Red Flag’s big shift

On the 44th anniversary of the first Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Mark Ayton charts the origin, objectives and evolution of America’s premier air warfare exercise

The crew of a RC-135 assigned to the 38th Reconnaissance Squadron based Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska, prepare for night operations during Red Flag 16-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.
Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum/US Air Force
A B-1B Lancer assigned to the 34th Bomb Squadron based at Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, undergoes pre-flight checks during night operations at Red Flag 17-1.
Airman 1st Class Kevin Tanenbaum/US Air Force

For those readers fortunate enough to have visited the State of Nevada, the City of Las Vegas or indeed Nellis Air Force Base, you’ll know what notable places they are. Find yourself at Nellis during a Red Flag exercise and you’re likely to see witness and significant amount of flight operations. When the author first visited Nellis, during a Red Flag at least, in the summer of 1991, the exercise was a six-week long event, organised in three two-week phases. Each phase involved around 150 aircraft from all US armed services. Fast forward to this summer’s Red Flag, and the event looks very different. Long gone are the six-week, three phase editions. Instead, a three-week one phase edition. No longer during Red Flag is the vast Nellis flight line rammed with 150 aircraft, mostly fighter/ strike fighter types, but sprinkled with 80 or so aircraft. Not just fighters and strike fighters, but electronic attack, command and control, rescue and ISR aircraft, and of course tankers and strategic bombers.

Back in 1991, a Red Flag mission involved 100+ aircraft taking off from Nellis in a well-orchestrated flow, all bound for the Nevada Test and Training Range to the north. Modern day Red Flags involve quite considerably different take-off flows; more fragmented with fewer aircraft. The mix of aircraft seen in a modern day Red Flag does of course involve types that are much more capable than their predecessors of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Gone are the A-6 Intruders, A-7 Corsairs, F-4 Phantoms and F-14 Tomcats. In are EA-18G Growlers, F-15E Strike Eagles, F-16C Fighting Falcons, F-22 Raptors and F-35 Lightning IIs. Occasionally, B-2 Spirit bombers also participate.

A crew chief, assigned to the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, launches an F-35A Lightning II at Nellis.
Ronald Bradshaw/US Air Force

Red Flag 1

The first edition of Red Flag started at Nellis on November 29, 1975 with five units, 37 aircraft and 561 personnel participating. Just 552 sorties were flown over a four-week period ending December 20, very few by comparison to modern day editions.

The Nellis-based 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group, a component of the Tactical Fighter Weapons Center, held responsibility for implementation of the Red Flag programme designed to provide combat training for squadron size units, complementary support forces, and other major commands and services.

Lead unit was the F-4D Phantom-equipped 49th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico tasked with strike missions against targets defended by Soviet surface-to-air missiles and antiaircraft artillery batteries. Back then, the T-38 Talon and F-5 Tiger II-equipped 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron, the forerunner of today’s F-16C-equipped 64th Aggressor Squadron, provided a Soviet-style Red air opposing force. Of the five Blue air units participating in Red Flag 1 was an unknown Wild Weasel F-105G Thunderchief squadron. The other three participating units remain unknown to AIR International.

Such was the success of Red Flag I that Tactical Air Command started a monthly exercise programme; ten were staged each year between 1976 and 1979. Unsurprisingly the number of sorties flown each year rocketed; 7,510 (1976), 14,987 (1977), 18,081 (1978), and 21,009 (1979). From 1980, Red Flag switched to a lower tempo programme, more similar to the modern day schedule.

Following the US Army’s establishment of its National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California in 1981, the Air Force removed close air support from Red Flag transferring the CAS-specific training to a new exercise named Air Warrior.

Royal Australian Air Force F/A-18A Hornet A21-35 at Nellis during Red Flag 19-1. This aircraft is painted with a full colour tail marking the 75th anniversary of 77 Squadron.
Airman 1st Class Bailee Darbasie/US Air Force

Electronic warfare units attended Red Flag for the first time in 1982, the same year that one edition was devoted to close air support.

The first edition of the FY1983 programme had a dedicated close air support unit as the lead unit, the same year that one edition involved aircraft from five of the Air Force’s major commands (Air Force Reserve, Air National Guard, Military Airlift Command, Strategic Air Command and Tactical Air Command), the US Marine Corps and the US Navy.

Dedicated suppression of enemy air defence units attended for the first time in 1984 which helped open up the battlespace to allow deep strike and offensive counter-air operations to take place.

