2016’s Red Flag series of exercises kicked off at Nellis AFB, Nevada on 25 January with Red Flag 16-1, the first of four exercises planned for Fiscal Year 2016. Chris Wood and Rob Edgcumbe report from Nevada.
This was a large, three week exercise with over 120 aircraft deployed to Nellis from 39 different units supported by over 2,400 personnel. Additionally, aircraft from a number of Nellis-based squadrons, plus others that were listed as operating from their home bases, also participated. As well as a large contingent of US Air Force aircraft, there were aircraft from several Air National Guard (ANG) units, as well as from the US Navy. Also taking part were the UK’s Royal Air Force (RAF) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).
The Red Flag series of exercises grew out of the Vietnam War and its primary aim is to provide new aircrews with their first ten combat sorties, which had been shown to be when they were most vulnerable. Although it started out as purely an air-to-air exercise, over the years it has evolved to take in all aspects of aerial warfare, and the exercises can include almost any aircraft in the US military’s inventory, and also that of their coalition partners.
The units that deploy to Nellis do so under the Air Expeditionary Wing concept, and make up the Blue forces. For 16-1, the commander of the Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) was Col Derek C. France, 325th Fighter Wing Commander, flying F-22A Raptors, and the vice commander was Group Captain Phil Gordon RAAF, Officer Commanding 81st Wing, an F/A-18A Hornet pilot.
The ‘enemy’ is provided by the Red force under the 57th Adversary Tactics Group (ATG), which comprises a number of Aggressor Squadrons (AGRS), only one of which, the 64th AGRS, operates aircraft. Overseeing it all is the White force which uses the Nellis Air Combat Training System (NACTS), a sophisticated tracking system, to monitor all aspects of the simulated air battles. NACTS is also used for debriefing.
The action takes place over the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), which occupies 2.9 million acres of land to the North of Las Vegas. In here can be found a range of targets, including mock airfields, parked aircraft, vehicle convoys, tanks, missile sites and bunkered defensive positions. There are also places to avoid within the NTTR, most notably the famous Area 51.
The exercise is run by the 414th Combat Training Squadron and administered by the US Air Force Warfare Center. According to Lt Col Kevin ‘Flash’ Gordon, 414th CTS deputy commander and former 64th AGRS commander, there were no major changes made for Red Flag 16-1 from previous exercises, only minor tweaks.
For 16-1, two missions were flown each day, one day and one night. Typically the Red forces will gather on the Western side of the ranges, and the Blue on the Eastern side. According to Lt Col Gordon, the aim is for the fight to last for 90 minutes so the aircraft are launched from 45 to 20 minutes before the start to achieve that window. A number will rendezvous with a tanker first and typically the profile will see the first ten minutes as an air-to-air fight to clear out the first wave of Red fighters, followed by Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) aircraft before the strike aircraft run in to attack their targets. However, not all missions are the same, and each day has a different scenario; for example, some days the strike aircraft will be sent in first to draw out the Red fighters. As pointed out by Gp Capt Gordon, with the exception of the B-1Bs, all the aircraft carry AMRAAMs (Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile), so all have a dual role.
Integration is what it’s all about and, according to Gp Capt Gordon, “over a week and a half I’ve seen it evolve from a bunch of people operating alongside each other to a team effort where we are really tightly integrated. The learning curve has been quite remarkable”.
It isn’t just about the aircrew though. According to Master Sergeant Kelly Martin of the 95th Fighter Squadron, an F-22A Raptor unit, it’s a contested environment which poses challenges for the maintainers too, to replicate being down range. This can be something as simple as spoof telephone calls, asking someone to move a piece of equipment, to much more complex cyber threats.
For some, just getting to Nellis is a major logistical challenge and that is seen as part of the exercise. Gp Capt Gordon again: “It took us one week to move 400 personnel and 14 aircraft half way around the world with three stops; Guam, Hawaii and Nellis. We were supported by our C-17s and KC-30s. We left on time and arrived on time.”
Since the stand down of the 65th AGRS with their F-15 Eagles, other units are being tasked as part of the Red force. In some cases units act as Red air throughout the exercise. At other times individual squadrons provide a number of aircraft, either throughout the exercise or on specific days, to join the Aggressors. According to Col Kenny Smith, 57th Operations Group Commander, this doesn’t pose any problems for them as they are used to taking on the opponent role at their home stations. They also get a comprehensive briefing from the 64th AGRS.
Units taking part in Red Flag 16-1 included:
95th Fighter Squadron ‘Boneheads’, 325th Fighter Wing, Tyndall AFB, Florida, with 12 F-22A Raptors.
131st Fighter Squadron ‘Barnestormers’, 104th Fighter Wing, Massachusetts ANG, Barnes ANGB, Massachusetts, with seven F-15Cs and one F-15D Eagle.
194th Fighter Squadron ‘Griffins’, 144th Fighter Wing, California ANG, Fresno ANGB, California, with eight F-15Cs.
