86th Airlift Wing ‘paints’ common operational picture

Maj. Mike Young
435th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

What do terms like campaign plan, common operational picture, tasking order, sorties, allocation, apportionment and battle rhythm bring to mind for most airmen? For some of us, these bring to mind the sights and sounds you’d experience in a combined air operations center during execution of an air campaign.
These are also the terms Col. Rob Kane and Col. Brad Pray, the new 86th Airlift Wing commander and vice commander respectively, are using to focus the new wing’s mission. In short, as the new commander describes it, he plans to lead the wing as if it were engaged in an air campaign supporting a joint force commander. In the 86th Air Wing’s case, that would equate to U.S. Air Forces in Europe, 3rd Air Force, or more closely, the host 435th Air Base Wing.
It starts every morning, when instead of reviewing a traditional schedule, the command section reviews the airlift wing’s daily tasking order.
“We’ve developed a common operational picture, or COP, capturing all of the wing’s activities, the end goal being to give senior leadership visibility into the level of energy and enthusiasm being generated throughout the wing,” said Colonel Kane.
The biggest initial challenge, said Colonel Kane, was finding a mechanism, a means, to portray the COP in a cohesive fashion. “I had to find a way to integrate the operations and maintenance, ‘fixing and flying’ aircraft piece, with our operationally-focused warfighter communications mission and the Contingency Response Group’s first-in base opening capability,” he said.

The tool chosen by the new commander and his staff to track these day-to-day happenings is known as the “engine room.” Here, Maj. Tom Burtschi, the wing’s new “mission director,” a position akin to the traditional director of staff found in most wings, works with his team rapidly integrating the elements of the wing’s mission into the COP.

“As I envision it,” said Colonel Kane, “instead of a typical morning staff meeting, I’ll conduct a board walk in the wing’s engine room, or planning cell, with my group and squadron commanders, group chiefs, superintendents and 1st shirts, to review the wing’s taskings, missions and sorties. Of course I want to look at today, but I’m particularly interested in the 90 to 120 day mission outlook.”

From projecting aircrew evaluations to plotting the Combat Flightline trip to Royal Air Force Mildenhall, from monitoring 1st Combat Communication Squadron’s participation in Exercise Quasar, to tasking the squadrons to execute the daily Combat Proud patrol truck “sortie” and nightly Combat Nighthawk “sorties,” the team tracks any and all events.

“We’ve been able to create a CAOC-type visual display that fills an entire wall,” said Master Sgt. Jennifer Holloman, engine room technician. “Within this display we’ve projected a detailed calendar that depicts the activities for a given day,” she said.

The end goal, said Sergeant Holloman, is to create a visual representation of the wing’s daily, monthly and quarterly COP from which the wing can produce corresponding tasking orders.

“The boss wants a picture of what we are collectively doing across the full spectrum of our mission and efforts to take care of our people,” said 1st Lt. Jimmy Harrington, one of the engine room’s operation officers. Armed with this tool, senior leadership can make decisions on how to allocate and apportion tasks and “sorties” across the wing.

An example is the 86th AW manning the Combat Proud patrol truck covering all of Ramstein, scouting for targets of opportunity to make a difference in the base appearance battle.

“When the patrol or the Combat Proud hotline operator brings a threat to their attention,” said Capt. Ross Morrell, a member of the engine room crew, “we can tackle it within minutes, or if required, call in additional forces.” Longer term, this enables leadership at all levels to look across the mission areas and ensure resources are allocated and apportioned properly, so we have the correct balance, he said.

One of the most important aspects of the new wing’s vision, noted Maj. Gregg Enochian, is to reduce the amount of time squadron leadership spends on figuring out what they need to be doing. “Using the COP, along with leadership input at all levels, the squadron commanders will see where they fit into the overall wing tasking requirement,” said Major Enochian. “Armed with this information, they can focus on executing the missions and sorties they are tasked. This is very similar to the way a CAOC might task individual wings to attack a target. We’ll help them see what they need to attack and when, but we won’t be telling them exactly how to do it,” he said.

Colonel Pray is a staunch believer in integrating the four group’s activities. “This is the way an air component commander manages the resources available to plan and execute an air campaign—the Air Force has spent a lot of time and effort to perfect COP processes and implement them into CAOC and battle staff operations—it works in contingencies,” said Colonel Pray, “so why not use the same thought process to lead a wing’s daily activities.”