Red Flag planners introduced night operations on 92-1 by moving the day time afternoon mission to night time.

At a Red Flag staged in FY1995, the B-2 Spirit bomber made its exercise debut followed by regular appearances in subsequent editions.

In 2000, two Red Flag periods were classed as US-only editions, the so-called ‘Black Flags’ that included B-2 Spirit bombers, EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare aircraft, RC- 135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft, E-8 Joint STARS battle management, command and control aircraft, F-117 Nighthawk strike aircraft, U-2 surveillance aircraft and MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicles. Black Flags also involved various systems used to kinetically and non-kinetically target air defence networks.

In February 2004 a Combined Air Operations Center opened at Nellis. Dubbed CAOC-N, the facility remains at the heart of all training events conducted at the Nevada super base and enabled considerable change to the structure of Red Flag since its commissioning. The facility enables all units, systems and capabilities to plan and execute each mission in the live fly training environment with real time command and control.

MH-60 Seahawk pilots assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 (HSC-23) prepare to lift off from Nellis on a combat search and rescue mission during Red Flag.
Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie/US Air Force

Red Flag’s 25th anniversary

In the November 2000 issue of Air Force Times, Walter Boyne wrote about Red Flag to mark its 25th anniversary. Boyne provided considerable background information behind the objectives for establishing Red Flag at Nellis. He wrote: ‘During the Vietnam War, it became apparent that the overwhelming concern about flying safety in peacetime compromised air-to-air combat training to an unacceptable degree. The most tangible symptom of this failure was the decline in the exchange ratio (enemy losses vs US losses) between US Air Force and enemy forces. The exchange ratio obtained in the Korean War had been a highly satisfactory 10-to-1. In the Southeast Asian conflict, however, that exchange ratio fell to less than 1-to-1 during a period in the spring of 1972.

‘There were reasons for this. Air warfare was focused on the air-to-ground dimension; American aircraft were employed in integrated strike packages designed to get bombs on important targets. They were opposed by a sophisticated defence system that incorporated anti-aircraft artillery, surface-to-air missiles, and interceptors operating under ground control.

Boyne highlighted the lack of dissimilarity in US Air Force air combat manoeuvre training at the time. He wrote: ‘Up to that time, the Air Force had conducted almost all air combat manoeuvre training by matching identical aircraft - F-4 against F-4. Not only that, but US Air Force’s training exercises usually featured duels between fighter aircraft from the same squadron.

US Air Force pilots were inhibited by rules of engagement requiring visual identification of the enemy and thus ensuring that air combat would occur at close ranges, where gun armament had an edge over missiles.

An Air Force pilot is picked up by an MH-60 Seahawk assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 23 (HSC-23) during a combat search and rescue mission at Red Flag 19-1.
Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie/US Air Force

Boyne explained how, during the Vietnam War, the US Air Force conducted a thorough analysis of air superiority operations called Red Baron. The study demonstrated three sobering facts about USAF aircrews:

  • The enemy often caught them by surprise.
  • They had inadequate training for the mission.
  • They were not fully informed about the enemy.

He wrote: “After Vietnam, one change was the renewed emphasis on training the human beings who had been shown in the Red Baron study to be poorly prepared for battle. Red Flag did not come into being fully formed. It derived from a series of ideas from different people over many years. In the March 1968 issue of the Fighter Gunnery Newsletter, an article noted a change in Tactical Air Command procedures calling for training in dissimilar aircraft. The Air Force in the fall of 1972 established the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron at Nellis AFB, Nevada. It was equipped initially with T-38s and then with Northrop F-5E Tiger II aircraft. These small supersonic aircraft were used to simulate the MiG-21 in air combat manoeuvres. The resulting exercises [in which F-5Es participated] were deemed to be so useful that the Air Force fashioned a second squadron, the 65th Fighter Weapons Squadron, at Nellis and two more for overseas training.

Boyne detailed how Major Moody Suter, a US Air Force officer who became known as the father of Red Flag, and a strong proponent of the aggressor squadron concept had worked out the training programme at Nellis. He wrote: “Suter was visualizing a large-scale combat training operation going beyond mere air-to-air combat manoeuvring. He saw it from the start as a means of improving and extending the ability of Air Force integrated strike packages to get to their targets with maximum accuracy and minimum losses. Suter knew of studies demonstrating that the majority of combat losses occur during a pilot’s first ten combat missions.

