The annual series of exercises that is Red Flag got underway at Nellis AFB at the end of January 2017 with Red Flag 17-1. Global Aviation Resource again paid a visit to Nevada to see what was underway in the latest iteration of the exercise. Paul Dunn and Rob Edgcumbe were there (additional images from Tom Gibbons).
2017 is another year with four Red Flag exercises taking place at Nellis AFB. As has been the case in recent years, the different exercises have a different focus depending on missions and attendees. RF17-1 involved the US forces alongside contributions from the UK Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). These two nations are allowed to participate at a higher level than most of the visiting nations and the first exercise of the year has tended to be focused on such partners only.
However, it wasn’t these countries that provided the most notable participants in the exercise. Instead, a lot of attention was focused on the USAF bringing the F-35A to Red Flag for the first time. The US Marine Corps previously attended with the F-35B, but the participation was fairly low-key and generally only consisted of a couple of aircraft flying in support of the main Red Flag Mission. Red Flag 17-1 would see the full debut of the F-35A, with the 34th FS deploying in force from Hill AFB, UT. With the aircraft flying in much greater numbers and taking a much more active role in the exercise, it resulted in a fair amount of coverage and subsequent discussion in the media.
The exercise was still underway when a number of articles appeared in various aviation and military outlets suggesting the performance of the F-35 had been outstanding. These were followed by further pieces critiquing the previous pieces. High kill ratios were quoted. What was less clear was the basis for these articles.
Whether the F-35s were being used as ground attack assets or air defence was not immediately apparent and, the fact that so much information was supposedly coming out so early in the exercise (and all at a time when the program is under political pressure from a new administration), all suggested a certain amount of preparation had been involved.
We do not have sufficient verifiable information at this point to draw any conclusions about actual performance, although anecdotal evidence suggests the new capabilities are proving to be transformative. Given the improvement in processing power since the previous generation of jets, this would seem almost inevitable. In time, the F-35 is likely to get well established and, if it is having teething issues, it will not be the first or last jet to do so.
The F-35s were not the only participants of course. As always, USAF assets made up most of the Blue Force. The heavy bomber element was supplied by the 37th BS, 28th BW. Always a popular attendee, five jets deployed to Nellis with two launching for most missions. A daylight B-1B launch is an impressive sight to see but the night launch is something else with the standard take-off involving the jets staying in burner long into the climb out. At night the burner plumes are visible for a long time as the jets head to the ranges.
The 1st FW at Langley was represented by F-22s of the 27th FS. Joining the Raptors in the air-to-air role were F-15Cs from the 159th FS of the Florida ANG. These Eagles are apparently equipped with the latest APG-63v3 AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar system, and several aircraft also carried SNIPER pods, which have somewhat belatedly introduced a long range visual identification capability for the venerable F-15.
Joining the F-35 in flying a predominately air-to-ground mission came F-16Cs from the 176th FS of the Wisconsin ANG. Perennial Red Flag attendees are the F-16Cs from the 20th FW at Shaw AFB, with it being the turn of the 55th FS to provide SEAD support. They were joined in this role by a selection of US Navy E/A-18G Growlers from VAQ-132 and VAQ-134.
The fast jet contingent was rounded off by Eurofighter Typhoon FGR.4s from 6 Sqn, Royal Air Force. The RAF fleet seems to be almost devoid of markings at this point with only two jets seen with squadron emblems, one being a 6 Sqn marked jet and the other showing 41 Sqn markings.
Providing support to the Red Flag mission were a variety of special mission aircraft. Not all missions included AEW cover but the RAAF brought an E-7 Wedgetail to Nellis again. It flew some day missions and some night missions throughout the exercise.
The RAF and the USAF each supplied an RC-135 Rivet Joint/Airseeker aircraft operating in the ISTAR role. They were joined by an RAF Sentinel and a USAF E-8 from the 16th ACCS, which also flew on select missions only. Both RAF and RAAF Hercules were utilised at various times while the USAF also had an EC-130H mixing it up.
Tanker support came in both flying boom and hose and drogue forms. The USAF had KC-135s while the RAF brought a Voyager tanker. It was able to support the Growler missions and as well as providing fuel for the RAF Typhoons that were taking part. The Voyager/Growler combination had only recently been cleared so this was a first chance to get some experience built up by the crews. CSAR was provided by HH-60s from the 55th RQS.
The ‘opposition’ was primarily supplied by the F-16Cs of the 64th AGRS. They were joined on most missions by A-4s from Draken International; the company’s aircraft are now deeply integrated with the 64th AGRS and are likely to be a fixture at most future Red Flag exercises. The dedicated aggressor aircraft were supported by other exercise aircraft as required to bolster the training provided.
It isn’t clear whether other Nellis based jets were participating in the exercise or just launching at a similar time but the Talon Hate equipped F-15C and its accompanying F-15D did launch during the missions on some occasions.
It appears that the first of the 2017 exercises got things off to a good start. Hopefully this will be the first of a sequence of successful and productive exercises for the year.