Razor Talon Sharpens Services’ Synergy

June 1, 2013
By Rita Boland

Integrating air land, and sea forces on a monthly basis saves money and creates continuity of operations.

Technology experts at the U.S. Air Force’s 4th Fighter Wing based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, are networking joint units up and down the East Coast to provide unique training opportunities for the modern military. Through their efforts, advancements are being made to further the Air-Sea Battle Concept, simultaneously improving coalition interoperability. The events allow for interservice and international training without strain on organizations’ budgets.

These Razor Talon exercises are monthly large-force exercises that have grown significantly since their first iteration in March 2011. They evolved in part from an inability of units, because of timing or funding, always to send their assets to the major exercise of that type—Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. “We needed a large-force exercise to essentially grow mission commanders,” explains Col. Michael Koscheski, USAF, 4th Operations Group commander. Though units from the East Coast can receive world-class training by attending annual, large-scale events, the home station training offered through Razor Talon ensures they can keep up-to-date. Sometimes units miss out for years on attending other exercises because of costs or mission schedules. Razor Talon planners lay out the yearly schedule for their monthly events, and groups see when they are available to participate based on their operations.

The events take place for a couple of days at basically no extra cost to Air Force units because the flights are considered home station flying. These savings mean Razor Talon can offer special benefits in the sequestration environment. “[The Defense Department] is looking for cost-effective solutions, and this is the perfect model,” Col. Koscheski says. The costs come out of normal operating budgets without the need to pay for temporary duty, lodging or moving equipment. Money saved on travel expenses can be funneled into future military capability, and the colonel believes funds spent on secure technology will repay for themselves quickly.

Since the initial iteration, more Air Force units have joined in along with Navy and Marine Corps organizations. During the February 2013 event, a squadron from the United Kingdom took part, marking the first event with international participation. In total, more than 72 aircraft, including various types of fighters, attended the February Razor Talon, which was the largest up to that time, with 66 units taking part. Typically 30 to 50 units attend. Col. Koscheski says almost all fighter units on the East Coast participate regularly along with a Reserves-unit refueling wing.

The many involved platforms expand the horizons of personnel through experiences not available at other places. For example, Air Force pilots have opportunities to hear ship communications over the radio. Knowledge of sister-service practices better prepares everyone for battle.

The 4th Fighter Wing started and runs Razor Talon. Its location near the Atlantic Ocean has opened extra benefits for exercise participants. As the military shifts its focus to the largely maritime Asia-Pacific region, troops can work out the emerging concepts of air-sea battle cross-domain initiatives. The exercise naturally has evolved to emerge as a leader for exploring the integration of the various assets in this type of warfare construct.

Technology integration is a major factor in the exercises. Three ranges on the East Coast tie into the events, including the Mid-Atlantic Electronic Warfare Range, which has emitters and other capabilities to simulate features such as enemy air defense and jamming. Coordinators have to incorporate those factors along with managing multiple classifications among the various partners. Col. Koscheski says that harmonizing the different infrastructure and link requirements based on the classification levels becomes a great challenge. Each service additionally has optimized networks to fit their specific needs. “It makes it very difficult to integrate networks between weapons systems,” the colonel explains. Personnel are using gateways and workarounds to synch up maritime, air and land systems. As more information is piped across networks, more difficulties arise requiring new material solutions.

Often, exercise personnel have to come up with ad hoc solutions to solve their technical challenges, including tasks as simple as finding a conference call line after a video teleconference (VTC) connection was unexpectedly unavailable. Lt. Col. Paul Birch, USAF, commander, 4th Operations Support Squadron, explains, “What we have here is a Petri dish of high-energy captains and majors who really want to make this exercise happen.” Through the exercises, decision makers have realized that they remain unfamiliar with what real joint domain command and control is. For example, the Air Force is still working out how to put surface vessels on its network, a task integral to the Air-Sea Battle Concept.

Personnel are learning to solve such challenges as they go, and the services are learning about their priorities and what interoperability means in the real world. Col. Birch says a robust communications network allows the geographic separation necessary on the battlefield. He adds that the Air-Sea Battle Concept envisions capable enemies that will require the United States and its partners to bring their full resources to bear on the battlefield to ensure victory and avoid fratricide. “The network and the way we’ve developed our weapons systems means our cross-network solutions are going to be a big part of how this is enabled,” he states.

