Attention on the Floor: Marines take charge of CAOC-N

9 Aug 2019 | Lance Corporal Levi Guerra 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

The hallway is narrow, dimly lit and - for the most part - silent. It is the calm before the storm that awaits. One right and left turn later, as the hallway opens up into a high ceiling area known as the combat operations division or “The Floor,” bustling with the unusual uniformity of multiple military branches working side by side in a joint coalition training event. Screens flash with information and military members communicate information back and forth. The occasional call of “ATTENTION ON THE FLOOR“ can be heard loud and clear over the voices below, and, for the first time in recent history, at the helm of it all stands a United States Marine.

 This is Red Flag 19-3 and it is not your typical Red Flag experience.

“This is the first time where we’ve had Marines as the lead Air Operations Center,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Julie ‘Spaz’ Sposito-Salceies, the commanding officer of the 505th Test Squadron. “We’ve had Marine participation before, but not in such a leadership role where they were the ones that integrated Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, Coalition, in a large-scale exercise. That is so much more difficult than people understand and the Marines knocked it out of the park.”

For Red Flag 19-3, Marines from Marine Tactical Air Command Squadron (MTACS) 38, Marine Air Control Group (MACG) 38, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), comprised the core group of Marines leading the Combined Air Operations Center Nellis (CAOC-N) on Nellis Air Force Base, July 7 to August 3, 2019. The group was augmented by other units across both 2nd and 3rd MAW.

 Red Flag began in 1975 to provide pilots ten simulated combat flights before performing combat missions during the Vietnam era. Red Flag has since evolved into two parts centered around one theme; preparing Airmen, Sailors, Soldiers, Marines and Coalition forces for tomorrow’s fight. The tactical portion, in which pilots perform the simulated combat flights, and the operational side, where military members in the CAOC-N train to control agencies that fight the war.

 The CAOC is made up of military members across the Department of Defense, to include coalition members, who work side by side to coordinate and ensure execution of air combat operations in an integrated manner. Trainers, known as “white team”, act as the enemy and put CAOC-N members through both real and simulated complex scenarios guided by subject matter experts, to sharpen their decision making skills.

“War is dynamic and we make a plan for everything, but nothing ever goes as planned,” explained U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Peyton Tomblin Jr., the squadron superintendent of the 505th Test Squadron. “At Red Flag, you’re just going through the motions as planned, like the CAOC receiving a command from the Coalition Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC) for a rescue mission. And then the white team, which builds up the simulations and acts as the enemy in this exercise, throws things in there that are not planned. So it’s practice, practice makes perfect, and at Red Flag we practice flexibility, because flexibility is the key to air superiority.”

The Marines leading the CAOC at Red Flag had experience running a Marine Tactical Air Command Center (TACC), a smaller, similar version of the CAOC. They had led exercises such as Steel Knight 19, Pacific Blitz 19, Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) Courses, and Integrated Training Exercises (ITX). What made the opportunity to lead the CAOC so valuable was the higher level of operational assets, dynamic pieces and joint-coalition based training that Red Flag drives.

“To get us here in the first place it started with a question,” explained Marine Corps Maj. Nicole F. Nicholson, an air command and control officer with Marine Air Control Group (MACG) 38 and the first Marine Chief of Combat Operations for CAOC-N, the lead officer on the exercise. “I knew Marines had supported Red Flag in other capacities before as one of the tactical units and we knew the CAOC existed so we asked the question, ‘Aren’t there spots in the CAOC?”

They started by sending a few Marines to Red Flag 19-1, explained Nicholson. They arrived and participated in the training, where it proved to be a fantastic learning opportunity. After the positive feedback from both the Marines and their Air Force hosts, planning and preparation commenced for the challenge of leading the CAOC during Red Flag 19-3.

 The 37 Marines who arrived at the CAOC-N had never before worked in an Air Operations Center (AOC), putting them at a disadvantage compared to their counterparts. While some would be intimidated by the challenge, the Marines were motivated by it. As Royal Australian Air Force Flight Lt. Steven L. Booth, an assistant operations officer for MTACS-38 explained, the Marines brought an aggressive tenacity that led them to success.

“The Marines bring an incredible level of enthusiasm and passion,” said Booth. “Many of the Marines sitting on the Combat Ops floor have been thrown into billets and scenarios that are far from their standard problem set, and through lateral problem solving and brute force have they been able to overcome challenges.”

One of the initial training challenges that every branch encounters when running the CAOC-N is the diversity among the service branches and coalition partners. Red Flag gives individuals the unique opportunity to train alongside their brothers and sisters from around the world to strengthen their interoperability. The Marine Corps is America’s 911 rapid-response force. While 3rd MAW can and will continue to deploy in support of combat operations as part of I Marine Expeditionary Force, it is critical that the Marines of MACG-38 develop relationships with their teammates in other branches.

“The cross pollination between forces from different nations is incredibly valuable at all levels,” Booth explained. “At the tactical level, I can share my knowledge and experience and at the same time fully understand and integrate with a multi-functioning service that does procedures in a different way. Both parties learn a lot from each other and revise their own tactics, techniques and procedures to effectively create a more absolute and resolute way of solving problems.”

During the final awards ceremony, where subject matter experts broke down how the Marines performed, one theme became apparently clear: The Marines had far exceeded expectations for Red Flag 19-3.

“The Marines are very outspoken, direct in a very positive light and they are truth tellers,” said Sposito-Salceies. “They don’t tell me what they think I want to hear and I really appreciate the candidness and the ability to have a good and productive dialogue with them. They brought new ideas into the CAOC, such as the execution checklist that we will be implementing for future iterations.”

The training conducted in the CAOC-N for Red Flag 19-3 was an invaluable experience for the Marines and other branches involved. Conducting realistic training and participating in exercises enables 3rd MAW to remain ready to respond to emergency crisis’s around the globe.

“The Marine TACC is scalable and flexible enough to assume the responsibilities of a CAOC and enable a Joint Force Air Component Commander," said U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Grant Clester, the commanding officer of MTACS-38. "Red Flag gives us the edge to conduct large scale air operations with joint and coalition forces in any clime and place."

 MTACS-38’s opportunity to lead the exercise resulted in incredible training for the Marines participating and an experience they will never forget. Through strength of will and training the Marines have proven they have what it takes to not only perform in these types of advanced aerial operations but the skill and knowledge to perform above and beyond expectations.

“I had a lot of confidence coming here that we could do it, but that was just confidence,” said Nicholson. “And you can only hope that you have prepared the Marines enough to be able to perform at this level. So, to see them blossoming in this environment and doing better in a lot of regards or on par with other CAOC’s in the past is outstanding. For some of them, this is their first time setting foot in this type of environment and I’m proud of their work.”