An Airman assigned to the 388th Operations Support Squadron aircrew flight equipment shop, checks a mask for an F-35 pilot.
Ronald Bradshaw/US Air Force

After that point, losses dropped nearly to zero. Suter argued for the creation of a training environment so realistic that a new pilot would log his first ten combat missions in a controlled environment. The idea was that when he went into actual combat, the pilot would have ‘survived’ his most vulnerable period. Red Flag was to teach pilots how to adapt quickly to combat and show them what would happen to them if they did not; an environment that offered an intense learning opportunity-and was not a career-threatening test. Suter wanted to employ the whole force; tankers, electronic countermeasures, bombers, fighters, reconnaissance aircraft against a realistic enemy that operated advanced radar systems, integrated missile and anti-aircraft systems, and first-rate, dissimilar interceptors.’

Walter Boyne wrote: ‘The Gulf War of 1991 was the first war to showcase the results of Red Flag, and it produced a curious tribute. It came from an Air Force pilot who, returning from a combat mission over Iraq, was heard to remark, “It was almost as intense as Red Flag.”

Red Flag 19-1: Wild Weasels

Airmen assigned to the F-16C-equipped 79th Fighter Squadron based at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina participated in this year’s first edition of Red Flag dubbed 19-1. During the three-week event the 79th FS conducted its core suppression of enemy air defences role as part of the air superiority mission. Red Flag 19-1 included Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force aircraft.

Discussing the exercise, 414th Combat Training Squadron commander, Colonel Michael Mathes spoke of five ways to quantify flag-unique warfighter culture at Nellis. He said: “We give the fighters professional adversaries, integration with forces they can’t integrate with anywhere else, personnel recovery integration they can’t get anywhere else, a debrief that can’t be replicated anywhere else and a resilient air fighter culture.”

Commander of the 57th Adversary Tactics Group, Colonel Travolis Simmons said: “Debriefs are never unprofessional, but the conversations can get heated. Frankly, you have a lot of pilot egos in that room, and nobody wants to stand on that stage embarrassed at becoming the DFP [the debrief focal point]. The DFP is the main thing that went wrong on the mission, and you might spend two hours analysing and talking about that one mistake to make sure it never happens again in actual combat. That can require speaking truth to power. So the debrief is our secret sauce, and part of the beauty of Red Flag.”

Captain Tyler D’Agostino, a pilot with the 79th FS said the Nellis range provides valuable and realistic simulation of enemy missile systems. He said: “These allow us to test and validate our techniques and procedures against today’s modern air and ground threats, operating with units from Australia, the UK and the US Navy against a multitude of potential threats.” Senior Airman Christopher Maldonado/US Air Force.

F-35A Lightning II fighter jets assigned to the 388th Fighter Wing’s 4th Fighter Squadron on the Nellis flight-line during Red Flag 19-1 where the 388th served as lead wing for the exercise.
Ronald Bradshaw/US Air Force

Red Flag 19-1: Adjustments

Red Flag is a realistic multi-domain training exercise that maximizes the combat readiness and survivability of participating units by providing a robust, accurate training environment.

The exercise has been run by the 414th Combat Training Squadron for years and changes are afoot to improve efficiency at base.

Col Mathes said units arrive at Nellis at varying levels of being prepared. By the end of three weeks, units are not just capable of executing their wartime mission with confidence. They are ready for combat. The value of integration exercises like Red Flag is in the building block approach. It starts with unit-level preparation, making sure the unit can function as a team. It moves to package integration, which makes sure that functional teams, like strike fighters and bombers – can work together. Then we get to Red Flag where multi-package integration comes into play, learning how to integrate different packages –superiority, strike and mobility aircraft – into one mission to achieve the same goal.” According to Mathes, Red Flag enables the Air Force to quickly harness readiness through exposure to professional adversaries, also known as the Red force and reckons Red Flag will continue to evolve further to meet today’s challenges. He said: “We’re continuing to improve threat replication, how we focus on the supported commands and implementing improvements to our debrief process to make the training more effective and efficient.”

Explaining the importance of debriefs Mathes said: “We are leveraging new technology to validate mission effects and compile data so we can quickly give facts to the mission commander, tactical mentors and air expeditionary wing leadership. This facilitates a more efficient and effective process of providing information for the person-to-person debrief, where the learning really happens. Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie/US Air Force.

