“Steady up.”

Like a conductor bringing an orchestra to attention, LCol (Ret’d) “Herm” Harrison barks a few words, grabbing everyone’s attention as the din in the room momentarily quietens. He needs updates.

“Why is he still down?” he asks as he glances over his shoulder at a screen showing the flaming wreck of a Chinook that has collided with a perimeter fence around Kandahar Air Field (KAF). “Does he need a reboot?”

Not many helicopter pilots get a second chance after such a horrific crash, but then this is not an ordinary exercise. Winged Warrior is the mission readiness exercise and confirmation for Canadian Helicopter Force-Afghanistan (CHF-A) and the first collective training experience for the Joint Task Force Afghanistan Air Wing Headquarters. Over two weeks, air crews and their leadership teams will be pushed and pulled across a synthetic environment, their operational plans and decision-making processes repeatedly tested.

Harrison is the chief of staff for the exercise control (EXCON), guiding a room of operators managing the various scenarios to which the helicopter crews and the air wing HQ, segregated in a different part of the building, must respond. Arrayed across a wall behind him are seven large video screens, four showing “real time” feeds of helicopters or ground traffic and three showing various communications feeds. Seated in two sections are the exercise controllers, injecting the scenarios as required, and role players operating everything from LAVs to ground troops with which the pilots can interact. On the other side of the one story building, the air wing HQ consists of four rooms, designated as planning and operations centres; the eight helicopters are in fact cubicles arranged throughout a darkened room.

It may not be musical instruments, but for Harrison the pieces have to be in synch. And right now one of his pilots is struggling to take off. This could be a long day.

THE UAV SPOTS IT FIRST. A white van moving along the highway has made several erratic stops and starts. Two Griffons are tasked to monitor the vehicle as it now makes its way toward a village. The pilots suspect the occupants may have planted an improvised explosive device and moments later, when one believes he has been engaged, ask to take out the vehicle. But with no proof, and no idea of who is in the van, they are told to hold fire. As they track the van, both Griffons soon report they’re running low on fuel. They again request to engage before they have to break away.

It’s a typical scenario for pilots in Afghanistan, and for the better part of 10 minutes, Major Paul Gautron, the exercise director, keeps the scenario vague and on the verge of kinetic, pushing the Griffons to within less than five minutes of fuel and 10 minutes of reserves, before he has them hand over the van to the Royal Air Force and approaching ground troops.

He’s deliberately kept them guessing, Gautron admits, to force them to decide if and when to push back.

Over the course of a week, “injects” of this nature will be repeated over and over: a shura that runs late and a helicopter with fuel concerns that forces a pilot to decide whether to return to KAF to refuel and leave a commanding officer for a later pick up; an Afghan army company with a Canadian mentoring team that suffers an IED strike, killing one Canadian soldier, which prompts an urgent medivac and overwatch response and, later, the need to transport 60 people from three forward operating bases to attend a ramp ceremony; a hard landing at a shura site; suspected IED plants; and engagement by rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.

“There are things commanders know will always occur, such as a downed aircraft,” Gautron said. “The scenarios and injects are built to make sure that the plan they have is robust and that they have a number of contingencies built into it. What happens if the LZ is hot? What happens if you have accountability issues when you’re doing an insert or extract? What happens if an aircraft goes unserviceable on start? The injects are designed to exercise the full communications from the aircraft to the TOC (tactical operations centre), to the leadership. One key confirmation criteria is how well information flows up to the leadership, the decision-making process based on the Wing commander’s intent, and then how well it flows back down to the aviation battalion.”

(Even the first day struggles with take offs are significant: On July 6, 2009, Master Cpl Pat Audet and Cpl Martin Joannette, both of Quebec, died in Zabul province when their Griffon CH-146 crashed on takeoff after clipping a security wall while trying to manoeuvre in a cloud of dust).

ORIGINALLY A LIVE-FLYING, live-fire exercise and the final check for the Advanced Aviation Course, Winged Warrior (WW) evolved into a multi-purpose synthetic exercise in 2006 that, while still the final phase of the now Advanced Tactical Aviation Course, is an opportunity to experiment with emerging tactics and procedures.

WW10 (reflecting the 10th rotation of the Canadian Forces into Kandahar, though only the fourth rotation of the air wing) was held in mid April at Canadian Forces Base Valcartier. The exercise included a range of role players and observers from the army and air force and from other nations, including Germany, the U.K. and the U.S. It had been preceded by a live exercise with the land task force in Fort Erwin, California, but this was really the first opportunity to challenge the air wing.

For most participants, Winged Warrior is not so much an assessment of technical and tactical skills as it is a “thinking” exercise.

“None of the decision making in combat is straight forward,” says BGen Chris Coates, the first Joint Task Force Air Wing commander in Afghanistan and former the commanding officer of 1 Wing in Kingston, which oversees Winged Warrior. “There are numerous competing interests. There’s an operational imperative, there’s flight safety, there’s the desire to help Canadians and Afghans and our allies. We have to balance all of those to come up with the right answer. We have to give these officers and their NCOs an opportunity to experience that decision-making environment. With synthetic tools, we can do that. The helicopter cockpits simulated here are a means, not an end. We do that because it is the best way to create the decision environment for the others to operate in. It has some collateral benefits that we’re only too happy to capitalize on but, in and of itself, it’s not what we’re aiming at.

“The fighter communities of western nations recognized many years ago that it was important for their air crews to experience the first 10 missions before they got to theatre so the crews could experience some of the realism of combat without the dangers of combat. We’re trying to do the same thing here, but at the commander level, exposing him and his leadership to the first 10 missions in theatre. Because it’s synthetic, we’re able to cause things to be relatively unpredictable, like the real world. And that challenges them in pretty dramatic ways.”

