Red Flag is a programme which will no doubt be familiar to most of our readership, with GAR having covered the majority of its iterations over the last couple of years. Suffice to say, it is the world’s largest and most established air combat exercise, which normally takes place three times per year at Nellis AFB, NV. The exercise is organised by the 414th Combat Training Squadron (CTS) and attracts participation from units throughout the USAF (and other branches of the US armed services) as well as allies overseas. Paul Dunn reports, with additional reporting by Chris Wood and Rob Edgcumbe.
Red Flag was established as a response to unacceptable losses during the Vietnam War. The programme was designed to give pilots the chance to fly their first ten combat missions in simulated conditions as close to war as possible, in order to give them the experience needed to survive in actual combat.
Early Red Flag exercises were predominately concerned with preparing crews for aerial combat; in later years the exercises have become much more diverse and can now include the full gamut of air power. This has resulted in a more balanced exercise, and one which better prepares participants for contemporary real world operations. Each exercise is different, in part this is driven by the available participants and compared to 14-1, for example, 14-3 was light on ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and tanker assets. In total 110 aircraft and 2,300 personnel deployed to Nellis for the exercise.
Red Flag 14-3 was the third and final exercise to be held during FY14. It took place at Nellis AFB between the 14th and the 25th July 2014, with participation from the USAF, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the Armée de l’Air (France). Two missions were flown on each flying day, a daylight mission between the hours of 1300 and 1600, plus a night-time mission between the hours of 2000 and 0000.
Blue Force (friendly) participants from the USAF were as follows:
95th FS, 325th FW, Tyndall AFB, FL
‘Mr Bones’ was a late addition to the exercise participation list. Having served as the USAF’s F-15 Eagle training squadron until September 2010, the 95th FS was reactivated in October 2013 with the F-22A Raptor, achieving its initial operational capability in April 2014. This was the squadron’s Red Flag debut with the Raptor, and it sent 12 aircraft to Nellis.
335th FS, 4th FW, Seymour-Johnson AFB, NC
One of several F-15E Strike Eagle units to take part in Red Flag 14-3 , they brought 14 aircraft.
494th FS, 48th FW, RAF Lakenheath, UK
Another unit equipped with the F-15E, the 494th FS also brought 14 aircraft, a mix of its own and some from the 492nd FS.
510th FS, 31st FW, Aviano AB, Italy
The second USAFE unit to take part was the 510th FS, which brought a large number of F-16C/Ds across the Atlantic for various exercises, including Red Flag 14-3.
79th FS, 20th FW, Shaw AFB, SC
The ‘Tigers’ are regular attendees at Red Flag, specialising in SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences). All three of the 20th FW’s squadrons have participated in Red Flag exercises in 2014.
Both of the F-16 units deployed with 18 aircraft.
34th BS, 28th BW, Ellsworth AFB, SD
Five B-1B Lancers from the 28th BW were present at Nellis. Although the 34th BS was the nominated unit taking part, three of the aircraft present carried the markings of the 37th BS, with aircraft being pooled and shared between squadrons.
The 28th BW was the lead wing for Red Flag 14-3, with its commander Col Kevin Kennedy being the Air Expeditionary Wing commander for the exercise.
“As the lead wing, our primary task is to quickly integrate squadrons from across the U.S. Air Force and those participating from our coalition partners so we are ready to employ on the first day. In combat, we must be lethal and ready for the first engagement, the first bomb run, the very instant we start combat operations.”
66th RQS, 23rd Wg, Nellis AFB, NV
The locally-based HH-60G Pave Hawk squadron operated in the CSAR (Combat Search And Rescue) role.
55th RQS, 23rd Wg, Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ
The squadron brought three of its HH-60G Pave Hawks.
71st RQS, 23rd Wg, Moody AFB, GA
The squadron brought a pair of HC-130Ps, but these were rarely seen flying during daylight hours.
960th AACS, 552nd ACW, Tinker AFB, OK
Another unit that only seemed to fly at night, it brought a pair of E-3Bs.
93rd ARS, 92nd ARW, Fairchild AFB, WA
The 93rd ARS provided tanker support for the exercise, with a pair of KC-135R Stratotankers.
23rd BS, 5th BW, Minot AFB, ND
In addition, the 23rd BS flew their B-52H Stratofortesses as part of the exercise, but did not operate from Nellis. The squadron is currently temporarily assigned to Ellsworth AFB due to runway repairs at Minot, so it was not considered appropriate for it to deploy again, from there to Nellis.
