As the new coronavirus pandemic upended daily life across the globe, and its restrictions changed how the Air Force trains and flies, service leaders began to see an opportunity.
The nature of COVID-19, especially how contagious it is and how it spreads, posed some similarities to how a military would face biological threats. A restriction of movement order meant bases were forced to operate in a more isolated way. A gas mask could serve as a type of face covering, a required piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the coronavirus era.
Just below the surface in our history and culture is a great starting point from which to adjust operations in this new environment.Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein
“Just below the surface in our history and culture is a great starting point from which to adjust operations in this new environment,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein wrote in an April 28 letter to commanders. “It’s time to dust off those Ability to Survive and Operate manuals. Many of us grew up in the age of Apple Orchards, MOPP levels, operations with PPE, aircraft decontamination procedures, etc. While we have not required it in recent years given our focus in the Middle East, the ability to survive and operate [ATSO] in a CBRN environment is in our DNA.”
Goldfein sent out an order: Major commands and wings should take advantage of the “new abnormal” and plan new exercises to adjust procedures for operating in that chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive threat environment. Because experts don’t project a vaccine to be widely available until as late as December 2021, the Air Force needs to “find ways to survive and operate with a virus likely to return a few times between now and then. I certainly hope I’m wrong and a vaccine comes earlier … but hope is not a course of action. We must prepare for the long haul.”
The pandemic has hit different regions and communities differently, and each base has a unique mission, so Goldfein’s directive provides wide leeway to individual commanders.
“No two bases will be exactly the same,” he wrote. “Different missions. Different demographics. Different communities. Different leadership. It is why we have continually worked to push decision authority to you and your subordinate commanders. … We must have trust throughout the organization. [Air Force] Secretary [Barbara] Barrett and I absolutely trust you to get the job done. … As we have said since the beginning, don’t wait for us. Take the decision authority you have been given and move out as you in turn push decision authority to your subordinate command teams.”
Commands and wings quickly followed through. Some are following in the momentum of previous exercises, while others are creating new, large-scale training events or changing the overarching goals of planned events.
Bringing CBRN to the Forefront
CBRN defense has long been a part of the Air Force, with groups of dedicated Airmen researching and training for the threats. However, this has been back of mind for the bulk of the service, relegated to once a year exercises and computer-based training. As COVID-19 spread, however, it became a major focus quickly.
“The CBRN community has always been there, always working, and there’s a ton of expertise in the world. But … CBRN and the WMD threat weren’t front and center,” said Maj. Ryan Ruediger, the chief of air operations in the Air Force’s countering weapons of mass destruction division. “And then, as we’re working in the periphery and continuing to build capabilities, design better equipment, better detectors, do all of these things, all of a sudden COVID gave us an opportunity to bring these capabilities front and center.”
In the past few years as part of an overall push toward full-spectrum readiness, the Air Force has taken a closer look at CBRN defense, rewritten guidance, and thought more deeply on what needs to be exercised, said Col. Leanne Moore, the chief of countering weapons of mass destruction in the office of the deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration.
“Our role is to optimize air power, and one of the unique things that we try to do at the Air Staff is to understand the science and behavior of the threat and characterize the hazard,” she said.
At the outset of the outbreak, CBRN experts received calls constantly, asking about the right protective equipment to wear, about how to properly sanitize aircraft, and other protective measures to take. For the Airmen responsible for training for the threats, there was a lot of “connective tissue” between the outbreak and what CBRN threats the service needs to be ready for, Ruediger said.
“We have incredible masks, equipment, and capability that will protect our Airmen in a dangerous chemical or biological environment. But it’s overkill for COVID,” Moore said. “We had a lot of people who wanted [to] pull out their chem gear and get suited up from head to toe and operate that way. When we realized that the threat really could be (mitigated) with washing your hands, wearing gloves, and just wearing a cotton face mask, we could protect our Airmen so they could continue to operate.”
The COVID-19 reality gives the Air Force the chance to better educate itself about CBRN threats, and real-world training to more effectively face similar threats in future CBRN scenarios, said Lt. Col. Paul Hendrickson, the Agile Combat Support Directorate’s AF Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defense Systems Branch materiel leader.
“So, how do we leverage this new focus on the B in CBRN and turn it into a comprehensive readiness look so that we can make sure that we’re ready for when it really is that chemical or biological interchange with a peer adversary trying to deter or demoralize us,” he said.
The Air Force needs to “deliberately train the right way,” by leveraging its experts at the base-level, he said. Training is needed so Airmen understand that if they face a CBRN threat, they can still operate.
