The latest Red Flag exercise, Red Flag 15-3, took place for three weeks from 13 to 31 July at Nellis AFB, Nevada. This was a purely US exercise, involving units from the US Air Force, US Navy and US Marine Corps. Nearly 120 aircraft deployed to Nellis, some additional aircraft operated from their home base and a few Nellis-based aircraft also took part. Chris Wood reports from a hot and humid Nevada.

According to Major Joe Haggerty from the 414th Combat Training Squadron (CTS), who was the Red Flag 15-3 Team Chief, there were no major differences with 15-3 from previous exercises. However, having introduced virtual aircraft with Red Flag 15-2, there were none in this exercise, although Maj. Haggerty said to expect more in the future. This was the second three-week exercise in FY15 and, according to Maj. Haggerty, the criteria that determines how long the exercise lasts is the available budget.

The exercise followed the usual pattern of two missions each working day, one by day and one by night, with the same mission profile flown for both missions on a given day. Most units provided two sets of crews, one for the day mission and one for the night, and according to Maj. Haggerty it is up to the individual squadrons whether the crews stay flying the same missions throughout the exercise, or swap over week-by-week. The Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets didn’t take part in the day time missions, but their inputs can be simulated by ground based systems.

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A 69th Bomb Squadron B-52H returns to Nellis at the end of a Red Flag mission © Chris Wood –

According to Captain Britt, a B-52 aircraft commander with the 69th Bomb Squadron, preparation for Red Flag starts six months before the exercise begins. With three months to go the squadron starts flying Red Flag profiles and simulating what they expect to happen at Red Flag. 1st Lieutenant Joseph, also from the 69th BS, likened it to the Super Bowl: ‘You plan for it, everybody else is getting ready for it in separate places around the country and then all of a sudden, we all come together and integrate.’

Integration is what it’s all about, and is the word most commonly heard at Nellis. Red Flag provides an opportunity for different and diverse units to operate together to learn about each other’s capabilities and how to make the best of them. According to Lieutenant JG Greg Henderson, a Growler pilot with VAQ-138 fresh out of the training system (known to his colleagues as ‘FNG’!), the Growler’s job is to effectively ‘put a paper bag over the head of the enemy’, so that he is fighting blind. For some of the B-52 crews, Red Flag provided their first opportunity to work with the Growlers.

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A VAQ-138 Growler gets airborne © Chris Wood –

Units making up the Blue Force included:

95th Fighter Squadron ‘Boneheads’, 325th Fighter Wing, Tyndall AFB, Florida, with 12 F-22A Raptors.

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A Raptor from the 95th Fighter Squadron, marked for the 301st Fighter Squadron, a Reserve unit assigned to the 325th Fighter Wing © Chris Wood –

122nd Fighter Squadron ‘Bayou Militia’, 159th Fighter Wing 0f the Louisiana Air National Guard, NAS-JRB New Orleans, Louisiana, with seven F-15C Eagles and one F-15D.

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Heading for the ranges, an F-15C from the ‘Bayou Militia’ © Chris Wood –

55th Fighter Squadron ‘Fighting Fifty-Fifth’, 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, South Carolina, with 12 F-16C Fighting Falcons and two F-16Ds. They were employed in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) role.

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F-16C from the 55th Fighter Squadron © Chris Wood –

389th Fighter Squadron ‘Thunderbolts’, 366th Fighter Wing, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, with 12 F-15E Strike Eagles.

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A ‘Thunderbolts’ Strike Eagle during its landing roll © Chris Wood –

391st Fighter Squadron ‘Bold Tigers’, 366th Fighter Wing, Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, with 18 F-15E Strike Eagles.

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The ‘Bold Tigers’ Commander’s aircraft heads for the ranges © Chris Wood –

It’s unusual to see two squadrons from the same wing taking part, however the single runway at Mountain Home is closed for repairs during the summer with the two USAF squadrons of the 366th FW deployed to Boise’s Gowen Field.

480th Fighter Squadron ‘Warhawks’, 52nd Fighter Wing, Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, with 17 F-16Cs and one F-16D.

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A ‘Warhawks’ F-16C on it’s way to the ranges, passing the distinctive control tower at Nellis © Chris Wood –

69th Bomb Squadron ‘Knighthawks’, 5th Bomb Wing, Minot AFB, North Dakota, with four B-52H Stratofortresses.

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The day missions only saw one B-52 take part, seen here getting airborne © Chris Wood –

422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, 53rd Wing, Nellis AFB. The official listing only included F-15Cs from the 422nd, but various different aircraft types from the unit, including F-15Es and F-16Cs, were observed taking part. It is reported that the 422nd’s F-16s took part in personnel recovery training, operating in the ‘Sandy’ role (named after the callsign of the A-1 Skyraider during the Vietnam War), working with USAF Pavehawks and USN Seahawks.