Crew chiefs assigned to the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit prepare to launch F-35A Lightning II fighter jets during Red Flag 19-1.
Ronald Bradshaw/US Air Force

Red Flag 19-1: F-35A pilots

One unit participating in Red Flag 19-1 was the 4th Fighter Squadron based at Hill Air Force Base, Utah which was on its first visit to the exercise newly equipped with the F-35A Lightning II.

Unit commander, Lieutenant Colonel Yosef Morris said the biggest difference between Red Flag 19-1 and the one involving the first Hill-based F-35A squadron two years ago was the number of pilots on their first assignment; thirteen had never flown the F-35 in Red Flag, and four had just graduated pilot training. He said: “Putting them alongside more experienced wingmen is what Red Flag was designed for. When I was a young pilot in the F-16, I had a couple of responsibilities in the cockpit. One, don’t lose sight of my flight lead. Two, keep track of a bunch of green blips on a small screen in front of me, and correlate the blips to what someone is telling me on the radio. Now, we’re flying miles apart and interpreting and sharing information the jets gather, building a threat and target picture. We’re asking way more of young wingmen, but we’re able to do that because of their training and the capabilities of the jet.”

Captain James Rosenau flew the A-10 in four previous Red Flags, but he was brand new to the F-35 at Red Flag 19-1 having completed the transition course in December 2018. He said: “In the A-10, I was called upon to directly support troops on the ground. To bring a fight to the enemy. Now I like being the pilot who can support legacy fighters when they may be struggling to get into a target area because of the threat level. The F-35 has more freedom to operate and a big radar that can sniff out threats. The jet can gather all of that and pass it along or potentially take out those threats ourselves.”

Members of the 62nd Fighter Squadron from Luke Air Force Base Arizona pose for a group photo at Nellis on March 9, 2019 during Red Flag 19-2. The team included Italian, Norwegian and US personnel.
Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie/US Air Force

The Red force threat level is high comprising advanced integrated air defence systems, an adversary air force, cyber-warfare and information operations, a force that fights in all domains to take out or limit the technologies that modern aircraft and weapons depend upon; the F-35A has the ability to cut through such clutter as Lieutenant Landon Moores a new pilot with the 4th FS explained: “One of the jet’s greatest capabilities is to detect things that others can’t, take all the information it’s gathering from the sensors and present them to the pilot. One of our biggest jobs is learning how to process and prioritize that. Seeing the aircraft’s capabilities being put to use as part of a larger force exercise has been invaluable. When we mission plan with other units, it’s not always about kicking down the door. It may be about looking at what the enemy is presenting and ‘thinking skinny.’ With the F-35, we can think through a mission and choose how we want to attack it to make everyone more survivable.”

Breaking Defense also reported that Red Flag 19-1 also incorporated some political ambiguity, IFF (identify friend or foe) challenges, and proxy war protocols that Air Force pilots have encountered in Syria.

General Robert Novotny the 57th Wing Commander said: “On top of those rules of engagement challenges, Blue Forces at Red Flag are contested in the air, subject to aggressor missile strikes on their operating and logistics bases, and hit with cyber attacks on their command-and-control and space systems designed to disrupt satellite communications and GPS targeting.”

Novotny added: “The F-22 and F-35 have complicated our job here at Red Flag, because their speed, stealth and sensor fusion capabilities make it difficult for our aggressors to really challenge and push them. Nellis officials are working hard to modernize the air defence systems and aggressor squadron capabilities so they can keep pace, but it’s not a fair fight.” Micah Garbarino/US Air Force.

Photo: Ronald Bradshaw/US Air Force

Red Flag 19-1: Proof in the pudding

Airmen from the 4th FS and its parent 388th and 419th Fighter Wings reckon that Red Flag 19-1 was an exponentially more challenging exercise. The squadron’s F-35As were integrated into a large Blue force and tasked with a diverse set of missions against an equally capable Red force made up of hybrid threats, combinations of the most advanced weapons systems in existence to replicate potential near-peer enemies.

The 388th Operations Group commander, Colonel Joshua Wood said that the threat level and complexity are at a different level compared to when he first took part in 2004. He said: “It’s no longer assumed that we will gain and maintain air superiority. That’s a big shift.”

Because of the diverse capabilities of the Red force, many Red Flag missions are flown in contested or denied environments with active electronic attack, jamming of communications, satellite communications and GPS receivers for denial, the latter performed by the 527th Space Aggressor Squadron.

