The Red Flag series of exercises have settled in to a regular pattern, and like last year’s third Red Flag, 15-3, only US units took part with all four services being represented. Around 3,500 personnel were involved and around 100 aircraft. The exercise followed the usual pattern of two missions each week day, one day and one night, and took place over the vast expanse of the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), to the North of Nellis. Red Flag is one of a series of advanced training programmes administered by the US Air Force Warfare Center, based at Nellis, and is executed through the 414th Combat Training Squadron. It encompasses all domains – air, space and cyberspace, and the multi-domain nature of modern warfare was the major theme of this exercise.
There were a few firsts with this iteration, the most visible being the inaugural participation in Red Flag by the F-35 Lightning II, with the US Marine Corps’ VMFA-121 ‘Green Knights’ bringing six of their F-35B aircraft from their base at MCAS Yuma, Arizona.
Commanding the Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) was Colonel DeAnna Burt, Commander of the 50th Space Wing at Schriever AFB, Colorado. This was the first Red Flag to be commanded by an officer from Space Command. This had the advantage of giving the leadership a different perspective on multi-domain integration; the objective of Red Flag being to establish habits to achieve multi-domain combat success, thus enabling the rapid defeat of adversaries. According to Col Burt, ‘We want to force people out of their comfort zone. We’ll be pushing them to talk about kinetic and non-kinetic effects and how they are synchronised to achieve tactical success. Every target does not require a bomb, there may be other ways through cyber and space to negate, deny or disrupt that target… and allow you to achieve the same effect’.
Assisting her as Vice Commander was Colonel Bradley Bird, Vice Commander of the 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma. As well as being experienced with the E-3 Sentry, Colonel Bird is also a well-versed fighter pilot, having flown the F-15C Eagle with the 493rd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath, England and also the F-22A Raptor, as the Commander of the 43rd Fighter Squadron at Tyndall AFB, Florida. According to Col Bird, the exercises are generic and not geared to current real world events. However, they provide preparation for whatever the warfighter may be called on to do. Both Col Burt and Col Bird are graduates of the USAF Weapons School at Nellis.
The US Marine Corps achieved their Initial Operational Capability (IOC) with their F-35Bs on 31 July 2015, with VMFA-121 being the first front line squadron to be equipped with the F-35 (a second F-35B squadron, a former AV-8B Harrier unit now designated VMFA-211, ‘Avengers’, stood up at MCAS Yuma on 30 June 2016). Whilst they have taken part in various other exercises, including three WTI (Weapons and Tactics Instructor) courses, Red Flag is the biggest exercise for the aircraft so far. It is also their only opportunity to integrate in a multi-service environment before the squadron deploys to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan in January 2017.
The ‘Green Knights’ detachment was led by their Commanding Officer, Lt Col James ‘JT’ Bardo. Speaking about the deployment, he said that ‘These opportunities are rare, to take the aircraft and operate in a joint environment with our partner services, so we are very excited to be here, to bring the F-35 to the exercise to capitalise on its strengths and integrate with all the other players that are out there. It provides the opportunity to take the strengths of the aeroplane and integrate that with other aeroplanes that we don’t normally see, that aren’t part of the Marine Corps team, such as the F-22 and F-16.’
According to Lt Col Bardo they flew either two or four aircraft on each mission, and were employed in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. They also dropped weapons, both laser and GPS guided 500lb and 1000lb bombs. However he went on to say that they have plenty of opportunities to drop live weapons on their range facilities at Yuma, so this wasn’t a high priority for this exercise. He closed by saying, ‘We’re very happy with the way the aeroplane’s performing’.
According to Col Bird the benefit of having the F-35 at Red Flag is that it provides expertise in learning how it operates, in understanding its strengths and understanding how it can be integrated with all the other fighters, both fifth and fourth generation.
For Captain Robert ‘Grid’ Hansen, an F-22 pilot with the 27th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, this was his first Red Flag and also his first experience of operating with the F-35. It was a chance for ‘finding out what their strengths are and how we can complement each other. It’s been an invaluable experience to build on that integration, not only with the other airframes but also the other services’.
While not a first, another unusual aspect of this exercise was the deployment of a U-2S to Nellis for the first time since the mid 1990s. Whilst U-2s have been regular Red Flag participants in the past, they’ve generally operated from their home base at Beale AFB, California. The U-2 community is used to operating out of forward operating locations, but ones that are set up with everything in place. This time the squadron wanted the opportunity to practice operating out of an exercise location, where they had to bring everything with them. The aircraft appeared to be fitted with the ASARS-2 (Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar System) in the nose, the Senior Span or Senior Spur satellite communications pod above the fuselage and superpods under the wings, giving it a comprehensive intelligence gathering and data transmission capability.
