With only a short gap after Red Flag 16-1, the year’s second Red Flag exercise, Red Flag 16-2, kicked off at Nellis AFB, Nevada on 29 February. Chris Wood travels back to Nevada to report for GAR.
Red Flag has settled in to a pattern of four exercises a year – two in the early part of the year, with the first being a three week exercise starting at the end of January, followed shortly afterwards by a two week one at the end of February. There are then two more in the Summer, with a three week exercise in July again followed by a two week one in August. The usual tempo sees two missions a day, one day and one night.
This exercise was considerably smaller than the previous one, with around 65 aircraft deploying to Nellis for the Blue Force and ten for the Red Force. Participation came from the US Air Force and US Navy in the air, plus units from the Army and Marine Corps on the ground. Additionally, international participants Italy and Turkey sent aircraft to join the Blue Force.
Commanding the Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) was Colonel Andrew ‘Saint’ Bernard, Vice Commander of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, flying F-15E Strike Eagles. Col Bernard is something of a Red Flag veteran as this was the seventh time he’d participated.
Assisting him as Vice Commander was Colonel Douglas ‘Rock’ Thies, 20th Fighter Wing Operations Group Commander, from Shaw AFB, South Carolina, flying F-16C Fighting Falcons, along with a staff of around 40 personnel.
The exercise is run by the 414th Combat Training Squadron and according to Major Chris Bulla, the 414th’s Chief Director of Operations, “learning the capabilities of each individual aircraft, that’s one of the biggest things that we hope people get out of a Red Flag exercise. They may think when they get here that they know what everybody else does, but they might sometimes be totally surprised by what they learn”.
Major Colin Wyatt, an air battle manager with the 726th Air Control Squadron from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, said that “at our home station we are the only Command and Control (C2) unit in town. When we come here we get to work with the AWACS (E-3 Airborne Warning and Control aircraft) as well as the Marine Corps ground radar unit. Seeing how we’re all going to operate, what different roles of Command and Control and how we’re going to communicate is vital training for us”. Col Bernard added that “you see that in theatre, like in Afghanistan, there were times when the Marine Corps would control a bit of battle space and either another American unit or another ally would control another, with the AWACS overlaying it all. This is direct value added training to apply to future operations”.
According to Captain Ryan Kearns, a B-1B pilot and aircraft commander from the 34th Bomb Squadron at Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, and a first-time Red Flag participant, the experience of “flying with Italians and Turks is something that you can’t get in South Dakota!”
The Italian detachment consisted of eight Eurofighter Typhoons and around 190 personnel, and was the Italian Air Force’s first appearance at Red Flag with the Typhoon. The deployment was supported by two of the Italian Air Force’s Boeing KC-767A tankers and three of their C-130J Hercules, although these didn’t stay at Nellis. According to detachment commander Colonel Marco Bertoli, this represented the furthest distance that the Italian Air Force had deployed with their Typhoons. There were seven single-seat aircraft, which had departed from Grosseto on 19 February, and these were joined by a two-seat aircraft that had escorted the first Italian built F-35A Lightning II on the F-35’s first Atlantic crossing, to NAS Patuxent River, Maryland, on 5 February.
Whilst the Typhoons were primarily employed in the air-to-air role, three of them were Tranche 2 aircraft, which were fitted with the P1Eb enhancement package, and these aircraft were noted carrying inert Laser Guided Bombs. The Italian Air Force is developing a swing role capability for its Typhoons, although, according to Col. Bertoli, this is primarily to support industry export efforts. However, he did add that the Italian Air Force is considering using the swing role capability in very specific environments.
According to Col. Bertoli, “Red Flag offers the best combat training environment in the world, [where we can] train our pilots to integrate with our NATO partners, to give them the opportunity to have great training and prepare them for future operations”. He went on to say that, in the spirit of Red Flag, they had selected junior pilots to take part. They came from all three Typhoon Wings: 4 Stormo (Wing) at Grosseto, 36 Stormo at Gioia del Colle and 37 Stormo at Trapani. The Italians see the Typhoon as one force so selecting pilots from the different Wings and getting them to work together helps with standardisation. Choosing the younger pilots also means that their Red Flag experiences can be shared with their colleagues in the Typhoon force for years to come.
Flying units taking part in Red Flag 16-2 included:
20th Bomb Squadron ‘Buccaneers’, 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, with four B-52H Stratofortresses.
34th Bomb Squadron ‘Thunderbirds’, 28th Bomb Wing, Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota, with four B-1B Lancers.
336th Fighter Squadron ‘Rocketeers’, 4th Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, with 14 F-15E Strike Eagles.
77th Fighter Squadron ‘Gamblers, 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, South Carolina, with 14 F-16C Fighting Falcons. They were employed in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) role.
