Sunday, 7 February 2021

KC-135 Stratotankers; fuelling the fight as Red Flag 21-1 integrates space, cyberspace for joint all-domain operations training

Photo by Airman 1st Class Dwane Young

Red Flag 21-1 is well underway. Pilots, crew members and maintainers look to find their stride within the frenetic pace of day and night missions. Those who look to the skies over Nellis AFB can bear witness to the revolving door of aircrafts constantly taking off and landing.

Tasked with refueling these aircraft is an integrated team from the 906th Air Refueling Squadron (ARS), Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, and the 91st ARS, MacDill AFB, Florida, and their KC-135 Stratotankers.

The KC-135 Stratotanker has provided aerial refueling for the United States Air Force, joint partners and allied nation aircraft for more than 50 years.

“This is my first Red Flag, and it’s amazing,” said Senior Airman Edwin Mensah, 906th ARS boom operator. “I’ve been refueling aircraft for five years now, but you really don’t get to do it at this level unless you deploy.”

Red Flag provides essential training for its participants, but for Capt. Titan Miller, 906th ARS KC-135 pilot, it also serves as a benchmark of accomplishment.

Miller participated in Red Flag ten years ago as a Boom Operator and now returns as a KC-135 pilot.

“This moment for me is a dream realized,” said Miller. “Red Flag is designed to give you critical experience and no matter the job you perform, after you leave here, you leave better.”
Photo by Airman 1st Class Dwane Young

The development of in-theater command and control mechanisms and training exercises like Red Flag 21-1 will enable future deployment of space assets.

This iteration of Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base has been engineered to provide consistent and realistic training to include space and cyberspace as mediums for organizational learning to take place at the same level as air operations.

Space unit participants include blue, red and white players from the United States Space Force (USSF), U.S. Army Space and allied nations’ combat air forces.

“For Red Flag 21-1, we’ve employed space electronic warfare capabilities that support full-spectrum national security objectives, along with offensive cyber capabilities across adversary data networks affecting that network’s ability to pass data or function properly,” said Capt. Kaylee Taylor, (pictured left) the chief of Non-Kinetic Integration at the 414th Combat Training Squadron.

“What my job entails is coordinating blue, red and white space and cyber integration for Red Flag and other key exercises at Nellis Air Force Base,” she added. “I am also the only USSF member in my unit, so I act as a type of ad hoc USSF liaison officer.”

The integration of non-kinetics in the mission planning cycle has a direct positive impact to the lethality and survivability of the air package and, ultimately, the success of any mission planned against a capable adversary.

Blue forces act as the non-kinetic functional team leads, providing non-kinetic planning integration into the mission planning cycle. Non-kinetics refers to a combination of electronic warfare fires from ground and airborne assets paired together with offensive cyber fires.

“To prepare the blue force to engage in Red Flag, upon arrival they attend non-kinetic duty officer course to get them spun up on what their roles will entail,” said Taylor. “In addition to that, the Nellis team puts on Mission Commander Academics, which is a full day of academics teaching those who are going to be in mission planning the rules of engagement and what the other players bring to the fight, providing them a baseline of what they need to start on day one.”

Tactical mentors from the 328th Weapons Squadron provide guidance and direction for the non-kinetic planning cell members, which enables them to bring the most up-to-date tactics to Red Flag.

The red forces provide realistic adversary threats for the blue team to fight against. One red force player is 26th Space Aggressor Squadron (SAS), an Air Force Reserve unit with the 926th Wing based at Nellis.

The 26th SAS mission is to replicate enemy threats to space-based and space-enabled systems during tests and training exercises. By using Global Positioning System and satellite communications adversary effects, the squadron provides Air Force, joint and coalition military personnel with an understanding of how to recognize, mitigate, counter and defeat these threats.

“As a unit whose mission is to know, teach and replicate enemy threats – we support the USSF blue players who are currently pushing their individual missions forward in an effort to train expert Guardians,” said Maj Scott Hollister, 26th SAS’s flight commander of Adversary Plans Flight. “This includes teaching representatives from our joint and allied partners on how to employ specific tactics.”

These USSF reservist partners provide threat replication training to Remote Pilot Aircraft (RPA), plus various fighter and bomber platforms during Red Flag 21-1. Additionally, they work closely with cyber aggressors to provide realistic layered effects to multiple space and cyber organizations participating in Red Flag.

The white forces are neutral players who help steer the exercise. They provide inputs to the blue and red players and help control the pace and intensity of the exercise.

A challenge many international players and USSF units can expect to face during exercise planning and execution is being new to the joint all-domain integration game.

“For most participants, this is their very first time participating in Red Flag,” said Taylor. “For the space and cyber non-kinetic functional team leads, it may be their first time doing mission planning. For the pilots, it may be their first time seeing non-kinetics, space or cyber integrated into the air fight. We introduce it to them so they can prepare to compete and win in all-domain combat operations.”

Red Flag provides mission commanders, the opportunity to lead in a contested degraded and operationally limited environment with multi-domain assets and international allies – a training experience that cannot be replicated anywhere else.

“Any realistic training against a near-peer or competitor nation is going to require heavy utilization of multi-domain operations. The classical role of the Air Force being able to penetrate an airspace protected by an Integrated Air Defense System is no longer a problem set that can be solved using Air Force assets and capabilities alone,” said Taylor. “Red Flag aims to train how we fight against modern potential adversary capabilities. In order to do this, we have to bring together airborne capabilities with the emerging capabilities of both space and cyber units.”

Story by Dwane Young &. Nicolle Mathison 

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