As it follows the mandates of Air Force Special Operations Command’s “AFSOC Strategic Guidance 2020” in transitioning from the “AFSOC We Needed” to the “AFSOC We Will Need,” the Air Force component of U.S. Special Operations Command is exploiting a range of transformational opportunities. One aspect of the transformation process is evident in AFSOC’s “Emerald Warrior” series of special operations exercises. Special Operations Outlook recently spoke with exercise planners to learn more about recent changes in these SOF events.
Characterizing the current spectrum of global changes as “a strategic inflection point,” the “AFSOC Strategic Guidance 2020” clarified the need for “significant adjustments” to transform the command to ensure readiness to operate in the new environment.
A concrete example of that transformation can be found in the latest iteration of AFSOC’s Emerald Warrior (EW) exercise series. Conducted at multiple locations from Feb. 16, 2021 to March 5, 2021, the “EW 21.1” exercise was designed to provide joint force participants with realistic and relevant training on multiple SOF scenarios. Event locations included Cannon Air Force Base, New Mexico; Hurlburt Field, Florida; and both Camp McCain and Camp Shelby, Mississippi.
While past iterations of EW have focused largely on counter-violent extremist organization (C-VEO) operations, featuring enhanced teamwork across multiple SOF organizations, EW 21.1 focused less on direct action and more on what planners describe as an all-domain construct.
“This year, we’ve expanded outside of our normal focal area to an all-domain construct, featuring the increased use of space, cyber, intelligence, public affairs, and information operations,” explained U.S. Air Force Col. Kevin Koenig. Assigned to AFSOC Headquarters, Koenig served as the exercise-director for the recent EW 21.1.
“Our goal is to be prepared in all domains to deter adversaries now and avoid future conflicts,” he said. “We’re also testing new elements within the command, while still maintaining our partner nation and joint training.”
Participating partners in the most recent exercise included both Lithuania and France. Elaborating on the shift in emphasis away from a direct-action focus, Koenig noted that the new direction continues a similar shift in the prior year’s event.
“Last year’s Emerald Warrior exercise, EW 20.1, took place in the arctic environment,” he said. “And for this year’s exercise, we’ve continued to focus on the security priorities within the National Defense Strategy, specifically competing in the high-end fight against near-peer adversaries, focused on joint all-domain operations and addressing great power competition.”
He continued, “This year, we conducted training in complex, irregular environments in multiple locations across the United States. These operating locations simulated many of the geographical features our forces will most likely encounter when deployed. The exercise did still have portions that continued our efforts to become more effective and more efficient in C-VEO, but the overall concept was to move away from the direct-action C-VEO fight for this exercise.”
All- Domain Environment
Maj. Sean Owenby elaborated on the all-domain operational aspects. An Air Force Information Operations Officer by military specialty, he split his duties during EW 21.1, both on the “white cell” and as the information operations lead on what he called the “player side.”
Emphasizing that “indirect approaches” are extremely important in great power competition, Owenby said that the Air Force has been working with experts like Sandeep Mulgund, Ph.D., an adviser for Headquarters, U.S. Air Force, who has been a leading visionary for a concept called Command and Control of Operations in the Information Environment.
“What that boils down to in a ‘catch phrase,’ if you will, is that we want to lead with information, in our planning, in our execution, and in our assessment. That does not mean that our physical power is no longer important, or that those capabilities no longer matter. It’s just that the narratives out there, as you’ve probably noted in the news, tend to dominate the decision-making and how things move and ebb and flow in the strategic environment.”He traced the emergence of the new concept to the 2018 update to DOD Joint Publication 3-0, Joint Operations, which introduced “Information” as the seventh joint function enabling joint force commanders to integrate, synchronize, and direct joint operations.
“Since that time, there has been a working group comprised of professionals from across the Air Force to develop this concept and integrate it into operations as well as exercises,” he said. “And Emerald Warrior provides a great venue for that.”
Koenig acknowledged that the new concept is also reflected in the “AFSOC Strategic Guidance.”
“AFSOC’s ‘Strategic Guidance’ is being folded into everything we do here at the headquarters to include our training, preparation efforts, and most definitely our exercises,” he said. “We are focused on the future operating environment and unforeseen challenges. And SOF will continue to focus on specific problems that basically shape the environment and generate options for joint force and our coalition partners in the future.”
He added that Emerald Warrior not only exercised the skills of participating units but also provided a critical opportunity to test future concepts in line with that strategic guidance.
“The exercise will continue to fuel ongoing innovation and experimentation efforts within AFSOC – the ‘AFSOC We Will Need,’ operating between crisis response, counter-VEO, large-scale contingencies, and global competition,” he asserted. “And the training our forces received during this iteration of Emerald Warrior is a testament to that commitment; training credible forces and strong international partnerships, which this year included our partners Lithuania and France.”
He noted that models based on past EW events might have included more than two partner nations, pointing to the complications that COVID-19 had imposed on the most recent iteration.
“The command is getting after the Strategic Guidance in multiple ways,” Owenby echoed, pointing to additional callouts and clarifications subsequently provided by command leadership, identifying the need for investment in the areas of information operations and strengthening integration with both space assets and cyber.
