It was in February that a group of six F-15C fighters deployed from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, to India to participate in a series of live-fly training exercises. The Air Force has not declassified many of the details of what happened at Exercise Cope India, but this much is abundantly clear: The action at Gwalior Air Force Station was an eye-opener.
The Indian Air Force was, at a minimum, highly competitive with USAF’s F-15 unit. The Indian crews, flying Russian-built Su-30, MiG-21, MiG-27, and MiG-29 aircraft proved much tougher to handle than anyone expected.
During “nearly all” simulated combat sorties, USAF’s F-15s defended ground targets against “advancing Indian aircraft,” the Air Force announced during the exercise. The “attacking” Indian aircraft evidently dominated the air superiority F-15s flying in the defensive role.
The Eagles were outnumbered, operating in the “enemy’s” own backyard, and constrained by India’s rules of engagement. Even so, the Air Force made no excuses for getting thumped.
“We have to learn a lot of things” from Cope India, noted Gen. Hal M. Hornburg, commander of USAF’s Air Combat Command at Langley AFB, Va. Hornburg added, “We need to pay closer attention to every air force that could possibly be a competitor at some point.”
Air forces worldwide are “becoming better and better as each year passes,” Hornburg said. “That just means that we need to do the same thing.”
Air Force officials believe that Cope India only affirms the importance of conducting international exercises (to prevent technological surprise) and of working hard to constantly improve the service’s operational training procedures.
The Air Force has always prided itself on having the best pilots in the world, but service leaders realize USAF won’t stay at the top without making a conscious effort to do so. Exercises such as Cope India underline the seriousness of the effort.
Maj. Gen. David A. Deptula, the operations director for Pacific Air Forces at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, emphasized this fact in a recent interview. “Our pilots were really impressed by the Indian Air Force,” he noted. Deptula went on to say Cope India “makes us realize how narrow the capability gap is” between the US and the other air forces of the world.Cope India “revalidates concerns” about the threat posed by “competent folks flying competent aircraft,” Deptula said.
India is a democracy and, while not a formal US ally, enjoys generally friendly relations with Washington these days. That is not the case with many other nations whose air forces are equipped with advanced Russian-built fighters.
Moreover, other air forces have gotten better at the game over the years. As Hornburg noted, “Pilots from other air forces have learned from our guys. They study us very closely.”
Col. Greg Neubeck, US exercise commander for Cope India, said in a February news release that the Indian pilots “are as aggressive as our pilots. They are excellent aviators.”
Neubeck later told Inside the Air Force that USAF’s F-15 pilots faced a combination of superior numbers, skilled pilots, and smart tactics. “That combination was tough for us to overcome,” he said.
The experience has implications for training. As Neubeck told the newsletter, the Air Force may need to “take off the handcuffs that we put on our red air training aids and allow them to be more aggressive.”
Those steps presumably would make training operations against red air forces flying as antagonists tougher than they have been in the past.
Already, there are signs that this is happening. In June, Elmendorf hosted Northern Edge ’04, an exercise in which more than 160 aircraft participated. In this year’s edition, the red air role was handed to a crack group of F-15s from the 390th Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home AFB, Idaho.
“We have to think like the enemy,” said Lt. Col. Rick Hedgpeth, operations officer for the 390th FS, in a news release. “We have to challenge them ... [and] be the best ‘bad guys’ we can,” he said.
“I pretty much have free reign with my use of tactics in the air,” added Maj. John Binder, another red air pilot. “How I choose to attack my ‘enemy’ is up to me,” he said.
The Air Force has long striven to train as it fights. Maj. Gen. Teresa Marné Peterson, director of operations and training on the Air Staff in Washington, D.C., said the US offers its pilots and aircrews training “not available anywhere else in the world.”
For combat pilots, the Red Flag exercises are considered the gold standard, and numerous other programs pattern themselves after Red Flag. These include Eagle Flag (for establishing austere bases in an expeditionary setting) and Black Demon (for setting up defenses of computer networks).
The factor common to all of these exercises, said Peterson, is “intense training capabilities at the tactical level.” Practicing wartime operations can make handling the stress and unpredictability of combat seem like second nature.
Even Air Force mobility forces, which do not take the lead on any Red Flag-style exercises, have opportunities to refine tactics and improve training with realistic activities. In a fact sheet, Peterson’s office notes that mobility force participation in Army exercises provides an “arena for aircrews to improve combat tactics.” Meanwhile, the Air Mobility Warfare Center at McGuire AFB, N.J., hosts an annual tactics conference “to discuss emerging threats and cutting-edge tactical developments.”
Long before the surprises at Cope India, the Air Force had been engaged in a search for ways to improve its training protocols. The recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq supplied numerous lessons to apply to training, and major improvements are in store.
Distributed mission operations (DMO) are the wave of the future, Peterson said, and the Air Force is just scratching the surface of distributed training.
