VOLCANEX 19 - a Command Post Exercise designed to train a multinational C2 element formed by the EAG nations’ Force Protection forces, took place at the UK’s Synthetic Complex Air-Ground Environment (S-CAGE) facility at RAF Honington from 5-17 May. MS&T’s Dim Jones went along for an inside look.

As the name suggests, the European Air Group (EAG) is self-evidently not part of NATO. What was less apparent, at least to me, is that neither does it belong to the EU, although it liaises and cooperates with both NATO and the EDA as well as with many other multinational defence organisations. The EAG is a multi-national organisation established in 1995 through an Inter-Governmental Agreement as the Franco-British EAG. Subsequently when, in 1998, the enlargement began with addition of Italy as a partner, it became the EAG and, in 1999, Germany, Belgium, Spain and The Netherlands also joined.

The EAG has a small HQ at RAF High Wycombe; its steering group is at national Chief of Staff level, and its Director one of the partner nations’ Chief of Air Staff (CAS) on a two-year rotational basis, currently Italian. Likewise, the EAG Deputy Director and Chief of Staff posts are rotational, with tenures of two and three years respectively; the present incumbents are German and French.

The staff comprises 21 officers, three from each nation, and the HQ operates on a budget of about £150K per year; forces assigned to any particular task would be contributed and paid for by the participating nations, and the costs of exercise are met in similar fashion.

The EAG’s raison d’etre is interoperability, and the focus is in four major areas: Air Operations; CIS/Cyber; Force Protection (FP); and Logistics and Support, which includes Medical. The security level of all work is Unclassified, which might appear to be a major obstacle to progress, but in fact has the opposite effect. Most of this work is at the tactical level, but achievements at the operational level include the creation of the European Air Transport Command, aimed at making the use of combined AT assets more efficient. Another initiative is the Combined Air Interoperability Program (CAIP) which recognises that, although the majority of the member nations will be acquiring the F35, they will all continue to operate their existing fleets for many years; maximising capability by allowing 4th- and 5th-generation aircraft to operate together will present issues which need to be addressed.

The RAF FP Force – which is provided by RAF Police securing critical capabilities to enable air operations, and by the RAF Regiment providing defence by fighting on the ground to enable control of the air – delivers the UK’s Air FP capability. The FP Force first used synthetic staff training – in the form of a Command Post emulator, developed in conjunction with QinetiQ and situated in the Stanford Training Area (STANTA) in East Anglia – in 2009, and it reflected operational experience from Iraq and Afghanistan. Its utility, however, was limited and, in 2011, the S-CAGE was built at Honington – CAGE being the battlespace on, above, and around an operational air base. It is a purpose-built facility constructed within a hangar. Some of the other EAG member nations have their own facilities, but Honington is generally accepted as fulfilling all the training requirements. It comprises a main operations room, containing all the four main elements to be found in an FP HQ conducting airfield protection ops: Active (Off-Base); Passive; Active (On Base); and Perimeter.

Each section is headed by a watchkeeper, and the whole supervised by a ‘Battle Captain’, who manages, co-ordinates and controls the current FP operations. Active (Off-Base) comprises Off-Base Patrols, Quick Reaction Forces (QRF) and Reserves, whose role is to respond to threats, such as Surface-to-Air Fire (SAFIRE). The roles of Passive include: Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD); Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN); FP Engineering (such as construction of defensive and protective measures); Recovery; and Ambulance. Perimeter deals with Control of Entry (CoE) at Main and Alternative Entry Points, and the manning of observation and guard towers. Lastly, Active (On-Base) or Security covers Flight Line Security (FLS) and On-Base Patrols and QRF.

The 3D virtual battlespace environment for the exercise is provided by Bohemia Interactive Simulations' VBS3; the Ops Room players have access to a friendly force disposition display, generated by VBS3’s Blue Force Tracker, and a number of video feeds: CCTV cameras; Ground-Based Observation Security System (GBOSS) cameras; a balloon-mounted camera; and, when airborne, an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). Voice radio and telephone communications are effected by a system internal to the complex, and another system developed for operations in Iraq provides a Local Area Network (LAN).