“The scenarios are all developed based on the experience coming back from Afghanistan,” Gautron explained. “It’s focused on leadership, it’s focused on the tactical operations centre, it’s focused on the collective training in the sense of the unit developing and executing an aviation mission.

“One of the benefits of this type of simulation is that it gives them a very realistic look at the environment. I’m not just talking about the lay of the land, the terrain; I’m talking about the command and control environment, the leadership environment, the coalition environment. We try and play out all of those things.”

Though the focus is on decision making and relationships within the air wing and the helicopter force, the networks and communications systems found in theatre (Canadian, coalition and NATO) are all present in the exercise, as are role players for other Canadian and ISAF positions.

For LCol Erick Simoneau, the commanding officer of the current rotation of Canadian Helicopter Force – Afghanistan and CO of 430 ETAH (Escadron tactique d’hélicoptères) in Valcartier, the level of realism in the exercise is exceptional.

“The staff that are overseeing us from the previous [rotations in Afghanistan], when they enter the TOC they are surprised to see the same screens, located in the same areas, with the same duty officer, the same radio operator, doing the same drills pretty much. I’m very confident that we are getting exactly what we should with this mission.”

THOUGH THE COSTS OF A LARGE, integrated live-fire exercise, particularly on this scale, would have been prohibitive, the shift to a confirmation course and mission rehearsal exercise in a virtual environment was due in no small measure to technological advances and operational requirements.

Brian Houlgate, of the Directorate of Land Synthetic Environments and the exercise lead coordinator, says each time “expectations are raised,” pushing his people to develop new capabilities, often from scratch.

“We don’t know of any other armed forces that is running this sort of complexity, these sorts of joint command and control systems. It’s not just flying and being able to see each other. In any of these scenarios, we have several hundred entities that can interact at any one time.”

Indeed, it’s the details that stand out: a gunner’s head moving side to side as he scans the road ahead; the ability of people to enter and exit LAVs, Chinooks and a range of other vehicles; dust generated by a helicopter or blowing across an open desert; the trajectory of bullets and rate of fire, depending on weapon. Even crowds and crowd behaviour are patterned after what aircrews would encounter.

“They can see a guy with a weapon and will have to decide if he’s an insurgent, a farmer, Afghan police,” Houlgate explained. “’Is he shooting at me because he is one of the local boys in the valley who doesn’t want me there or is he an insurgent?’ That’s the sort of decisions gunners have to make.”

Whether it’s green smoke moving with the wind, changing cloud cover, varying visibility or light levels that adjust with the position of the sun or the stars, the conditions for each scenario can be set to replicate the exact conditions pilots encounter.

And each exercise creates greater understanding of what can be done with simulation, including how to manage information.

“The air force tends to focus more on individual crew training and the virtual, the visual environment. We need that,” Houlgate acknowledged. “At the same time, at the unit and formation headquarters levels, there’s this wealth of information that is coming in through various digital tools, different systems, chat feeds, data feeds, satellite links, positional feeds, all sorts of planning documents, and all sorts of tools to interface with units with different levels of connectivity between the different organizations. That’s a big part of this exercise.”

Simoneau, who has one six-month tour in Afghanistan under his belt, said he expected the exercise to test the information management skills of his crews and operations centre: “What they do with the information and what they do with the void of information. Sometimes we lack information so we have to pull on it, other times we have to push information to our HQs or to lateral units. I’m expecting this exercise to put in place all those processes so that we connect with higher HQs and lateral units and with our own crews when they are out on their own flying missions.”

NOT SURPRISINGLY, EACH ROTATION seems to be better prepared for Winged Warrior than the previous. In part, that is because operational lessons are quickly incorporated into training programs and the exercise scenarios are developed from recent events in theatre. Increasingly, though, both the WW trainers and the participants have experience in Afghanistan.

“We’re finding that our leaders are far more capable every time we run this,” Coates said. “They are already ahead of where we expected them to be. The first time we went through we had very little current real theatre experience among those deploying. With this training audience, certainly a large percentage of them have already been to theatre and they share that with their colleagues. We’re finding we have to accelerate our own process.”

Other countries are taking note. LCol Rudolf Fendt, the squadron commander for Germany’s NH-90 training, said the technical logistics alone were impressive. “Our idea is to build up something like that, mixed with our full flight simulators.”

That would require a considerable step forward, acknowledged LCol Christoph Hegele, tasked with assessing the feasibility of introducing similar training at the German Army Aviation School. “In the past we had simulated, computer-aided exercises focused on the planning process. Then we had real time exercises where we actually fly the missions. Now we have the opportunity [to] bring together this type of simulation with almost full mission simulators to get beyond this: to challenge what we planned in reality, safely, without losing any aircraft. For us, it is beneficial to see the effort you have to put in to make it work. It’s not just having good simulators and good thoughts; it is [also] good background work and logistics.”

Other nations may run similar exercises as part of a company commander’s course, but Canada is possibly the only one to make it mission theatre specific. “I sense a fair amount of interest amongst our allies in what we’re doing here,” said Coates, now deputy commander of Continental United States NORAD region.

He also sees enormous potential within the Canadian Forces. “I think it is an economic way to supplement some of the live training we do. There is an opportunity to expand this to our air force as well as the land force. There’s really nothing to stop one of those cockpits from being an F-18 cockpit or to have the organization that operates convoys in theatre from actually being here. I would like to see the momentum that exists behind Winged Warrior continue and embraced by other elements in the Canadian Forces. It doesn’t have to remain a 1 Wing or air force exercise. Let this be a giant exercise to the collective benefit of all of us.” And that could include other government departments, he added.