NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — U.S. military officers had just finished a mission in the Air Force’s premier exercise to train pilots for air-to-air combat, and something had gone wrong: Rank-and-file troops expected to carry out cyberattacks on enemy air defenses deviated from their plan without warning commanders and pilots.
The situation, described later by a few officers, created a “very excitable and heated” exchange during a post-mission debrief at the Air Force’s Red Flag training exercise, as it’s known, said Air Force Col. DeAnna Burt, a top commander at the exercise. U.S. troops carrying out cyber operations are expected to complete specific assignments, known as contracts. Doing so can create specific windows of time in which U.S. aircraft can attack while facing fewer threats, while deviating from that plan can put pilots at risk in an actual combat operation.
“We said, ‘Hold on here: Did you clear this with the mission commander?’ ” said Col. Michael P. Dombrowski, the air operations center director during Red Flag. “Because the cut-off for good ideas was about six hours ago, dude.”
The exchange was considered a healthy part of the training exercise. But it also symbolizes some of the challenges for the U.S. military as it shifts its focus to prepare for potential wars against adversaries with advanced weapons. The transition to so-called “multi-domain operations” calls for the Pentagon to prepare not only for wars on land, air and sea, but for newer forms of warfare that incorporate both space and cyberspace.
Just as important, the shift requires new collaborations between different parts of the military, and trust between them. Fighter pilots, for example, must increasingly rely on cyberattacks created by colleagues on the ground in order to get in and out of enemy airspace safely. Air Force Space Command, meanwhile, recently adopted a new model known as the Space Mission Force in which crews will be reorganized to keep U.S. military satellites safe from potential adversaries.
Multi-domain warfare was incorporated at Red Flag recently to an extent the U.S. military has never done before, Red Flag participants said. The exercise, established in the 1970s after thousands of U.S. aircraft were shot down over Vietnam, has long been considered one of the U.S. military’s premier ways to train pilots for air-to-air combat. This time, however, it integrated space and cyber missions throughout the three-week exercise.
Peter Singer, an author and analyst with the New America Foundation, said the U.S. military is in a position where it must develop doctrine for new kinds of operations, including cyber and space warfare. His 2015 book with August Cole, “Ghost Fleet,” is a work of fiction, but its exploration of how China and Russia could cripple the U.S. military through cyber and space attacks has been studied in the military over the past year.
Singer cited in an interview a comparison to the World War II Battle of the Kasserine Pass, in which inexperienced U.S. forces in Tunisia were badly battered by German forces who were better prepared to use tanks and other weapons at their disposal.
“It’s not who has the tech, it’s who has the best doctrine for bringing it all together,” Singer said of cyberwarfare. “We’ve had this capability; we just haven’t had to use it and exercise it much.”
One way that Air Force officials encouraged change at Red Flag was naming Burt — the commander of the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo. — as the first space officer to serve as the air expeditionary wing commander of Red Flag. The job is responsible for a variety of missions during the exercise, including carrying out disciplinary action. Having Burt involved provided the Red Flag staff, heavily made up of fighter pilots, with a new perspective, said Col. Greg Marzolf, who oversees the exercise as commander of the 414th Combat Training Squadron.
Burt acknowledged having some insecurities ahead of taking the assignment about “how all these pointy-nose fighter guys were going to look at a space operator” being involved. But she said she was quickly accepted, and found them enthusiastic about discussing how “non-kinetics” — space and cyber operations — could be adopted.
More than 100 aircraft were involved in the exercise July 11-29 at the Nevada Test and Training Range, which spans 5,000 square miles in the desert north of Las Vegas. Dozens of fighter jets were launched each night, along with surveillance planes such as the U-2 Dragon Lady and drones such as MQ-1 Predator. Army Special Forces teams were integrated on the ground, and a notional enemy “red team” of U.S. troops that included aircraft and air defense was organized to challenge other participants.
Notably, both the F-22 Raptor and the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter were involved. The aircraft are the military’s two premier aircraft for so-called “fifth-generation” combat, in which intelligence is quickly synthesized and space and cyber operations are important.
Also among those at Red Flag was the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron, of Schriever Air Force Base, which was created to train U.S. forces for combat with adversaries capable of using space by using both global positioning system (GPS) satellites and satellite jamming techniques. Maj. Joel Davee, the unit’s assistant director of operations, said that there is a still a gap in knowledge about what conventional units know about space operations but that exercises like Red Flag help.
“We fear what we do not understand,” he said.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Gen. David L. Goldfein, the service’s top officer, visited Nellis Air Force Base on July 27 and said they watched with interest in how much the exercise has evolved in the last few years. Goldfein, a fighter pilot, said it’s important to remember that the point of the exercise “is actually not for everything to go really well” — it’s for the red team to challenge others and force improvement.
“We want to put the most complex challenge on these warriors as we can, and force them to not only think through how they mission plan, but how they … mission plan on the fly when things don’t go the way they planned,” Goldfein said. “When life gets in the way, and the fog of war inserts itself — as it always does.”
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