US rushed air war planners in Europe ahead of Russian invasion

As the 82nd Airborne Division and thousands of other American soldiers arrived in Europe earlier this year, an Air Force unit quietly arrived behind the scenes in Germany.

The 505th Command and Control Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla., is the only Air Force organization that has the big picture view of how troops move through airspace in times of war. In January, he brought that expertise to the 603rd Air Operations Center at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, to help lead the US response to building up Russian forces on its Ukrainian border.

Five airmen who led those operations described their work to Air Force Times before the six-month war on Wednesday.

“As we moved from steady state [operations] to the crisis, and so was the problem we had to solve,” said Col. Adam Marshall, the center’s acting vice commander.

AOCs act as the nerve center of military air campaigns, helping to orchestrate when and where Airmen depart on missions and to track an enemy’s aerial movements. Some experts have observed that the lack of a similar organization in Russia contributed to his disjointed campaign.

But in late January, Col. Trey Coleman, commander of the 505th Command and Control Wing, said it became clear Ramstein would need help.

Air operations centers normally lack the personnel to handle crisis planning, and Ramstein wanted reinforcements so he could meet the growing needs of Europe at war, Coleman said. Moreover, the base was still recovering from several months spent supporting the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the subsequent humanitarian response.

“The looming crisis between Ukraine and Russia necessitated a transition to round-the-clock operations … which was unsustainable with permanently assigned personnel” at the Air Operations Center and US Headquarters Air Force in Europe, said USAFE strategy planner Lt. Col. Benjamin Lee.

Typically, Ramstein Air Operations Center, which serves USAFE and African Air Forces, can call on select Air National Guard units in support: the New York Guard’s 152nd Air Operations Group and the 217th Michigan Guard Air Operations Group.

The Michiganders arrived to help coordinate air missions with US Africa Command; the New Yorkers were tied to another deployment.

Mobilizing other Guard units to work with the USAFE would take too long, so the Air Operations Center put out a call for active duty units with enough experience to help. The 505th was a “natural match,” Marshall said.

Thirty-five active duty airmen – 12 officers and 23 enlisted – began going overseas on 2 February. The war started three weeks later.

“The team working on the current operations floor ensured that all aircraft, ground crews and leadership were briefed when Russia launched its first offensive weapon,” the Air Force said in a statement. a press release in June.

A heavy workload

Russian aggression and the eventual invasion of Ukraine added new complexities to typical AOC work. In addition to the usual Air Force Air Policing flights and routine training in Europe, Airmen in the Operations Center had to juggle a higher volume of air and missile defense planning. , flyovers to show America’s commitment to NATO nations, flights of aircraft capable of nuclear jet attacks to keep Russian weapons at bay and more.

The AOC was primarily aimed at preventing Russia from targeting a NATO ally, assisting NATO countries and Ukrainians, and supporting the humanitarian aid response.

Planners also had to take into account “agile combat employment” – less traditional operations which, while intended to leave Russia and others guessing what NATO would do next, are more spontaneous and more difficult to manage. .

In some cases, the AOC has started from scratch when defining new operations, equipment, and people needed when and how to complete a mission. These plans were approved by then USAFE Commander General Jeffrey Harrigian.

Airmen “helped develop critical concepts of operations to bolster the U.S. contribution to NATO defense along the Eastern Front,” including distributing F-35A Lightning II fighter jets across Europe, according to the Air Force.

They also worked with NATO on a communication plan in European airspace, which reduced the risk of “tactical miscalculations”, the service said.

” We have developed [operational concepts] for… airbases, forward positioned air police fighters, and even to provide outreach and recovery options for senior leadership engagements, including [Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken] in Ukraine,” Lee added.

Many operational plans remain classified.

Test new technology

After several years of pushing for more advanced military technology that comprehensively shows the state of play, from air to cyberspace, the war in Ukraine also offers Airmen a real-world laboratory to test out command and control improvements. control.

They brought several mission planning tools developed by the Air Force’s Kessel Run software team, Marshall said. This piqued NATO’s interest in the same applications, and the alliance also brought some of the tools into European operational units.

Many of these software applications help visualize what is happening around a theater of war. This has helped the coalition of troops from multiple countries stay on the same page, even though they don’t always speak English.

“Krados”, another recently introduced software, helped create the main air attack plan each day.

“It was a useful way to visually represent asset allocation, but unfortunately it wasn’t mature enough to produce an air tasking order,” Lee said.

NATO doesn’t have its own version of Krados, however, Americans have to use older, slower ways to share information.

A rapid reaction force?

In the future, the 505th could transform into a quick reaction force to support command and control centers around the world.

The wing is discussing those possibilities with higher headquarters, Coleman said.

All the AOCs, and more broadly the American air components in the world, are understaffed. Trying to fully staff each of these organizations, from USAFE to Pacific Air Forces and others, can be “grossly inefficient” and a waste of resources, he argued.

“Why not create a shock force that stays current in every theater…and can react quickly when needed?” said Coleman. “When this intervention force is not in use, they can conduct training.”

He thinks this option might be a better way to wage war than training air components to handle more C2 operations on their own.

“The ability of 505 CCW to quickly transition its operational planning expertise to a [theater] in need was repeatedly identified as a key factor in USAFE’s success in the early stages of the conflict,” Lee agreed.

But, he noted, those deployments can only last about 45 days before the task of assisting an AOC begins to disrupt training courses for new generations of command and control Airmen. Advancements in technology can alleviate some of this pressure by automating certain tasks and sharing information more widely.

In the meantime, the wing will incorporate its lessons learned into its training program and home exercises, said Lt. Col. John Staudt, who served as the 505th’s mission commander in Germany. The events of 2022 will shape an effort to overhaul most of these educational courses.

Yet Staff Sgt. Conner Kincaid, who oversaw the tactical data links that share battlefield information while deployed in Germany, says their training at Hurlburt has already been very helpful.

“From my perspective, the main lesson learned from this deployment is that our in-garrison training at the 505th is working,” he said.

Rachel Cohen joined Air Force Times as a senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in Air Force Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy, The Frederick News-Post (Md.), The Washington Post, and others. .

Mary I. Bruner