YUKON TRAINING AREA, Alaska –
A microphone clicked beneath a camouflage helmet. The rumble of an idling M1126 Stryker Combat Vehicle and the distant thud of 120-mm mortar rounds filled the radio channels, punctuating days and hours of terse back-and-forth radio conversation: air-to-ground, ground-to-air, ground units to ground units.
"John 5-3, you are cleared hot," the call barked.
An A-10 Warthog II banked into view, followed in close succession by the whine of its twin engines and the unmistakable rrrrrrippppp of the plane's 30-mm rounds striking targets, the smoke visible before the zipper sound of Gatling-gunned, ripped earth.
Red Flag-Alaska is a Pacific Air Forces-directed training exercise often linked with air power alone - aerial missions, air combat sorties and dogfighting jet fighters above the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex - 65,000 square miles of airspace and 1.5 million acres of maneuver terrain spread across central Alaska.
But more than tracing contrails over the sprawling terrain, Red Flag-Alaska 14-3 was practice in reducing the expansive map of the Yukon Training Area to the few inches which mattered most.
The echo of 120-mm mortars, joint terminal attack controller radio chatter and F-16 Fighting Falcons circling in the distance suggested that something much bigger than dogfighting was underway. Gone were the "simulated" victories and the pretend walk-overs of "notional" enemy air power. Now air superiority had to be attained, not assumed.
Air Force Lt. Col. J.B. Waltermire, commander of the 146th Air Support Operations Squadron from Oklahoma City described the best way to win the battle area in two words: shrinking it.
"We're shrinking the battlespace, compressing it," Waltermire said. "We're bringing the full might and force of the U.S. military to bear on the enemy right..." he said, tracing a black line across the gridlines of a green battle map "...here."
"We're dealing with surface-to-air threats, mortar fires, close air supports, platoons firing .50-caliber and Mk-19 (40-mm grenade machine gun), calling in support in real time," said Army Lt. Col. James Hayes, commander, 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment, from Fort Wainwright, Alaska. "Before, you didn't get that unless you were downrange - now we practice it here. That's key."
The Stuart Creek wildfires burned much of the area northeast of Fairbanks last year, transforming the pine forest into thousands of acres of black spikes dotting an ashen, pale green-and-grey moonscape. The eight-wheeled, 18-ton Strykers carved knee-deep ruts in the mud and soon the ridgeline mirrored the piled-dirt dioramas where young Army lieutenants, platoon sergeants and Air Force JTACS planned their movements.
The Red Flag battle focused on a fight for reconnaissance, which became a massive screening movement to block enemy armored units funneling like liquid spilt down the tilted valley floor. The exercise planners realized mapping technology aboard the Army Strykers could be used to build graphics of the situation unfolding on the ground into the Air Force Situational Awareness Data Links. Essentially, Air Force jets and Army Strykers could see the same picture and talk one another through the changing targets, advantages and threats each saw in a manner the other could not.
A-10 pilots watched their dual mission unfold as they swooped 100 feet above the burnt pines. The first part of the Air Force pilots' battle was to win the air, working intercept missions with F-16s, 3rd Wing F-22 Raptors, Navy EA-18G Growlers and F/A-18 Hornets said Air Force Capt. Katherine Conrad, A-10 pilot with the 104th Fighter Squadron, Maryland Air National Guard.
The second phase meant working close air support with the Army.
"We (the Air Force TACPs) had to learn to direct anything with a kinetic ground effect," Waltermire said. "In Red Flag, we have to know how to bring Air Force assets to the fight for the ground commander, how to work the processes, how to work the communication."
On the ground, in real-time with lead flying over their heads, Waltermire said, "We've got to overcome the friction of the processes, minimize hiccups."
This meant a host of different units - platoons, forward observers, air defense airspace management/brigade aviation element, the squadron tactical operations center, JTACS, Rangers from A Company, 3rd Battalion, 75th Infantry Regiment and Marines with the 1st Marine Recon Battalion - had to integrate and find ways to increase joint reporting and understanding, while shortening the "kill chain" - the steps necessary, with all their potential for errors, problems and delays, to win the battle.
"That relationship is critical," Hayes said. "We've learned overseas that the integration can't happen for the first time when we're already there."
"We build that relationship here and we're that much more effective when we deploy," Hayes said. "Here everyone can be a part of the planning process. Operations and execution are seamless."
The team put in weeks of 18-hour days, Soldiers sleeping in camouflaged tents, in their vehicles or on the muddy ground.
The greatest challenge, Waltermire said, was to make sense of the massive flow of information -sometimes supporting, other times contradictory, but nearly always overlapping - as it competed for attention on a chaotic battlefield.
"We've all been putting in long days to get the pilots on board, the JTACS integrated into the Army," Waltermire said. "It isn't easy stuff."
Pfc. Joseph Dean Quimpo, gunner, A Troop, 5-1 Cavalry, described Red Flag as a chance to practice the grit of real war outside a classroom.
"Here, we're not just writing in notebooks, we're doing it all outside," Quimpo said. "Now we actually have someone who will be calling for fire with the birds, and it makes it feel like it's all coming together."
"We've never seen this level of integration," Waltermire added, yet to him one lesson from 13 years of U.S. combat overseas was inescapably true: "Combat is not the time to learn this."
The JPARC logo is the complex's motto - "winning the future fight" - laid atop an outline of Alaska. The training for Red Flag 14-3 here suggests that future will involve both the roar of ultra-high-technology Air Force jets and the rattle of Army guns.