The concept is simple: The service will use advanced simulators, linked together, to allow units at various locations to train together, realistically, in real time.
For example, fighter pilots from South Carolina and Arizona can train with E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft mission operators in Oklahoma, without anyone having to leave a home station. DMO exercises are available “at a fraction of the cost of getting everyone together at the same range,” Peterson noted.
The ability to bring units together virtually is critical. “DMO will be the only realistic way we can get C2ISR and shooters hooked up,” to test and train for modern tactics such as time sensitive targeting, said Gen. John P. Jumper, Chief of Staff. Advanced training “requires real-time interface among platforms that are too stressed by [operational demands] to train together in peacetime.”
The key is for the training to be realistic. There are distributed training naysayers, Peterson said, but “only until they actually participate in a DMO event.”
She argued that the fidelity of the exercises has become so high, and operational tempo benefits so clear, that the Air Force has begun diverting flying-hour dollars (money reserved for fuel, parts, and other flight-related expenses) directly to increases in DMO-type capabilities.
For example, a key DMO “enabler” for the future is a Distributed Mission Operations Center. Once the necessary infrastructure is in place, the Air Force is looking to create flag-level DMO exercises. A “Virtual Flag” exercise has been identified as a future need. Virtual, distributed training will also make it easier to include joint and international participants in the events and to prepare for joint operations.
Recent operations have reminded everyone that modern air warfare is a collaborative affair and that today’s air operations frequently involve Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and allied aviation personnel and assets. Training as the Air Force fights means including these partners in its exercises.
US Joint Forces Command, located at Norfolk, Va., oversees the effort to get the military services to prepare together to fight together. A Joint National Training Capability (JNTC) program is creating a “permanently installed global communications network” designed to facilitate joint training, the command announced.
JNTC will seamlessly link “select ranges and simulation centers throughout the world,” said a recent statement. This will allow training operations to become broader, deeper, and more inclusive. JNTC is scheduled to reach initial operational capability in October.
“When at full operational capacity in 2009, the network will provide immediate access to a global communications training, experimentation, testing, and education network,” JFCOM stated.
JFCOM pointed out that Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq featured combat by a highly integrated American fighting force. However, force coordination frequently has been carried out at the last minute, meaning “jointness” is not as smooth or efficient as it could be.
Recent operations brought service elements together at the “point of contact,” noted Army Col. Bryan Stephens, chief of training for JFCOM’s Joint Warfighting Center in Suffolk, Va. Rather than “deconflict” forces at the last minute, he said, the services will now work to train ahead of time, so that forces experience a “seamless integration” when they come together on the battlefield or in an operations center.
JFCOM, therefore, is trying to help the services to develop forces that have been integrated from “the beginning of the process, instead of the end,” said David J. Ozolek, JFCOM assistant director of joint experimentation. One aspect of this is the push to create standing joint force headquarters in various locations. (See “Toward Standing Joint Force Headquarters,” p. 44.)
Ozolek reports that Joint Forces Command has no intention of doing away with current methods of training. Instead, it will seek to improve and coordinate them. The military services each bring to the table certain training skills that have repeatedly shown merit, he said.
JFCOM has a series of events under way to bring JNTC to operational status. Stephens noted that the intent is to increase capability without increasing personnel tempo, so existing exercises and wargames are being leveraged whenever possible.
In June, JFCOM hosted Operation Blinding Storm, billed as JNTC’s first “integration event.” The exercise drew in an estimated 28,000 US and foreign military personnel, 60 ships, and hundreds of aircraft. It featured simulations of an opposed night amphibious landing, live-fire exercises, and complex command and control operations.
Blinding Storm took place along the Atlantic coast and at some 20 other sites distributed around the country, some as far away as Nevada.
Command officials note that the exercise addressed several training priorities. It integrated US and foreign military forces, and it closely replicated the kinds of real operational challenges that forces routinely encounter around the world.
In August, the command hosted its first large-scale “vertical event,” designed to evaluate integrated forces and how they performed “from the company level up to the [joint task force] commander,” Stephens said.
JFCOM says Joint National Training Capability will seamlessly link “select ranges and simulation centers throughout the world,” making distributed mission operations much more practical.
The Air Force has already grasped the potential of distributed training. PACAF’s Deptula said recent advances allow for greater realism, better tracking of events, and better analysis of what happened in the training exercises. The planned expansion of DMO will offer “an awesome capability,” he said.
DMO, in Deptula’s view, is not simply an incremental improvement over old flight-simulator-based training. When live flying was the only way to get top-notch training, airmen could count on attending a large-scale training exercise “at best, once a year,” Deptula said. While live-flying exercises are certainly not going away (they are the only way for crew chiefs, for example, to turn aircraft in a realistic combat environment), with DMO crews will soon have increased access to the best training. Distributed mission operations have gotten so good, Deptula added, that no one calls the equipment “simulators” any more.
