2015’s Red Flag series of exercises kicked off at Nellis AFB, Nevada on 26 January. Red Flag 15-1 is the first of four exercises planned for Fiscal Year 2015, which is Red Flag’s 40th anniversary year. Chris Wood and Rob Edgcumbe report from Nevada.
Around 120 aircraft deployed to Nellis AFB for the three-week exercise, which also included a number of aircraft from Nellis-based squadrons and a handful that were listed as operating from their home bases. As well as a large contingent of US Air Force (USAF) aircraft, there was also participation by several Air National Guard (ANG) units and an Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC) unit, as well as the US Navy (USN) and the US Marine Corps (USMC). Also taking part were the Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). A total of 29 missions were planned for the exercise, with two missions carried out each day – one day and one night. The more experienced crews were employed for the night missions, which was also when the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets were usually employed.
The action took place over the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), which occupies 2.9 million acres of land to the north of Las Vegas. Within this territory can be found 1200 different targets and according to Red Flag Deputy Targets Chief 1st Lt Paul Heins, from the 547th Intelligence Squadron (IS), one of his roles is to study real world targets and replicate them for Red Flag.
Around 3000 personnel made Nellis their home for the exercise, including 350 from the Royal Air Force. Red Flag 15-1 Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) Commander was Col Brian Dudas, 48th Fighter Wing Vice Commander, who has plenty of Red Flag experience having attended nine of the exercises since his first Red Flag experience as a B-1 co-pilot in 1995. AEW Vice Commander was Gp Capt Mark Chappell, RAF Lossiemouth’s Station Commander, who said “It’s a privilege to be given the AEW Vice Commander position which demonstrates the unique relationship we enjoy with our American partners.”
Blue Force units taking part in Red Flag 15-1 included:
94th Fighter Squadron ‘Hat-in-the-Ring Gang’, 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, with 12 F-22A Raptors.
493rd Fighter Squadron ‘Grim Reapers’, 48th Fighter Wing, RAF Lakenheath, England, with 11 F-15C Eagles and one F-15D.
79th Fighter Squadron ‘Tigers’, 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, South Carolina, with 13 F-16C Fighting Falcons and one F-16D. These aircraft were employed in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) role.
555th Fighter Squadron ‘Triple Nickel’ , 31st Fighter Wing, Aviano Air Base, Italy, with 14 F-16Cs.
134th Fighter Squadron ‘Green Mountain Boys’, 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont ANG, Burlington International Airport, Vermont, with 12 F-16Cs.
175th Fighter Squadron ‘Lobos’, 114th Fighter Wing, South Dakota ANG, Joe Foss Field, Sioux Falls Regional Airport, South Dakota, with eight F-16Cs.
393rd Bomb Squadron ‘Tigers’, 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman AFB, Missouri, with three B-2A Spirits.
VMFA(AW)-225 ‘Vikings’, Marine Air Wing 3, MCAS Miramar, California, with eight F/A-18D Hornets.
VAQ-132 ‘Scorpions’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, with five EA-18G Growlers, one of which was in the markings of VAQ-129.
No 1 (F) Squadron, RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland. In total, the RAF brought eight Tranche 2 Typhoon FGR4s, two from No 1 Squadron, three from No 6 Squadron, plus two from No 11 Squadron and one from No 41 Squadron, both based at RAF Coningsby, England.
The Typhoons operated in the swing role, meaning they were employed in both the air-to-ground and the air-to-air roles. According to Wing Commander Mike Sutton, Officer Commanding No 1(F) Squadron, “The Typhoons are integrating really well. We’ve been fighting our way in past advanced air threats, surviving and dropping live Paveway IV bombs, and then fighting our way out again while integrating with American aircraft. That’s been working extremely well.” Red Flag 15-1 was reportedly also the first operational test of Typhoons P1Eb upgrade.
For the tanker force there were four KC-135R Stratotankers assigned to the exercise, one from each of the following units:
22nd Air Refuelling Wing (ARW) at McConnell AFB, Kansas, which was fitted with Multi Point Receiver System (MPRS) pods.
