SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. --
Ninth Air Force staff participated as a joint task force headquarters during Blue Flag 19-1, a joint exercise, at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, from May 6 through 10.
Ninth AF executed its mission as the operational-level command and control node of a noncombatant evacuation operation (NEO) for U.S. Southern Command as JTF-NEO while continuing efforts toward full operational capability as an Air Force-led, JTF-capable headquarters.
“Our role in the Blue Flag exercise is to further develop our capability at Ninth Air Force as a JTF-capable headquarters,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott J. Zobrist, JTF-NEO commander. “… In previous exercises, the subordinate forces were simulated. In this case, we have a live air component that is executing in support of our mission. That is a new addition to our training that we haven’t done in the past, and it’s important we demonstrate the ability to command and control forces like these.”
To prepare for the exercise, and its future mission, Ninth AF purchased a deployed headquarters package used for the command and control element.
“We are taking ownership of a full JTF headquarter’s worth of capability -- everything from tents, to the generators, to the [heat, ventilation, and cooling units], and especially the communications equipment in the form of a flexible communication package,” Zobrist said. “[Blue Flag] is our first opportunity to set that up at a location [other than] our home station.”
Another first for Ninth AF included employing a Joint Operations Center within the headquarters to fully execute the command and control of the NEO mission.
“In this case, we are command and controlling live forces in a very robust, realistic scenario” Zobrist explained. “In the past, we focused more on planning and simulated control of these forces. In this case, with the new equipment … we are exercising our Joint Ops Center with processes we’ve developed over the last [few] exercises.”
While Ninth AF Airmen provide the core of the headquarters, the JOC included liaison officers from joint and coalition partners to aid the JTF in its decision-making process during operations.
“My role in the JOC is to be the voice of the ground force commander,” said U.S Army Capt. Eric Nabinger, JTF-NEO Army liaison officer. “I am his first line of defense, as well as, I help facilitate anything the JTF needs from the ground forces. As a member of the Army to the JTF, I provide the situational awareness of the ground forces -- where they are, what their readiness strength is -- and I also provide a background to the operations that are being conducted on the ground.”
In total, 26 organizations, including each U.S. military service and two nations, comprised the JTF headquarters. Five military members from the United Kingdom supported the exercise providing an alternate perspective for operations planning, intelligence, and air and ground current operations.
“I think the UK participants force Ninth AF to think about coalition from the outset -- making sure from a communications perspective they are integrated and a classification perspective they are integrated,” Royal Air Force Wing Commander Philip Holdcroft, JTF-NEO chief of future operations. “I also think the UK forces [the U.S. military] to have a diversity of thought -- not just way of doing business but think about how another nation might approach the problem. The UK benefits from this phenomenally as well. We’ll go back with an understanding of how our closest partner works, and hopefully we can bring that to bear in operations and exercises back in the UK.”
Blue Flag was the Ninth AF’s first large-scale exercise after achieving initial operating capability in December. The next significant exercise on the horizon is Northern Viking, an exercise in Iceland where the Ninth AF will employ its full JTF headquarters capability before declaring full operational capability as a JTF headquarters. Until then, the unit will evaluate the results from JTF-NEO and build on lessons learned in preparation for future exercises and potential real-world missions.
“One of the things we’ll be doing is preparing for our role in a large exercise in the U.S. European Command area of responsibility in 2020 that will demonstrate our capability as a JTF headquarters at the full operational capability level,” Zobrist explained. “We will have a live maritime and a live air component with multi-national forces operating in the European environment. So, this [Blue Flag] exercise is critical along the path to full operational capability.”