Green Flag measures readiness, interoperability

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U.S. Air Force photograph by Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum

Staff Sgt. Sonethasinh Sayaseng, 31st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, Aviano Air Base, Italy, avionics journeyman, marshals an F-16 for take-off at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Aug. 2, to participate in Green Flag 16-8. A typical Green Flag exercise involves two multi-role fighter and/or bomber squadrons, unmanned aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft, and aerial refueling aircraft.

FORT IRWIN, Calif. — During combat, an Airman’s job is to create effects on the battlefield to support the commander’s intent and his nation’s strategic objectives — simultaneously balancing aggressiveness with restraint.

To ensure mission success, the Air Force must provide the best training possible. That’s where exercises such as Green Flag or Red Flag come in.

While Red Flag is commonly known for large-force employment training in a simulated combat environment, its counterpart exercise, Green Flag, has a few twin-like characteristics.

Green Flag is a joint and coalition exercise consisting of close air support. One key difference between the two is the fact that Red Flag not only includes air-land integration, but it also involves joint offensive counter-air and air interdiction scenarios.

On the other side of the spectrum, Green flag comprises of U.S. Air Force integration with the Army and Navy during a large scale “war” that happens about 10 times a year at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, California.

“The Army has approximately 4,000 troops on the ground fighting about 2,000 ‘enemy’ troops, along with all of the tanks, artillery, and troop carriers that go along with a force that size,” said Capt. Kyle Davis, 549th Combat Training Squadron exercise planner and logistics flight commander, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. “Participants in Green Flag really have one job and one job only: help the Army win harder and faster.”

“In our scenarios, aircrews are focused on supporting the ground commander (in the case of the National Training Center) or the Navy maritime command and control agencies,” said Lt. Col. Jordan Grant, 549th Combat Training Squadron commander. “Red Flag, by contrast, is focused on training warfighters to integrate and achieve dominance in battlespaces that are controlled by the Air Component Commander.”

The Air Component Commander during an exercise like Green Flag is also utilized as the Combined Force Air Component Commander (CFACC). Green Flag exercises have now taken place for more than 35 years.

“Flag exercises were originally established during the Vietnam era as a means of getting guys their first 10 ‘combat’ sorties before they flew in environments with real threats,” Davis said. “Today Green Flag provides the CAS team with the opportunity to get more than 10 days of combat in an extremely challenging dynamic fight before going and doing the real thing in various areas of responsibility.”

Davis remembers going through Green Flag as a young lieutenant before deploying to Operation Enduring Freedom.

“The training I received was critical to being prepared for the mission downrange,” Davis said. “Now that I’m on the other side of the fence as a staff member, I appreciate the opportunities that we are able to provide even more.”

Green Flag exercise planners craft scenarios with the ultimate goal of emulating real-life circumstances in a war zone. This could provide opportunities for Airmen, Soldiers, Marines and Sailors to partake in a robust training experience, according to Grant.

Just as instruments support each other to create harmony in music, ground forces and pilots must support each other during Green Flag and in war to create harmony on the battlefield.

“In the context of air and ground integration, the U.S. Air Force and Army each bring a variety of capabilities and weapons to any conflict,” Grant said. “In garrison, Soldiers and Airmen typically only get to train using their own weapons and capabilities. It is only when they come to a venue like Green Flag where they get the opportunity to actually integrate with the other services.”

Joint force exercises such as Green Flag provide a unique venue for rotary wing aviators to integrate their close air support tactics with Army artillery fires.

“Each community is an expert in their own systems, but it’s a challenge to employ each of them in a coordinated and safe manner against an enemy in a confined space,” Grant said. “It’s hard to do well, but when it can be done proficiently, the effects are far greater than the sum of their component parts.”

In an effort to amplify the impact Green Flag has on its participants, one aspect exercise planners routinely discuss is the “CAS Team” concept.

“It takes all of the players from ground commander, fires support officer, through air liaison officer, joint terminal attack controller, to the pilot to be working in unison to achieve the goal of helping the Army win,” Davis said. “This happens to be something really difficult to achieve because there are so few places where the Army and Air Force get to practice together on this large of a scale. Green Flag is truly unique in its opportunity to integrate air and surface effects.”

As far as Air Force involvement, Green Flag involves two different squadrons from different bases: the 549th CTS from Nellis AFB and the 12th Combat Training Squadron, Fort Irwin, California. Together, both units work with two distinct training audiences to achieve the joint goal of air to surface integration excellence.

“For the 549th CTS at Nellis, there is nothing austere about the environment – nor should there be – because their training audience is fixed wing CAS aircrew who would be operating out of an established airfield in a combat environment,” Davis said.

However, for Airmen from the 12th CTS at Fort Irwin, their training audience is the tactical air control party Airmen who are working alongside Soldiers in the field.

“For TACP Airmen, it is not a ‘simulated’ austere environment, it is a straight up dangerous environment, with aggressors, in the California high desert,” Davis said. “They’re out there simply because that is where the fight happens to be and their job is to be fighting side by side with the Army every step of the way.”

A key aspect of Green Flag for both ground forces and aircrew members is situational awareness. It takes lots of training and experience to learn how to build one’s level of expertise to the point that its second nature to employ weapons.

“Situational awareness is not everything — it’s the only thing,” Grant said. “To make a truly complex situation, you need lots of individual humans doing unpredictable things.”

This allows service members to practice making sense of the chaos that could occur on the battlefield. 

“With over 5000 Soldiers typically in play on the ground at NTC, the complexity of a Green Flag is real and invaluable for aircrew and TACP Airmen to experience,” Grant said.

Whether participating in Green Flag in the skies or on the ground, the objective remains the same: delivering the business end of the mission to the enemy’s back door.

“It’s about providing the best trained force given the resources allocated to us, to combatant commanders so that they can support U.S. and allied interests should the military need to be called on in a given situation,” Davis said. “For Green Flag, this means fighting a complex battle against a force that is almost our equal; if you can fight and win in Green Flag, you can fight and win in any fight.”