Coalition VIRTUAL FLAG: joint and coalition partners train as they fight

  • Published
  • By Deb Henley, 505th Command and Control Wing Public Affairs
  • 705th Combat Training Squadron

The 705th Combat Training Squadron, home of Air Combat Command's Distributed Mission Operations Center, recently hosted one of the world's largest virtual air combat exercises at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. Coalition VIRTUAL FLAG 21‑1 ran at distributed locations across the globe, October 26 through November 6.

CVF serves as a train-as-you-fight exercise, integrating the full spectrum of joint and coalition air, land, surface, space, and cyber warfighters into a virtual battlespace. Forces from the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, and Canada participated.

The Royal Australian Air Force has participated in CVF every year since 2009, mostly in person, with their participation level increasing in recent years. In 2018, the RAAF had only two remotely networked sites participating. By 2020, this expanded to six sites participating remotely, with even further capability successfully network tested for inclusion from 2021. COVID-19 travel restrictions heavily influenced this rapid increase.

"In a year where COVID-19 has significantly impacted or canceled a number of RAAF 'Live' exercises, CVF 21‑1 enabled the RAAF to train safely and securely with our coalition partners globally, whilst remaining at our home bases," said RAAF Wing Commander Mick Tully, CVF RAAF Exercise Director. "Exercise CVF is very important to RAAF because it cultivates our key international partnerships and enhances our interoperability with our coalition partner nations in highly complex and demanding air, sea, and land domain scenarios."

"As our warfighters prepare for a peer or near-peer threat, multi-domain exercises like VIRTUAL FLAG, ensure our forces are ready for the next high-end fight, following Chief of Staff of the Air Force General Brown's vision," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Lindsay Post, 705th CTS commander.

CVF 21‑1 trained over 419 participants, 129 joint and 86 coalition warfighters, and accomplished over 6,469 joint training events. Thirty-two different systems were used to connect the 23 exercise sites across the world.

During CVF 21‑1, the DMOC provided Network Centric Collaborative Targeting capability for the first time to the modeling simulation world, a 'game-changer' for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance.

"This is a real-world operational capability that was recently developed for the virtual environment and fielded here at the DMOC," said Post. "NCCT gives our participants fused data to geo-locate targets faster, significantly shortening the kill chain."

Post continued, "VIRTUAL FLAG can take a combatant commander’s problem set, take real-world documentation and threat data, build the scenario and bring players in from all over the world, and we put them together in a synthetic environment that touches all five domains to realistically train as we fight with our joint and coalition partners."

In preparation for CVF 21‑1, the DMOC tailored standard skill types and mission sets used in Agile Combat Employment, incorporating their own objectives into the training scenarios.

"In this case, we determined there would likely be many airplanes in the airspace, moving from base to base, that would require deconfliction while tactical command and control agencies were executing multiple mission sets, so we included a base rapid evacuation in our vignette," said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Michael Butler, 705th CTS director of operations. "Due to the constraints we face (commercial air traffic, etc.), training in a peacetime environment, executing a base flush at the scale CVF allows is not something most warfighters would experience otherwise."

Realistic and relevant training environment and scenarios are developed at the DMOC for participants while allowing individual units to add elements so they may complete required training objectives or certifications during CVF.

As part of the joint force, the U.S. Army uses VFs to certify air defense artillery fire control officers; ADAFCOs are the USA's air defense representative at command and control nodes.

According to U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Caroline Supprenant, 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command standardization officer, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, "the [ADAFCO] school provides them the foundational knowledge but doesn't give them the operational knowledge that they need, so that's why exercises like Coalition VIRTUAL FLAG and regular VIRTUAL FLAGs are really important to the operational implementation of what they learned in school."  CVF 21‑1 provided Royal Australian Army exchange officer, Maj. Keegan Smith, 94th AAMDC, the unique opportunity to certify as the first Australian Army ADAFCO.

"It's been an excellent opportunity to come and train and see how that [ADAFCO] role is fulfilled within the coalition environment and how it fits into the air domain," said Keegan. "I'll take all the lessons learned back and hope to grow the capability in the Australian Army back home."

CVF provided U.S. Navy C2 controllers the opportunity to coordinate and control joint forces from the USAF, USA, and foreign forces through a dynamic and complex set of scenarios.

"Having never participated in an exercise of this scope, I was unsure of how useful or realistic my role as a Carrier Strike Group battlespace manager in a USAF exercise would be," said U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Joes Laspe, Commander Carrier Strike Group Three battle watch captain. "The capabilities of the training environment far exceeded my expectations by providing a realistic operations center environment and realistic scenarios with a complex problem."  

CVF is a complex and integrated live-virtual-constructive training exercise involving networking and interoperability specializing in simulation and training systems integration. 

"The DMOC brings a great deal of experience and skill in executing distributed mission training and operations," said 2nd Lt. Grant Goodnight, 705th CTS CVF Technical Director. 

CVF 21‑1 was the first time the RAAF C‑17 simulator was connected to any international synthetic exercise.  

"CVF 21‑1 enabled RAAF C‑17 crews to work closely with RAAF C‑130 and USAF C‑17 crews in highly dynamic and demanding combat scenarios in contested and denied environments in the simulated battlespace," said RAAF Flight Lieutenant Tim Smith, 36 Squadron C‑17 pilot. This "first-time remote connection of capability provided excellent training opportunities for distributed tactical planning, working with a range of C2 and fast jet players, as well as flying against very challenging enemy entities."

"Coalition VIRTUAL FLAG exercises simulate contested degraded operations so tomorrow's warfighter can perform well in the next-gen fight," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Micah MacDowell, 705th CTS CVF exercise director.

During Coalition VIRTUAL FLAG, network engineers from the 705th and the 805th CTS at Nellis AFB, Nevada, successfully tested a connection between sites over the 505th Command and Control Wing's Wide Area Network. This connection provides a dedicated cyber transport conduit for future collaborative exercises.

"As a proof-of-concept, the units executed a one-way JADOCS [joint automated deep coordination system] federation. In future distributed exercises, this will enable operators at both locations to view the same operational picture and conduct collaborative command and control; the proof-of-concept is only the tip of the iceberg," said U.S. Air Force Maj. Gregory Haverkorn, 805th CTS director of systems. "Now that we have a validated data pathway, we can experiment with additional distributed technologies such as extending the ShOC-N [Shadow Operations Center-Nellis] enclave to DMOC, or vice versa."

"Should we encounter a larger-scale conflict that would require a joint operation on this scale, practicing beforehand, building relationships with our sister services and coalition partners, in my opinion, is going to pay dividends," said U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Mike Schrader, Marine Air Ground Task Force commander, Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.

For more information, contact Ms. Debbie Henley, 505th CCW public affairs advisor at 850-884-9476 or

The 505th CCW shapes the way joint and coalition warfighters execute command and control of multi-domain operations through experimentation, training, testing, exercises, evaluation, and tactics development.