The US Air Force’s 53rd Wing conducted Black Flag 22-1, bringing together four branches of the US military and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in a first-time coalition test environment to identify enhancements to night-one capabilities.
The exercise took place at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, between May 9 and 13.
As part of the Air Force’s test flag enterprise, Black Flag allows the service “to test like it fights,” developing force integration techniques and discovering capabilities by using existing and emerging material.
As one of the participants in Black Flag, the RAAF brought the E-7A Wedgetail allowing the Air Force an opportunity to look at the operational integration capabilities the E-7 has to offer.
While this isn’t the first time the RAAF has integrated the E-7 with the USAF, it is their first time taking part in a test exercise. The Air Force’s first E-7 prototype is projected to be delivered to the fleet in FY27.
Following Black Flag, the RAAF’s E-7 flew to Tyndall AFB where it took part in the 53rd Wing’s Weapons System Evaluation Program-East, a joint event that evaluates a squadron’s ability to conduct air-to-air live fire missions.
“This integration is more than just test, we are developing the backbone that will drive our tactics and communication capabilities in a wartime scenario,” said Maj. Theodore Ellis, Black Flag director. “So if we get to night one, we don’t have to educate everyone, the knowledge will already be out there and we can focus on the fight.”
A large objective of this Black Flag iteration was addressing automated long-range kill-chains and how to ensure the technologies that support them are operationally ready and relevant.
In January, at the 2021 Weapons and Tactics Conference, Maj. Ridge Flick and his team presented WATCHBOX and Tactical Radio Application eXtension (Trax), two powerful data translation and routing tools that significantly speed up the data transfer from sensor to shooter.
“A single intelligence hit in a database during our weapons school integration phase normally could take 25 to 30 minutes before it is passed to a shooter on Link 16,” said Maj. Ridge Flick, Air University Fellow assigned to the USAF Warfare Center. “Now we’ve shortened the timeline through automated means to anywhere from 40 seconds to four minutes, and removed the errors associated with humans transposing information from one system to another.”
Incorporated in Black Flag 22-1, Flick and his team tested automated intelligence reporting using Watchbox and automatically disseminated the reporting to six separate ground nodes and two Link-16 networks using TRAX. The testing proved combining machine-to-machine communication and automated intelligence reporting enables significantly shorter kill-chains.
“The Advanced Battle Management System will solve some very crucial infrastructure problems, but that’s projected for the future and we need something that works now,” said Flick. “Watchbox and other intelligence reporting programs, like SNAPGLASS, paired with TRAX are the interim solution.”
Building off of Secretary Kendall’s seven operational imperatives the 422d Test and Evaluation Squadron Command and Control (C2) Division created and employed a never before seen mobile C2 element during Black Flag that aggressively responded to four of those imperatives.
Often referred to as “movable not mobile,” tactical C2 capabilities have historically been stationary in nature due to the hours it takes to transport the aging cumbersome technology that has been employed for the past 20 years according to Maj. Paden Allen, 422d TES C2 division commander.
In an effort to modernize, Allen and his team equipped a Sport Utility Vehicle with Commercial and Government “off the shelf” (COTS/GOTS) technology to assemble a Tactical C2 element that was able to provide Command and Control functions while on the move. Some examples of their gear include a KYMETA (TM) antenna, assorted radios, ruggedized computers with servers, and Move Out Jump Off (MOJO – TM) that provided additional tactical data link capability.
“It’s inconspicuous and if we needed to abandon the vehicle in a scenario we could do so in less than 20 minutes with all our gear,” said Allen. “Through this innovative capability, we proved that we can set up shop anywhere with no set-up time.”
Allen’s team executed two missions that provided Tactical C2 capabilities that demonstrated the flexible and rapid mobility options to and from the Nevada Test and Training Range.
This included driving the SUVs over two hours to demonstrate command over land as well as airlift using a USMC KC-130 to a dry lake bed on the NTTR in an effort to replicate deployment and extraction from austere environments.
Through successful testing, the team discovered that they could scale this solution to multiple types of vehicles, potentially increase the number of classifications of data they could work between, and add additional data links by integrating emerging technology. These solutions would allow more integration among other forces.
“We don’t have time to wait for the newest weapons system, but we can develop a new tactic tomorrow,” said Col. Matthew Bradley, 53rd Wing commander. “Those integrated tactics that come out of Black Flag are how we’ll combat the pacing challenge. It all comes down to who has the tactical advantage.”
The 53rd Wing’s next test flag event will be a first-ever maritime Black Flag. The Air Force will partner with Marine Air Group 11 to focus on long-range takedown of mobile maritime threats. The maritime Black Flag will take place in June, 2022.