“So, in a very short amount of time, you have been able to watch an evolution of not only AFSOC writ large but also within this Emerald Warrior exercise, embracing and getting after the challenges that have been identified in our ‘Strategic Guidance,’” he said. “We’re getting after this, and not just with pen on paper. It’s actually happening when we integrate and plan and execute here at AFSOC.”
Asked about specific scenarios selected for the exercise, Duane Douglas, lead planner for a team of 12 contractors from U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) who supported the exercise, observed, “We have been following the National Defense Strategy over the last several iterations of Emerald Warrior. Then, this year, we were also focusing on the National Security Strategic Guidance as we went ahead. Additionally, being SOF-experienced personnel, we realize that special operations forces can be utilized, as one of our mottos states, ‘Any Time, Any Place.’ So we have that awareness factored in.”
Translating that guidance to individual exercise vignettes, he added, “Emerald Warrior iterations allow the participants to not only be exposed to multi-domain operations but also see the cause and effects of a multi-domain environment as it develops the battlespace.”
When it comes to specific lessons learned during EW 21.1, Lt. Col. David Allen, who is assigned to AFSOC Headquarters and acted as the deputy exercise director, reflected on new ways of integrating human capital and the ground domain with the air, space, and cyber domains.
“We really would be doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t roll all of those into the exercise,” he said. “In the past, we’ve integrated those and tried to do all-domain operations. But this year, I think we’ve used it more effectively. So, in terms of lessons learned, I’d start by saying that our experience on past EWs has fostered all-domain operations implementation in 21.1.”
As far as first-look lessons derived from the most recent exercise, he was quick to identify the importance of planning flexibility.
“As you know, this year, we faced a lot of different barriers due to COVID and its impact on things, including the locations where we could go. But all of the wing planners from the get-go remained very flexible during the entire planning process, and they were able to adjust and then execute at different locations, all the way down to the last minute,” he said.
Allen added that most of the EW 21.1 “surprises” did not emerge during the planning process but rather came from the participants during the event itself. As one example, he pointed to how participants quickly developed an increased appreciation for the Combat Air Advisor (CAA) mission that was executed by the 492nd Special Operations Wing during the exercise.
“Moving forward, obviously we’re going to continue to make use of the CAA mission set and the abilities to communicate objectives with our Lithuanian and French counterparts,” he said. “In EW 21.1, that allowed them to gain knowledge of tools outside of their normal environment, which will enhance the skill set they already possess.”
Reiterating that the all-domain aspect was one of the biggest takeaways from the exercise, Koenig added, “We started the exercise telling the participants they were going to have to utilize space, cyber, information operations, and public affairs. But it wasn’t until the first day of exercise where they got some training, and they met the people we had on hand who are experts in those fields, that they fully realized what we were asking of them. And I think they were surprised, but all of the participants jumped on board and really, really took it to heart.”
Owenby agreed, stating, “I observed that while sitting among this group of individuals comprising public affairs, space, cyber, and intel, there was an incredible change in the demand signal and the thought process and evolution of thought process in the planning from day one of the exercise to the completion of the exercise.”
Acknowledging that training had been provided to all exercise participants at the various locations via video teleconference and that the documentation helped to guide things initially, he continued, “But it was about the time the first week wrapped up when you started to see the shift in mindset. It was really impressive as it went along. And what it underscored at the end is that we’ve got to further develop that capability and that new way of thinking in our command and to leverage this and other exercises and events moving forward.”
Emerald Warrior Future
Koenig was asked about those future events and whether they would continue to focus less on direct action.
“The short answer is yes,” he responded. “We will probably continue to focus less on direct action. There still will be counter- VEO elements to most of our exercises and there still will be individual training events that participating units have to accomplish. But overall, the focus is going to be on the demands of the future operating environment and the direction of the ‘AFSOC Strategic Guidance.’”
“To build off of that, I think we will continue to focus on the all-domain aspects of our exercise,” Allen offered. “Having the domains work closely together this time really worked out, and I think there was good training by everyone. For example, most people who think of cyber don’t really know what the capabilities truly are. But by participating, they actually get to learn firsthand how much domains like space and cyber integrate.”
“This exercise is going to be continued to be committed to our partner nations and the threats they face, while increasing strength and relationships with those allies,” Koenig summarized. “The goal will always be to work directly with the other militaries, because that interoperability is critical to deter potential adversaries and hone the skills necessary to act as part of the overall coalition.”
He concluded, “During past iterations of Emerald Warrior, which a lot of USSOCOM components and partners remember, the focus tended to be on individual training events and the C-VEO fight, where we would train and rehearse similar events, over and over again, throughout the two- to threeweek time frame. What has changed now, as you have heard throughout our discussion, is that’s probably no longer going to be the case. The exercise will continue to train for mission essential tasks, but they will be developed into an overall exercise with strategic objectives. EW will no longer be simply an exercise where we do multiple rehearsals of the counter-VEO skill sets. Emerald Warrior is about AFSOC staying relevant and future-focused.”
This article was first published in the 2021 edition of Special Operations OUTLOOK.