4th Stormo, Grosseto Air Base, Italy with eight Eurofighter Typhoons. Four of the aircraft were from 4th Stormo and four from 36th Stormo at Gioia del Colle. Five were Tranche 1 aircraft, three Tranche 2.
132nd Filo ‘Daggers’, Konya Air Base, Turkey with two F-16Cs and one F-16D.
141st Filo ‘Wolves’, Akinci Air Base, Turkey with two F-16Cs and one F-16D. Their two C model aircraft were the ones used by the Solo Turk display team, which was scheduled to appear at the El Centro airshow after Red Flag finished.
422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, 53rd Wing, Nellis AFB, Nevada with F-16Cs.
It wasn’t clear what the 422nd’s role was in the exercise; F-15Cs were listed but not observed taking part.
Air-to-air refuelling support was provided by a fleet of KC-135Rs:
22nd Air Refuelling Wing (ARW), McConnell AFB, Kansas, with two KC-135R Stratotankers.
92nd ARW, Fairchild AFB, Washington with one KC-135R.
191st Air Refuelling Squadron , 151st ARW, Utah ANG, Salt Lake City International Airport, Utah with one KC-135R.
101st Filo, Incirlik Air Base Turkey, with two KC-135Rs.
963rd Airborne Air Control Squadron, 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, with three E-3G Sentries.
700th Airlift Squadron, 94th Airlift Wing, AFRC, Dobbins ARB, Georgia, with two C-130H Hercules.
HSC-21 ‘Blackjacks’, NAS North Island, California, with four MH-60S Seahawks.
Reported as operating from their home base were:
432nd Wing, Creech AFB, Nevada and Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota with MQ-9 Reapers.
Ground units taking part included:
726th Air Control Squadron from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho;
Marine Air Control Squadron 1, from MCAS Miramar, California; and
A virtual US Army Patriot battery.
As usual the Red Force comprised the various squadrons of the 57th Adversary Tactics Group (ATG), with the F-16Cs of the 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) being the most visible element, as they are the only 57th ATG squadron with aircraft.
However, for this exercise they were augmented by a number of other units:
88th Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) ‘Lucky Devils’, 82nd Flying Training Wing (FTW), Sheppard AFB, Texas with five T-38C Talons.
435th FTS ‘Black Eagles’, 12nd FTW, Randolph AFB, Texas with five T-38Cs.
The T-38 was the aircraft used by the Aggressor squadrons when the concept first started in the 1970s, so is an appropriate addition to the Red Force and a piece of history being repeated. They only flew during the daytime mission, but were kept busy as they also flew missions with the Weapons School.
Mondays are usually Defensive Counter Air days, which results in a number of strike aircraft joining the Red Force. On the first day of the exercise a number of aircraft were observed carrying out the Flex departure (which is a low-level departure to the West, where the Red Force normally congregates), and using callsigns that suggested a Red Force involvement.
A pair of B-1Bs departed that way, using ‘Blinder’ callsigns, as did a flight of F-15Es using ‘Flanker’ callsigns (previously used by the 65th Aggressor Squadron’s F-15s) as well as a flight of F-16Cs from the 77th Fighter Squadron.
Bad weather on the second Monday resulted in that day’s daytime mission being cancelled.
On the last three days of the exercise a pair of A-4 Skyhawks operated by Draken International, based in Lakeland, Florida, also participated as part of the Red Force. These are operating under contract to the USAF, and ten aircraft had been deployed to Nellis in late 2015, initially to work with the Weapons School on a trial basis. After a short break over the Christmas period they returned to Nellis in February. Eight of the aircraft are former Royal New Zealand Air Force Skyhawks; six single seat A-4Ks and a pair of two seat TA-4Ks, which were extensively upgraded in the 1990s to bring them up to a standard similar to the F-16 Mid Life Upgrade.
Additionally two former Israeli Air Force and BAE Systems operated A-4Ns were noted. The A-4 can be operated at a significantly lower cost that the USAF’s F-16s, with Draken claiming they can supply three missions for the cost of one F-16 mission.
This is another piece of history repeating itself as the A-4 was used by the US Navy as an Aggressor aircraft, most memorably in the movie Top Gun!
Others units operating out of Nellis whilst Red Flag was taking place were the 510th Fighter Squadron ‘Buzzards’, 31st Fighter Wing, Aviano Air Base, Italy with 13 F-16Cs and an F-16D who, having taken part in Red Flag 16-1, stayed at Nellis to participate in Green Flag 16-04 and were subsequently also working with the Weapons School.
Additionally, at the end of the first week a number of Marine Corps helicopters – four UH-1Y Venoms and at least six AH-1Z Super Cobras from HMLA-169 ‘Vipers’ at MCAS Camp Pendleton, California – arrived to operate from Nellis.
There’s always something happening at Nellis!
Red Flag 16-3 is scheduled to start on 11 July, and is expected to be solely a US exercise.
The author would like to thank the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs team, and Rod McDonough for the use of his photograph.