The pilot of the lead A-10 Thunderbolt II raised his visor for a moment, rubbing his eyes. He and his wingman — WARLORD flight — had been airborne for three hours. Nearing the end of their mission, he shot a quick glance at his fuel state. Another twenty minutes on station, then enough to get back to base and have a little bit to spare. His wingman had already canceled their tanker; they hadn’t seen any action, so there was no need to take on extra gas.
“Two,” came back the response.
The lead smiled underneath his oxygen mask, looking over at his wingman flying line abreast about a mile off his left wing. “Just making sure you’re awake, bro.”
The sun was now low over the horizon to the west. It would be dark by the time they got back to their base, so the pilot of the lead aircraft, “Oiler” to his friends, reached back and grabbed his helmet bag, bringing it forward. He popped the visor off of his helmet and then snapped the night vision goggle adapter plate into place. He set the NVGs in his lap for now and stowed the bag.
The radio crackled to life. “WARLORD ONE-ONE, Army C-2 request. Push five—you have words.”
“Copy,” he acknowledged, reaching to the up-front-control panel, pressing the 5 key, and then keyed the radio. “WARLORD’s up.”
“Prepare to copy coordinates for priority tasking. Troops in heavy contact, requesting thirty-millimeter. Danger close.”
The preceding was the beginning of a real incident. Such engagements are still very commonplace in downrange, representative of the type of power projection being implemented by coalition air forces–and on a grand scale. While it is true that there are no dogfights taking place in the present conflicts, in no way has that minimized the role of airpower, or the frequency with which attack and strike fighter aircrews are called upon to employ their craft.
Close Air Support, or CAS, has been a reality of air warfare since World War I. The parameters of that type of operation are unchanged: troops on the ground with the means to communicate with aircraft direct weapons employment from the air, thereby helping them break contact with the opposing force, or to assist in the accomplishment of the ground unit’s objectives. But through the course of history, the need arose for a formalization of training in that discipline in order to increase effectiveness, and to increase the number of lives saved.
In 1981, the United States Army began a series of very sophisticated and realistic mock combat exercises at its National Training Center, located at Fort Irwin, California. From the onset, the Army had asked the Air Force for close air support missions and a tactical control system to support the undertaking. “Air Warrior” was created to teach aircrews traditional air support and interdiction skills against a conventional enemy ground force. It pitted dedicated ground-attack and strike assets against large troop formations during mock battle at the NTC. Once the program was proven and both services recognized the value of the joint training, the exercise began to incorporate training for Tactical Air Control Party members into a single structure that allowed all participants to train together as they would end up fighting in a real conflict.
Instruction in irregular warfare skills were added to the curriculum over time, including the use of airpower in counterinsurgency and urban operations; non-traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; as well as the employment of precision-guided munitions and advanced targeting systems. New technologies being fielded on aircraft were being used to locate insurgents and search for improvised explosive devices. The use of satellite, digital communications links, and live video feeds from air systems were also brought into training as they proved to be transformational in the way that air-ground operations were being conducted.
Air Warrior was renamed “Green Flag” in 2006. The name change acknowledged the key role of air-ground capabilities in contemporary conflict as well as the growing importance of the exercise, run ten times annually from Nellis Air Force Base and Fort Irwin in the west, and Barksdale Air Force Base and Fort Polk, both in Louisiana, in the east.
“Combined with Red Flag, Green Flag completes the entire mission set to prepare the Air Force to execute at its highest capabilities in all realms against all enemies,” says Lt. Col. Cameron “Glover” Dadgar, a career F-16 pilot with extensive combat experience and commander of Green Flag’s parent authority, the 549th Combat Training Squadron. “The assets available to Flag level exercises are unique to set a Contested, Degraded and Operationally limited training environment so that if units are called upon to face a near-pear threat, they will be more than ready.”
Green Flag-West provides a realistic close-air support training environment for Airmen and Soldiers preparing to deploy to Southwest Asia. It is a totally unscripted battle exercise, which provides units with training on a scale not available at or near their home stations. Participating aircrews, working closely with the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers embedded with the Army, fly missions to support thousands of soldiers who are engaged against an opposing enemy force in a 1,000-square-mile combat environment similar in climate and terrain to what they would encounter overseas.
In order to create the most realistic environment possible, the Department of Defense has brought in Hollywood set designers to make the villages at Fort Irwin look exactly like they would in the deployed area of responsibility, or AOR. To take it a step further, role-players have been hired to participate. These are people from Iraq and Afghanistan originally, and their charge is to dress, speak, conduct business, and live as they would back home. At any given moment, there are as many as 5,500 actual troops and 1,700 “force multipliers” between the opposing force, the role players, and those maintaining the combat outposts at NTC.
In the next part, FighterSweep takes a look at the planning and execution of Green Flag and how important it is for the Army and Air Force to have a symbiotic relationship in the real-world Area Of Responsibility (AOR). Stay tuned!