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Iron Hand 21-08 tests rapid response during degraded comms

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  • By 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
The 20th Fighter Wing tested its ability to deploy as a lead wing and support combat operations from a remote, contested environment as part of agile combat employment during exercise Iron Hand 21-08, Aug. 23-26.

The exercise, designed to simulate ACE operations, tested the Airmen’s ability to generate sorties, establish effective command and control and incorporate base operating support elements at two locations. An Air Force initiative, ACE requires Airmen to accelerate change to successfully provide air dominance as a smaller, rapidly deployable, responsively tactical force.

“Our peer-to peer competitors are challenging the way we operate and we need to continue accelerating change in line with the National Defense Strategy to maintain decisional and air combat superiority,” said Lt. Col. Adam Thornton, 20th Air Expeditionary Wing chief of staff. “The lead wing and ACE-concept empower Airmen at all levels to create and present forces that can troubleshoot during potential intermittent communication outages with higher headquarters, maneuver freely with a smaller footprint and maintain unpredictability against any would-be adversary.”

To better understand how a lead wing can maintain a tactical advantage while seamlessly working with different locations, the 20th Fighter Wing partnered with the 505th Command and Control Wing prior to the exercise. During the two-day session, Weasels received academics on how a lead wing can integrate into an air operations center and practiced executing conditions based authorities during tabletop scenarios where communication was degraded by enemy forces.

Critical to establishing secure communications was the 51st Combat Communication Squadron’s involvement. The team built and integrated various communication nodes and mediums at both locations to keep leadership connected to the fight and ensure personnel accountability and welfare.

With this knowledge and support, Weasels created a command and control function by implementing an A-Staff responsible for generating sorties, moving personnel and resources, solving maintenance and security issues and coordinating with various locations and stakeholders to make well-rounded decisions during emerging situations. While the structure was new for the wing, the agile teams executing the missions had prepared by leveraging lessons learned from previous multi-capable Airmen exercises and by empowering Airmen to find new ways to complete their job.

“We are asking Airmen to change the way they think and to recognize what they should be able to solve at their level when objectives are changing and communication is lost with their counterparts,” said Lt. Kevin Stolle, A4 civil engineer lead. “One of the most important aspects of this model is it lets the Airmen shape the future they want to see, to break down the barriers they may find frustrating and to help us see where we can better integrate our capabilities together in an increasingly uncertain environment.”

For example, to aid in creating a common operations picture, the 20th Civil Engineer Squadron implemented a new tool that merges operations and support elements and is available in all locations. This platform allowed for leadership to see real time personnel accountability, communication and infrastructure challenges, and information on aircraft status.

“Iron Hand 21-08 was the 20th FW’s first attempt at executing ACE as an inclusive team. Previously, single organizations have practiced specific components of ACE (I.e. ‘blocking’ & ‘tackling’), but this is the first time we’ve had the full team take the field.” said Maj. Matthew Feeman, 20th Fighter Wing lead ACE planner. “ACE represents a tectonic shift in how the air force projects power and involves all Airmen from virtually every AFSC. Needless to say, the team has a long way to go, but we have been pleased to see the progress we’ve made since planning began in April. In total, we generated 30 sorties in support of ground forces, all in an extremely hot and austere environment. It’s a great start.”