According to Lt Col Morris such situations highlight the fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35. He said: “We’re still able to operate and be successful. Our ability to continue to fuse and pass information to the entire package makes every aircraft more survivable.”

During the first week of Red Flag 19-1, the F-35 pilots flew in a counter-air mission as part of a large Blue air force blinding many of the 60-plus fourth-generation aggressor aircraft with robust electronic attack.

Fuerza Aérea Colombiana Boeing 767 tanker, serial number 1202, during engine start prior to a Red Flag 19-2 aerial refuelling mission with US Navy EA-18G Growlers.
TSgt Angela Ruiz/US Air Force

Colonel Wood had never seen anything like it before. He said: “It was a mission you would not want a young pilot flying in. My wingman was a brand new F-35A pilot, seven or eight flights out of training. He told an experienced, 3,000-hour pilot in a very capable fourth generation aircraft. ‘Hey bud, you need to turn around. You’re about to die. There’s a threat off your nose. The young pilot then killed the enemy aircraft and had three more kills in the hour-long mission. Even in this extremely challenging environment, the F-35 didn’t have many difficulties doing its job. That’s a testament to the pilot’s training and the capabilities of the jet.”

Each mission involved the squadron’s aircraft being airborne for 90 minutes but more significantly 12 hours of intense planning the day prior, a two hour pre-brief, and then several hours of debriefing after the mission to analyse the outcome and look for ways to improve.

The 4th FS deployed 12 aircraft and more than 200 Airmen to Red Flag 19-1 – pilots, maintainers, intelligence officers, weapons crews, and support personnel, including reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing. Maintainers didn’t lose a single sortie to a maintenance ground-abort and had spare aircraft available for every mission. Lt Col Morris reckons that as the F-35A matures the Air Force will continue to perceive the jet as a significant force-multiplier in a threat-dense environment. Micah Garbarino/US Air Force.

The US Navy regularly deploys EA-18G Growler aircraft to Red Flag to provide its highly specialised electronic attack capability in the exercise scenarios.
TSgt Angela Ruiz/US Air Force

Red Flag 19-2: Colombian tanker

In March the Colombian Air Force returned to Nellis for Red Flag 19-2. A single Boeing 767 Jupiter tanker spent three weeks at the Nevada super base flying daily missions too aerial refuel US Navy EA-18G Growlers by day and night.

Colombian Air Force Colonel Kerly Sanchez, Colombian Air Force Red Flag delegation commander said: “It’s important for the Colombian Air Force to maintain consistent training with NATO partners to increase interoperability and continue to be a good partner to its allies. Colombia is the first and only Latin American country that is a NATO Global Partner.”

Red Flag 19-2 was the third time the Colombian Air Force had participated in the exercise. Kfir fighters took part in 2012 and 2018, the latter also included a Boeing 767 Jupiter tanker. TSgt Angela Ruiz/US Air Force.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force participated in Red Flag 19-2 by deploying F-16 fighters to Nellis from its permanent training detachment at Tucson Air National Guard Base.
Airman 1st Class Bailee A. Darbasie/US Air Force

Red Flag 19-2: Historical participant

Something historical happened at Red Flag 19-2, the attendance of a multinational squadron. Equipped with F-35A Lightning II fighters and based at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, the 62nd Fighter Squadron ‘Spikes’ arrived at Nellis with five aircraft and a cadre of instructor pilots from the US Air Force, Aeronautica Militare and the Kongelige Norske Luftforsvaret (Italian and Norwegian Air Forces). Italian and Norwegian pilots train to fly the F-35A with the 62nd FS.

Red Flag 19-2 was the first edition that Italian instructor pilots had flown F-35As at Nellis. The Italian and Norwegian pilots were tasked with air superiority missions in the suppression of enemy air defences role escorting Blue air aircraft and protecting them from surface-to-air missile threats. Operating with F-15Cs, the F-35As defended Blue air aircraft from Red air fighters providing air superiority for the Blue air strike packages. Furthermore, flew some defensive counter air missions which involved conducting the battle manager role, sharing tactical information to other aircraft.

