Red Flag 18-1 was a three week exercise which took place at Nellis AFB, Nevada, from January 29th to February 16th 2018. Participating were flying units from the US Air Force, US Navy, Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force, as well as a number of ground units from various forces, including the US Marine Corps. Around 100 aircraft deployed to Nellis for the exercise. Chris Wood reports from Nevada.
The Air Expeditionary Wing commander for this exercise was Colonel Richard Dickens, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot and commander of the 4th Fighter Wing Operations Group at Seymour Johnson AFB, South Carolina.
Two missions were flown on most week days during the period, one day and one night. However, on the Friday of the second week, which was dubbed Flag Friday, there was a heritage and social event with no flying scheduled. It included guest speakers who talked about their heritage, leadership styles, combat experiences and the lessons they learned. There were also a few other days where a night mission was not scheduled.
The action took place, as usual, on the vast Nellis Test and Training Range (NTTR), situated to the north of Las Vegas. According to Col Dickens, “the opportunity to come to Red Flag is a unique experience because we get a more robust and complex threat that we can face here, compared to other exercises. A lot of that is due to the NTTR. The size of the airspace that we have here allows us to train as an integrated coalition against a more robust threat than we can get at other places”.
Red Flag is always evolving. According to Colonel Chris Zuhlke, Commander of the NTTR, Red Flag has been going through a period of soul searching in recent months, trying to determine what it is trying to achieve. It had become aimed at what Col Zuhlke described as the ‘high end fight’. However in recent years, due to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, that focus has ebbed and flowed from being directed at a high end fight, to more of a counter insurgency one. That period is coming to a close so the focus is now shifting back to the high end fight in all the domains, including cyber and space. However, in its original format, it was set up to provide new pilots with their first ten combat missions as it had been determined that this was where they were most at risk. So, the big question has been ‘what is Red Flag?’ Is it the high end fight or is it the first ten missions? The answer, according to Col Zuhlke, is that Red Flag has “come to a point where we have to be both”.
According to Group Captain Tim Alsop, F/A-18 Hornet pilot and the Royal Australian Air Force detachment commander, another change recently has been a switch to a three day mission cycle. One day to plan the mission, the next to actually fly it and then the next to debrief it. The debriefing is the most important part, as this is where the crews’ performances are evaluated and the lessons are learnt.
To accommodate the renewed focus and the three day cycle, some Red Flag exercises now last for three weeks.
The RAAF are regular attendees at Red Flag and, according to Group Captain Alsop, 18-1 was the first major overseas exercise for their EA-18G Growler force. They brought four of their fleet of twelve aircraft to Nevada. However on the Saturday before the exercise started, whilst a large number of aircraft flew familiarisation sorties, one Growler suffered an uncontained engine failure during the take off roll. The take off was aborted, and the aircraft brought to a stop with the crew safely evacuating. Despite the rapid response of the Nellis Fire Department, a severe fire ensued which caused significant damage to the aircraft.
According to Group Captain Alsop, the probable cause of the failure was identified fairly quickly. The remaining aircraft had their engines changed, and resumed flying during the latter part of the second week. They joined the exercise for the final week.
Units taking part in Red Flag 18-1 included:
9th Bomb Squadron ‘Bats’, 7th Bomb Wing, Dyess AFB, Texas with four B-1B Lancers
123th Fighter Squadron ‘Redhawks’, 142nd Fighter Wing Oregon ANG, Portland ANGB, Oregon with eight F-15C Eagles
335th Fighter Squadron ‘Chiefs’, 4th Fighter Wing, Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina with fourteen F-15E Strike Eagles
55th Fighter Squadron ‘Fighting 55th’, 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, South Carolina with sixteen F-16C Fighting Falcons
134th Fighter Squadron ‘Green Mountain Boys’, 158th Fighter Wing, Vermont ANG, Burlington ANGB, Vermont with eleven F-16C and one F-16D Fighting Falcons
27th Fighter Squadron ‘Fighting Eagles’, 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia with twelve F-22A Raptors
No 11 Squadron RAF, RAF Coningsby with Eight Typhoon FGR4s
VAQ-135 ‘Black Ravens’, NAS Whidbey Island, Washington with four EA-18G Growlers
No 6 Sqn RAAF, RAAF Base Amberley, Queensland with four EA-18G Growlers
435th Fighter Training Squadron ‘Deadly Black Eagles’, 12th Flying Training Wing, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas with five T-38C Talons (week 2 and 3)
343rd Reconnaissance Squadron, 55th Wing, Offut AFB, Nebraska with one RC-135V Rivet Joint
964th Airborne Air Control Squadron, 552nd Air Control Wing, Tinker AFB, Oklahoma with two E-3 Sentries
No 2 Squadron RAAF, RAAF Base Williamtown, New South Wales with one E-7 Wedgetail
12th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, 461st Air Control Wing, Robins AFB, Georgia with one E-8C JSTARS
43rd Electronic Combat Squadron ‘Bats’, 55th Electronic Combat Group, Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona with one EC-130H Compass Call (a modified Hercules)
71st Rescue Squadron, 347th Rescue Group, Moody AFB, Georgia with three HC-130J Combat King IIs (modified J model Hercules)
22nd Air Refuelling Wing, McConnell AFB, Kansas with two KC-135R Stratotankers
92nd Air Refuelling Wing, Fairchild AFB, Washington with one KC-135R Stratotanker
351st Air Refuelling Squadron, 100th Air Refuelling Wing, RAF Mildenhall, England with one KC-135R Stratotanker
No 47 Squadron RAF, RAF Brize Norton with one C-130J Hercules (week 1 only)
No 10 Squadron RAF, RAF Brize Norton with one Voyager KC3
No 10 Squadron RAAF, RAAF Base Edinburgh, South Australia with one AP-3C Orion
55th Rescue Squadron, 563rd Rescue Group, Davis Monthan AFB, Arizona with up to four HH-60G Pavehawks
It is also believed that a number of unmanned assets took part, but the media panel members weren’t willing to discuss specifics.
The Red Forces were provided by the Nellis based 64th Aggressor Squadron with their F-16Cs.
However it is believed that the 134th Fighter Squadron, Vermont ANG, were also part of the Red Force throughout the exercise. They were observed carrying the AN/ALQ-188 pods normally carried by the 64th AGRS, and some were also carrying LANTIRN pods, which would suggest that they were being employed in an air-to-ground role.
For the second and third weeks a number of T-38s took part, also reportedly as Red Force.
On the two Friday’s where missions were flown, it’s believed that a significant number of participants joined the Red Force, with the emphasis for the Blue Force switching from an offensive role to a defensive role. According to Major Mark Finnegan, a B-1B pilot with the 9th Bomb Squadron, the B-1Bs were flying as part of Red Force on these days. He went on to say that the B-1B is very capable in the low level environment and is a good platform to ‘replicate a foreign entity’.
Whilst Red Flag 18-1 was taking place, it was still business as usual for the other units and visitors at Nellis. This included 14 F-16Cs from the 510th Fighter Squadron, 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano AB in Italy who were conducting a Green Flag West exercise.
Red Flag 18-1 was a large exercise, and showed that the Red Flag series of exercises continues to evolve to counter the changing threats in the world today.