ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam –
For many service members, simply comprehending the scale of the more than 200 aircraft from multiple U.S. military branches participating in exercise Valiant Shield would leave a lasting impression, but it’s the small moments in ordinary, daily action that define what a joint operation is truly about.
“Yesterday, my radio stopped being able to transmit, and on the way home I noticed an F-18 Hornet was chasing me down,” said Air Force Maj. Mathew Miller, 90th Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. “I started to turn as he rejoined me – and there I was, looking at a Marine Hornet.”
Miller wasn’t able to talk to the other pilot – but his new Marine wingman brought him all the way back to Guam. As the now-joint pair of aircraft approached Andersen, the pilots saw more examples of what Valiant Shield was all about.
“We got under the clouds, broke out over the island and there was an F-22 Raptor and another Hornet coming up for their initial approach together,” he said. “Stuff like that is really neat for me and I was pretty sure it was neat for them.”
The opportunities provided by a large-scale exercise like Valiant Shield allow aviators to interact – on the ground and in the air – and to figure out how to work out their differences, whether it’s in the way different services communicate or in their warfighting doctrine, said Air Force Maj. Kevin Bradley, an F-15 Eagle pilot assigned to the 44th Fighter Squadron, which operates out of Kadena Air Base, Japan. Valiant Shield is aimed at developing a “pre-integrated” joint force built from habitual relationships, thus closing the gaps that may exist in joint operations.
While the gaps in their common aviation language are much smaller than the expanses of open ocean that separate their runways, the greatest challenges for Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps aviators come in reconciling subtle differences, all while cruising at hundreds of miles an hour above the water.
“The way they operate off the boat (referring to a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier) is very different then how we operate,” Bradley said, referring to his maritime peers. “It’s in the schedules that they keep and the terminology that they use. We have a lot of similarities, but there is a lot of coming together and understanding what each other’s unique capabilities are and how we can put all that together into a coherent package.”
Valiant Shield also provides a unique mission planning structure due to the geographical separation of the Navy pilots on the aircraft carriers who need to participate in planning that may be taking place on shore.
The goal is for all of the pilots to be on the same page, but that’s not always possible, Miller said. That’s why it is critical to understand how each other operates – much like building muscle memory. Valiant Shield creates that muscle memory. There is always a need for flexibility to ensure the mission still gets accomplished, he added.
This need for flexibility in the face of changes – in plans, tropical weather, targets and objectives –provides an added sense of realism to the execution of Valiant Shield.
“There are a lot of things changing every single day,” Miller said. “For me personally, I think this is as close to real as you can possibly get.
“This is how we are going to get to fight in the Pacific,” he added. “We are not going to have this experience in the type of environment where we are all conveniently at the same base and same mission planning. So [here], we get people and assets from all over the place – and we are expected to fight together.”
The exercise is also a chance for the Air Force to practice war at sea scenarios, something that Airmen don’t get a chance to practice regularly, said Air Force Capt. Nicholas Trudell, joint surveillance and target attack radar system (JSTARS) mission planner and liaison officer/air battle manager assigned to Robins AFB.
“There is a perception of ‘what is the next big threat and where do we need to work on Air Force tactics to support combatant commanders across the world,’” Trudell said. “There has been a big shift towards joint operations in maritime environments…and that is what Valiant Shield is bringing us all together to do.”
For aviators from the Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force – working with Army units on the ground, as well - Valiant Shield is a look at the horizon in the literal and figurative sense – at a certain point, the sea and the sky blend, and it is tough to say quite where one ends and the other begins.
(Valiant Shield is a U.S.-only exercise integrating an estimated 18,000 Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps personnel, more than 200 aircraft and 19 surface ships, offering real-world joint operational experience to develop capabilities that provide a full range of options to defend U.S. interests and those of its allies and partners.)