Eagle Flag

Jan. 1, 2007

Watching several US airmen grapple with a tense political situation in Chimaera, you get a close-up look at how USAF trains to run its austere expeditionary bases.

In this case, USAF security forces became alarmed when a suspicious-looking individual ignored warnings and came too close to a security fence around a new US base. Forced to act quickly, the security forces fired at the intruder, only to learn later that he was a hunter from the nearby village of Citheron.

To head off a major row, the airmen quickly met with the village’s angry leaders and explained the incident in detail. The swift action helped them defuse a volatile situation.

Don’t bother looking on a map for either Chimaera or Citheron; they don’t exist. Nor do the hunter and village elders. They were merely props in an innovative Air Force program to train its mobility support forces for duty abroad.

This event, which unfolded in New Jersey in October, was the latest installment of Eagle Flag, a high-tempo expeditionary exercise to prepare mobility airmen to open and operate austere bases in often-dangerous areas.

This time, the setting was the nation of Chimaera, a poor land devastated by a tsunami. Citheron, a Chimaeran village, became the hub of US air relief activities. The hunter and all other “locals” were role-players—airmen used to simulate the look and behavior of Chimaerans.

The exercise strives to ready USAF support forces for the shocks and surprises of expeditionary force deployments. Airmen normally go through the nine-day sequence about 45 days before they become vulnerable for overseas duty.

In the view of USAF’s Air Mobility Warfare Center, Eagle Flag is a dress rehearsal staged before the real thing. “We have to make sure that the [classroom] translates into the field,” said Maj. Gen. David S. Gray, the AMWC commander.

Perfect Site

The task for these airmen was to build a functioning air base from little more than a vast, muddy field and a simple airstrip—and do it in a week. The site is on the grounds of Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst, N.J., a military reservation close by McGuire AFB, N.J., and Ft. Dix, N.J. The whole area is enfolded in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, a heavily forested 1.1-million-acre tract of coastal plain spread across southern and central New Jersey.

The place seems well-suited to the task. Largely rural and undeveloped, it features carnivorous plants, rare pygmy Pitch Pines, and silt-like dirt that locals call “sugar sand.” When Orson Welles scripted his 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” he chose the Pine Barrens as the scene of battle between the aliens and National Guard troops.

The first thing you notice on a cold, rainy October day is the concertina wire blocking the service roads winding through the area. At one guard post, three poncho-clad servicemen keep watch. A turret gunner on a security forces humvee scans the tree line from behind his M-60. They have come to this site because security forces at the perimeter have just “captured” a man wearing a vest of explosives.

Within an encampment tent, the handcuffed would-be suicide bomber awaits interrogation. SSgt. Jason Kreider, an explosive ordnance disposal airman and instructor with the 421st Combat Training Squadron, watches the scenario develop. The situation is tense and uncomfortable.

“This is the best part,” he said, watching the captive. “It gives these airmen a real threat experience.” They see “pretty realistic scenarios they won’t see anywhere else.”

Kreider’s unit in the past few days has come up against a steady stream of mortar attacks, uncovered unexploded ordnance, and ensured clear routes for vehicles coming and going from the small base, airstrip, and village.

Less than a mile down a dirt road, one finds the mock village of Citheron—where role-players are doing their best to portray a village recovering from a disaster. On the site are houses of worship, several stores, a village administration hall, and even a local newspaper. The role-players are a key part of the exercise, and their actions are documented on several hidden cameras placed around the village.

“People become aware of their actions and reactions,” said SSgt. Dean Steele, a supervisor of the locals. Steele has been observing how activities have looked on camera—misunderstandings with villagers to how many times a security forces patrol comes past a certain point in the town—even how airmen interact with locals.

It’s Always Something

First Lt. John Carlo, Maxwell AFB, Ala., said the tempo of the operation can be felt day and night and can rise and fall in a moment. On Monday night, a package began emitting gas—which meant every airman had to suit up in full protective chem-bio gear. “There’s always something going on, and you never know what it’s going to be,” Carlo said.

Col. Raymond Torres, the commandant of AMWC’s Expeditionary Operations School—the caretaker of Eagle Flag—says that’s deliberate. “We’re trying to make the experience more realistic all the time,” he said. “We want people to be challenged.”

SrA. Joanna Houston, an enlisted services airman from Minot AFB, N.D., has been busy finding fuel to run generators and provide the electricity needed to run kitchen equipment. The rain has also picked up. “Keeping things clean is a challenge,” she said.

Such demands are helping sharpen up what the mobility community already considers a strong capability—opening air bases in any environment.

That community has been busy for years. The 1990s saw the Air Force build serviceable air bases in Rwanda, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the need for new bases expanded, and USAF opened up 38 new sites, principally in Central and Southwest Asia.

