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Train Virtually As You Fight
by U.S. Air Force Debora Henley
505th Command and Control Wing
April 30, 2020

The 705th Combat Training Squadron (CTS), 505th Command and Control Wing, home of Kirtland Air Force Base’s Distributed Mission Operations Center (DMOC), hosts Virtual Flag which serves as a train as you fight exercise by integrating the full spectrum of air, land, surface, space, and cyber warfighters in a virtual battlespace in joint and coalition environments. From December 2 to 12 in 2019, the 705th CTS hosted joint Exercise Virtual Flag (VF) 20-1 with its mission partner, the 377th Air Base Wing at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.

The exercise trained over 250 joint warfighters, and accomplished over 3,100 joint training events using 60 different systems connect at ten sites across the country.

December 10, 2019 - Hosted by the 705th Combat Training Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, members of the US Air Force and US Army work side-by-side to refine their skils during exercise Virtual Flag 20-1. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photos by Shelton Keel, 505th Command and Control Wing)
December 10, 2019 - Hosted by the 705th Combat Training Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico members of the US Air Force and US Army work side-by-side to refine their skils during exercise Virtual Flag 20-1. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Air Force photos by Shelton Keel, 505th Command and Control Wing)

Virtual Flag is a Commander, Air Combat Command (COMACC)-sponsored exercise designed to provide operational and tactical warfighters training in synthetic, theater-level, joint combat environments. The primary focus of VF is command and control spanning from the Combat Operations floor to the pilot/Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) in a realistic air environment,” said Lt. Col. Angela Messing, commander, 705 CTS. “VF is designed to prepare Combat Air Force (CAF) personnel in the mission execution phase of composite force operations, and OPLAN fly out, in a joint and coalition environment.”

The scenario is a major theater war designed to focus on joint and multi-weapon system integration. The primary focus areas are command and control, close air support, and air operations in maritime surface warfare. Others include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), integrated air and missile defense, interdiction, airlift, special operations, and space integration.

“Really what the Marine Corps gets out of this, is the ability to work with Air Force, Army, and Navy all at the same time in some type of theater of war, in a complex environment, in a large scale evolution, which we cannot simulate that in the real world,” said U.S. Marine Corps Captain Brian Easley. “So it gives us the ability to work with all these different joint agencies, figure out the best ways forward where there are holes in our communication with each other, and move forward, then try to apply that in the real world.”

Virtual Flag allows warfighters to get the same experience they would get out of a real flying exercise without using costly fuel and deployment time.

“We prepare warfighters for combat operations. Back home in their simulator everything works great, but here we can insert that chaos that they are going to face; tyranny of distance, how the terrain affects their radar, how terrain affects their radios, we can do communication jamming, JTIDS jamming, spoofing, all that sort of stuff, that they are going face when we go fight with our near-peer adversaries,” said Lt. Col. Messing.

“In order to make our VF as realistic and relevant as possible to the warfighter, we send teams out to the different theaters of operations to sit down and talk with the planners regarding theater plans, and what slivers of those we need to exercise in the synthetic environment,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Linn Post, 705 CTS director of operations. “For VF planning, we consider real-world events and “hot spots” months in advance to give our participants a realistic look and feel of what they may encounter or have to work through when faced with these problem sets in combat.”

Aggressors from the 57th Adversary Tactics Group from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada flew constructive enemy forces from the DMOC to emulate robust, integrated enemy tactics.

“This is a big command and control exercise, so you get to exercise that part of it which is already hard to do in a live, large force exercise with this being the focus, this I think, makes the real-world engagements better and at a much cheaper cost than having to expend you know hundreds of aircraft getting them down to Nellis (AFB) and doing that,” said Lt Col Nikita Belikov, “Red One” for VF 20-1, commander, 57th Information Aggressor Squadron, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada “My biggest takeaway is practicing that C2 (Command and Control) muscle is not inconsequential and very, very important to those engagements.”

Since its infancy, VF has improved to help advance the modern warfighter. Based off the Mission Areas Working Group presentations and the CSAF high-interest items briefed at the CAF Weapons and Tactics conference (WEPTAC), the DMOC team will build a scenarios to practice these complicated missions. As the only venue in the Air Force to conduct Joint DMO training, VF has become more of an OPLAN employment in recent years.

“VF’s goal for the exercise scenarios is to find the “friction points” amongst said plan that we are executing and allow the crews to work through them, whether that is in mission planning through specific contracts developed or real-time during the vulnerability period,” said Lt. Col. Post. “VF, specifically the synthetic environment that we operate in, allows the participants to plan together, make mistakes (where no one is dying), debrief, figure out a better plan and then re-run it to find a better tactic or process.”

The 705th Combat Training Squadron (CTS), Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico is part of the 505th Command and Control Wing (CCW), Hurlburt Field, Florida, which shapes the way joint and coalition warfighters execute command and control (C2) of multi-domain operations. The wing provides a tactical advantage to the warfighter to achieve and maintain C2 dominance in air, space, and cyberspace. VF 20-1 presented participants with a contemporary multi-domain threat where exercise participants had to think through complicated problem sets, including several that the Chief of Staff of the Air Force has challenged the U.S. Air Force to address.

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