Coalition Virtual Flag

Exercise Coalition Virtual Flag

In the second half of August, personnel from RAF Waddington-based 5, 8 and 54 Squadrons deployed to Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to participate in Exercise Coalition Virtual Flag 2014. The  annually staged exercise brings together armed forces units and services to practise major battlefield operations. Because it is simulator-based, it avoids the time, effort and expense of bringing planes, troops, support staff and others together at a single geographical site.

The exercise is coordinated at the Distributed Mission Operations Centre (DMOC), where around 300 personnel in command centres and simulators around the world are networked together. This makes it a true, real-time coalition exercise that allows many participants to operate from their home units and bases.

Air operations are a major part of any exercise, but Coalition Virtual Flag includes other aspects, such as ground, maritime, space, cyber and intelligence. Exercise partners at the DMOC included personnel from the US Army and US Marine Corps, as well as participants from the Australian and Canadian air forces.

V(AC) SQUADRON – “Hot dog, jumping frog” by Capt R Moore
V(Army Cooperation) Squadron deployed a team of eight personnel for Exercise Coalition Virtual Flag. This encompassed a full mission crew, liaison officer, and ground intelligence support team. The journey out saw the team stranded at Dallas due to poor weather, and everyone became rather too familiar with Dallas Airport’s “Skytrain” which took them round and round the airport terminals in search of a seat on a plane to Albuquerque. Within twenty-four hours, however, the team had arrived (some via Phoenix), and settled in for a very necessary acclimatisation day which mostly consisted of Flt Lt Ged Swann driving the team around all the ‘Breaking
Bad’ film locations. The first days of the exercise were dominated by introductory briefs explaining the concepts and processes needed to go forward, as well as explaining the capabilities of different platforms represented. It was also the time to build relationships with those who would work alongside the team, which was split into three. Cpl Gordon worked with the Australian contingent in a real-time analysis role, whilst Sgt Campbell and LCpl Howlett worked with the US team providing intelligence support. They both provided strong intelligence briefs throughout the exercise. Finally, the crew and liaison officer worked on a simulator supported by US staff.

The first week was more relaxed and provided the opportunity to explore Albuquerque and its fine restaurants. The team had a tough job on their hands adjusting to American portion sizes, with steaks equivalent to a pint of meat, large fish and giant crabs, and Japanese stir fry cooked at the table. The food was excellent and affordable, with the possible exception of the “five-star” Chinese restaurant with no beer, where the two hour wait for food gave plenty of opportunity to examine the numerous pictures of the owner with unknown 1980s pop groups. Other trips out led to encounters with interesting local characters such as the divorced USAF veteran pining for his family and treasuring his gun collection, and a local self-proclaimed hypnotist. The weekend allowed the time to get involved in local activities. Most of the team retired to the gun ranges to pursue that great American past-time, whilst “Team Brokeback” headed to the Sandia Mountains that overlook the town, scaled by the third-largest cable car in the world, with views of the whole city and the plain.

In the second week came the exercise-proper with missions every day, bracketed by lengthy planning and debriefing. The crew practised Sentinel’s role, collecting imagery in an air campaign, with the pilots having every opportunity to train to detect and escape potential threats and return to the collection orbit in as short a time as possible. The ground support team integrated well with the US and Australian colleagues to support the exercise live as it happened, and with briefs in between missions. As well as training for the crew in their flying duties, the exercise provided an excellent opportunity to meet and integrate with other types of aircraft from other nations, as well as with other squadrons from Waddington. This experience was invaluable and it was felt that real progress was made. In this respect the exercise is important preparation for Exercise Red Flag, which follows a similar concept but throws real (not simulated) aircraft into the mix. Exercise Virtual Flag provided a superb chan and support teams to practise their procedures and integrate with other aircraft, before doing it for real in Red Flag.

VIII SQUADRON – “Back for Tea and Medals” by Flt Lt M Creek
8 Squadron deployed a crew of 20 personnel consisting of both Weapons and Surveillance specialisations, Tactical Director and a Communications Operator.

The start of the journey was, for the most part, uneventful, until we arrived stateside and the prebooked internal flights only allowed for 50 minutes to transfer. Luckily for us, United Airlines have serviceability issues we’re not unaccustomed to ourselves, which allowed us to make our connection (although certain crew members were eyeing-up an overnighter in Houston and hoping to sample the local delights). We were met at Albuquerque Airport by the Exercise Director, Major Dave Cunningham, who quickly bundled us together onto military transport to our hotel; unfortunately, one bag didn’t make the flight, so Flt Lt Mike Clarkson had to dress like a northerner and borrow clothes from Flt Lt Tidbury for the evening until his bag caught up.

