By Staff Sgt. Daryl Knee, 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs / Published August 14, 2014
Senior Airman Alan Nelson watches an F-16 Fighting Falcon prepare for takeoff Aug. 12, 2014, during a bilateral training event in Souda Bay, Greece. The U.S. and Hellenic air forces prepare more than 20 aircraft launches a day for during the two-week bilateral training event. Nelson is with the 480th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, and is a native of Pensacola, Fla. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Daryl Knee)
An F-16 Fighting Falcon taxis to the end of the flightline Aug. 12, 2014, prior to its launch during a training event at Souda Bay, Greece. The U.S. and Hellenic air forces prepare more than 20 aircraft launches a day for during the two-week bilateral training event. The F-16 is assigned to the 480th Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Daryl Knee)
Pilots walk toward the flightline Aug. 12, 2014, at a training event in Souda Bay, Greece. The U.S. and Hellenic air forces prepare more than 20 aircraft launches a day for during the two-week bilateral training event. Pilots are assigned to the 480th Fighter Squadron, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Daryl Knee)
SOUDA BAY, Greece (AFNS) --
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 completed, they stepped back to view their simulated war effort against the good guys and seemed satisfied. 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 training deployment between the two nations in Souda Bay, Greece, which is taking place from Aug. 11-23.
The joint mission planners work 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, and 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. Then it’s time to act.
Before the pilots can engage their enemies in the air, they have to undergo a mass briefing. This briefing allows all people involved in the day's training to find common ground and ask further questions.
"The gameplan is almost never perfect. So we bring it up during the briefing to clarify any issues and plan more contingency operations,” said Capt. Dustin Cochlin, a 480th Fighter Squadron pilot and a native of Belton, Texas. “(We bring up questions like) 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 the 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. During the bilateral training, the 480th FS is partnering with the Hellenic air force’s 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-16 Fighting Falcons equipped to drop bombs.
Cochlin said the pilots of the 480th FS embrace the unique role of SEAD. In fact, the 480th FS’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. "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 four-ship formation, so they’re 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 the 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."