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Tabletop exercise prepares leadership for launch season

Maj. Matt Hale, 30th Operations Support Squadron operations officer, briefs the Crises Action Team during the recent tabletop exercise, Aug. 22, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. While a normal base exercise for disaster response can take days, or even weeks, the most recent exercise took place in 90 minutes and only included a small fraction of the base; the CAT, the Emergency Operations Center and the launch team checklists were the primary focus. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Released)

Maj. Matt Hale, 30th Operations Support Squadron operations officer, briefs the Crises Action Team during the recent tabletop exercise, Aug. 22, 2016, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. While a normal base exercise for disaster response can take days, or even weeks, the most recent exercise took place in 90 minutes and only included a small fraction of the base; the CAT, the Emergency Operations Center and the launch team checklists were the primary focus. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Ian Dudley/Released)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. --

In almost Arthurian fashion, Col. Christopher Moss, 30th Space Wing commander, sat at an oval table surrounded by his Crisis Action Team. Inside the arguably compact room, behind several locked doors, the modern day round table council convened as the hypothetical situation unfolded, Aug. 22.

While a normal base exercise for disaster response can take days, or even weeks, the most recent exercise took place in 90 minutes and only included a small fraction of the base; the CAT, the Emergency Operations Center and the launch team checklists were the primary focus.

"Simulating what is likely to be a multi-day event is challenging," said Lt. Col. Justin Sutherland, 30th Operations Support Squadron commander. "However, the checklists processed and the discussions that ensued followed the expected protocols. The fact that the timeline was compressed may actually have helped achieve the objective of adding some stress to the decision-making cycle. During the debrief, when we were not under the pressure of having to make a real-time call, we were able to re-examine some of the thought processes and gain some valuable insight."

The scenario focused on an imaginary launch vehicle returning to the pad and having the landing gear fail which lead to an explosion and a fire.

"Col. Moss requested this launch mishap tabletop exercise since the Wing is preparing for a busy launch operations season," said Maj. Matt Hale, 30th OSS operations officer. "His intent was to use this scenario to facilitate the Wing’s senior leadership team ‘dusting off’ the on-console and emergency management procedures that we follow in the aftermath of a launch mishap. While it is crucial that we continue to plan for success in our launch operations, it’s also important that we hone our ability to respond effectively and efficiently, should a mishap occur."

The exercise planning phase was a trial in itself, accounting for an accelerated timeline while striving to maintain realism.

"Despite the time-crunch, real-life protocol was followed and potential inefficiencies in protocol were discussed and worked through during and after the table-top exercise," said 2nd Lt. Victoria Foster, 30th OSS range control officer. "The table-top exercise environment allowed for discussion to occur more free-flowing since there wasn't a demand for action like there would be during a base-wide exercise. The discussion allowed the team to provide their inputs and to discover where there were lapses in action and allowed them to resolve any issues."

Though this was the first attempt at such an abridged exercise in recent memory, it set the standard high for future exercises, which Moss wants to conduct two through four times a year.

"The base’s response to a launch mishap would typically unfold over days, so planning for a 90-minute tabletop presented some interesting timeline challenges," said Hale. "So as we planned this exercise, we focused more on familiarity with the key mishap response checklists, and driving discussions on challenging aspects of the base’s response. There are a lot of interesting considerations when it comes to handling a launch mishap. This tabletop – which is the first in a series of tabletops – allows the 30th Space Wing senior leadership team to start discussing those considerations, to better understand the complexity of the problem itself and how we intend to respond as a Wing. Having these discussions in an exercise environment is immensely beneficial, as it allows those key discussions without the urgency and consequence of a real-world event. In both of these regards, the exercise was a resounding success."