Defenders ‘reach for stars’ during inaugural Defender Flag exercise

  • Published
  • By By Kjäll Gopaul
  • AFSFC Information Technology & Communications

FORT BLISS, Texas – In October, security forces teams from each Air Force major command converged here for the inaugural Defender Flag 2023 – the enterprise’s first full, mission-profile field exercise – and the career field’s legacy skills competition Defender Challenge. 

The field exercise showcased many events like ground-breaking command and control (C2) enablers including multi-million-dollar command posts and multi-billon dollar satellite-based communications capabilities.

Col. Phillip G. Born, commander of the Air Force Security Forces Center, underscored the value of mission command capabilities that empower the ability to execute the agile combat employment scheme of maneuver. 

“The past few decades and our understanding of the future fight have revealed a need to operate in non-linear, non-contiguous battlespace while at risk,” the colonel said. 

For the Defender Flag scenario, planners widely arrayed security forces exercise participants across a large exercise battlefield using air-land, air assault, airborne and ground infiltration means, while demanding C2 enablers kept pace with this employment. 

“Our Defender Flag exercise scenario required the agile combat employment and rapid re-positioning of very small units across hundreds of square miles of Fort Bliss,” Born said. “Our communications team sought to demonstrate ‘Digital Now’ with a taste of ‘Digital Future,’ to ensure consistent C2 and they hit the mark spectacularly.”

Consistent with Born’s “Digital Future” mandate, Defender Flag saw the first operational use of the Department of Defense’s new Starshield capability. 

“The satellite-based communications service provides robust broadband commercial internet to previously unsupported users, often in austere and remote locations,” said Clare Hopper, U.S. Space Force Commercial Satellite Communications Office (CSCO) chief.

“The capabilities was a difference maker for Defender Flag, and the demand across the DOD for Low Earth Orbit service is rapidly increasing. The Space Systems Command Proliferated LEO contract, managed by CSCO, connects the entire DOD to a variety of industry partners who are leading and delivering cutting-edge solutions.

“We’re very pleased that Starshield was so successful for this mission and look forward to future opportunities with our DOD and industry partners,” she said.

The capability supported the upper tactical internet of our two critical C2 nodes – the Base Defense Operations Center (BDOC) and Joint Defense Operations Center (JDOC) – linking the 2 nodes with each other across 80 kilometers, and with other computer networks and telephone system resources.

“We conducted our first use of the satellite network in early September as part of the Defender Flag communications exercise and it worked flawlessly with the BDOC, so we expanded its use to both the BDOC and JDOC for the Defender Flag full-mission-profile exercise in October,” said Anthony Smalls, AFSFC Enterprise Information Technology Services chief. “By pairing it with cloud-based services, we integrated Air Force Reserve Command’s ‘Desktop Anywhere’ app to provide the typical unclassified office productivity experience, Air Force Research Lab’s ‘Secure View’ app to provide SIPRNet resources over unclassified wi-fi, low-cost wi-fi telephones to provide hardlines and we probably had the fastest commercial internet connection on Fort Bliss.” 

Normally, a BDOC or JDOC would receive broadband network support from an augmenting three-person communications team with a 6-foot satellite dish.  Starshield provides comparable capabilities with a low-maintenance, pillow-sized antenna. 

“By decreasing our support footprint, it really improves agile combat employment. Quite simply, almost every screen in both command posts would have been dark if not for that capability,” Smalls said.

Command-and-control platforms came to the forefront early on as the $3.2 million JDOC command post saw its first operational use. 

“The JDOC performed double duty as the mission scenario’s wing operations center and as the overall exercise control office, coordinating the support functions of both Defender Flag and the concurrent Defender Challenge skills competition,” said Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Williams, tactical communications integrator at AFSFC’s Desert Defender Ground Combat Readiness Training Center at Fort Bliss. 

With a 14-screen data wall, 16 workstations and a miniature conference room, the Science Applications International Corporation-produced JDOC served as a robust 24-hour watch cell, tracking all activities and integrating the staff. 

“This was a real trial-by-fire for the JDOC,” Williams said. “We had turned on its power for the very first time just days before the communications exercise in September and it performed very well. Having the JDOC staff rehearse their battle staff functions for a full week before the full-mission-profile exercise in October benefited everyone.”

The field exercise also showcased advances in the Defender community’s use of the lower tactical internet which included radios, tactical datalinks and smart devices for squads. 

“Defender Flag spotlighted the Defender community’s first independent access of a new tactical satellite system,” said Tech. Sgt. Denton Anderson, Desert Defender GCRTC communication integrator. “Earlier exercises relied heavily on L3Harris Corporation providing pre-configured radios for squads to access the satellite network. For Defender Flag, our unit coordinated access with the Air Force Mobility Command spectrum management office and USSF to provision our own deployable communications assets for the mission. Impressively enough, our own SSgt. Williams was the first Airman to use one of these radios.”

The new satellite capability provides improved service to the warfighter, Anderson said. 

“Previous generations of tactical satellites are difficult to access for lower-priority continental U.S. exercises and are primarily limited to voice communications,” he said. “The new Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellite constellation supports both voice and data.”

Prior to the exercise, AFSFC successfully partnered with Systems Technology Forum Limited to create a hybrid radio network – linking local tactical datalink users near the on-base BDOC with distant tactical satellite users on remote notional islands – using just authorized military equipment. 

“Bridging these two networks to see the ‘blue dot’ location markers of the different squads radios and their chat messages on the BDOC’s WinTAK situational awareness suite was a big win for us,” Anderson said.