A crew chief, assigned to the 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, prepares to launch an F-35A Lightning II at Nellis. The 4th Fighter Squadron and 4th Aircraft Maintenance Unit participated in Red Flag 19-1, the unit's first attendance to the exercise since transition to the F-35A.
Ronald Bradshaw/US Air Force

F-35s acted as force enablers neutralizing several threats: on average about seven surface-to-air missile systems and five Red air assets were killed during each mission, according to the Italian Air Force. Moreover, the five aircraft deployed to Nellis were able to launch 100% of the planned missions: two four-ship missions, each day.

Aeronautica Militaire Major Alessandro P said: “The results achieved in the two weeks are almost unbelievable: the statistics do not need comment. The F-35 was the most effective asset in neutralizing surface-to-air missile systems and absolutely essential in the timely sharing of all the specific information needed for the success of the mission.”

Major Emanuele A, one of the Italian IPs flying with 62nd FS at Red Flag 19-2 said: “We knew we had an operational advantage, due to the fifth-generation technology, but we didn’t expect such a high kill ratio: in the 16 offensive counter air missions we flew, we neutralized more than 100 surface-to-air missile systems and never lost a plane."

Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 122 (VMFA-122) deployed to Nellis in July for its F-35B debut at Red Flag 19-3. One of the squadron’s pilots steps up the crew access ladder to crew-up.
Senior Airman Julian Kemper/US Air Force

Major Alessandro P added: “During our missions we were among the first to enter the area of operations, far beyond the enemy lines, and the last to leave it, thanks to the persistence and the low-observable characteristics of the aircraft. We were able to identify, transmit and neutralize ground and air threats very quickly, protecting Blue air’s assets in high threat environments: the capabilities of the F-35 were often decisive.”

Lieutenant Colonel Pete Lee, 62nd Fighter Squadron commander said: “Red Flag 19-2 was the first time the F-35 was the dedicated SEAD [suppression of enemy air defences] asset. We were tasked to protect other people and the F-35 is very good at that. We have the legs to protect the entire strike train and we covered the whole time.”

While the stats read well, Lt Col Lee said the real story is that of the team’s integration and cohesion, teaching the participating units about the integration of the F-35 in a strike package which means much more to the 62nd FS and the F-35 program as a whole.”

According to a Luke Air Force Base the 62nd FS destroyed a total of 110 surface-to-air missiles during the 87 missions flown as part of 18 large force missions. SSgt Jenna Bigham/US Air Force and Colonel Igor Bruni/ Aeronautica Militaire.

An Airman assigned to the 94th Aircraft Maintenance Unit reattaches a panel after performing maintenance on an F-22’s avionics systems at Nellis.
Senior Airman Tristan Biese/US Air Force

Red Flag 19-3: Marines take charge

Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Julie Sposito- Salceies, commander of the 505th Test Squadron said: “This is the first time where we’ve had Marines as the lead Air Operations Center. We’ve had Marine Corps participation before, but not in such a leadership role where they were the ones that integrated Air Force, Navy, Army, Marines, coalition.” Marines from Marine Tactical Air Command Squadron 38 (MTACS-38), 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing led the Combined Air Operations Center Nellis (CAOC-N) augmented by other units from both the 2nd and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wings, none of whom had ever worked in an Air Operations Center before.

Red Flag has evolved into two parts; the tactical portion, in which pilots perform the simulated combat flights, and the operational side, where military members in the CAOC-N train to control agencies that fight the war. The CAOC is made up of military members across the Department of Defense and coalition members, who work side by side to coordinate and ensure execution of air combat operations in an integrated manner.

RAF Lakenheath’s 492nd Fighter Squadron participated in Red Flag 19-3 operating from the revetments located on the southern side of the runways which enabled the F-15E crews to use live weapons.
Airman 1st Class Olivia Grooms/US Air Force
At Red Flag 19-3, the F-22-equipped 94th Fighter Squadron was given the core function of air superiority to provide air-to-air support to Blue air.
Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie/US Air Force

Trainers and supervisors of the exercise, known as the White force, put CAOC members through both real and simulated complex scenarios guided by subject matter experts, to sharpen their decision making skills.

MSgt Peyton Tomblin, superintendent of the 505th Test Squadron said: “War is dynamic and we make a plan for everything, but nothing ever goes as planned. At Red Flag, you’re just going through the motions as planned, like the CAOC receiving a command from the Coalition Forces Air Component Commander for a rescue mission. And then the White force, which builds up the simulations and acts as the enemy in this exercise, throws things in there that are not planned.”

