AFAFRICA tests high-stress evacuation, operational abilities

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Members of 17th Air Force (Air Forces Africa) participated in their first in-house exercise since the unit stood up Oct. 1, 2008.

From Feb. 8 - 21, Exercise Objective Lens 2010 tested the unit's ability to plan for and execute a short-notice non-combatant evacuation operation in Africa. However, unlike the traditional exercises of gas masks and deployment lines, the 17th AF maintained a different focus for a different mission.

During the first week, the planning staff conducted Operational Planning Team meetings to identify a mission analysis, potential courses of action for response and force requirements to evacuate 8,000 people from a fictitious country. Week two put the approved plan into action and tested the 617th Air and Space Operation Center's execution of their command and control capabilities.

The exercise was designed to test how well the Air Force Forces Staff and 617th AOC transitioned from planning to execution since taking the lead over airspace within the combined joint operating area-Horn of Africa, explained Lt. Col. Steven Hill, 17th AF chief of exercise training division and lead planner of the exercise.

"We generated Objective Lens 2010 to place stress on our system in order to identify areas of strength as well as areas we need to focus on for improvement," he said. "The most difficult undertaking was crafting a framework to build scenarios for the participants."

Maj. Gen. Ronald Ladnier, since becoming the Joint Forces Air Component Commander for U.S. Africa Command Jan. 5, also used the exercise to test the capabilities of the 617th AOC, which stood up June 1, 2009 and is still working at initial operating capability. The 617th AOC acts as the hub for coordination, integration and deconfliction of airspace on the African continent. A daily "playbook" for all U.S. military flights within the combined joint operating area-Horn of Africa is created everyday allowing more focused command and control of air operations on the continent. This gives 17th AF the ability to manage the proper use of air resources, increase safety and improve efficiency of air operations.

"The 617th has such a significant role as the lead AOC over HOA airspace," said General Ladnier. "We have come a long way in such a short amount of time. I am incredibly impressed with their performance. Vice Admiral Harry Harris, Sixth Fleet Commander, also visited us this week and added his praise for our work in the Horn of Africa."

To assist with the exercise, 17th AF called on Air Force senior advisor Lt. Gen. (ret.) Robert "Rod" Bishop for ways to improve. He noted that the unit really has two hats during this project - creating an exercise and also participating in one.

"I applaud 17th AF for undertaking this task," General Bishop said. "17th AF has a different mission set when you think of the AF at large and it's a huge challenge. I didn't see any negatives."

General Bishop also gave kudos to 17th Air Force personnel as they continued working through the weekend.

"The enthusiasm has been remarkable," he said. "I give credit to 17th AF for wanting to learn and expand their horizons. On behalf of the 505th [Command and Control Wing at Hurlburt Field, Fla.] we want to thank 17th AF for letting us be a part of raising the bar."

OBJECTIVE LENS was "started from scratch" in November 2009 and was still being tailored right up to the commencement of the exercise, explained Colonel Hill, who was also the "white cell" lead, simulating the Higher Headquarters element and providing the scenario injects.

"As the exercise progressed, we would have to defer some injects and craft new ones based on the response of the participants," Colonel Hill said. "This was a wildcard the exercise control group had limited control of. We formulated how the participant might respond, but once the scenario was in play, it became a game of role play as we responded to the participants actions."

The success of the exercise can also be attributed to several units outside of 17th Air Force that supported the event.

"There were so many folks who made this exercise a success," said Colonel Hill. "Our brethren from the 110th Air Operations Group, (Michigan Air National Guard), played a major role in planning and execution, the Warrior Preparation Center (in Einseidlerhof, Germany) played host to the exercise control group and folks flew in from the USAF Expeditionary Center Mobility Operations School Detachment 1 at Hurlburt Field, Fla., to support the exercise cell as our tanker and airlift subject matter experts. Their support was crucial as we began to inject events into the 617th AOC."

AOC Commander Col. Andy Redmond said that he was pleased to see how his people rose to the occasion to take on the comprehensive exercise.

"Our folks worked hard over the President's day weekend to prepare for the execution phase of the exercise, and their hard work resulted in an outstanding performance, he said. "We proved that we're ready to execute a complex air operation when required to support U.S. AFRICOMs mission."