“There seems to be a pervasive belief that when a chem attack or a biological attack happens, the whole base is slimed and you just can’t operate, which couldn’t be further from the truth. With proper warning, sensing, and communication, there is a whole spectrum of operations that can continue.”
Several months into the outbreak, COVID-19 has shown where the Air Force was not ready and the service is working to ensure it is ready in the future to meet a threat, no matter what it is, said Chief Master Sergeant Joseph Trenholm, the Air Force emergency management career field manager. The outbreak “opened up the aperture now on how do we do business” with the threats that exist, he said.
“So, if the CBRN Defense community is given the opportunity to share and shape with what we have available, then the momentum’s not lost,” Hendrickson said. “That’s really where you get your bang for the buck. It’s all fun and games to say we’re going [to] practice it, but if we’re going do it, we have got do it in the right way. And I think if we can—if we can get over that hump and make it a part of our DNA again we can ensure our forces are prepared for the next conflict where a CBRN threat is employed.”
177th Fighter Wing
New Jersey was among the hardest-hit states in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, and that created a unique challenge for the Air National Guard’s 177th Fighter Wing at Atlantic City International Airport.
The wing’s F-16s sit alert for the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s Operation Noble Eagle mission, ready to launch to protect the nation’s airspace in a region including New York City. The wing acted early to adjust its operations—having pilots quarantine before coming in for alert duty, for example—while also sending Guardsmen out into New Jersey’s communities to help where needed as cases multiplied.
Coronavirus created a “biologically contested environment right here in our backyard,” said Wing Commander Col. Bradford Everman, in an interview. “We can’t just shut down for a week or for a month. … We don’t have that option. We have to continue getting the job done.”
The 177th was forced to cancel a major exercise—an agile combat employment event in which the wing was to “forward deploy” to a base in Michigan and quickly stand up operations—but with that off the books, the wing is reshaping its October exercise to practice operating in a biological threat environment at home. Wings across the Air Force are required to conduct an ability to survive and operate exercise for CBRN threats, and this will be it.
“We’re going to look at it—rather than looking at it as being in Central Command, or being in Pacific Command, or somewhere around the globe—now we’re gonna look at it as what if we had to operate right here in a true biological warfare environment on the 177th Fighter Wing proper, defend it in three dimensions, and then go out and do our mission from our local base,” Everman said. “And you really can’t write the script any better than in a biologically contested environment, which is the world that we live in, day in and day out right now.”
Like the 177th, the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, stands alert to protect the homeland. Indeed, the wing’s F-22s launched several times in response to Russian aircraft encroaching on Alaska’s airspace this past spring and summer. The wing has adjusted daily operations and worked with social distancing to safely keep pilots on alert, and in May, joined with the Air National Guard’s 176th Wing at JBER to launch 26 F-22s, two C-12s, two C-130s, two E-3 Sentrys, and three C-17s in a giant “Moose Walk” to demonstrate readiness. Pilots and maintainers worked through distancing and PPE requirements, along with the need to sterilize cockpits, to conduct the event.
“The message is that we’re ready—we’ve always been ready,” said 3rd Wing Commander Col. Robert Davis in an Air Force Magazine interview. “And the challenges associated with COVID-19 have not prevented us from being ready to defend the nation in our NORAD alert mission, or to be able to project air power, to deliver air power to combatant commanders.”
The “Moose Walk”—an Alaskan tweak to the more familiar “Elephant Walk”—was the first major exercise for JBER in the COVID-19 environment. The wing does CBRN-related training events on a “routine basis,” Davis said, and while recent training was canceled as the pandemic began, the wing is rescheduling to train “some of the CBRN skills” soon.
The 176th Wing has kept track of COVID-19 impacts to its operations, relative to operating in the CBRN threat environment, said Wing Commander Col. Anthony Stratton .
“COVID is, to a lesser degree, very similar to how we operate in a chemical and biological environment,” he explained. “In that environment we typically double the amount of time that it takes us to do a task, just as our base-level planning factor.” Every step needed to generate a sortie—supply, fuel, operations, and maintenance —had to work through the complications imposed by requiring PPE and social distancing in setting up the Moose Walk.
“We want to illustrate to anybody that’s out there, that may be considering that our combat capability or capacity to generate [air power might be] … degraded due to COVID: That’s absolutely not the case,” Stratton said.
Out in the Pacific
Pacific Air Forces is planning to focus on CBRN and potential outbreaks in multinational training exercises. Future training events in 2021 and 2022 with the Philippines and Thailand will focus on the CBRN threat, applying lessons from the COVID-19 experience, including aeromedical evacuation.
Air Mobility Command is applying its CBRN training experience to its COVID-19 response.