Making up the Blue force were the following units:
96th Bomb Squadron ‘Red Devils’, 2nd Bomb Wing, Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, with four B-52H Stratofortresses.
27th Fighter Squadron ‘Fighting Eagles’, 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia with eight F-22A Raptors.
VMFA-121 ‘Green Knights’, MCAS Yuma, Arizona with six F-35B Lightning IIs.
555th Fighter Squadron ‘Triple Nickel’, 31st Fighter Wing, Aviano AB, Italy with 12 F-16C Fighting Falcons.
119th Fighter Squadron, 177th Fighter Wing, New Jersey Air National Guard, Atlantic City International Airport, New Jersey with ten F-16Cs.
121st Fighter Squadron ‘Capital Guardians’, 113th Fighter Wing, District of Columbia Air National Guard, Andrews AFB, Maryland with nine F-16Cs and two F-16Ds.
79th Fighter Squadron ‘Tigers’, 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, South Carolina, with 14 F-16Cs. They were employed in the Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) role.
VAQ-139 ‘Cougars’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington with three EA-18G Growlers.
VAQ-209 ‘Star Warriors’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington with three EA-18Gs.
422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, 53rd Wing, Nellis AFB, Nevada with an F-15D Eagle and F-16Cs.
437th Airlift Wing, Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, with two C-17A Globemaster IIIs.
The C-17’s role was insertion of cargo or troops to support follow on missions, and this was usually incorporated into the strike and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) portion of the missions. This would involve the C-17s ingressing at low altitude, avoiding enemy assets, to the target area where they’d either execute a tactical landing on a dirt landing strip or a parachute drop. Again, it’s all about integration.
Mostly operating at night, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets operating from Nellis were:
964th Airborne Air Control Squadron, 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma, with two E-3 Sentries.
38th and 343rd Reconnaissance Squadrons, Offutt AFB, Nebraska with one RC-135W Rivet Joint.
12th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, 116th Air Control Wing, Robins AFB, Georgia with one E-8C JSTARS.
99th Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale AFB, California with one U-2S.
Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) was provided by:
79th Rescue Squadron, 23rd Wing, Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona with one HC-130J.
41st Rescue Squadron, 23rd Wing, Moody AFB, Georgia with three HH-60G Pavehawks.
55th Rescue Squadron, 23rd Wing, Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona with three HH-60Gs.
66th Rescue Squadron, 23rd Wing, Nellis AFB, Nevada with HH-60Gs.
Air-to-air refuelling support was provided by four KC-135R Stratotankers from a mix of units. None of them were fitted with the Multi Point Refuelling System (MPRS) pods:
22nd Air Refuelling Wing (ARW), McConnell AFB, Kansas, with one KC-135R.
92nd ARW, Fairchild AFB, Washington with two KC-135Rs.
6th Air Mobility Wing, MacDill AFB, Florida with one KC-135R.
Reported as operating from their home bases were:
42nd Attack Squadron, 432nd Wing, Creech AFB, Nevada with MQ-9 Reapers.
12th Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale AFB, California with RQ-4 Global Hawks.
348th Reconnaissance Squadron, 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Grand Forks AFB, North Dakota with RQ-4 Global Hawks.
Ground units taking part included a virtual US Army Patriot battery.
As usual, the Red force comprised the various squadrons of the 57th Adversary Tactics Group (ATG), with the most visible element being the F-16Cs of the 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS). For some of the missions the Red force was augmented by additional F-16s operated by some of the Blue force units.
Also taking part were a number of A-4 Skyhawks operated by Draken International; a mix of former Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) A-4Ks and former Israeli Defence Force A-4Ns. They made their first Red Flag appearance in the closing stages of Red Flag 16-2, but for 16-3 they were participating from day one.
Cyber and space features as part of the Red force as well, with the 527th (previously an F-5E Aggressor unit based at RAF Alconbury in England) and 26th Space Aggressor Squadrons (SAS) from Shriever AFB, Colorado providing 25 personnel to conduct space aggressor operations for the exercise. Their input manifested itself in various ways, such as degrading GPS performance (requiring maintainers to work out whether the affected aircraft had a fault, or if it was an external problem) and attacking satellite communications.
Red Flag only takes up part of the the flying programme at Nellis, other flying operations fit around it.
Red Flag 16-3 wrapped up on 29 July, with Red Flag 16-4 due to start 15 August. Whilst no announcement has been made, it’s believed that this exercise will include a number of Middle Eastern Air Forces. This was reinforced by the arrival of six Pakistan Air Force Block 52 F-16s of No 5 Squadron on 23 July.
The author would like to thank the 99th Airbase Wing Public Affairs team for their assistance.