157th Fighter Squadron ‘Swamp Foxes’, 169th Fighter Wing, South Carolina ANG, McEntire ANGB, South Carolina, with ten F-16C Fighting Falcons. They were employed in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) role, and most were painted in the new Have Glass II scheme.
510th Fighter Squadron ‘Buzzards’ , 31st Fighter Wing, Aviano Air Base, Italy with 13 F-16Cs and an F-16D.
ANG/AFRC Test Centre (AATC), Arizona ANG, Tucson ANGB, Tucson, Arizona with six F-16Cs.
422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, 53rd Wing, Nellis AFB, Nevada with F-16Cs and an F-16D.
9th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats’, 7th Bomb Wing, Dyess AFB, Texas, with five B-1B Lancers.
335th Fighter Squadron ‘Chiefs’, 4th Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, with 14 F-15E Strike Eagles.
VAQ-138 ‘Yellow Jackets’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, with five EA-18G Growlers.
No 3 Squadron, RAF Coningsby, England, with eight Tranche 1 Typhoon FGR4s. Four aircraft were from No 3 Squadron and four from No 11 Squadron.
The aircraft had deployed to Langley AFB, Virginia in late 2015 for Exercise Trilateral 2015, which saw No 11 Squadron participate. The aircraft were then flown to Nellis just before Christmas to await the start of Red Flag.
No 1 Squadron, 82nd Wing, RAAF Amberley, Australia, with six F/A-18F Super Hornets. Declared operational in December 2011 replacing the venerable F-111, this was the RAAF Super Hornet’s Red Flag debut.
No 75 Squadron, 81st Wing, RAAF Tindal, Australia, with six F/A-18A Hornets.
Air-to-air refuelling support was provided by:
6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill AFB, Florida, with two KC-135R Stratotankers.
22nd Air Refuelling Wing (ARW), McConnell AFB, Kansas, with two KC-135Rs.
There were a large number of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets taking part. For the first two weeks they rarely ventured out in daylight, but week three saw several of them flying in the daylight missions.
965th Airborne Air Control Squadron, 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, with two E-3G Sentries. The E-3G upgrade replaces 1970s computing technology with a current day, Windows-based system. It achieved Initial Operating Capability in July 2015 and this version made its first operational deployment to South-West Asia in November.
343rd 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.
41st Electronic Combat Squadron, 55th Electronic Combat Group, Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, with one EC-130H Compass Call.
VP-1 ‘Screaming Eagles’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, with one P-3C Orion fitted with the Littoral Radar Surveillance System (LSRS).
VQ-1 ‘World Watchers’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington, with one EP-3E Aries II.
VP-45 ‘Pelicans’, NAS Jacksonville, Florida, with one P-8A Poseidon. This was the P-8’s Red Flag debut.
No 5 (AC) Squadron, RAF Waddington, England, with one Sentinel R1.
No 8 Squadron, RAF Waddington, England, with one E-3D Sentry AEW1.
No 2 Squadron, 42nd Wing, RAAF Wiliamtown, Australia, with one E-7A ‘Wedgetail’.
No 10 Squadron, 92 Wing, RAAF Edinburgh, Australia, with one AP-3C Orion.
Providing Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) were:
79th Rescue Squadron, 563rd Rescue Group, Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona, with two HC-130J Combat King IIs.
No 47 Squadron, RAF Brize Norton, England with one C-130J Hercules C4.
210th Rescue Squadron ‘The Second 10th’, 176th Wing, Alaska ANG, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, with two HH-60G Pavehawks.
Other units operating from their home bases included:
13th Bomb Squadron ‘The Devils Own Grim Reapers’, 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman AFB, Missouri, with B-2A Spirits.
99th Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale AFB, California, with U-2S ‘Dragon Ladies’.
12th Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale AFB, California, with RQ-4B Global Hawks.
348th Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota, with RQ-4B Global Hawks.
As usual the Red Force comprised the 64th Aggressor Squadron from Nellis flying the F-16C, augmented by a number of the Blue force units on a day-by-day basis. It’s believed that some of both the California and Massachusetts ANG F-15Cs joined the Red force, as well as some F-16s. Mondays were Defensive Counter Air (DCA) days, and saw some of the strike aircraft, including F-15Es and B-1Bs, join the Red force.
Nellis hosted an important visitor during the exercise when Secretary of Defence Ash Carter paid a short visit. Speaking to the based airmen he said, “The key is readiness; that’s the key to the Air Force today and tomorrow, and it happens here. What I’m asking the Air Force to do … is maintain a very high level of readiness, and that you get from Nellis. This is the only test range where you can bring it all together, not only all the kinds of aircraft you see on the ramps out there, but the satellites you don’t see and the cyber (activity) you don’t see. In today’s world, all of that is brought together only here at Nellis, so it’s an enormously important installation. That is reflected in our budget, where we’re adding $1 billion more for training of this kind over the next five years. That’s going to support no fewer than 34 major exercises.”
Guess Nellis is going to be busy!
Red Flag 16-2 starts on 29 February.
The authors would like to thank the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs team for their assistance with this article.