Airmen from the 505th Combat Training Squadron, Hurlburt Field, Fla., executed exercise BLUE FLAG, which tested Pacific Air Forces’ ability to prevail in conflict against a strategic competitor as well as the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command air component’s ability to defend against escalating cyberspace attacks, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, April 4-8, 2022.
Blue Flag 22-1 provided PACAF and INDOPACOM’s air component realistic, operational-level, multi-domain command and control environments specifically designed based on current global threats. While Blue Flag 22-1 was executed from Hawaii, additional 505th CTS members provided critical reach-back support from Hurlburt Field, Fla.
Originally conceived in 1976 as an extension of the Red Flag exercise, the Blue Flag exercise program began as a framework to improve the command and control of aviation. As technology advanced, the program transitioned from a live-fly exercise into a computer-driven model incorporating theater-specific contingency plans. In 2014, the Blue Flag exercise program evolved further, integrating real-world challenges in the operational environment to tailor the event to the specific air operations center and Air Force Forces’ training audiences. Still, despite all of the iterations through the years, the Blue Flag exercise program has been focused on large-scale, major-combat operations, with the air component in direct conflict with an adversary.
BLUE FLAG 22-1 marked a new era in air component training — one in which all Joint Exercise Life Cycle Events are focused on meeting the specific needs of the air component commander. Given the increased emphasis on strategic competition throughout INDOPACOM, Blue Flag exercise planners recognized the importance of delivering air component training that accounted for significant competition in INDOPACOM.
“Our strategic competitors are seeking to gain advantages across multiple domains to hold U.S. interests at risk; the 505th CTS has been aggressively increasing our multi-domain exercise replication capability,” said Lt. Col. Aarron Cornine, 505th CTS commander, Hurlburt Field, Fla. “So, when the PACAF exercise planners approached us with a request to conduct a Blue Flag emphasizing competition in the cyber domain, we were prepared to deliver an operational training environment to meet their training objectives.”
The 505th CTS was joined by members of the 157th Air Operations Group, Missouri Air National Guard, and the 705th Training Squadron, who operated as observers to document the actions taken by both the 613th AOC operators and the PACAF staff in response to the exercise injects. The combined team recorded 177 observer inputs, which were used to debrief PACAF leadership on the air component’s readiness to plan in crisis amidst a sustained attack in cyberspace.
“In my 21 months at PACAF, I’ve experienced many exercises, and this was the best training with the most responsive white cell I’ve seen. Blue Flag exercises allow the air component to be the primary training audience,” said Col. Jeffrey Jarry, PACAF deputy chief of staff. “We focused on our [air component] training objectives without potentially impacting INDOPACOM, who tends to be the primary training audience in our command post exercises.”
During the four-day exercise, the Blue Flag opposing forces team steadily increased cyber-attacks, achieving wide-ranging notional impacts across the Pacific region. These effects were felt most acutely at the 613th AOC, where simulated damage to the AN/USQ-163 Falconer Weapon System was emulated through system-wide degradation of services. PACAF implemented flexible response options to deter further aggression in response to the cumulative impacts of the attacks.
The exercise marked a significant shift in how the 505th CTS plans and executes air component training.
Over the last 45 years, the Blue Flag exercise program has played a significant role in preparing air components for major combat operations and various humanitarian support missions.
“We face a dynamic threat landscape in the 21st century, and with that our air components require tailored training to provide war-winning command and control of airpower,” said Col. Aaron Gibney, 505th Combat Training Group, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. “The lessons learned during Blue Flag 22-1 will help PACAF deter aggression and prevail in highly-contested environments.”
The 505th CTS reports to the 505th CTG, Nellis AFB, Nev., and the 505th Command and Control Wing, headquartered at Hurlburt Field, Fla.