Four F-22 Raptors fly in and secure the airspace, behind them two F-16 Vipers ready their payload and prepare to drop bombs on an enemy target.
A tanker flies a few miles away at 20,000 feet refueling an F-15 Strike Eagle, in preparations to rejoin the fight.
Synchronizing all these movements, command and control Airmen monitor and direct assets to ensure mission success.
Command and control is vital in modern warfare, and the U.S. Air Force maintains entire units dedicated to coordinating every aspect of air operations.
During Red Flag 17-3, the U.S. Air Force’s premier air-to-air combat training exercise, there are numerous layers involved in fighting a complex air war. Command and control Airmen ensure the various layers synchronize at the timing and tempo needed for successful operations.
From planning to execution, Air Battle Managers and Weapons Directors ensure the mission happens with expert precision while being flexible enough to counter any threat.
“We put the right assets in the right place at the right time to meet the commander’s intent,” said Capt. William Short, air battle manager, 606th Air Control Squadron, Aviano Air Base, Italy.
“Really, you can look at it as the quarterback of the plan and making sure all the pieces are falling into place. We have the ability to see the big picture.” Short said.
“We have a team, ranging from an [airman 1st class] all the way to a major,” he continued. “that are taking an entire plan of 40, 50 or 60 Air Force, Navy and Marine aircraft and making sure the mission happens from takeoff all the way until checkout.”
At Red Flag, command and control Airmen get cutting edge training that enhances their capabilities and prepares them for the future.
“Red Flag provides great experience for us,” said Senior Airman Austin Fisk, 606th ACS weapons director. “Most of the places we get stationed have one or two wings with [the same] platforms. At Aviano, we have two squadrons of F-16s, so every day we live fly we control F-16s. When you come to an exercise where we have F-35s, F-16s, F-22s, A-10s and others, you get the full experience of integrating with those different platforms.”
The training they receive during the exercise will build upon what they know and allow them to better mentor newer weapon directors.
“There is baseline knowledge you have to have about all the types of aircraft,” Fisk said. “Some need more help from ground control and others do and some are able to help us more with what we do.”
Each aircraft in the U.S. Air Force has a role, and part of the command and control task is to ensure maximum effectiveness for each of platform. Integration of 5th generation aircraft adds a whole new level of lethality to the overall fight.
“Working with 5th generation aircraft is cool and it really shows you how awesome the Air Force is,” Short said. “When looking at the [F-16s] from Aviano, their whole focus is to drop bombs. If I can bring in a four ship of raptors that can go out and kill all the red air, it keeps those F-16s safe and lets them focus on their mission.”
Red Flag 17-3 is Short’s fourth time participating, yet he picks up new skills and experiences every time, he said.
“This is my first Red Flag that has been U.S. only and my first one with the F-35s, so the experience has been incredibly beneficial,” Short said.
Both Fisk and Short reside in a Control and Reporting Center, which controls the mission from the ground.
“The CRC is very integral in our fight today,” said Capt. Michael Ellsworth, 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron, Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., Air Battle Manager. “If you look at the Middle East, we have been established there for a long time, so we are able to utilize a lot of ground based radar feeds through deals made with our partner counties.”
During situations that require extended support, the Air Force can establish a CRC within 72 hours.
For contingency response, or areas of the world not covered by a CRC, the Air Force has aircraft such as the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System and the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.
“It is a mobile self-contained CRC platform,” Ellsworth said. “We are able to provide our own air surveillance picture, our own radios and computer scopes, and we are able to determine that battlespace.”
The E-8 has a radar for ground mapping and tracks ground targets as well as low and slow targets whereas, the E-3 is the only platform that has an airborne air surveillance radar, Ellsworth said.
“The Air Force is a group of professional aviators,” Ellsworth said. “Everyone is really good at their job, and they all train hard, [but everyone has their own piece of the puzzle]. Putting all the pieces together into one picture in order to win the fight. That is what command and control brings to the table.”