ISR feeds available to the Exercise FP staff – Blue Force Tracker, UAV and GBOSS camera. Image credit: Dim Jones.
ISR feeds available to the Exercise FP staff – Blue Force Tracker, UAV and GBOSS camera. Image credit: Dim Jones. 

Adjacent to the Ops Room is the White Force room, in which are located the White Force Director, and cells which mirror the functions to be found in the Ops Room. There is also a Higher Control (HICON) desk, in this case representing Theatre Air, and White Force personnel representing other players, such as Host Nation Liaison, Air Traffic Control, and Balloon Operator. Since, in the VOLCANEX scenario, there was no intermediate command structure between the exercise players and the forces under command, there was no need, in this instance, for a Lo-Con. White Force personnel have access to all the visual displays available to the Ops Room players, plus some which are not. There are also Mentors located with the Ops Room cells, whose role is to provide advice to their respective teams and relevant material for the debriefs.

The exercise period is split into two training sessions of five days each, the first day of which is used for familiarisation with the environment, equipment and exercise scenario. Exercise Days 1 to 3 encompass exercise activity of progressively increasing intensity, which continues into the morning of Day 4. That afternoon is reserved for final debriefs and exercise wash-up.

The first period of VOLCANEX 19 involved forces from the UK, Belgium, Norway and Italy; the following week would see contingents from Germany, Spain, France and UK.

Defending the Island of “Sahrani”

VOLCANEX 19 is set in the fictional island of Sahrani, off the coast of Estonia in the Baltic. Sahrani is a post-Soviet Union-era country, now independent and a NATO member state. It comprises two land masses (North and South Sahrani), joined by a narrow isthmus of land. Due to increasing external aggression toward Sahrani, a NATO Baltic Air Policing mission has been established at Paraiso Air Base on South Sahrani with a detachment of six F16s. There is also a Search-and-Rescue (SAR) detachment at Pita, a Forward Operating Base (FOB) on North Sahrani.

FP for these locations is to be provided by EAG nations; a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) and Rules of Engagement (RoE), detailing the powers and operating parameters for FP forces, have been signed by Sahrani, NATO and the EAG. There are other NATO forces and installations on and around Sahrani, notably a Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS) site and a small Standing Maritime Group. There exists a strong anti-NATO and anti-nuclear peace movement in the country, which also has a small, but vocal, separatist minority. Employment of EW and manipulation of social media have become widespread, and some academic and cultural organisations seek to influence Sahrani public opinion. There have been frequent incursions into Sahrani airspace, transit of territorial waters by naval vessels and, latterly, increased submarine activity. This last is of special interest to military observers, since it often involves Special Forces (SF), delivered by submarine, and equipped with mini-UAVs, used for both reconnaissance and direct attack, delivering high-explosive (HE) ordnance.

VOLCANEX is the generic name for a series of exercises which are training vehicles for the component forces of the European Air Group (EAG). This is the Main Operations Room of VOLCANEX FP C2 CPX 19. Image credit: UK MoD.
VOLCANEX is the generic name for a series of exercises which are training vehicles for the component forces of the European Air Group (EAG). This is the Main Operations Room of VOLCANEX FP C2 CPX 19. Image credit: UK MoD.

Effective interaction with the Sahrani authorities, primarily the Civilian and Military Police, is extremely important. There is a 30-strong Sahrani Air Force operating one helicopter from Paraiso AB, established to provide logistic support for the MP, but now doing so for all NATO facilities as well. The 120-strong armed MP Company operates primarily within the NATO 432 area established around Paraiso AB; there it has primacy over the Civilian Police, who have primacy everywhere else. There is no Sahrani Army, Navy or Coastguard. The FP Active (Off-Base) forces at Paraiso AB, held at varying states of readiness, comprise four sections of 12 troops, equipped with armoured vehicles, personal weapons and various machine-guns. The perimeter forces, manning the guard towers and the CoE points, number 24 troops with personal weapons; the On-Base security (FLS, QRF and MP) comprise 10 troops with personal weapons and light machine-guns, operating in soft-skinned vehicles (SSV), plus two military dogs and handlers, also in SSV. The various Passive forces (EOD, CBRN, Recovery, Medical) total 14 troops; and, lastly, there are four fire vehicles with unarmed crews. At Pita FOB, there are six troops plus a dog team, all with personal weapons and SSVs, an ambulance with two medics, and a fire vehicle and crew, all unarmed. The exercise instruction contains a comprehensive section RoE and another covering the MoU between NATO/EAG and the Sahrani Government.

