Missions begin with air tasking order

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Sara Hilmoe
  • Red Flag-Alaska Public Affairs
Though Red Flag-Alaska 06-2 is an enhanced training opportunity for the U.S. military, the game is still the same: war.

Air Force active duty, National Guard and Reserve units from across the United States are participating in the two-week joint training exercise that started April 24.

Since participants began arriving April 17, the tarmac has seen a flurry of activity. Airmen from more than 10 units work together to prepare A-10 Thunderbolt IIs, B-52 Stratofortresses, F-16 Fighting Falcons, KC-10 Extenders, KC-135 Stratotankers and HH-60G Pave Hawks for their upcoming missions -- missions not revealed until they were “dropped” April 24.

All missions begin with the dropping of an air tasking order, or ATO, which is the lead planning document commanders follow. Once received, the teams -- red, white and blue -- can put their “game pieces” into place.

“The ATO consolidates the schedules of everything that’s going to be in the air that day,” said Capt. Matt Watson, one of three white force team members writing the exercise ATOs. “It’s creating a schedule based on the goals of the war (game) or the mission.”

The white force consists of active-duty members assigned here who facilitate the exercise for the blue and red teams that play the friendly and hostile forces, respectively.

“We see ourselves as the referees for the actual players,” said Capt. Michael Clark, one of the white force ATO writers. They also advise Col. John Dobbins, the air expeditionary wing commander for Red Flag-Alaska, because they are familiar with the base and its vast training area.

Once the ATO drops, the "friendly" blue forces receive their specific orders and go to work. The "hostile" red team also receives an order for the day, but they’re privy to a bit of inside information on what the blue team will be doing so they can plan the needed training maneuvers.

The blue team, however, is not provided with the capabilities or methods the red team will use. All they know is that the aggressors will be attacking.

At first, reading the cryptic orders line by line can be overwhelming and lengthy, but technology and computers help the mission commanders and their units sort the orders out by mission, flight or specific unit.

Capt. Ron Strobach, Red Flag-Alaska project officer and white force member, said the ATO gives participants an overall picture of where everyone will be for the entire day, whether on the ground or in the air.

For the mission commander, reading and deciphering the plan is only the beginning of the challenge. The mission planning cell begins to plan for any contingencies that may occur while they are carrying out the mission. These contingencies are planned, so that when they are needed, a simple command can be sent out to make them happen.

“Units have to be able to adapt to this plan and still meet the mission requirements,” Captain Clark said.

Captain Watson said it’s like being given a set of ingredients and told to make a cake.

“You may not be given everything you’d like for the outcome you desire, but you work with the pieces you have,” he said.

The ATOs are built based on training requirements and special requests from the different units participating in order to prepare them for upcoming deployments. Because some exercise participants have never deployed, it may be the first time they have seen an ATO.

“There are a lot of new people coming through,” Captain Strobach said. “Here they’ll see the actual, physical document they would see in the real world. It can be pretty cryptic, so it’s good for them to see it here.”

The white force members write ATOs to meet the units’ needs, while assuring no participant will violate any restrictions of the training area.

Captain Clark said writing ATOs is an additional duty.

“In the real world, there would be an entire shop dedicated to writing them," the captain said. “We simulate with three people what six to 12 people do in an air operations center."

Once the mission is complete, a mass debriefing is held to determine its success rate and pilots get instructions on how to correct the things that went wrong. While the teams are all striving for a 100-percent mission-completion rate, they will have to wait for the next ATO to drop for their next shot at perfection.

(Capt. Aaron Wiley, Red Flag-Alaska Public Affairs, contributed to this story)