92nd ARW at Fairchild AFB, Washington.
166th Air Refuelling Squadron (ARS) of the 121st ARW, Ohio ANG, based at Rickenbacker International Airport, near Columbus, Ohio.
72nd ARS, 916 ARW, AFRC based at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina.
ISR assets included:
965th Airborne Air Control Squadron, 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, with two E-3B Sentries.
38th Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Wing, Offutt AFB, Nebraska, with one RC-135W Rivet Joint.
12th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, 461st Air Control Wing, Robbins AFB, Georgia, with one E-8C JSTARS.
VP-46 ‘Grey Knights’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, with one P-3C Orion.
VQ-1 ‘World Watchers’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, with one EP-3E Aries II.
No 10 Squadron, 92 Wing, RAAF Base Edinburgh, Australia, with one AP-3C Orion.
No 5 (AC) Squadron, RAF Waddington, England, with two Sentinel R1s. This was the Sentinel’s Red Flag debut.
Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) assets included:
79th Rescue Squadron, 23rd Wing, Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, with two HC-130J Combat King IIs.
66th Rescue Squadron, 23rd Wing, Nellis AFB, Nevada, with HH-60G Pavehawks.
No 37 Squadron, RAAF Base Richmond, Australia, with two C-130J Super Hercules.
Additionally the 43rd Electronic Combat Squadron, 55th Electronic Control Group at Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, operating the EC-130H Compass Call, and the 99th Reconnaissance Squadron of the 9th Reconnaissance Wing at Beale AFB, California, operating the U-2S, were listed for the exercise.
As usual, the opposing Red Force was provided by the Nellis based 57th Adversary Tactics Group (ATG), which includes the 64th Aggressor Squadron, operating F-16Cs and the last few remaining aggressor F-15Cs, as well as other units such as the 547th Intelligence Squadron (IS).
335th Fighter Squadron ‘Chiefs’, 4th Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, with eight F-15E Strike Eagles.
Unusually, for this Red Flag the Red Forces were augmented by the 335th Strike Eagles. “Red Flag gives our aircrew the opportunity to learn more about adversary tactics and weapon systems and to become more familiar with possible threats we will be facing in the future,” said Lt. Col. Trent Tripple, 335th Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations.
Other units taking part included the 526th IS from Nellis and the RAF’s No 1 Air Control Centre (1ACC) from RAF Scampton. The role of 1ACC was to provide Aerospace Battle Managers to control air battles from the ground, providing Blue Forces with vital tactical information from radars and other sensors.
Whilst the nature of the exercise is constantly evolving, the most commonly heard word is ‘integration’. All recent and current conflicts have seen mixed coalition forces responding to the threat and Red Flag provides a unique opportunity for squadrons from all branches of the US military, as well as Coalition partners (over 30 at the last count), to train together and learn about each other’s capabilities, tactics and procedures in a controlled environment. This means that when they meet in the ‘real world’ they are already prepared to work together and integrate their operations.
However, it isn’t just about integrating aircraft operations –
cyber and space form an important part of today’s wars, and for some this aspect of the operation is new. According to Tech Sgt Guillermo Salcedo from the 1st Maintenance Squadron (AMXS) at Langley AFB, supporting the 94th Fighter Squadron and its F-22A Raptors, the biggest difference for the maintenance teams is the inclusion of cyber threats.
It’s all about integration, integration, integration!
According to Col. Dudas, AEW Commander, “In the 1970s, when Red Flag began, much of the technology we rely on today was still developing, and wasn’t yet part of day-to-day employment. Today, everything overlaps across the domains, and they continue to evolve. Cyber warfare absolutely affects our capabilities, and defence of space in the future will be very important.”
“In today’s world, the likelihood of going to combat without our sister services, allies, and partners is almost nil. Therefore, we want to maximise our opportunities to push our own limits alongside those warriors with whom we will fight when called upon.”
