Virtual Flag provides unique training for JSTARS crews

  • Published
  • By Jenny Gordon
  • 78th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The 461st and 116th Air Control Wings at Robins participated in a week-long Virtual Flag exercise in late March designed to provide realistic warfighter training in a simulated environment.

Hosting the exercise was the Air Force Distributed Mission Operations Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

Virtual Flag simulations are quarterly, linking operational and tactical training of various weapons systems platforms across the armed services. A crew of 13 who fly with the E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System here participated from home station in the exercise, joined by about 27 other units from across the U.S. and England.

"You have these different platforms that are sometimes not available to go to an actual flying exercise," said Maj. Jon Prindle, 16th Air Command and Control Squadron, who served as the exercise mission crew commander. "Virtual Flag reduced some of those costs, yet is available for a variety of units to participate in whatever scenario (DMOC) designs."

Capt. Michael Povilus, a 16th ACCS air battle manager and VF senior director, agreed. Both men were new to this year's exercise. "Since it's all virtual, you can go anywhere," said Povilus. "You bring all these people together so you can train the way we would as if in-theater."

Stationed in a room used to simulate a live aircraft, the exercise included sophisticated communication techniques, including virtual teleconferencing, to conduct briefings with senior leaders and other players.

"We focused on our operations and intelligence sections," explained Prindle, an Air Force veteran of nearly 20 years. "In this scenario, we were looking for specific types of movement. It's interesting what we're able to accomplish in tracking different things."

For example, deciphering movement on the earth's surface can be extremely challenging since thousands of things can be moving at any one time. "Making sense of all that information is very difficult," he said. "We hone in on anything that can threaten friendly forces, then sift through it to send to the good guys to target and investigate."

"The biggest job is trying to tell the big picture," Prindle said.

Each day the Robins crew, which also included controllers, surveillance personnel, sensor operator, air weapons officers, and radar trackers, would receive a set of challenges to solve for that day. Some days would last up to 14 hours.

"You are basically in a task-saturated level of operations every day," said Povilus. "It's quite a challenge, yet very satisfying when you work with various partners through debriefs to talk about those challenges. We have a great idea now how we would solve some problems due to the training we received."

A first for the exercises was Prindle serving as its package commander for command and control for the first two days. This proved challenging in the beginning, yet helped set the tone for the hundreds of other participants the rest of the week.

"I think that was a testament to the training here at JSTARS, because most of our team are new and relatively inexperienced in this platform - myself included," said Povilus. "We were assigned such a big task as a team, led by Prindle. We made it go very well, and set a very high standard for the rest of the exercise and external players."

Northrop Grumman, the Total Systems Support Responsibility prime contractor, provided planning support, execution documents and secured DMO network connectivity with external players to the Mission and Maintenance Trainer here. This support led to the training of 62 Joint STARS crewmembers, logging 392 Ready Aircrew Program events. The completed exercises resulted in more than 15 hours of effective Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence training, and mission rehearsal for the wings' Joint STARS mission crew operators.

Both Prindle and Povilus, along with positive feedback given on this VF scenario, agreed that the exercises forced them to think differently, re-examining plans in order to execute them better.

"Everybody has a plan until it changes, then you have to react and update that plan," continued Prindle. "This was a planning exercise, an execution to practice our skills, and have the unique opportunity to debrief directly with different players we normally never hear from."

Those players, for example, came from a cross-section of B-52s from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and E-3s from Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., to C-17As from Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., and space platforms from Schriever Air Force Base, Colo.

"As soon as you encounter the enemy or any abnormal situation - which is what happens every time we fly or do this kind of scenario - the plan has to adjust," said Prindle. "We're actually talking to these players to gain an understanding of what they need from us and what they can do to help us. That's not an opportunity you get every day."