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612th Air Operations Center completes first coalition ‘Virtual Flag’ exercise

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. -- Airmen of the 612th Air and Space Operations Center took part in the first coalition Virtual Flag exercise with Australian, Canadian and British air services Sept. 16 -24. 

Virtual Flag simulates command and control during a simulated air war in a real-time environment, and this one took 12 months of preparation, according to Lt. Col. Michael Spanich, 612th AOC Combat Operations Division deputy chief and Virtual Flag director. 

"We really broke new ground with this coalition partnership," Colonel Spanich said. "We're sharing all our collective experiences, and practicing inside a scenario that allows mistakes. You can test tactics, techniques, and procedures, and then ask, 'Can we do this better?' By blending together, and improving on processes, we can more effectively move forward into real-world scenarios." 

Nine coalition Airmen and more than 50 U.S. Airmen participated in the exercise here. Sites all around the globe, from simulators to allied AOC facilities, connected to the Distributed Mission Operation Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M. through information system networks. There, planners from the 705th Exercise Control Squadron manipulate the course of events as friendly or enemy forces. The results appear on participants screens in real time, in the proper format for their system. Scenarios were both virtual, meaning there is a person in a simulator attacking or defending, and constructive, meaning computer-generated threats were pitted against exercise participants. 

"These exercises go a long way toward AEF spin up," said Col. Mark Koechle, 612th AOC commander. "They also assist in training our coalition forces, who will work together with us in real world scenarios most likely seen in Iraq and Afghanistan." 

To hold an actual event involving thousands of sorties would cost millions of dollars, but with distributed mission training, missions are 'flown' in a simulator or generated by a computer to appear on screens in the AOC. For Airmen planning air tasking orders or monitoring missions, the exercise sorties will appear to be happening in real time over a fictitious country. 

"This technology offers us the ability to truly train simultaneously across the globe," Colonel Koechle said. "There were 36 units from four countries in this exercise. They were located at 24 separate venues across 17 time zones. I watched two Canadian Joint Terminal Air Controllers (JTACs) in the JTAC simulator in Albuquerque control two A-10 pilots flying simulators at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, while an F-18 pilot, whose simulator was located in Australia, orbited above the fight." 

The exercise simulated a coalition effort to protect a peaceful nation from an aggressive bordering country, Colonel Spanich said. When the aggressor moved in to take over disputed land, the coalition countered. The exercise scenario has been tested before, but not with coalition involvement. The lessons learned from this scenario will pave the way for another coalition Virtual Flag next September. 

"These are some of our closest allies since World War I," Colonel Spanich said. "We share blood, sweat, and tears on the battlefield every day. They have been to Iraq and Afghanistan, and that's the whole point - sharing experiences and learning from one another. They have been there for us, and we want to be there for them."

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