Republic of Singapore Air Force
The contribution from the RSAF to Red Flag 14-3 was notable. Singapore is a tiny city state, with very limited airspace for training. For that reason, its military pilots conduct the majority of their training overseas, with a significant number coming to the US for frontline conversion courses. Unlike many traditional conversion courses, which are relatively short and turn out a pilot who can operate their aircraft safely enough to be posted to a frontline unit to continue their training there, RSAF pilots can expect to spend up to two years at their training unit, during which time most of them get to experience Red Flag.
The RSAF sent aircraft and crews from three US-based squadrons for the exercise.
425th FS, 56th FW, Luke AFB, AZ
The mission of the 425th FS is to provide advanced weapons and tactics continuation training for RSAF F-16 pilots and maintenance personnel, who are assigned to the squadron for two years. During this time they receive advanced tactics training, participate in Red Flag, shoot live missiles at Combat Archer and deploy to locations throughout the United States to participate in composite operations and dissimilar air combat exercises.
Two of the squadron’s aircraft wore special markings to commemorate 20 years of the Peace Carvin II programme.
428th FS, 366th FW, Mountain Home AFB, ID
The “Buccaneers” of the 428th FS perform a similar mission with the F-15SG variant of the Strike Eagle, under the Peace Carvin V programme. Although the Buccaneers had previously taken part in Red Flag Alaska, this was the unit’s debut at a Nellis-based Red Flag exercise. Both RSAF squadrons brought eight aircraft to the exercise.
The squadron brought a pair of specially-marked aircraft to commemorate five years of the Peace Carvin V programme.
Company G, 149th Aviation Regiment, Texas Army National Guard, Redmond Taylor AHP, Grand Prairie, TX
This is the RSAF CH-47D Chinook training unit, which operates under the Peace Prairie programme from the former Dallas NAS at Grand Prairie. It sent three of its aircraft for the exercise.
French Air Force
ET02.061, BA123 Orleans-Bricy, France
Finally, the AdlA participated in the exercise in the form of a single C-130H-30 Hercules.
The French were originally expected to send Rafale fighters, plus at least one C-160 Transall, but these were withdrawn from the exercise at a fairly early stage. These cancellations were amongst several, including the loss of participation from the Israeli Air Force, which had planned to send F-16Is and F-15s to take part.
Capt David Kobb is a WSO from the F-15E Strike Eagle community, who is currently attached to Red Flag as a program manager. In his role he works with project officers from both Red and Blue forces to bring together the exercise. In his opinion, the cancellations didn’t cause too many problems for the organisers.
“It sometimes makes some ripples, it depends on who is joining and leaving and how late. Depending on how far we are into the scenario development, it can create some issues, or not so many issues, it really depends on who it is. With the people who did drop out, it happened early enough for us to adjust the program.”
His colleague 1st Lt Christopher Clements from the 547th Intelligence Squadron agrees. In his role, Lt Clements is involved in scenario development for the exercise.
“We try to build the Air Tasking Orders (ATOs) and targeting lists as early as possible, but it’s much easier to remove people from the ATO than to add them at the last minute.”
Developing a useful and realistic scenario is of great importance to the organisers. That said, the scenarios do not necessarily mirror contemporary real world events, and are not intended to do so. The aim is to equip participants with the skills to solve real world tactical problems, rather than prepare them for one specific scenario or adversary.
“The individual scenarios aren’t really based on anything forward-looking. A lot of times, the overall scenario politically and geopolitically in each individual day is more inspired by things which have happened in the past, so we’re trying to use the lessons learned through those scenarios to try and affect future planning. We’re not preparing for a specific imminent threat, but more to give training to the aircrew that are out here.”
The scenarios presented to the crews are now considerably more diverse than they were, even in the recent past. Providing the opposition for the duration of the exercise, the Red Force draws on a significant amount of assets, with the well known aggressor aircraft of the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons forming the most visible aspect of the many threats presented in the Red Flag environment. Participating crews can expect to be engaged over the ranges by traditional ground-based threats such as SAMs and AAA, but increasingly they will be targeted in other ways.
This was the last Red Flag exercise for the 65th AGRS, as the squadron is standing down at the end of September. A small number of its aircraft will be retained and operated by the 64th AGRS, but only until the end of March 2015 when they will be retired to AMARG.
