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NEWS | Dec. 11, 2023

Combined US, coalition force increase combat effectiveness during Indo-Pacific Virtual Flag exercise

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

For the first time in the fourteen-year history of the Virtual Flag: Coalition exercise, integrated forces from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada fought against a peer adversary in a virtual Indo-Pacific area of responsibility. To increase combat effectiveness, the combined force engaged jointly across air, land, sea, space, and cyber domains.

The 705th Combat Training Squadron, home of Air Combat Command’s Distributed Mission Operations Center, executed VIRTUAL FLAG: Coalition 24 at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, and distributed sites across four countries during the two-week exercise, which concluded on Nov. 8.

VF:C is one of the U.S. Department of Defense's largest exercises, combining U.S. forces (U.S. Air Force, U.S. Space Force, U.S. Navy, U.S. Army, and U.S. Marines) with international partners (Royal Air ForceRoyal Navy, U.K. Space Agency, Royal Australian Air Force, Royal Australian Army, Royal Canadian Air Force, Royal Canadian Navy, Royal Canadian Army) against a top pacing challenge in a high-end fight across warfighting domains, in a large-scale theater and spectrum of conflict.

"Exercise Virtual Flag and similar Fleet Synthetic Training events provided a unique environment for the Royal Canadian Navy to collaborate with our coalition partners and allies. The complexity of the Carrier Strike Group and INDOPACOM [Indo-Pacific Command] scenario was incredibly challenging and would be near impossible to replicate at sea,” said RCN Lt. (N) Jonathan Nellan, Canadian Pacific Fleet. “Fleet Synthetic Training cannot replace practical live training, but the training provided on VF:C 24 enabled Royal Canadian Navy personnel to significantly broaden their warfighting skill sets, all in an environment where mistakes are possible, and failure is an option.”

Approximately 493 coalition and joint warfighters accomplished 5,356 joint training events for 43 units using seven networks and 23 different systems connected at 22 distributed sites worldwide through the DMOC’s information system networks.

Coalition forces operate within a simultaneously live, virtual, and constructive environment, allowing warfighters to train to wage war against a peer adversary in a synthetic environment to improve their integrated combat effectiveness. Virtual scenarios, in which an individual is attacking or defending inside a simulator, and constructive scenarios, in which computer-generated threats are fought against the combined force, were both used.

Following the conclusion of VF:C 23 in 2022, the DMOC redesigned the entire exercise, strategically aligning training priorities with the Department of Defense's National Defense Strategy by changing the AOR to an Indo-Pacific region that is twice as large as previous VF:C AORs.

“The INDOPACOM AOR challenged the combined force to address unique problem sets associated with tyranny of distance, including geographic separation, logistics, time, distance, and communications with a focus shift from a primarily land-based exercise to an expanded sea component,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Andrew Metz, 705th CTS/DMOC VF:C 24 exercise director. 

“Exercise Virtual Flag: Coalition 24, now based on the INDOPACOM AOR and supporting [the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center’s] Pacing Challenge Campaign Plans, provided outstanding multi-domain warfighting training to all Canadian Forces exercise participants,” said RCAF Maj. Gary Stone, RCAF Aerospace Warfare Centre.  “With Canada’s increased strategic focus on the INDOPACOM AOR, the training received significantly enhanced members’ theatre-level situational awareness where command and control over vast distances is of paramount importance.”    

For joint and coalition participants, the DMOC develops realistic and relevant training environments and scenarios, allowing individual units to add elements to complete required training objectives or certifications during VF:C.

"Training at VF:C means stand-in forces in the first island chain are ready to bring to bear not only the strength of the Marine Corps but of the entire joint force and America’s extraordinarily powerful allies," said U.S. Marine 2nd Lt. Andrew Binder, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing intelligence officer.

“The larger AOR also forced our tactical C2 participants to be more proactive and use foresight to anticipate and address the challenges they were seeing regarding assets remaining in a coverage area, which was not an issue in our previous AORs,” said U.S. Air Force Capt. David Blessman, 705th CTS/DMOC assistant director of operations.

The U.S. Air Force Warfare Center will conduct its first-ever combined C2-driven, live-fly, and LVC exercise, Bamboo Eagle, during the third week of Red Flag in 2024. The exercise will execute 24/7 operations at Nellis, Kirtland, and Hurlburt Field, as well as distributed locations. The DMOC will incorporate VF:C lessons learned into Bamboo Eagle scenarios and future VFs and VF:Cs.

“The DMOC is the only place to provide tactical C2 realistic wartime rehearsal-style training, including length of time,” said Metz. “As a coalition, we are developing and passing on real-world lessons learned by solving different problem sets to enable tomorrow’s warfighter.”

Exercise VF:C brought together components that otherwise operate separately, advancing interoperability, cohesion and enhanced communication amongst forces fostering mutual understanding and comradery.