VMFA-115 ‘Silver Eagles’, Marine Air Wing 2, MCAS Beaufort, South Carolina, with seven F/A-18A++ Hornets.

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The ‘Silver Eagles’ Commanding Officer’s jet © Chris Wood –

The A++ variant features various upgrades which include the APG-73 radar, improved Martin Baker SJU-17 ejection seat and the ability to employ AIM-120 AMRAAMs (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile), JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munition) and JSOWs (Joint StandOff Weapon).

VAQ-138 ‘Yellow Jackets’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, with four EA-18G Growlers.

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The ‘Yellow Jackets’ Commanding Officer’s aircraft tucks up its landing gear © Chris Wood –

VMAQ-4 ‘Seahawks’, Marine Air Wing 2, MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, with four EA-6B Prowlers.

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‘Seahawks’ Prowler © Chris Wood –

344th Air Refuelling Squadron (ARS), 22nd Air Refuelling Wing (ARW), McConnell AFB, Kansas, with three KC-135R Stratotankers.

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A McConnell based KC-135R fitted with MPRS (Multi Point Refuelling System) pods © Chris Wood –

92nd ARW at Fairchild AFB, Washington, with one KC-135R.

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A KC-135R carrying markings for the 92nd ARW at Fairchild © Chris Wood –

960th Airborne Air Control Squadron, 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, with two E-3G Sentries.

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Both Sentries were upgraded E-3G models, which features new mission control computers. Further upgrades are planned, including a glass cockpit © Chris Wood –

38th Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Wing, Offutt AFB, Nebraska, with one RC-135W Rivet Joint.

16th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, 116th Air Control Wing, Robbins AFB, Georgia, with one E-8C JSTARS.

43rd Electronic Combat Squadron, 55th Electronic Combat Group, Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, with one EC-130H Compass Call.

HSC-6 ‘Screamin’ Indians’, NAS North Island, California, with four MH-60S Seahawks.

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‘Screamin’ Indians’ MH-60S © Chris Wood –

There were also three HH-60G Pavehawks from various unidentified Rescue Squadrons.

Additionally, B-2A Spirits from the 509th Bomb Wing at Whitman AFB, Missouri, are reported to have flown in some of the missions, operating from their home base.

As usual the opposing Red Force was provided by the Nellis-based 57th Adversary Tactics Group (ATG), which includes the 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) operating their F-16Cs, as well as other units such as the 547th Intelligence Squadron.

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64th AGRS Commander’s aircraft heads out © Chris Wood –

For this exercise the Red Force was augmented by aircraft from a number of the Blue Force units on a day-by-day basis, unlike 15-1 and 15-2 where one unit was dedicated to the Red Force. On the penultimate day several aircraft were observed performing the Flex departure from the northerly runways. This is a low-level departure which sees the aircraft routing around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway before departing to the north-west, and is usually performed by aircraft going to the western side of the ranges, which is where the Red Force congregate.

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An F-15C from the 122nd FS turns hard left to pass behind the Speedway for the Flex departure ©Chris Wood –

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On the Flex departure, an F-16C from the 55th Fighter Squadron © Chris Wood –

As well as the F-16s of the 64th AGRS, two F-15Cs from the 122nd FS, four F-15Es from the 389th FS and a pair of F-16s from the 55th FS were seen to depart in that direction. According to Maj. Haggerty, the Growlers, Prowlers and Marine Corps Hornets also joined the Red Forces at times.

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The ‘Thunderbolts’ Commander’s aircraft leads a flight of four on the Flex departure © Chris Wood –

According to Maj. William Lutmer, the 414th CTS Director of Operations, ‘Red Flag 15-3 played out well with lots of learning throughout the exercise. Participants have shown good improvement in execution and integration planning over the exercise.’ He went on to say that ‘Red Flag continues to evolve to provide our Air Force, sister services and allies the highest level of training possible. We are trying to stay one step ahead of the adversary so that our forces are ready to solve any problem thrown at them’.

As is often the case, whilst Red Flag was taking place other aircraft were operating from Nellis, including 12 A-10C Thunderbolt IIs from the 75th Fighter Squadron of the 347th Wing at Moody AFB, Georgia, who were taking part in a Green Flag – West exercise. This is a close air support exercise which takes place on an almost monthly basis, at the US Army National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. The A-10s were supported by a single KC-135R from the 6th Air Mobility Wing at MacDill AFB, Florida.

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75th FS A-10C © Chris Wood –

Red Flag 15-3 finished on 31 July. Red Flag 15-4 starts on 17 August and includes aircraft from Israel, reportedly five F-15Ds and five F-15Is, Jordan with five F-16As, and Singapore. No announcement has been made about US units so far.