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Blue Flag 19-1 exercises Ninth Air Force’s command, control capability

Blue Flag 19-1 exercises Ninth AF’s command, control capability

U.S. joint and coalition partners in the J-2 Intelligence Directorate work through an exercise inject during Blue Flag 19-1, Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., May 8, 2019. The exercise focused on a noncombatant evacuation operations scenario where Ninth Air Force, comprised of joint and coalition active duty and Air Reserve Component partners, participated as the Joint Task Force headquarters. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Amanda Dick) (The box blur tool was used for security purposes)

Blue Flag 19-1 exercises Ninth AF’s command, control capability

Joint Task Force forward headquarters U.S. joint and coalition partners discuss air current operations in the Joint Operations Center during Blue Flag 19-1, Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., May 9, 2019. Blue Flag 19-1 was the first time Ninth Air Force employed a JOC to execute the command and control mission of a JTF. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Amanda Dick)


Ninth Air Force staff participated as a joint task force headquarters during Blue Flag 19-1, a joint exercise, at Homestead Air Reserve Base, Florida, from May 6-10.

Ninth Air Force executed its mission as the operational-level command and control node of a noncombatant evacuation operation for U.S. Southern Command as JTF-NEO (noncombatant evacuation operations) while continuing efforts toward full operational capability as an Air Force-led, JTF-capable headquarters.

“Our role in the Blue Flag exercise is to further develop our capability at Ninth Air Force as a JTF-capable headquarters,” said Air Force Maj. Gen. Scott J. Zobrist, JTF-NEO commander. "In previous exercises, the subordinate forces were simulated. In this case, we have a live air component that is executing in support of our mission. That is a new addition to our training that we haven’t done in the past, and it’s important we demonstrate the ability to command and control forces like these.”

To prepare for the exercise and its future mission, Ninth Air Force purchased a deployed headquarters package used for the command and control element.

“We are taking ownership of a full JTF headquarters’ worth of capability -- everything from tents, to the generators, to the (heat, ventilation, and cooling units), and especially the communications equipment in the form of a flexible communication package,” Zobrist said. “(Blue Flag) is our first opportunity to set that up at a location (other than) our home station.”

Another first for Ninth Air Force included employing a joint operations center within the headquarters to fully execute the command and control of the NEO mission.

“In this case, we are command and controlling live forces in a very robust, realistic scenario” Zobrist explained. “In the past, we focused more on planning and simulated control of these forces. In this case, with the new equipment…we are exercising our Joint Ops Center with processes we’ve developed over the last (few) exercises.”

While Ninth Air Force Airmen provide the core of the headquarters, the JOC included liaison officers from joint and coalition partners to aid the JTF in its decision-making process during operations.

“My role in the JOC is to be the voice of the ground force commander,” said Army Capt. Eric Nabinger, JTF-NEO Army LNO. “I am his first line of defense, as well as, I help facilitate anything the JTF needs from the ground forces. As a member of the Army to the JTF, I provide the situational awareness of the ground forces -- where they are, what their readiness strength is -- and I also provide a background to the operations that are being conducted on the ground.”

In total, 26 organizations, including each U.S. military service and two nations, comprised the JTF headquarters. Five military members from the United Kingdom supported the exercise providing an alternate perspective for operations planning, intelligence and air and ground current operations.

“I think the U.K. participants force Ninth Air Force to think about coalition from the outset -- making sure from a communications perspective they are integrated and a classification perspective they are integrated,” Royal Air Force Wing Commander Philip Holdcroft, JTF-NEO chief of future operations. “I also think the U.K. forces (the U.S. military) to have a diversity of thought -- not just way of doing business but think about how another nation might approach the problem. The U.K. benefits from this phenomenally as well. We’ll go back with an understanding of how our closest partner works, and hopefully we can bring that to bear in operations and exercises back in the U.K.”

Blue Flag was the Ninth Air Force’s first large-scale exercise after achieving initial operating capability in December. The next significant exercise on the horizon is Northern Viking, an exercise in Iceland where the Ninth Air Force will employ its full JTF headquarters capability before declaring full operational capability as a JTF headquarters. Until then, the unit will evaluate the results from JTF-NEO and build on lessons learned in preparation for future exercises and potential real-world missions.

“One of the things we’ll be doing is preparing for our role in a large exercise in the U.S. European Command area of responsibility in 2020 that will demonstrate our capability as a JTF headquarters at the full operational capability level,” Zobrist explained. “We will have a live maritime and a live air component with multi-national forces operating in the European environment. So, this (Blue Flag) exercise is critical along the path to full operational capability.”


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