Test like we fight: ‘Orange Flag’, ‘Black Flag’ collaborate to accelerate change

  • Published
  • By 2nd Lt. Christine Saunders, AFTC/PA and 1st Lt. Savanah Bray 53 WG/PA

Orange Flag, the large force test event carried out three times annually by Air Force Test Center’s 412th Test Wing, combined with the 53rd Wing’s Black Flag, bringing a first for the test community March 2-4.

Both central to achieving Joint All-Domain Command and Control, the two test capabilities combined their mission planning processes and streamlined test objective synthesis. Test execution took place during two separate Orange Flag and one Black Flag events.

“The benefits of a combined Orange Flag and Black Flag event include the test of materiel, technical, and tactical solutions in an integrated fashion, lower administrative overhead, and improved understanding of how to use tactics to multiply technical capabilities,” said Maj. Brandon Burfeind, Orange Flag director.

The rationale of combining the planning process is simple: Orange Flag focuses on technical integration and innovation across a breadth of Technology Readiness Levels, Black Flag focuses on the tactical integration of more mature technologies.

“By combining resources and some objectives with the Orange Flag enterprise, we were able to achieve desired test objectives at minimal cost to the government,” said Capt. Clifford Peterson, mission commander of Black Flag 21-1. “Due to the combined nature of the events, we were able to get both highly data driven developmental test objectives and more operationally-focused and accurate objectives completed for similar tests.”

This iteration of Orange Flag focused on two primary objectives: kill web integration and advanced survivability.  Kill web integration included Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Space Force sensors and tactical networks, as well as legacy and emerging JADC2 nodes. 

“Orange Flag started three years ago with the intent to assess integration of warfighting systems in a dense threat, operationally representative environment,” said Maj. Gen. Christopher Azzano, AFTC commander. “It has been tremendously successful.”

A major Orange Flag success is the testing of F-35 and F-22 integration with land-based long-range fires, naval fires, and space-based sensors without humans-in-the-loop.  Other successes include tests of multi-national F-35 and command and control integration, strategic intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance integration through all domains.

This was the first official Black Flag since COMACC Plan 21 was signed in December 2020 to formalize the test event. Black Flag focuses on testing and validating Tactics Improvement Proposals, or TIPs presented each year at the annual Weapons and Tactics Conference. TIPs tested at Black Flag 21-1 included HH-60 Air-to-Air survivability, F-35 Emissions Control tactics development, and continue tactics development and evaluation for the F-16 APG-83 AESA Radar, among others.

“As a venue for innovation through integration, Black Flag is ultimately a deep-end testing arena to create and discover capabilities utilizing existing and emerging materiel,” said Lt. Col. Mike Benitez, 53rd Wing director of staff and Black Flag lead project officer. “Black Flag’s largest benefit is that it’s a tactical initiative with strategic impact.”

Aligning Orange and Black Flag allows for improved integration and the combining of resources and participants to provide better test data and a more robust operationally-relevant environment.

Orange Flag, Emerald Flag, and Black Flag work in concert as the “test triad” to provide robust test environments geared toward the advancement of Joint All-Domain Operations and the National Defense Strategy.  These Test Flags are the premier large force test events which support testing of JADC2 and the Advanced Battle Management System and to validate new tactics and technologies for warfighting forces.

Orange Flag welcomes event participants from every service, all domains, any organization, and a full range of technical readiness. Orange Flag is range agnostic and will tailor range use to participant test objectives. Meanwhile, Black Flag, developed as a venue for tactics development and for joint and coalition fighters, bombers, RPAs, space and more, remains invite-only.  

The next iteration of Orange Flag, planned for June 2021, anticipates testing GatewayONE, Skyborg, and several emerging JADC2 capabilities as well as welcoming back our current participants. The efforts of Orange Flag, Black Flag, and the 53d Wing will be on display this May at Northern Edge 2021.