“AMC wings have been conducting local, large-scale exercises that emphasize ATSO skills, including proficiency in MOPP levels and use of personal protective equipment,” AMC spokeswoman Capt. Nicole Ferrara said in a statement. “Now, AMC is applying these skills to the current operating environment, to help mitigate the threat posed by coronavirus.”
For example, the day after Goldfein’s letter, McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., assigned a KC-46 aircrew to test the aircraft’s intercom voice communications while wearing chem-bio flight gear. Engineers from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., remotely monitored the test, collecting data with which to create TTPs [tactics, techniques, and procedures] for operating the aircraft in a CBRN environment.
The command hosts its premier exercise, Mobility Guardian, every two years, and trained extensively for a CBRN environment in 2019, including decontamination procedures. The command is planning more of that for its next event scheduled for summer 2021.
Air Force CBRN experts tout Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., as the standard-bearer for CBRN training. The base conducts monthly ATSO “rodeos” including representatives from many career fields and its C-130s, along with regular radiological recovery training, and exercises to deploy and operate in a threatened environment. The base even has “Thunder Thursdays” when an alarm goes off during a regular day, and Airmen who are a part of the exercise need to quickly put on their protective gear and continue working.
“You roll on base on a Thursday, it’s not weird to see somebody walking around in their gear,” Hendrickson said. “Everybody just says ‘Oh yeah, well, that poor soul’s part of the exercise this quarter.”’
The pandemic prompted research into how CBRN threats affect mobility aircraft and a study on the airflow in mobility aircraft to understand how a virus could spread from the cargo hold to the cockpit, and what can be done to stop it. A new Negatively Pressured Conex system approved for production this spring will be able to transport more highly contagious patients than the existing Transport Isolation System developed after the 2014 Ebola outbreak.
“From adapting aircrew protection measures to implementing aircraft decontamination procedures as needed, AMC has and will continue to seek ways of reducing risk to personnel and passengers flying on our aircraft,” Ferrara said.
Bases across U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa were among the first to face the COVID-19 threat. For example, Aviano Air Base, Italy, locked down in early March as the pandemic hit northern Italy hard. The base had to change its flying schedule so pilots and maintainers could alternate on-days to avoid crowding and personal contact. The base’s F-16 squadrons, used to flying alongside Italian aircraft and other local allies, instead focused on local training in its own ranges.
Fighting COVID in the U.K.
The story was similar at RAF Lakenheath, U.K., where the 492nd Fighter Squadron broke into teams that operated on alternating weeks. That decreased flying time by about 50 percent, said Capt. Alexandra Deerr, flight commander and instructor pilot with the 492nd FS.
By late May, USAFE had canceled 14 exercises, but decided it needed to go forward with large-scale training amid the pandemic and conducted a major exercise in the North Sea with 38 aircraft from Lakenheath, Aviano, and Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, along with a NATO E-3 AWACS and the 603rd Air Operations Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Planning was done remotely, with aircrews operating as if facing biological threats. Maintainers worked in shifts and aircraft were decontaminated.
“This is really the first large force exercise (LFE), that I know of, since COVID started,” Capt. Alex Travers, the 52nd Fighter Wing’s electronic combat pilot who flew in the exercise,said in an interview. “All things considered, with the displaced planning and different units coming together for the first time in several months, it went off very well and we got some great training out there. There’s nothing like being at 1.2 Mach and 30,000 feet, and looking over and just seeing all the [USAF] contrails and thinking: ‘This is America … . This is awesome.’ So, I had a great time today.”
“The goal of this was to integrate across multiple platforms, multiple fighters in this case, to … get into some contested, degraded operations where we can essentially go to another airspace where we’ve never met the people, in person, that we’re fighting with, and actually integrate with them and apply our joint tactics and doctrine with those guys, without having to be physically present for the mission planning,” said Capt. Michael Shaw, an F-16 pilot with Aviano’s 510th Fighter Squadron, in an interview.
The May LFE was the first in a series of similar events to be held throughout the year across USAFE, with each wing taking turns planning.
USAFE Commander Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian told Air Force Magazine that the pandemic provides a chance to get back to “our fundamentals” and train in a way “that forces our Airmen to work through problem sets.”
“As we look at these large force exercises and some of the other internal exercises that we’re going to do inside of USAFE I think, ultimately, what we want to look at is: Recognize that the virus is not going away, it’s gonna come back,” Harrigian said in an interview. “We’re gonna have to work our way through that. And so as we look at these exercises, how do we continue to employ the techniques that we’ve learned over the last couple months, to be able to generate sorties, generate combat power, while operating in this environment? That’s ultimately the key to our success while also looking at some of the other challenges associated with a chem or bio environment.”