NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — For many Airmen, participating in Red Flag means working long hours in the sun loading munitions and launching aircraft for combat training operations.
But away from the flightline and the war that rages over the skies of the Nevada Test and Training Range, a select group of command and control warriors fight a battle of information and communication.
Members of the Air and Space Operations Center, or AOC, are charged with melding tactical and operational-level C2 during large force exercises such as Red Flag. The AOC and its capability as a weapons system is one of the primary reasons the Air Force fills the critical joint forces air component commander and area air defense commander roles.
“When assets go to war, think of the pointy end of the spear as the tactical assets – all the supplies, airlift that goes to support them, logistics, maintenance, etc. – and somewhere behind them is the AOC going through the other processes,” said Lt. Col. George Truman, Red Flag 14-3 AOC combat operations chief assigned to the 612th AOC, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz.
While Red Flag remains the premier joint air combat exercise, most missions don’t actually take place in the air, explained Col. John Schaefer, 612th AOC commander.
“It’s a large-scale exercise, [between] 500 to 1,000 sorties [are flown] every day. Part of those are real aircraft flying — about 60 sorties — the other 400-900 sorties are virtual… So the war we’re fighting is much bigger than the one live aircraft are,” Schaefer said. “The AOC blends virtual and live assets to maximize the overall training environment.”
Armed with personnel from a wide variety of backgrounds to include flying, C2, intelligence, space and communications, AOC members at Nellis each have a specific task to fulfill in separate functional divisions ranging from combat operations to intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
“What makes us unique is we are a focused training environment, so what that means is we have dedicated subject matter experts that provide operational-level expertise to AOCs that come in to receive training at Red Flag,” said Donald Russell, 505th Test Squadron Combined Air and Space Operations Center-Nellis exercise planner. “Right now we have personnel here from the 612th AOC, 608th from Barksdale, La., 601st from Tyndall, Fla., and [National] Guard and Reserve units from across the U.S. supporting as well. We merge all those capabilities together from different AOCs and we provide this exercise as a training opportunity.”
The training that AOC personnel receive at Red Flag is invaluable, Schaefer said.
“It’s about integrating all spectrums across air power. If a flying participant sees a tactical problem, that problem is usually a little bit bigger than they can handle, and that’s intentional because we want to train to the limits of our abilities,” Schaefer said. “It has been really impressive to watch the tactical players, the young pilots, kind of figure out that this problem’s bigger and they need help, than watch my guys use their training to bring in Army assets, or Navy assets, or whatever is needed to fill in the gaps. Together, when all that airpower is integrated, we can solve the problems Red Flag presents.”
As the air and missile threat grows and more operating environments become challenged by adversaries, the AOC will only grow in importance.
“For decades Red Flag has been very flying centric, but the more we integrate space and cyber operations, the more effective we’re going to be,” Truman said. “The tactical players want to fly their jets, we want them to do that too, but if someone takes out their ability to maintain or operate their jets then we need to practice what to do to help them.”