The Marines leading the CAOC at Red Flag had experience running a Marine Tactical Air Command Center (TACC), a smaller, similar version of the CAOC. They had led exercises such as Steel Knight 19, Pacific Blitz 19, Weapons and Tactics Instructor Courses, and Integrated Training Exercises.

Photo: Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie/US Air Force

Lieutenant Colonel Grant Clester, commanding officer of MTACS-38 said: “The Marine TACC is scalable and flexible enough to assume the responsibilities of a CAOC and enable a Joint Force Air Component Commander. Red Flag gives us the edge to conduct large scale air operations with joint and coalition forces in any clime and place.”

The higher level of operational assets, dynamic pieces and joint-coalition based training made the opportunity to lead the CAOC so valuable.

Prior to 19-3, Marines assigned to MACG- 38 participated in Red Flag 19-1 which proved to be such a good learning opportunity that planning and preparation commenced for the challenge of leading the CAOC during Red Flag 19-3.

F-16C Fighting Falcon 97-0110/SW, assigned to the 55th Fighter Squadron based at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, takes off from Nellis on an air superiority mission.
Airman 1st Class Bryan Guthrie/US Air Force

One of the initial training challenges that every branch of the US military encounters when running the CAOC at Nellis is the diversity among the service branches and coalition partners. Red Flag gives individuals the unique opportunity to train alongside others to strengthen their interoperability.

Royal Australian Air Force Flight Lieutenant Steven Booth, an exchange officer with the US Marine Corps and assistant operations officer for MTACS-38 explained: “At the tactical level, I can share my knowledge and experience and at the same time fully understand and integrate with a multi-functioning service that does procedures in a different way. Both parties learn a lot from each other and revise their own tactics, techniques and procedures to effectively create a more absolute and resolute way of solving problems.”

“The Marines are very outspoken, direct in a very positive light and they are truth tellers. They don’t tell me what they think I want to hear,” said Lieutenant Colonel Julie Sposito- Salceies. “They brought new ideas into the CAOC, such as the execution checklist that we will be implementing for future iterations.” LCpl Levi Guerra/US Marine Corps.

An EA-18G Growler assigned to Electronic Attack Squadron 135 (VAQ-135) heads to the runway on a night time Red Flag mission.
Airman 1st Class Dwane R. Young/US Air Force
Senior Airman Tristan Biese/US Air Force

Success of the Combat Air Forces

Once President Ronald Reagan authorised Operation El Dorado Canyon April 1986 units of the US Air Force and US Navy prepared to undertake an historic strike on Libya against its leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.

From an Air Force perspective, El Dorado Canyon proved that its post-Vietnam realistic training revolution worked. Aircrew tested at Red Flag flew ten ‘combat missions’ in a training environment which prepared them for real combat. For the F-111F-equipped 48th Tactical Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath in England two things were realised. One, Red Flag had prepared its aircrews for actual combat through realistic training. Two, the combat success of El Dorado Canyon demonstrated how a new air warfare paradigm, led by Red Flag, had matured since the exercise’s inception in 1975. Once the mission was done, El Dorado Canyon showed how F-111F bombers, classed as tactical aircraft, provided effect classed as strategic-level. The latter was indicative of how aircraft assigned to the then Tactical Air Command were supplanting missions once flown by Strategic Air Command bombers; theatre air power had arrived. The eventual result of this mission supplanting was activation of Air Combat Command on June 1, 1992; the Air Force’s brand new command that combined all combat-coded aircraft types previously assigned to both Tactical and Strategic Air Commands.

An HC-130J Combat King II aircraft assigned to the 71st Rescue Squadron based at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, takes off for a personnel recovery mission.
Airman 1st Class Dwane Young/US Air Force

However, before the Air Force was able to activate Air Combat Command it was tasked with another fight. This time the US-led operation to liberate Kuwait from the occupying forces of the then Iraqi president Saddam Hussein dubbed Operation Desert Storm.

The combat-coded Air Force of 1990 was better equipped, better trained and better prepared to engage Iraqi forces than their predecessors in Vietnam. Thanks to realistic training at events like Red Flag, pilots and weapon system officers flying Air Force combat-coded types were able to dominate the conflict in an unprecedented way.

The new air warfare paradigm introduced at Red Flag was applied to Operation Desert Storm in January 1991 changing decades old concepts of operation pretty much forever.

Choosing precise delivery rather than just precision-guided munitions for targets in Desert Storm showed the effect Red Flag had on the planning and execution of the operation.