After a couple days of acclimatisation it was time to hit the books and get read-in to the exercise. The first day consisted of capabilities briefs from traditional aerial systems and land components, alongside additional capabilities to which most personnel would not normally be exposed on a day-today basis. Flt Lt Clarkson represented the E-3D and, unconventionally, focussed on how our capabilities should be integrated into operations (instead of simply reeling off a variety of facts and figures, as is normally the case). Friday was the familiarisation mission, and it was decided the instructors would do a demo for the benefit of the Weapons Control students prior to Mission One. Fortunately for the Instructors, there were major issues with the simulator, and the E-3D only participated in 20 minutes of this introductory scenario. I’m sure this spared the instructors some interesting debrief points from their students!

The middle weekend saw all the crew sampling the delights of Albuquerque City and, like 5 Squadron, we began to adjust to the huge portions the local restaurants like to provide. Weapons and Surveillance teams both ventured up the Sandia Mountains which are 10,678 ft at the highest point. This is probably why Flt Lt Paul “Riverdance” Hobson felt a little giddy (of course it was nothing to do with the night before).

Week two began, and the proper ‘exercise execution’ phase started. After blowing off a few cobwebs on Monday’s mission, it was the turn of 8 Squadron to take the lead; that responsibility was delegated down to Flt Lt “Genie” Jaques, who did a sterling job and really set the tone for future ‘Command and Control Package Commander’ leads. The mission crew continued to grow in confidence as the exercise progressed, especially as personnel grew more familiar with the slight differences in the US simulator in comparison to our own back at Waddington. Mission 3 was the turn of Flt Lt Adam “Granty” Grant to take the mission commander hot seat; responsible for the entire “War”, in true Royal Air Force spirit, Granty relished the responsibility and led from the front. He delegated tasks to subordinate package commanders, and effectively brought together the individual elements to complete the task in accordance with the overall commander’s objectives. Granty’s leadership was commended by the directing staff, and a visiting US 3-Star Officer, in true US tradition (despite demoting him to 1st Lieutenant), presented him with his own personal coin.

Due to 8 Squadron’s limited exercise programme in 2014, Exercise Coalition Virtual Flag has provided both Combat Ready (CR) and Limited Combat Ready (LCR) personnel with a valuable training opportunity. As the majority of current and recent operations have been based around counterinsurgency and air policing, largely in uncontested airspace, it was the perfect opportunity to re-learn the skills of operating against a nation with credible air power in a contested/ degraded environment.

54(R) Sqn “Lost in Translation” by SAC Luke Shingler
Exercises conventionally consist of personnel taking part as Blue (the good guys), Red (the bad guys) and White (the exercise coordinators/ experts); the main UK contribution to White Force (WF), consisted of various members of the 54(R) Squadron Simulator Flight. The first two days of the detachment were utilised to familiarise ourselves with the local area, and to begin interacting with the other members of WF. These consisted of various specialisations from the USA, Australia and Canada.

The majority of the first week was based around a build-up of the scenario, aircraft capabilities briefs and simulator console familiarisation. All members of WF were allocated roles which were not being carried out by actual personnel playing specific ‘Blue’ roles in their own simulators (such as 5 and 8 Squadron). These WF roles included acting as fighter jet pilots providing ‘Defensive Counter Air’ (DCA), tanker pilots providing  air-to-air refuelling, and various attack platforms. A good working relationship was quickly forged with the other coalition nations and, as the exercise tempo quickened, we found ourselves suitably prepared. At the end of the first week a shortened run-through of the exercise scenario was conducted to allow participants and WF to iron out any issues prior to the main execution phase. Needless to say it wasn’t as smooth as had been hoped; there were issues with unfamiliar kit and equipment, and a breakdown in communication between British WF and coalition partners. Furthermore, the network was unable to integrate the huge numbers of participants in time for the start of the exercise.

Week two saw the execution phase of the exercise begin and, having ironed out the issues of the previous week, WF were on fine form from the start, with the overall scenario running like clockwork. As the week progressed the exercise organisers heaped more and more workload on to the unfaltering 54 Squadron Sim Pilots, with simulated aircraft emergencies, bailouts and a rather unorthodox bear attack. Thursday was the final mission, and all participants stated they had completed numerous training objectives; therefore, from a WF point of view, it was a mission success. The simulator pilot contribution in Coalition Virtual Flag offered us the opportunity to thoroughly test our abilities and knowledge. We learnt a lot from the other participating nations, which consequently allows us to contribute more effectively to training aircrew back at home in the UK.

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