In the past 24 months, it staged massive humanitarian operations following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. Then there were actions after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and the July 2006 noncombatant evacuation of Americans from Lebanon. (See “Air Mobility’s Never-Ending Surge,” September 2006, p. 46.)

Eagle Flag is both a training opportunity and a proving ground for the skills that are being demanded of today’s mobility airmen and tomorrow’s austere mobility environments.

“It’s difficult to marry up cargo and people, especially in this kind of environment,” said Maj. Brian May, a communications airman of the 5th Civil Engineering Squadron from Minot. “You have to sort out a lot of priorities [and see] how your job fits into a much larger picture.”

May, a veteran of two overseas deployments, believes Eagle Flag offers precious opportunities for airmen to unpack their tools and supplies and see how they work in the real world. “This is about as comprehensive as it gets,” he said.

The war in Afghanistan, which got under way on Oct. 7, 2001, showed that it took USAF too long to set up forward locations, according to Torres. The requirement was 45 to 60 days. Air Force leaders ordered AMC to drastically compress that time frame and cut all fat from the operations.

In September 2002, Gen. John P. Jumper, then USAF Chief of Staff, designated AMC to create a program to train expeditionary combat support airmen. The result was Eagle Flag.

“We know how to operate an installation,” said Torres. “We do it well. What we’re practicing here is how to get it up and running.”

Three Packages

Eagle Flag breaks down that task into blocks, or “modules.” The whole process should take about one week. At that point, the base should be fully functioning, with operations, command and control, base security, services, and so forth.

At Lakehurst, the first element in was a small Air Force assessment team. It determined the types of repairs, upgrades, and facilities that would be needed to make the site operational.

The first main force—module one—was responsible for opening the base for certain minimal operations. It consisted of fuels, security, and supply personnel. This is a “contingency response group,” a small team of generalists.

Air Force leaders have pushed for small teams of multidisciplinary airmen that could respond on short notice to any site and quickly prepare a location and then turn it over to a follow-on expeditionary force. USAF now has two contingency response wings, one at McGuire and the other at Travis AFB, Calif. Two additional CRGs are based in PACAF and USAFE.

At Lakehurst, members of McGuire’s 816th Contingency Response Group open a warehouse near the airstrip and start to move gear: palletized generators, blankets, lifts, tents, airfield lighting, and medical supplies. These are the basics; the unit builds only what is absolutely necessary.

“The expeditionary concept is today’s environment,” said 1st Lt. Sean Hoggs, an aerial port flight commander with the 816th CRG. “There are no more grand World War II-type wars.”

Hoggs is experienced at his work, having deployed in 2004 as part of Operation Unified Assistance in the wake of the Asian tsunami. “They’re not looking for you to drag a long logistical tail,” he said of such deployments. “You’re expected to go from [Day 1 to Day 6] and resupply that base on the seventh day.”

CRGs of some 110 rapid response specialists have to do everything, so versatility is ingrained into unit thinking. Any airman might be tasked to unload an aircraft or run a forklift.

The broad-gauged training has turned the CRGs into go-to units. Since March 2005 the units have participated in a Bright Star exercise in Egypt, assisted in the shutdown of operations at Rhein-Main AB, Germany, led the Air Force response to Hurricane Katrina, and opened relief operations in Pakistan.

“Everything has changed,” said SSgt. Bryan McDonald, a security forces journeyman with the 816th CRG. “There are no more specialized skills in a unit like this. You’ll get a [security forces airman] out there pushing pallets and porters fixing aircraft with maintainers.”

The Growing Role of the Air Mobility “Schoolhouse”

The Air Mobility Warfare Center, established in 1994, costs roughly $60 million a year to operate and has some 500 airmen on staff. What began as a single course in June 1994 has to grown to 51 courses for 5,000 resident students and more than 8,000 distance learning students per year across five locations.

The center is commanded by Maj. Gen. David S. Gray, who had spent most of his Air Force career in mobility before arriving at AMWC in 2005. “I really thought I knew what [AMWC] was and what they did,” Gray said. “I was wrong.”

The center, at Ft. Dix, N.J., is AMC’s clearinghouse for education, training, and testing. Since its establishment by Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, then commander of Air Mobility Command and later USAF Chief of Staff, the center has divided its efforts into four areas: the resources directorate for the center’s activities, the Air Mobility Battlelab, Mobility Operations School, and the Expeditionary Operations School. The battlelab, one of the newest in the Air Force, finds off-the-shelf technology capable of improving mobility operations. According to Col. Phil Bradley, the lab commander, his mission is to reduce the cost and size of expeditionary operations. “You can only buy so many airlifters,” he said.

Central to the center’s efforts are the actions of the Mobility Operations School. The school—the air mobility component of the Joint Readiness Training Center—offers courses, including a global mobility wargame and tactics courses for senior officers.

