VDF Support Operations Group marks first full year of service

Members of the Virginia Defense Force Support Operations Group provide an over brief to Maj. Gen. Timothy P. Williams, the Adjutant General of Virginia, and Command Chief Master Sergeant James J. Profita, the Virginia National Guard Command Senior Enlisted Leader, during a visit to the Highland Guardian statewide emergency response exercise Nov. 7, 2020, in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Virginia Defense Force photo by Lt. Col. (Va.) Cotton Puryear)

RICHMOND, Va. — The Virginia Defense Force’s Support Operations Group was established March 1, 2020, and the past year has seen multiple state active-duty mobilizations and significant developments in the organization’s interoperable communication, cyber network defense, operations center augmentation and regional liaison assistance capabilities.

“It has been a year characterized by high operational tempo, rapid growth, operational excellence, multiple emergency response activations and many organizational achievements,” said Lt. Col. (Va.) Nicholas Christoff, the SOG commander.

Members of the Virginia Defense Force assist in Emergency Support Function 16, the Virginia National Guard’s response cell at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center Jan. 18, 2021. (Virginia Defense Force photo by Lt. Col. (Va.) Cotton Puryear)

Command Sgt. Major (Va.) Christopher Frederick is the SOG command sergeant major, and Lt. Col. (Va.) Philip Smith is the executive officer.

Christoff explained that SOG is a unique organization in the VDF, and the group structure allows for multiple specialized mission-oriented elements capable of working independently or in an interoperable manner.

The SOG comprises three distinct and separate National Guard Civil Support Playbook capabilities and executes missions in accordance with lines of effort directed by the Adjutant General of Virginia and VDF commanding general, Christoff said.

“Refinements to the capabilities and LOEs have evolved into command-and-control staff augmentation, interoperable communications, cyber defense and Virginia Department of Emergency Management regional liaison assistance,” he said. “In effect, SOG is the VDF’s first capabilities-based organization established not only to support the Virginia National Guard, but the first to really achieve true interoperability across emergency management domains.” Put simply, interoperability is a measure of the degree to which various organizations or individuals can operate together to achieve a common goal. It encompasses the working together of various Commonwealth of Virginia-wide civilian, local and Virginia Department of Military Affairs entities.

Headquartered in Richmond, Virginia with units located across Virginia, the SOG mission is to train and provide proud, professional and prepared volunteers who are relevant, resilient and responsive to the VNG while defending the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia and providing command and control, communications, cyber defense and regional liaison support.

“Our volunteers anticipate requirements and rapidly deploy as directed while executing the orders of the Governor of Virginia and VDF leaders to save lives, protect people and property, ensure safety and relieve suffering,” he said.

Virginia Defense Force personnel assigned to the Support Operations Group take part in the Highland Guardian field training exercise Nov. 7, 2020, in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Virginia Defense Force photo by Lt. Col. (Va.) Cotton Puryear)

The Communication Battalion commanded by Maj. (Va.) Joe Wallace has elements based in Lynchburg, Winchester and Richmond. The mission of the battalion is to provide mobile trailer-based, multiple radio systems for voice and data communications and personnel who communicate across a variety of radio spectrums with emergency response and public safety organizations as well as amateur radio operators. In the event of severe weather where traditional systems could become disrupted, vital communication is provided to the VNG as it conducts emergency relief operations, Christoff said.

The Cyber Detachment led by Warrant Officer 1 (Va.) Daniel Coleman is headquartered in Northern Virginia, and it enhances cybersecurity by conducting assessments, testing, research and other activities utilizing highly skilled VDF personnel. The Cyber Detachment supports the overall mission of the VDF by working as a cyber force multiplier resource for the DMA.

The Regional Liaison Detachment led by Lt. Col. (Va.) Phillip Smith is headquartered at Lynchburg with the mission is to provide professional emergency management experienced personnel to VDEM’s seven regional emergency operations centers.

”Acting as an interface between VNG liaison officers and regional partners, RLs lend continuity and expertise while balancing regional resource requests with VNG’s ability to provide support during emergencies and disasters,” Christoff said. “In addition, these highly capable and skilled individuals fill other vital roles as operations staff leaders, branch directors and situational unit leaders to the VDEM Incident Management Team.”

During 2020, SOG personnel were on duty assisting the Virginia National Guard during support to law enforcement during civil disturbance as well as the ongoing COVID-19 response.

Of approximately 50 VDF personnel activated for state active duty, upwards of one-third were deployed by SOG, Christoff said.

“Many of these members served on 12 hour rotating shifts from mid-March on Emergency Support Function 16 at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center and at the VNG Joint Operations Center as team leads, at multiple emergency operations centers and other locations as well as VDEM IMT leads through to the late October timeframe totaling approximately 200 plus days,” Christoff said. “This represents the largest deployment of sole-sourced SAD-allocated personnel from a single subordinate command over the longest period in VDF memory.”

Christoff said that due to their previous outstanding performance, SOG members are again called to duty for ESF 16 and COVID19 VDEM IMT duties, and as of April 2021, eight personnel called to VDEM SAD, six are from SOG.

From March to October 2020, the SOG simultaneously executed other essential activities, Christoff said.

“The Communication Battalion reorganization and leadership change coupled with a complete trailer equipment upgrade allowed for a more robust emergency response capability,” he said. “In June 2021, the battalion will execute Silver Mic 21, the first ever, top to bottom, interoperable, annual readiness exercise combining Communication Battalion, RL and Cyber assets with select attached 1st Regiment Access Control and IMAR teams to test the responsiveness, deployability and resilience of Mobile Communication Platform equipment and crews to move from home stations to sites across Virginia executing simulated emergency operations in preparation for the June through October hurricane season.”

The Virginia Defense Force Cyber Detachment completed a Virginia National Guard validation in late 2020 and is available to conduct network vulnerability assessments. (Contributed photo)

Christoff said the Cyber Detachment has grown to 15 personnel and completed an intensive DMA-recognized cyber certification and successful validation which led to the execution of six real-world evaluations with many accolades. VDF Cyber teams are now readily available for cyber network defense assessments.

The RL Detachment led the development and execution of Highland Guardian 20 which successfully showcased SOG’s ability to support VDEM and local EOCs with three different, yet interoperable, mission sets, Christoff said. The mission sets include ESF 16 Forward, communication packages to support RL/ESF 16 FWD that included MCP, IMAR, HFRR and interoperability with external communications agencies. Also employed were medium and heavy MCP, IRR, HFRR and EMCOMM communication assets to support VDEM regions. HG20 established itself as the annual VDF CAPSTONE exercise to evaluate VDEM and DMA NGCS readiness response in preparation for the November through March winter storm season, he said.

“The development and execution of two annual readiness exercises is a VDF operational first,” Christoff said. “It was accomplished by combining SOG leaders’ visions, detailed work and determination of all our VDF volunteers. As the Support Operations Group looks forward to a second anniversary in 2022, the dedicated group members prepare every day to assure operational excellence and continued service to the Commonwealth of Virginia.”