The latest iteration of the long running Red Flag series of exercises took place between the 8th and 22nd March at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Very much a multinational affair, Red Flag 19-2 attracted international participation from Europe, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, in addition to strong support from the USAF and US Navy. Paul Dunn reports on the exercise content. Images as credited.
It seems to be the norm for Red Flag exercises to be somewhat scalable in terms of scope and indeed complexity. The exercises which feature a more diverse group of nations taking part are somewhat less complicated in nature than the ones involving solely US forces, or America’s closest allies, typically the UK and Australia. Often the complexity of the exercise can be assessed by the number and nature of the ISTAR aircraft taking part. In the case of 19-2, this was limited to E-3 Sentry and E-8 JSTARS aircraft, indicating this was very much a coalition building affair, with the main goals being to increase cooperation with NATO allies and regional partners.
As usual, two large scale missions were flown every day, although this pattern saw some disruption due to adverse weather over the course of the exercise. The current Red Flag routine seems to be a daylight mission launching around 1300, and a night mission launching just after sunset. Of interest was the NOTAM promulgated to civilian traffic in the area warning that GPS could be unreliable during certain times of day throughout the exercise period; the times given corresponded with the night mission times, and this seems to be becoming a regular feature of Red Flag.
In recent decades, most western military forces have become addicted to GPS, but there appears to be an increasing realisation that its availability is not guaranteed, with states such as Russia and China developing countermeasures such as jamming, along with the threat of more “kinetic” actions against the system’s satellites. With this in mind, it is prudent to rehearse fighting without the advantages that GPS brings.
Aircraft participation in 19-2 came from a total of seven nations. Of particular note was the participation of the Royal Saudi Air Force, with six Boeing F-15SA Advanced Eagles from 29 Sqn taking part. These brand-new aircraft were handed over to the RSAF prior to the exercise and subsequently flown to Saudi Arabia on conclusion of the exercise. Their presence was especially relevant given the recent announcement that the USAF is to purchase similar new build F-15s (F-15X) to supplement and eventually replace its older F-15Cs.
The new jets feature a host of improvements over the earlier versions, including the BAE Systems Digital Electronic Warfare System (DEWS) and a new Digital Fly By Wire (DFBW) control system. The Saudi crews could clearly be seen wearing the latest Digital Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) helmets during their Red Flag missions. Despite being based on the F-15E Strike Eagle, the F-15SA is very much a multi role aircraft, able to fly air to air missions using a powerful AN/APG-63(V)3 AESA radar.
The Saudi F-15s were part of a large gathering of Eagle variants taking part in 19-2. The oldest versions of the jet still in US service are the F-15C/Ds operated by Air National Guard units which are regular players during Red Flag. For 19-2, it was the turn of the 122nd FS of the Louisiana ANG. The unit sent eight aircraft, some of which came from the California ANG as part of a scheduled aircraft swap.
Completing the line-up of US Eagles were F-15E Strike Eagles from the 336th FS, 4th FW at Seymour Johnson AFB, although the aircraft attending the exercise came from the 333rd, 335th and 336th FS.
Regular participants in Red Flag are the F-15SGs of the 428th FS of the Republic of Singapore Air Force. This unit is based at Mountain Home AFB in the US, and is responsible for training Singapore’s F-15 crews. Participation in Red Flag forms part of the training syllabus.
Another foreign training unit based in the US is the 148th FS, allocated to the 162nd FW of the Arizona ANG, which trains F-16 pilots for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Jets from the unit were borrowed by personnel from 322 Sqn to allow them to take part in 19-2.
Also travelling from Europe, the Belgian Air Force sent F-16s from 10 Wing at Kleine Brogel. The Belgian aircraft were notable for carrying the recently installed Terma PIDS+ pylons, which feature integrated EW systems and countermeasures dispensers.
Further F-16s came in the form of the United Arab Emirates Air Force F-16Es from 1 Group. These advanced F-16s had a noticeably rugged and weathered finish, perhaps an indication of the heavy operational use they have seen over Yemen, in action against Houthi rebels.
Electronic warfare support came from US Navy EA-18G Growlers. The participating squadron was VAQ-134 ’Garudas’, although the aircraft came from several squadrons, including VAQ-129 and -139.
Conspicuously absent from 19-2 was any participation from the USAF’s F-22 community. The Raptor force has seen repeated operational deployments, which has apparently had adverse effects on the fleet’s readiness. As a result the aircraft has been withdrawn from operations in the Middle East, to allow the small and highly prized fleet to recover, and presumably this break extends to Red Flag participation also.
Despite the lack of F-22s, there were still fifth generation fighters taking part, in the form of F-35As from the 62nd FS, 56th FW. The 62nd FS is one of the training squadrons for the F-35, and is very much a multi-national unit, integrating instructors and students from the US, Norway and Italy. Instructors from each of these nations took part in the exercise, with the focus being on integrating the F-35 with older, fourth generation jets.
As always seems to be the case with the F-35, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to assessing the aircraft’s performance and capabilities in a scenario such as Red Flag. Feedback from the crews themselves though appears to have been overwhelmingly positive, with pilots praising the enhanced situational awareness the aircraft’s comprehensive sensor suite brings.
Tanker support came from the Royal Netherlands Air Force (KDC-10) and Colombian Air Force (KC-767). The latter aircraft is only equipped for probe and drogue refuelling, so was limited to supporting the EA-18Gs. In addition to the tankers deployed to Nellis, further support was given by KC-10s from the 60th AMW, operating from Travis AFB, CA.
Along with the previously mentioned ISTAR aircraft, the remaining participants consisted of the usual CSAR support from HC-130Js and HH-60Gs.
Red air was supplied by F-16s from the 64th AGRS, which may have been supplemented by jets from the 422nd TES on some occasions, including aircraft wearing the latest Have Glass IV. It was recently announced that the 65th AGRS is to undergo a resurrection, to operate early versions of the F-35A as a fifth generation aggressor, filling a major capability gap for the 57th Adversary Tactics Group, and assuring the future of the aggressor role within the USAF, in these days of increased contractor involvement.
The final Red Flag of the year is Red Flag 19-3, which will take place between 15th July and 2nd August.