The pilot of the lead A-10 Thunderbolt II raised his visor for a moment, rubbing his eyes. He and his wingman — WARLORD flight — had been airborne for three hours. Nearing the end of their mission, he shot a quick glance at his fuel state. Another 20 minutes on station, then enough to get back to base with a little bit to spare. His wingman had already canceled their tanker: they hadn’t seen any action, so there was no need to take on extra gas.
“Two,” came back the response.
The lead smiled underneath his oxygen mask, looking over at his wingman flying line abreast about a mile off his left wing. “Just making sure you’re awake, bro.”
The sun was now low over the horizon to the west. It would be dark by the time they got back to their base, so the pilot of the lead aircraft, reached back and grabbed his helmet bag, bringing it forward. He popped the visor off his helmet and then snapped the night vision goggle adapter plate into place. He set the NVGs in his lap and stowed the bag.
The radio crackled to life. “WARLORD ONE-ONE, Army C-2 request. Push five — you have words.”
“Copy,” he acknowledged, reaching to the up-front-control panel, pressing the “5” key, and then keyed the radio. “WARLORD’s up.”
“Prepare to copy coordinates for priority tasking. Troops in heavy contact, requesting 30mm. Danger close.”
Close Air Support, a Constant in Flux
The above was the beginning of a real incident. Such engagements are still very commonplace in downrange. They are representative of the type of power projection coalition air forces use on a grand scale. While it is true that there are no dogfights taking place in present-day conflicts, in no way has that minimized the role of airpower or the frequency with which attack and strike fighter aircrews are called upon to employ their craft.
Close Air Support, (CAS), has been a reality of air warfare since World War I. The concept of this type of operation has not changed: Troops on the ground with the means to communicate with aircraft direct air firepower, thereby helping them break contact with the opposing force, or assisting them in the accomplishment of the ground unit’s objectives. Eventually, the need arose for a formalization of CAS training in order to increase its effectiveness.
In 1981, the United States Army began a series of very sophisticated and realistic mock combat exercises at its National Training Center (NTC), located at Fort Irwin, California. From the onset, the Army had asked the Air Force for close air support missions and a tactical control system to support the undertaking. The exercise was named “Air Warrior.”
Air Warrior Takes Off
“Air Warrior” was created to teach aircrews traditional air support and interdiction skills against a conventional enemy ground force. It pitted dedicated ground-attack and strike assets against large troop formations during mock battle at the NTC. Once the program was proven and both services recognized the value of the joint training, the exercise began to incorporate training for Tactical Air Control Party members into a single structure. This allowed all participants to train together, since they would end up fighting together in a real conflict.
Over time, instruction in irregular warfare skills was added to the curriculum. It the use of airpower in counterinsurgency and urban operations; non-traditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and employment of precision-guided munitions and advanced targeting systems.
New aircraft technologies were being used to locate insurgents and search for improvised explosive devices. The use of satellite, digital communications links, and live video feeds from air systems were also incorporated into the training as they had proven to be transformational in the way that air-ground operations were being conducted.
“Air Warrior” was renamed “Green Flag” in 2006. The name change acknowledged the key role of air-ground capabilities in contemporary conflict as well as the growing importance of the exercise. At that point, it run 10 times annually in Nellis Air Force Base and Fort Irwin in the west, and Barksdale Air Force Base and Fort Polk, both in Louisiana, in the east.
Green and Red Flag, the Air Force’s Twin Pillar Exercises
“Green Flag,” in conjunction with its partner exercise “Red Flag,” ensures that the Air Force can execute in all realms and against all adversaries. Green Flag-West provides a realistic close air support training environment for Airmen and Soldiers preparing to deploy to Southwest Asia.
It is a totally unscripted battle exercise. It provides units with training on a scale not available at or near their home stations. Participating aircrews, working closely with the Joint Terminal Attack Controllers embedded with the Army, fly missions to support thousands of soldiers who are engaged against an opposing enemy force in a 1,000-square-mile combat environment similar in climate and terrain to what they would encounter overseas.
In order to create the most realistic environment possible, the Department of Defense has brought in Hollywood set designers to make the villages at Fort Irwin look exactly like they would in the Area of Responsibility (AOR). To take it a step further, role-players are hired to participate. These are people from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their role is to dress, speak, conduct business, and live as they would back home. At any given moment, there are as many as 5,500 actual troops and 1,700 “force multipliers” between the opposing force, the role-players, and those maintaining the combat outposts at NTC.
This article was written by Scott Wolff and originally published in 2014.