Airmen train for contested, degraded environment during Exercise OVERTORQUE

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Justin Norton
  • 302nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs

302nd Airlift Wing Airmen kicked off Exercise OVERTORQUE, Jan. 21-27, 2023, at the Combat Readiness Training Center in Gulfport, Mississippi to test their capabilities to transition from peacetime readiness to sustained wartime contingency operations.

While in Gulfport, the 302 AW combined with the 310th Space Wing to form the 612th Air Expeditionary Wing and evaluated their ability to operate in a simulated contested, degraded and operationally limited environment by engaging with realistic tactical challenges.

“Exercises like this allow us to measure the state of our units’ readiness while at the same time exposing our members to various scenarios expected to be encountered in the future fight,” said Col. Christopher Sedlacek, 302 AW commander. “The scenarios allow Airmen to find innovative solutions and develop tactics, techniques and procedures to complex problems experienced in a combat environment across the spectrum of operations.”

Airmen went through a processing line managed by the 302nd and 310th Force Support Squadrons to simulate leaving for a real-world deployment. With documents, dog tags and deployment bags in hand and their readiness tasks accomplished, they squeezed into the cargo bay of a military aircraft outfitted for passenger transport and departed for Gulfport as the combined 612 AEW.

“The big emphasis for this scenario was to apply the Agile Combat Employment concept,” said Master Sgt. Carlos Gonzalez, 302 AW readiness exercise coordinator. “We want to evaluate the units’ capabilities so we can report our effectiveness to the command. It also allows us to align with Col. Sedlacek’s priorities with challenging the status quo.”

Airmen from each career field were evaluated by relevant subject matter experts from their units who graded their performance in carrying out their duties. The Airmen also faced simulated emergency situations coordinated in advance by the inspection team and were graded on how effectively they responded to them. The exercise players were not informed in advance what they were going to face each day and had to react to each scenario in real time.

“It was a constantly changing situation and I thought we did really well,” said Senior Airman Jacob Hillmann, 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron aeromedical evacuation technician. “I don’t necessarily think it’s like knowing you’re going to have to put on chemical protection gear. It’s more that I know something’s going to change so I need to be flexible. Aeromedical evacuation as a whole is about flexibility, and we’re prepared for it.”

Col. Xaviera Slocum, 302 AW vice commander, also cited the 302nd Communications Flight to demonstrate an example of the ACE concept on display during the exercise.

“When we got there, we experienced some limitations with the facilities similar to what we might see in an austere environment,” Slocum said. “The communications flight had their own equipment and tools with them ready to adapt to the challenge and ensure that we were able to get set up on the network and have access to landlines quickly. I expect we'll be facing similar challenges in other ACE environments, so I want to applaud our communications team for doing an excellent job this exercise!”

Players faced challenges that required them to cooperate with Airmen from other work areas to address shared problems. The wing inspection team simulated real-world circumstances for the players, including dressing patients in need of care with simulated injuries. They also generated situations where players needed to defer to alternative ways of communicating with each other.

“Seeing everything from a higher level like this and realizing what information needs to be disseminated to make the mission happen and how many people from different jobs have to come together to accomplish that was really enlightening,” said Tech. Sgt. Kayla Shock, 39th Aerial Port Squadron air terminal operations center representative. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget the big picture because you’re so focused on your own job and responsibilities.”

Shock cited an example of the communication flow between the different agencies necessary to transfer mission critical aircraft components from the aircraft to the right location. This highlighted the importance of ensuring everyone was on the same page about what needed to be happening and when.

“There’s always room for improvement for command and control,” said Gonzalez. “We knew that going in as a tenant organization since we don’t have that capability on a full-time basis. It’s also a new concept for some of the people in these positions, especially considering the combined effort with the 310 SW. I think overall we did exceptionally well.”

Gonzalez said command and control works both ways. In order to ensure agencies that require additional support get what they need, information needs to be received and disseminated as quickly as possible so the leadership team has the tools necessary to respond accordingly, he continued.

From a planning and execution perspective, Gonzalez said he thinks the level of communication between the 302 AW and 310 SW went well. The difference of perspective between an airlift wing and a space wing brought its own challenges, but the integration between the wings’ mission support groups aligned well since they speak similar languages, he said.

302 CF Airmen established communication with 302nd and 310th Security Forces Squadron defenders as they trained to protect an installation from a ground assault at a separate training area. Airmen from the 302 and 310 FSS also worked together to respond to a simulated injury at the dining facility, cooperating with each other to ensure the patient was safely transferred to the care of 302 Aeromedical Staging Squadron response team.

Gonzalez also said he felt as though the exercise highlighted the importance of employing a multicapable Airman concept, which he feels is key to the Air Force Reserve.

Ground medical teams from the 302 ASTS worked with 34 AES flight medical teams to transport injured patients to safety, for instance, working together to accomplish a shared goal. The 302 ASTS also worked with security forces defenders to sharpen emergency response medical tactics training.

Airmen across the installation also reacted to simulated assaults from an adversarial nation and donned mission-oriented protective posture equipment in various configurations as the situation developed. All personnel were responsible for performing their primary duties while wearing the equipment designed to protect against chemical attacks. The wing also trained on how to respond before, during and after a direct strike on the installation, to include decontamination procedures.

For some Airmen this was also their first opportunity to be exposed to such an environment and be involved in an experience like Exercise OVERTORQUE.

“I met Airman 1st Class Derek Bautista from the communications flight and learned he was asked to join us on this exercise only a week after arriving at the wing,” said Slocum. “While he was out with his team he was always authentically involved and engaged, asking as many questions as he could to learn more. Not just about his job, but about all the different mission sets within the wing. His positive attitude, motivation and enthusiasm inspired me, and I thought he set an excellent example for other newer members of the 302nd Airlift Wing.”

Slocum said this exercise also gave the team a chance to build a professional network outside of their units, learn more about the members within their units and further enhance a sense of warrior ethos alongside their fellow teammates.  

“Putting this training into purpose and action felt amazing and it was cool to see how all the little pieces come together to form the big picture,” said Hillmann. “It was controlled, constantly changing and constantly flexible, but it was a fantastic experience. We might have to do this for real one day but it’s okay because we’ve already done it. We just do our job, trust in our training, trust in the people around us and we’ll get it done.”

Aircraft from the 433rd, 446th and 315th Airlift Wings as well as the 452nd Air Mobility Wing all came together to support getting personnel out the door and back home safely. This interagency cooperation tasked Airmen from different career fields to adapt to the changing needs of coordinating people and equipment as the situation evolved.

“The real-world piece was the biggest exercise for aerial port,” said Shock. “We were changing chalks until flights were taking off and that’s just not normally how things happen, so it was a very hectic but controlled situation. Our leadership and communication flow between our teams was working really well. Everybody from the port team was working until the last person got on the plane. We’re first in, last out!”

The 302 AW has not performed an exercise of this scale in more than a decade.

“This was a foundational event to determine the state of the wing’s readiness. I believe the wing performed well given the limitations of minimal planning time, and the fact that this was the first large scale exercise many members participated in,” said Sedlacek. “We have some work to do but we certainly have the team and the talent to operate in a contested and degraded environment. We must now develop training opportunities and exercises based on the feedback from our Airmen to prepare ourselves for the future fight.”