“The most notable strength is the broadening of our communication to understand better the nuances of how each different element conducts business and their respective expectations. We see the common operating picture of where our space peers are headed; VF:C allows us to collaborate with allied forces in a capacity we normally would not get, such as working with U.S. Navy teams,” said RCAF Sgt. Lia Spruyt, 7th Space Operations Squadron.

392nd Combat Training Squadron personnel under Delta 1, Space Training and Readiness Command, at Schriever Space Force Base, Colorado, provided real-time exercise data to Kirtland’s DMOC throughout VFC, which strengthened C2 for the combined force at Kirtland and its 22 distributed locations.

"One of the main objectives of the exercise was fighting in an Indo-Pacific exercise scenario,” said U.S. Air Force Reserve Staff Sgt. Alicia Gutierrez, 8th Space Warning Squadron mission management operator. "We cannot adequately prepare for real-world peer adversaries if we do not train and plan for them."

During VF:C, the battlespace was used to train and evaluate U.K. Space Command students and successfully integrate coalition space specialist teams in a simulated operational environment. The space team included space specialists from the U.S., U.K., Australia and Canada.

"We operate in an all-domain capacity in VF:C; we not only explore ways to enhance our space-based practices, but we also have the opportunity to observe what the other elements—the Army and Navy, among others—are doing in real time at each stage of the battle," Spruyt.

Aircrews (C-17s at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and RAAF Amberley, E-3s at Tinker AFB, E-7As at RAAF Base Williamtown, MQ-9s from Creech AFB, MQ-9As from RAF Waddington, MQ-1Cs from Fort Hood, CP-140s at Canadian Forces Base Greenwood, RCAF CH-148s,and RC-135s from RAF Waddington) along with Airmen from the Tactical Operations Center-Fixed at Robins AFB, coalition forces at Control and Reporting Centres at RAAF Base Williamtown and RCAF North Bay, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing Sailors at the Maritime Analysis and Operations Centre and Tactical Air Control Center, RAF and RAAF operators along with U.S. Air National Guard Airmen from Distributed Ground Stations, U.S. Army Soldiers from the 5th Battlefield Coordination Detachment, participated onsite or at a connected or distributed location during VF:C ensuring the execution of the exercise’s objectives. 

The U.S. Army’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle team mutually supported Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance and Surface Combat Air Patrol operations during VF:C to help deter enemy forces allowing the freedom of maneuver for the U.S. Navy’s 3rd Fleet.

RAAF and U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery Fire Control Officers, or ADAFCOs, provided deconfliction in the joint operating area airspace and defended coalition forces against ballistic missile threats.

“Working together with our coalition partners and all branches of the U.S. military, I learned  how an Air Operations Center operates, the roles of naval and air assets, and the importance of communication between everyone in the fight,” said  U.S. Air Force Reserve Senior Airman Angelina Weissenburger, 19th Space Operations Squadron GPS tactician.

VF:C is a complex and integrated LVC training exercise specializing in simulation and training systems integration.  RAAF Waddington and RAF Coningsby joint terminal attack controllers, or JTACs, trained in the Joint Terminal Control Training Rehearsal System, a 270-degree dome simulator. JTACS used the electronic interfaces in the dome to view targeting equipment, global positioning systems, and radios that are currently in use in the field.

“The U.K. Air Support Operations Squadron has supported the Virtual Flag exercises for a number of years, and we continue to get excellent training value from our participation. The DMOC facility enables our personnel to practise their tactics in a secure environment, linked across all operational domains whilst connected to our global key partners,” said RAF Wing Commander Darren Haith, U.K. ASOS officer commanding.  “It is a valuable training tool for the warfighter across air, space, land, cyber and sea; encouraging innovative thinking to integrate multi-domain capabilities.”

“Previous iterations of this exercise were not as tightly focused on preparing coalition forces to compete and win against near-peer adversaries.  Virtual Flag: Coalition fills that void as the Air Force's premier distributed battle management exercise, in that it provides combat representative, joint, and coalition, synthetic training across all domains in support of the warfighter,” said U.S. Air Force Col. Robert Smith, 505th Combat Training Group commander.

The 705th CTS reports to the 505th Combat Training Group, Nellis AFB, Nevada, and the 505th Command and Control Wing, headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Florida.  In support of U.S. Air Force, joint, and coalition warfighter readiness, the DMOC develops, integrates, and delivers a robust multi-domain environment for training, tactics, techniques, and procedures development, testing and experimentation.

“VF:C 24 challenged our coalition in a campaign against an analytical and well-equipped peer adversary and then allowed us to study how we can improve our performance in the fight. Full integration of coalition forces support allows operators to develop tactics that leverage space capabilities and greatly improve their overall situational awareness,” said U.S. Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. David Hodge, 19th SOPS Weapons and Tactics flight chief.

For more information regarding VF and VF:C exercise participation or to request a distinguished visitor tour, contact the 505th CCW public affairs advisor at 850-884-9476 or 505CCW.PA.PublicAffairs@us.af.mil.

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