The Expeditionary Operations School teaches airmen how to get ready to deploy, with a focus on contingency skills training, advanced logistics, and anti-terrorism training. EOS hosts not only Eagle Flag but also Phoenix Raven and Phoenix Warrior.

“We touch … everything that AMC does,” Gray said.

Stripped Down

The lean mind-set is on display at Eagle Flag. Looking at the simulated assault landing zone at Lakehurst, there’s not a lot of logistical fat visible and not many airmen, either. Fuel bladders are lined up near the runway, not far from a command and control apparatus where CRG airmen are beginning to wind down their initial operations. A follow-on force of some 60 airmen continue to establish the base in module two—building vital command and control capability.

In the early days of the deployment, a C-17 touched down and simulated an aeromedical evacuation.

“Until the blood goes into the soldier or the bullet goes into the gun, the mission isn’t over,” said Col. Robert Swisher, vice commander of the 621st Contingency Response Wing at McGuire.

After six days, the work of the second module transitions into follow-on forces of an air expeditionary group. The third module comprises civil engineers, logisticians, public affairs personnel, and others needed to expand the base’s infrastructure into a fully operational airbase.

The airmen come from the 5th Mission Support Group at Minot and are led by Col. Glenn Lang, commander. Lang’s force of some 300 airmen make up, for the purpose of the exercise, the “421st Air Expeditionary Group”— whose airmen who will turn the now functioning airstrip into a full forward operating base.

“You’re working long hours out here; it takes a lot out of you physically and mentally,” Lang said. Normally, an AEG would be coming in and taking over a base that is already operating. “Here,” he said, “I’m dealing with a whole new skill set.”

His AEG was on pace for a scheduled resupply point, despite some logistic snags and some difficulty getting enough tents up.

TSgt. Jeff Sattizahn, a heating and cooling craftsman, is relieved to be wrapping up his electrical work. He has spent the past several days getting the base’s heating and air-conditioning systems to function. That was difficult in its own right, but the crew encountered surprises along the way.

“We were trying to set everything up in here,” said Sattizahn, “and this woman just walked right in.”

The woman, one of the many role-playing airmen at Eagle Flag, was said to have been attempting to take a shortcut across the base and wound up detained. She was sent to inject some unpredictability of the type seen in real deployments. The airmen did not expect her to show up, but, now that she had done so, they had to do something.

Sattizahn said the intruder was questioned and then escorted off the base. “You don’t get to deal with these types of situations at home.”

MSgt. Timothy Blake, the Eagle Flag superintendent, made certain that such cultural training was a big part of the exercise. Dressed in desert BDUs and wearing a red beret, Blake played the role of Col. Abraham Marius—the nation’s top commander. He pushed the role-players to draw airmen into unfamiliar situations, managing incidents with host nation media and dealing with religious and cultural difficulties that deployed forces have experienced firsthand.

The AEG is nearly done with its task, and a pair of A-10s are due to land at the air base this afternoon.

The base won’t necessarily be flying Air Force assets. It could be used by Army or Marine Corps aircraft bringing in supplies or running disaster evacuations.

“It doesn’t really matter who’s flying out of that installation,” said Torres. “It’s our responsibility.”

Fast Learner

Security, as always, is a major factor in training. SMSgt. Curtis Berge, in an earlier Eagle Flag, spotted an unauthorized person near a base security gate. Though he should have waited for a special interrogation team, he approached the man anyway and was “killed” in a blast.

“You learn pretty quickly that way,” said Berge.

Troops have faced more than a few close calls. They have come up against deadly improvised explosive devices. Insurgent forces have kidnapped an aid worker. Troops have practiced clearing routes for convoy operations.

Security forces also participate in an exercise called Phoenix Warrior. Before a deployment, they test tactics in Eagle Flag scenarios. The AMWC also runs the Phoenix Raven course, a more intense three-week session that draws security forces airmen from across the service.

Back in the field at Lakehurst, TSgt. Todd Cooper, an instructor with the Phoenix Warrior security forces exercise, believes the entire Eagle Flag experience pays dividends not just in operations—but in perspectives.

Cooper has been supervising convoy drills, standoff threat scenarios, and reconnaissance tactics training, with many of his younger troops getting ready for their second deployment. While training on a range is one thing, it’s another to be in a full-on operation, where they may have to help perform a new duty if the situation calls for it.

“They see firsthand that nobody has the most important job in the Air Force,” he said.

In a real deployment, two more modules would follow. They would consist of experts needed to generate sorties and operate the air base.

With an average of six Eagle Flags a year now being held at Lakehurst, cadre instructors and officers are thinking about what the exercise and the Air Mobility Warfare Center can do to better prepare airmen for the leaner, more flexible state of mobility warfare in the future.

“I just don’t see this going away,” said Gray.