Planning for future training requires an understanding of future threats. The experiences from recent wars and continuing war-on-terror operations are playing a major role in making this a reality.
The Pentagon traditionally has divided the world into discrete packages—Europe, the Pacific, Southwest Asia, and so on. This arrangement fails, for example, in the face of threats that can cross boundaries and exist in different regions.
“Adversaries don’t stick to theaters,” so DOD needs to “come up with a broader way” of looking at threats, said Grover Myers, an official in JFCOM’s concept development directorate. “Gaps” like this are among the issues Joint Forces Command seeks to resolve.
The key to good warfighting is “continuous exposure to the new concepts,” Myers said.Within the Air Force, lessons from recent operations have quickly been added to USAF’s training curriculum, both to address immediate combat needs and as solutions to longer-term problems.
The war in Iraq has forced several training changes, not only in the air but also on the ground.
For example, Air Force convoy drivers now have a course to prepare them for the threat posed by insurgents taking potshots at military vehicles and placing improvised explosive devices along vehicle routes. The Air Staff’s Peterson noted that it’s not good enough to assume airmen headed to a dangerous situation know how to deal with the threats. They need formal training.
In addition, the Air Force recently tested a prototype combat weapons and tactics course for security personnel. The objective
was to prepare them for the perils of operating in an urban environment such as Baghdad.
Mobility airmen are receiving new training in several areas. First is in the use of night vision goggles. According to Peterson, the Air Force found that “very few crews and backenders were qualified” to use NVGs, which are critical for operations in Iraq. The Air Force quickly established an intensive course for mobility crews.
Moreover, the Air Force has refined its crew training for taking off and landing in combat zones.
Gen. John W. Handy, commander of Air Mobility Command, recently told defense reporters that “hardly a day goes by” that he doesn’t receive a report of ground fire directed at one of his aircraft. “The threat is out there, and we’ve dealt with it,” Handy said, referring to installation of defensive systems and development of new tactics and training procedures.
The Air Force needs to stay aware of enemy techniques, “including those of insurgents,” Deptula said.
The Benefits of Multinational Training
The Indian Air Force may have gotten the best of the six F-15Cs that participated in Exercise Cope India this winter, but Air Force officials don’t see the experience as a failure. One of the points of multinational combat exercises is to hone skills against the unfamiliar aircraft and procedures of opponents.
International exercises bring the Air Force up to date on other nations’ tactics, capabilities, and equipment. Ultimately, this could reduce the likelihood of an unpleasant surprise in the future. Cope India, for example, was the first time the Air Force had the opportunity to fly against the Su-30 Flanker.
While Cope India was the first event of its kind between the US and India in more than 40 years, USAF got another crack at India this summer, when six Indian Air Force GR-1 Jaguars came to Alaska to participate in Cooperative Cope Thunder. This was the first time India had ever sent fighters to the United States.
Maj. Gen. David A. Deptula, Pacific Air Forces operations director, said these multinational training events pay significant dividends. Many of them have been “under the budget ax,” in recent years, however.
The results from Cope India, he said, “highlight the importance” of maintaining robust international exercise programs. Among other benefits, they allow the Air Force to “better understand what’s out there.”
Another officer noted that there will always be foreign air forces that are better than the US expects them to be, so USAF must continue to push to improve itself.The Air Force is keeping up a full slate of joint and international exercises. Officials note that Red Flag has three annual iterations, two of which feature international participation. Allied air forces bring 20 percent of the aircraft to Red Flag.
Canadian-led Maple Flag is a NATO-style exercise with 128 aircraft, which is actually larger than the average Red Flag. The US brings 35 percent of the total airframes to Maple Flag, almost all from USAF.
And India was just one of many international participants in Cooperative Cope Thunder, for which the Air Force only contributes 55 percent of the total aircraft. For CCT, Japan brought its F-15J fighters to North America, for the first time, to participate in defensive counterair missions.
Toward Standing Joint Force Headquarters
US Joint Forces Command is working with the military services to ensure they train together and prepare for combat in a coherent manner, which means preparing for joint operations. To that end, JFCOM is constantly on the lookout for new tactics, techniques, and procedures.
JFCOM uses its input into exercises and operations to identify improvements that can be quickly developed and fielded.
One example is the standing joint force headquarters (SJFHQ). The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is pushing to create an SJFHQ for each unified command.
When operational, these SJFHQs will ensure the combatant commanders have experts, fully trained and in place, ready to take the lead in contingency operations. They will be ready to assume command and control functions, with a built-in understanding of the threats, saving time by eliminating the learning curve.
The SJFHQs will minimize the “ad hoc nature of today’s joint task force headquarters,” a JFCOM fact sheet states.
To be effective, an SJFHQ must incorporate “extensive training for and knowledge of joint operations, as well as an ongoing understanding of the combatant commander’s theater perspective,” according to JFCOM.
The plan is for each unified combatant command to have a standing joint force headquarters in place by the end of Fiscal 2005.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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