The exercise play is controlled through a Master Events List (MEL), and starts off at a gentle pace, the morning of Day 1 being taken up with an Excon-initiated QRA Launch in response to a Russian airspace intrusion, followed by a drone incursion to test Rehearsal of Concept (RoC) drills. The events to which the exercise participants are required to react are both on-base and off-base, and both domestic and operational. Some might appear initially to be trivial, but even these may have wider or more sinister implications, and all have to be prioritised and dealt with. Examples are the coincident disappearance at the laundry of uniforms, and the loss of a personal weapon – individually unremarkable, but together representing the threat of an armed and uniformed intruder. Minor operational issues include fires, accidents and injuries, and the unscheduled departure, from the side of the runway with a burst tyre, of one of the F16s taking off on a training sortie. An element of light entertainment is introduced when a moose is spotted on the airfield, with a hunter in hot pursuit. Moose and hunter are apprehended, but the incident represents an airfield boundary breach, which needs to be dealt with.

Major incidents include a total power failure in the Ops Room, airspace incursions by Russian aircraft, and the unexplained crash shortly after take-off of one of the QRA aircraft. The crash site is located just outside the airfield perimeter, and needs to be secured, but inevitably attracts onlookers, ‘yellow vest’ and peace protesters, media and drones.

Drones are a recurring theme throughout the exercise; the one at the crash site turns out, unsurprisingly, to belong to a TV company, but there are other incursions into the airspace by single drones, culminating in a full-fledged ‘drone swarm’ of eight UAVs, which land in various positions on the airfield, rendering it operationally non-effective for QRA. The explosion of one on landing suggests that they might be IED-equipped, and two others have landed close to the bomb dump and the fuel compound.

During my visit, the four Ops Room desks attempted to deal with whichever aspect of an event impacted on their area of responsibility. Often, this was more than one desk, and maintenance of internal communications became vital. This was not rendered any easier by the fact that, in order to extract maximum training value for as many personnel as possible, the desks were overmanned, and the level of ‘hubbub’ in the Ops Room was considerable; this, in itself, is good training for the ‘real thing’. The same training imperative applied also to the Battle Captain, with this post rotating frequently between those qualified to do it, and control and continuity became increasingly important and increasingly challenging.

At the end of each exercise day, a ‘hot debrief’ took place, initially facilitated by the mentors in functional sections, and then in plenary session under the supervision of the Exercise Director. The S-CAGE has the ability to record the ISR feeds (Blue Force Tracker, UAV and GBOSS), and all comms. Probably in the interests of timing, this was not used for the hot debrief, making it necessarily slightly subjective; however, in order to assist feedback to the TA and to draw the main learning points out of the exercise play, the mentors were provided with co-ordinated and agreed checklists, thereby assisting the participants to improve their individual and collective performances.

One of the EAG’s operational disciplines is Force Protection. Image credit: UK MoD.
One of the EAG’s operational disciplines is Force Protection. Image credit: UK MoD.

Recordings of key events were used for the Post-Exercise Debrief (PXD), held in early July, from which the following statement emerged: “VOLCANEX FP C2 CPX 19 was conducted successfully, and was very much appreciated by the participating nations. The Training Audience (TA) gained a deeper knowledge of the basic principles of EAG and NATO FP documents, and developed a common understanding of Air Force Protection Command Post (FP CP)-related functions, responsibilities and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs). In particular, younger and less experienced Commissioned and Non-Commissioned Officers were successfully introduced into the roles and responsibilities of those positions in a combined FP CP appropriate to their fields of expertise. The TA used the opportunity to train and exercise their own competences in a multinational Air FP CP which, as a result, contributed to their professional and personal development. The EAG FP C2 Handbook was very much appreciated by all exercise participants, and proved its operational value although it is, as yet, still a draft document. As a result, it will be further developed on the basis of the inputs and comments received.”   

Originally published in Issue 4/5, 2019 of MS&T Magazine.