Greece, US plan for successful air training

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Daryl Knee
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
They had been in the room for nearly six hours.

The planners scoured the map of Greece, searching for just the right area to place an enemy missile defense system. Or an enemy airfield. Or one of hundreds of other highly defended military targets.

They evaluated the joint capabilities of the U.S. and Greek fighter pilots and decided where to funnel their attention. They developed ambushes, decoys and distractions.

Once complete, they stepped back in satisfaction to view their simulated war effort against the good guys. They'd have to wait until the morning to see if their plan would prove too difficult for the next batch of pilots in training.

The U.S. and Greek mission planners have been creating scenarios for the flying training deployment between the two nations in Souda Bay, Greece, from Aug. 11-23, 2014.

The joint mission planners work hours every day to plan and coordinate all the training objectives for the following day's training. They create in-depth scenarios that include a specific mission -- bomb this target, escort this aircraft through hostile air -- and then plot how the enemies will respond. The teams are assigned with the blue team as the good guys, the red team as the bad.

The planners create what is called an air tasking order, or ATO, for the blue team. This is simulated to have come from senior military leaders calling the pilots to execute a mission. It's now time to act.

But before the pilots can engage their enemies in the air, they have to undergo a mass briefing. This briefing allows all of the people involved in the day's training to find common ground and ask further questions.

"The gameplan is almost never perfect," said U.S. Air Force Capt. Dustin Cochlin, 480th Fighter Squadron pilot and native of Belton, Texas. "So we bring it up during the briefing to clarify any issues and plan more contingency operations ... do we have a tanker in the air with us? What happens if it can't refuel us? We'd have less time in the air, then, so does that impact the training objective?

"There's a lot that goes into these flights," he continued.

The briefing leaders and experts discuss those issues along with other items such as weather patterns, information detailing the current threat assessment and training rules. The blue team does not share the communications system with the red team, so the mission planners place altitude limitations to each group to prevent any in-flight collisions.

"Training rules are written in blood," he said. "We follow them for a reason."

With the briefing out of the way, the pilots can now prepare to launch their aircraft, he said. In this bilateral training, the 480th FS is partnering with the Hellenic air force 115th Combat Wing's 340th and 343rd Fighter Squadrons. The joint environment allows each squadron to bring something new to the fight.

One of the 480th FS's primary roles is the suppression of enemy air defenses, or SEAD, Cochlin said. The pilots specialize in flying first into combat to neutralize enemy threats to allow a striker time to finish its mission.

"Striker" is a generalized term used to indicate the airframe assigned the primary task of the mission. For air-to-surface missions, the striker, in this case, is a Hellenic air force group of F-16s equipped to drop bombs.

Cochlin said the pilots of the 480th embrace the unique role of SEAD. In fact, the 480th's motto is "First In, Last Out" and explains the trust the pilots need in each other to complete their missions without leaving an Airman behind.

"Everybody is synched up," he said about how each person in an F-16 four-ship formation has a specific duty. "From the very beginning, we're taught to build trust in our fellow pilots through a very strict adherence to roles and responsibilities of the four-ship. We're not just some random gang of motorcycle riders in the air."

Each pilot is trained to perform each mission of the formation, so that it's all interchangeable. The U.S. Air Force uses this technique to ensure all pilots across the service can seamlessly integrate at any time.

"We may still make execution errors, but that's how we learn," Cochlin said. "We'll never get better if we don't test our abilities in an environment outside of our comfort zone."

Once the ATO has been executed, the pilots return to the base and review the shot evaluation of each aircraft. This is a real-time playback of everything that happened, which allows the pilots to see the accuracy of their assault. They gather the pertinent data and meet with the Greek pilots during a debriefing period to compile everything into an overall assessment.

Using that assessment as a guide, the mission planners create a "lessons learned" document that explains the strengths and weaknesses of each flying mission.

"The big overall picture is that we take all the little pieces we learned and use them to better and more efficiently execute the mission in the future," Cochlin said.

"Things are always changing around the globe," he continued. "We never know when our allies will be flying with us, so we train continuously. The world is a volatile place, so it pays to be ready."

The training continues until Aug. 23 with nearly 125 more sorties planned.