The USAF’s stated mission is to provide dominance in the air, space and cyberspace. During the period of hiatus caused by sequestration and budget restrictions in FY13, the Red Flag team took the opportunity to review and reformat the exercise to include these latter two arenas into the exercise scenario. This was in part influenced by people like Maj Nathan Boardman, a Red Flag team chief with a background as a space and missile officer, the first such officer to serve in his role in the exercise. For him, the scenario development process is a long and detailed task.
“The idea behind Red Flag is to give the newer pilots their first ten combat missions, so what we try and do is build scenarios which allow us to accomplish this within the confines of the type of airframes and various weapons systems we have coming to the exercise. For the FY14 sequence of exercises, we spent an entire month developing scenarios, one week for each scenario, to make them what they are today. What we did was to bring in experts from all the various platforms to help us build scenarios that were relevant and current, so that folks leave here with the advanced training that they need to go forth and do the mission better. The idea is to prepare them to survive in combat.”
As Red Flag has developed into the multi-faceted programme that it is today, its aims have shifted somewhat. Providing the vital experience of the ‘first ten missions’, is still the primary raison d’être for the whole enterprise, but there are more lessons to be learned for participants.
One such lesson applies to all members of a unit attending the exercise, rather than simply the crews flying the missions. In order to participate in the exercise, a unit must deploy from its home base, giving everyone involved experience of the requirements of expeditionary operations. SSgt Jonathon Allesse from the 93rd ARS is the chief boom operator with the Tanker Task Force for Red Flag 14-3.
“We brought a lot of cargo here, almost 12 pallets’ worth. We had a lot of parts for our aircraft, we are almost a fully deployed unit here. We are completely self sufficient; we brought all the stuff we needed to complete Red Flag and complete the mission.”
One of the most important aspects of Red Flag is the opportunity it presents for participants to learn about other communities within the USAF and beyond. This sharing of information is vital to the conduct of future operations, according to Capt Paul Sheehey, who flies the HH-60 Pave Hawk with the 55th RQS.
“What is important is the focus isn’t necessarily on the enemy, it’s the integration. I don’t have F-15s or F-16s at my base, so my ability to train with them isn’t really there. So when I come to Red Flag, even though I’ve done it before, it’s always different, as you are trying to figure out how to integrate with them and maximise everyone’s capabilities to attack a problem. And those scenarios are different every day, so I’ve learned as much, if not more, in this Red Flag as the last one.”
For Capt Sheehey, although the format is similar from exercise to exercise, there is still plenty to take away from the experience.
“They kind of smell the same when you show up and get the range briefings and all that, the process feels the same, but the enemy’s not, the scenario’s not, even if it was the same, I’m working with a different F-16 or F-15 guy overhead, or a different ground team, so somebody’s different, and people are going to attack a problem differently to solve a problem differently. So between the different scenarios, and in two weeks of doing this with a whole bunch of players, every fight is sort of different, I think the end goal is really integration. I go back home and I know that if I do deploy and I’ve got a four ship of F-15s overhead, here’s what they can do for me and here’s what I can do for them, that otherwise I wouldn’t necessarily know, unless I go face to face and I’m talking with an F-15 guy. For me that’s the crux of Red Flag.”
The main aim of the exercise, though, is to better prepare its participants for flying large-scale combat missions. Although US forces have seen plenty of combat action over the last decade, they have not faced the kind of threat that is simulated during Red Flag. However, this does not mean that they will never be called upon to take part in the sort of large-scale operations the exercise simulates. Capt Tom Morrill is an F-15E pilot with the 335th FS. Although he has flown on operations in the Middle East, 14-3 was his first experience of Red Flag.
“From the perspective of pilots like me, it’ll look very much like actual combat. There’s not a lot of people that are still around, that haven’t retired already, that have faced these kinds of complex scenarios, with the kind of air and ground threat that we’re facing here. So, a lot of us have been to the Middle East, but that’s a totally different kind of conflict as far as the adversary that you are facing there.”
In an uncertain world, with several potential future trouble spots, in fairly diverse locations, the skills that Red Flag reinforces are more important than ever. Given this increased importance, the demand for places on the exercise means that there are now four exercises planned in FY15. Although the scenarios are not specific to a particular region, the skill set learned is invaluable in helping crews adapt and overcome any challenges that they might be presented with in the future. Giving US and Allied crews the opportunity to work together and solve complex tactical problems, in a high-threat environment, is vital to maintaining the ability to conduct operations worldwide.
The authors would like to thank the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs team for their assistance with this article.