NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. -- As he flies a combat air patrol over the cities of Medina Wasl and Medina Jabal, Capt. James Russell pushes up the throttle on his F-16. His $20 million aircraft is running low on fuel and a KC-135 is standing by in the distance to top off the tanks, but it will have to wait. Soldiers are pinned down in a firefight below and he can hear the hail of gunfire over the radio as he checks in with the on-scene joint terminal attack controller.
Working together, the two quickly check off a laundry list of items while plotting a solution to minimize collateral damage. Russell is "cleared hot" and, with the push of a button,delivers a 500-pound package to the doorstep of the enemy. The laser-guided munition hits its target, neutralizing the threat. With the fuel gauges indicating the Fighting Falcon is close to operating on fumes, the 26-year-old Westchester, N.Y. native heads for the tanker. After taking on 3,000 pounds of fuel, he returns to the scene to ensure the fight is finished before heading home.
Supporting forces in danger is just one of many no-notice scenarios that Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and allied forces face as they engage in today's fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Russell has yet to fly a combat mission in either country. July 9-22, he was at Nellis Air Force Base preparing for an upcoming deployment to Afghanistan by participating in Green Flag-West 10-8 with other members of the 4th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base.
"The training we get here cannot be any more realistic," Russell said after completing his close air support mission over the U.S. Army's National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., July 19. "You don't know exactly what your mission is stepping out the door. The situation could be anything from 'Hey, I need you to go check out this road and search for anything suspicious' to 'We have troops in contact at this location being shot at and they need your help right now.' Being prepared for a full spectrum of operations is what we face in Iraq and Afghanistan on a daily basis."
Twenty times per year, the 57th Wing hosts Green Flag exercises to prepare Airmen such as Russell for the full spectrum of operations he and his wingmen could face during their combat deployments. Ten of those exercises are conducted jointly by the 549th Combat Training Squadron at Nellis and the 12th Combat Training Squadron at Fort Irwin.
"This is the premier training exercise preparing our Airmen for combat deployments," said Lt. Col. Robert Chavez, commander of the 549th CTS. "It's where U.S. Air Force, joint and coalition aircrews hone their air-land integration skills and prepare for success in support of our current operations."
An unscripted battle, Green Flag provides units with training on a scale not available at or near their home stations. The exercise replicates irregular warfare conditions, and aircrews -- working closely with JTACs -- protect nearly 6,000 Soldiers and 400 armored and support vehicles from the enemy in "The Box," a 1,000-square-mile combat training environment contained inside the NTC.
"The National Training Center is the last stop for Army combat brigades before they deploy downrange," said U.S. Army Maj. Terrence Adams, a ground liaison officer in the NTC's Operations Group. "The exercise is designed to integrate all assets in combined arms operations in support of the Army on the ground. We have two populated and fully-functioning cities as well as a series of smaller villages and settlements that replicate conditions our forces will find in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Soldiers' job is to build trust and understanding while neutralizing insurgent threats and their power base among the civilian population."
As the ground liaison officer, Adams works directly with the Air Force in support of the combat brigades. As the Army's subject matter expert, he provides Airmen with details for a variety of missions so they can effectively plan, integrate and provide the proper air support to warfighters on the ground.
"I'm involved in any operation where the Army needs support from the air," Adams said. "Oftentimes, units are looking for a specific type of effect and will ask for certain assets without realizing that another airframe or piece of equipment may do the job better. As requests come up, I'll look at them with the Air Force and explain what the unit's overall objective is. Then, working with Green Flag, we either validate or tweak those requests so the units get the effect they're looking for."
Integration is a key ingredient in Green Flag's success. In addition to Soldiers such as Maj. Adams working with the Air Force, the 57th Wing has a group of Airmen that lives with the Army to support the fight from the ground. Known as "Team Raven," a 30-person team from 12th Combat Training Squadron is permanently stationed at Fort Irwin and works alongside the NTC's Operations Group to execute air support operations.
"The primary mission of Team Raven during Green Flag is to effectively integrate and synchronize airpower into the brigade's scheme of maneuver," said Lt. Col. Tracey Murchison, 12th CTS commander. "We are also the liaisons between the NTC and JTACs embedded with deployed combat brigades. In this role, we serve as mentors, and provide coaching, instruction and over-watch of JTACs during missions."
While the 12th CTS supports the fight from the battlefield, its sister unit, the 549th CTS, assists the units who provide the airpower. Squadron members come from a variety of airframes and serve as aircrew and intelligence combat trainers, mission execution safety observers and training facilitators. They also ensure all the support that organizations need to operate out of Nellis is provided. During flying operations, they provide real-time command, control and communications, and collect data to thoroughly debrief aircrews following each mission.
"The situation we're in right now is unlike any previous wars we've fought," said Maj. James Barlow, 549th CTS director of operations. "The enemy's tactic is to blend into the civilian population because they know how much time we spend in preventing collateral damage. We spend a lot of time studying the enemy and changing what we do to keep a pulse on their tactics."
As tactics change, so do the objectives of units deploying to support counter-insurgency operations. The 12th CTS and 549th CTS work together to ensure exercise participants get training in areas they identify.
"During Green Flag 10-8, one of the objectives of the 4th Fighter Squadron was to practice integration with remotely piloted aircraft," Barlow said. "We put them on the fight at the same time and passed scenarios from the NTC that forced them to work together to maximize the strengths of each weapons system. Then we dissected how they did and sent them out the next day to do it all over again."
As an A-10 pilot with more than 100 missions in Afghanistan, Barlow participated in Green Flag prior to his deployment. And, like the rest of his peers, has brought his combat experience back to improve the program.
"I directly supported the Army during 56 troops in contact situations and deployed weapons off my aircraft 28 times," he said. "That actual kinetic gunfight is what we practice here, but the other 28 times I was able to move through the spectrum and use non-kinetic effects to diffuse the situation. The amount of force that's required is the amount of force we'll employ and that's what we teach here."
"For us going down range very shortly, this training is invaluable," Capt. Russell said prior to returning to Hill Air Force Base. "We're honored to be invited and have the opportunity to practice with a home field advantage before heading into harm's way."