Razor Talon organizers require a plethora of technologies to pull off their events. For mission planning, they employ Defense Connect Online chat, which they also use on the day of execution on the nonclassified networks. Maj. Ronen Segal, USAF, chief of fighter scheduling for the 4th Fighter Wing, says the technology allows officials to see activities in real time and to provide updates. Commanders receive information more quickly and can make decisions based on more timely updates. Leading up to event execution, planners send information to participants via SharePoint.

For some air-to-ground target taskings, personnel use My Internet Relay Chat, or MIRC, which is similar to a capability used in contingency operations overseas now. A premier technology in the exercise is Link 16. Crews employ it to task airborne targets digitally. Maj. Segal explains that Link 16 essentially allows a comprehensive view of what all flying aircraft are doing. Putting everyone on the same network is an immense challenge, he continues, but eventually participants understand the requirements and can tap into the technology.

Maj. Segal explains that some, though not all, processes are fairly standardized, allowing any units in the continental United States to plug and play into the exercise. Technical limitations such as ensuring access to various network sites have to be overcome, but that can be handled relatively quickly. Typically, international groups fly with a host unit that takes care of a lot of the coordination though classification challenges crop up in such situations.

Because Razor Talon occurs each month, participants and planners enjoy a continuity not available through less frequent events. Staff look at the lessons learned from the previous exercise and apply them to the next one. They also ask participating units if they have special interest areas or items and tailor the events to try to meet those needs while building in flexibility.

Moving forward, even more partners are expected to take part in the training opportunities. This summer, a group from the French air force is scheduled to attend Red Flag and then stop on the East Coast for Razor Talon on the way home. Additional U.S. units continue to sign up as well, and once organizations take part, they tend to want to continue. Col. Birch explains that these groups then tell other units, resulting in a continual expansion of the program. Organizers want to find a way to include the Army in the future, possibly through missions such as search and rescue, aviation and special operations forces.

The various additions come with extra challenges for the folks at Seymour Johnson. Many units want to practice taking down enemy weapons systems only they are equipped to handle. Planners then have to figure out how to incorporate those activities into Razor Talon. The electronic range serves as a real asset for making that possible.

According to Maj. Segal, planners send a message to their contacts to let them know dates on which the exercises are occurring and ask them what type of assets they want to send. Then, officials can develop their scenarios. The result is short-term deadlines because they usually only know who will take part about a week ahead of commencement. To accommodate the tight timeline, the exercise scenario is designed to be easy to replicate on a monthly basis.

The 4th Fighter Wing is eager to keep growing its events with units from the East Coast or with coalition partners who can find an East Coast sponsor. Participants take part out of installations from as far south as Florida, as far north as Massachusetts and as far west as Oklahoma. However, Maj. Segal believes units farther west probably would benefit from starting similar events on the Pacific Coast. In addition, “We are absolutely interested in any coalition partners that would like to join the exercise,” the major states. “We’ve never turned down anyone who wanted to participate.” The goal of Razor Talon is to train like forces fight, and in the field, the various nations are going to stand side by side. An understanding of capabilities and limitations should benefit everyone.

Industry members looking to become involved in Razor Talon have plenty of opportunities as well. First, planners are working on the concept of operations development for air-sea battle cross-domain development, which has to do with integrating datalink networks and networks in general. The private sector can help with this and with material components. Razor Talon officials want to integrate the air, sea, land and even space networks they use. “Typically we have not done that in the local area,” Col. Koscheski explains. Other options for industry include developing more realistic and easier training infrastructure and secure VTC debrief capabilities and data mining. Officials also will need the capability to handle the many more units expected to become participants in the coming months.

Maj. Segal sees several technology changes for future events, including the integration of many of the systems used for tracking aircraft; assessing airborne weapons; and consolidating facilities that allow the white force to see how a battle panned out. The wing is looking at a concept of a war room that takes various technologies such as Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation, Federal Aviation Administration radar feeds and Link 16, enabling officials to build a 3-D picture of the battlespace. Planners also want to incorporate a VTC capability among Air Force, Army and Navy units such that they can all operate at the same classification, dial into the same network and communicate.


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