Dudas said he’s seen the level of international integration improve dramatically over the years. “We used to spend the entire time trying to figure out how each other spoke, in different terminologies. It took time to learn how to best communicate and interact. Now we walk in on the same page, ready to fight. We already speak a common tactical language. The relationships built and strengthened here will pay huge dividends in future combat operations.”
Col. Brian Humphrey, 552nd ACW Vice Commander echoed the same sentiments. “Having the opportunity to send crews to an exercise like Red Flag before they deploy is extremely valuable and goes well beyond just mission employment. It allows our crews to mesh, both internally and with the rest of the combat air force, into a cohesive unit through the trials and tribulations of a simulated wartime environment. We fight as a team, so we have to train as a team.”
For first time Red Flag participant Capt Brendan ‘Bloc’ Bond, a B-2 pilot, the benefit of Red Flag for the B-2 force is that “with the B-2, we’re doing air refuelling with other tankers, but we’re not doing a whole lot of integration on a day-to-day basis. Being down the hall from the Raptor guys, the AWACS unit, using all the different resources that the Air Force and the coalition partners have, has been really useful, it’s eye opening. [Red Flag] gives the opportunity to use some of those capabilities and some of these assets that real world, that we’d need, and work on that coordination.
“It’s a lot of fun to get out here to talk with the other jets and the other crews on what we can do for them and what they can do for us, and really go down and take out an integrated air defence system or some hardened, deeply buried targets, which is where Red Flag is really good for us.”
Wing Commander Darren Goldie, Commanding Officer of No 37 Squadron, RAAF, continues the theme from the viewpoint of a coalition partner. “The integration of the coalition force often happens on operations for the first time, so it’s critical we’re well prepared to participate in operations and speak the same tactical language and apply the same tactics, techniques and procedures as our coalition partners. As coalition partners, Australia, the UK and the USA are about as close as they come.” He also pointed out that the RAAF is a small but technologically advanced air force “so generally we’re going to participate multi-nationally as part of a coalition and Red Flag is a very important step in us understanding how to best operate as part of a coalition.”
He went on to say, “Australia, like the UK, is one of the most consistent international participants; we’ve certainly participated for over 30 of the 40 years that Red Flag has been running… During that time we’ve cycled through quite a lot of aircraft, so that a lot of aircraft that are no longer in the inventory have come here, but we are now at a stage where we have quite a few platforms both in our inventory in Australia and coming, including things like the Joint Strike Fighter, and what we need to do is to have each of those platforms come here and experience and develop their own procedures.
“It’s part of our bringing each of our capabilities across here, getting us to operate and bringing it back home and applying those lessons back in Australia.
“At its simplest level the lessons learned are compiled at a squadron level. We hold Australian-based exercises as well, and that way we can apply those lessons from the big multinational exercises into an Australian exercise and hoping to replicate information, as simple as the information that’s displayed on a pilot’s knee board is consistent across the coalition nations, so that if we’re operating with an American formation or a British formation we would expect the information to be displayed the same way each time, so that when it all gets difficult, in the heat of the battle, in the heat of the night you can look down and you know where to look each time. It’s important to keep that information consistent, and as the nature of warfare’s changing it’s important that we continue to evolve.”
Unlike the USAF and the RAF, the RAAF only has one squadron of C-130s, so it has to cover all the roles from high-end war fighting skills down to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and search and rescue, and all its crews have to be skilled across that continuum. At Red Flag the C-130 is outmatched by virtually everything in the sky, so its role is to get down low and hope people are trying to target a B-2 or a Raptor and not a Hercules, and with a war spread over 50,000 feet, anything at 250 feet hidden in the hills is hard to find. The RAAF’s C-130s are being employed in insertion of special forces, paratrooping, landing on salt pan runways, flying against the Red Force radars and making sure that their tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) are up to scratch.
Red Flag 15-1 wrapped up on Friday 13 February and Red Flag 15-2, which will be the last Red Flag that sees the aggressor F-15 in action prior to its retirement, starts on 2 March.