The latest Red Flag exercise, 13-3 (the third in Fiscal Year 2013), at Nellis AFB, Nevada took place for three weeks between the 25th February and the 15th March under the looming shadow of sequestration. Despite that dampener it was a large exercise and featured units from all the US armed services; Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army, as well as coalition partners in the shape of the United Kingdom and Australia. There are various classifications of Red Flag exercise and this one, dubbed Black Flag, was at the highest classification. This means that only certain coalition partners are allowed to attend.
Unlike recent exercises, where the participants have stayed throughout, this exercise mixed things up a bit. Some units only participated for one week, some only flew at night and some apparently only on certain days of the week, while some of those listed didn’t appear to turn up at all! But other units that were not listed, or indeed even operating from Nellis, were noticed among participants. It’s not clear whether this was planned or a reaction to the budget crisis.
Making their début at Red Flag were the Royal Air Force’s Eurofighter Typhoons, with eight single seat FGR4s and one two seat T3 from No 11 Squadron at RAF Coningsby.
Also taking part were Royal Australian Air Force Boeing E-7A Wedgetails, with two aircraft from No 2 Squadron at RAAF Williamtown.
The heavy bomber force consisted of three B-2A Spirits from the 393rd Bomb Squadron at Whiteman AFB, Missouri.
However, aircraft swap-overs meant that at least five different aircraft, a quarter of the fleet, appeared at Nellis during the exercise.
A B-52H Stratofortress was also observed over the ranges on one occasion, although none were listed, or operating from Nellis.
The air-to-air package consisted of 12 F-22A Raptors from the 27th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia
Joining them were the RAF Typhoons. The Raptors had already had the opportunity to work with the Typhoons as 11 Squadron had spent a few weeks at Langley before moving across to Nellis. The Typhoons took advantage of their swing role capability, being used in the air-to-ground role as well as air-to-air.
There were also a small number of F-15C Eagles taking part, including some from the based 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES)
And three from the 85th TES at Eglin AFB, Florida.
Supplementing these were five T-38C Talons from the 560th Flying Training Squadron at Randolph AFB, Texas. However, these appeared to go home after the first week.
The strike / air-to-ground package consisted of 11 F-15E Strike Eagles from the 492nd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England
Eight RAF Tornado GR4s from No 12 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth also took part.
As did six F-16C Fighting Falcons from the 175th Fighter Squadron of the South Dakota ANG, based at Joe Foss Field, Sioux Falls.
Available for a variety of roles, including Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) missions, were 15 F-16Cs from the 79th Fighter Squadron at Shaw AFB, South Carolina.
Additional SEAD assets saw VMAQ-2 from MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina taking part, with four EA-6B Prowlers
The “Black Ravens” of VAQ-135 from NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, made their Red Flag debut with the EA-18G Growler, bringing three of their five aircraft.
As well as the RAAF’s Wedgetails, the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets included a pair of E-3 Sentrys, one B model and one C model, crewed by the 964th Airborne Air Control Squadron at Tinker AFB, Oklahoma.
An RC-135W Rivet Joint crewed by the 343 Reconnaissance Squadron at Offut AFB, Nebraska, an EP-3E Aries II from VQ-1 and a P-3C Orion from VP-46, both based at NAS Whidbey Island, also participated. Additionally MC-12W Libertys from the 427th Reconnaissance Squadron at Beale AFB, California put in occasional appearances.
A pair of EC-130H Compass Calls from the 43rd Electronic Combat Squadron at Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona completed the combat aircraft roll-call.
Tanker support was provided by four KC-135Rs; two from the 91st Air Refuelling Squadron at MacDill AFB, Florida,
And one from the 22nd Air Refuelling Wing at McConnell AFB, Kansas
Finally, one from the 77th Air Refuelling Squadron of Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina.
Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) cover was provided by a pair of HC-130P Kings from the 71st Rescue Squadron at Moody AFB, Georgia,
As well as HH-60G Pavehawks of the Nellis-based 66th Rescue Squadron.
Additionally, three CH-47D Chinooks from B Company, 2-149th General Support Aviation Battalion, Texas Army National Guard based at Grand Prairie Armed Forces Reserve Center were present during the first week.
As usual the enemy forces were provided by the Nellis-based 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS), flying F-16Cs,
And the 65th AGRS, flying F-15Cs.
These were augmented by four F-5N Tiger IIs from the “Snipers” of VMFAT-401 at MCAS Yuma, Arizona.
However they only appeared to join in on the Mondays, and are believed to have operated from Tonopah for some of their missions.
The Nellis Public Affairs team organised a Media Day during the first week, which gave photographers a chance to get out between the runways.
This was quite challenging as there was a big list of aircraft that were not to be photographed. Not only could they not be photographed, but they also couldn’t appear in the background of any shots, and there weren’t many spots on the ramp that didn’t have something that couldn’t be shot in the background! Unfortunately most aircraft launched from runway 3L which is the one closer to the main ramps.
This was made worse by the fact that the launch was delayed and didn’t start properly until well after 2pm, when the light was down the runway, and getting worse.
The recovery started with aircraft landing on runway 21R, which was the wrong runway for the light, but then someone obviously noticed and took pity on the photographers (thank you ATC!) and subsequently, virtually everything landed on runway 21L, providing some beautiful late afternoon light.
Unfortunately time ran out before all the aircraft had recovered, but there was just time to catch the Tornados landing.
This exercise went ahead despite the budget problems, but a few of the squadrons that took part, notably the 492nd FS from Lakenheath, have been affected by the sequestration measures. It has also just been announced the Red Flag 13-4, scheduled for July, has been cancelled. Given the value of the training provided by Red Flag, to (mis) quote the ex-Governor of California, “it’ll be back”.