are an excellent opportunity to foster international relationships and exchange TTPs while being tested in a simulated but realistic large scale combat operation,” said RAF Sgt. Graeme Booth, Air Land Integration Cell JTAC evaluator, RAF Coningsby. 

Aircrews (A-10s at Moody and Davis Monthan AFBs, E-3s at Tinker AFB, E-7As from RAAF Williamtown, MQ-9s at Shaw AFB, MQ-9As from RAF Waddington, MQ-1Cs from Fort Hood, CP-140s, and RC-135s from Offutt AFB) along with Airmen at the Control and Reporting Centre at Hill AFB, U.S. Navy operators at the Maritime Analysis and Operations Center and air battle managers at the RCAF Battle Control System-Fixed participated onsite or at a connected or distributed location during VF:C 23-1 ensuring the execution of the exercise’s objectives.

The U.S. Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle team mutually supported Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance, or SCAR, and Surface Combat Air Patrol, or SUCAP, operations during VF:C to help deter enemy forces while allowing the U.S. Navy freedom of maneuver.

“The training value we receive here is unmatched as well as the ability to work with coalition forces while simulating an LSCO [Large Scale Combat Operations] environment. It is difficult to achieve this combination and complexity anywhere else,” said U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Drew Lincoln, 1st Intelligence Weapons Team, B Company, 15th Military Intelligence Battalion platoon leader, Fort Hood, Texas. “We've also had the ability to execute and enhance our warfighting functions alongside our NATO allies so that we have a shared understanding of our battlespace.”

During VF:C, the MQ-1C team also trained with the U.S. Navy while conducting naval operations alongside the U.S. Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper systems.

Lincoln continued, “The experience our team received by having a first-hand view of what it’s like to work in a denied environment while working alongside our coalition forces within a multi-domain environment is invaluable.”  

Realistic and relevant training environments and scenarios are developed at the DMOC for participants while allowing individual units to add elements so they may complete required training objectives or certifications during VF:C.

A significant milestone for the Royal Australian Army team during VF: C was their air defense artillery fire control officers, or ADAFCOs, received their first crew certification under U.S. Army Soldiers from the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. The U.S. Army also uses VFs to certify their ADAFCOs; they are the U.S. Army’s air defense representative at C2 nodes.

“It’s a pretty big exercise, but certainly a massive achievement for us to do what we are doing here this year,” said Royal Australian Army Maj. T.H. Moutrage, 111th Air Defence Battery Senior Australian ADAFCO, Woodside Barracks.

“The value of Virtual Flag: Coalition is in our learning to coordinate with our coalition partners, even more so than the scenario we exercise,” said Scott Graham, 705th CTS deputy exercise director, Kirtland AFB. “This is how we will fight, with our allies and we must be able to prosecute that execution seamlessly across huge areas of responsibility.”

Exercise VF:C is a Commander Air Combat Command-directed, Headquarters Air Force/A3-sponsored, HQ-ACC managed and 705th CTS-developed annual large force exercise focusing on major combat operations in a realistic theater against a near-peer three in a dynamic training environment.

“Virtual Flag: Coalition is one-of-a-kind training,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Frederick Coleman505th Command and Control Wing commander, Hurlburt Field, Florida. “There’s nothing else like it, and it costs a fraction of a live-fly exercise. Our return on investment here is unmatched, especially in terms of integration with joint and coalition partners.”