Fancy kit or not, it was the pilot’s responsibility to complete the complex mission tasked.

SSgt Natasha Stannard/US Air Force

Red Flag’s procedures are designed to destroy an enemy’s ability to conduct combat operations by integrating all available assets and aspects of air power. In Desert Storm, air planners sought to destroy strategic and tactical targets, and force enemy units to react without input from their command. The Iraqi air defence system remained potent throughout the air campaign successfully engaging 23 coalition aircraft with anti-aircraft artillery fire and surface-to-air missiles to shoot down.

After the decisive nature of the US-led air war against Iraq in early 1991, exercise planners at Red Flag moved to night time operations and increased the number of aircraft participating in each edition.

Only three years passed before the US Air Force was called to task again, this time in Balkan skies to push back and ultimately engage with the armed forces of the then President of Serbia, Slobodan Miloševic.

NATO launched Operation Allied Force in March 1999, an air campaign designed to halt the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Kosovo. The decision to intervene followed more than a year of fighting within the province and the failure of international efforts to resolve the conflict by diplomatic means.

SSgt Natasha Stannard/US Air Force

From a US Air Force perspective, Allied Force showed that the realistic training conducted by combat-coded aircrew at Red Flag worked, none more so than for two specific roles; close air support and combat search and rescue.

During a night time mission from Aviano Air Base, Italy, F-117 Nighthawk pilot Lieutenant Colonel Dale Zelko was shot down close to the Serbian capital Belgrade. Dozens of aircraft were involved in Zelko’s rescue that night which once again showed how very realistic combat search and rescue training with emphasis on exact timings and close coordination saved Zelko from capture by Serbian forces. First and foremost, Zelko had the various aircrews to thank for his rescue, but also the training given to those aircrews at Red Flag.

Red Flag’s success led to dozens of countries applying to participate. Many nations have attended from Asia, Europe, the Middle East and South America. Exercise planners continue to train aircrews to conduct air warfare in an operational theatre of war.

Despite its longevity and success to date, Red Flag attracts different perceptions; world’s most prestigious combat training exercise or an innovative training event that continually adapts to America’s perceived threats.

US Air Force combat successes in Operations El Dorado Canyon, Desert Storm, Allied Force, Iraqi Freedom, and Enduring Freedom have led to a comprehensive type of aerial warfare dubbed theatre air power. Major Moody Suter’s 1975 roll-out of Exercise Red Flag has changed the way in which the US Air Force conducts combat operations.

Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail A30-002, assigned to 2 Squadron, taxies at Nellis for a Red Flag mission in which the aircraft was tasked to provide command and control capability.
Airman 1st Class Dwane Young/US Air Force

Aggressor units

57th Adversary Tactics Group

Boasts the world’s most capable and professional aggressor force to train US and coalition personnel during exercises and deployments, while overseeing US Air Force-wide air, air defence, space and information aggressor initiatives and threat academic programmes. To accomplish this mission, it directs operations of seven squadrons, including three geographically separated units.

57th Information Aggressor Squadron

The mission is to know, teach, and replicate advanced, realistic, and credible adversary cyber and information operations to train US and coalition personnel.

64th Aggressor Squadron

One of two US Air Force professional adversary squadrons flying F-16C aircraft, the 64th AGRS prepares US and coalition aircrews for aerial combat with accurate and realistic threat replication training.

177th Information Aggressor Squadron

A Kansas Air National Guard unit based at McConnell Air Force Base that provides adversarial replication of current and emerging threats by gaining persistent access and exploiting all forms of cyber systems using network tactics, close access and intelligence analysis.

507th Air Defense Aggressor Squadron

The 507th is the only squadron of its kind in the US Air Force. Its mission is to provide part-task and fully integrated realistic surface-to-air threat replication (by utilizing surface-to-air missile simulators on the Nevada Test and Training Range), training and instruction to US and coalition aircrew for full spectrum combat operations. In short, ensuring pilots are more aware of what a potential enemy can do with a surface-to-air missile, and how to defeat it.

527th Space Aggressor Squadron

Based at Schreiver Air Force Base, Colorado, the 527th was activated in 2000 as the first US Air Force space aggressor squadron. Its mission is to prepare US and coalition forces to fight in and through contested space environments by analysing, teaching and replicating realistic, relevant and integrated space threats. The 527th has three mission sets which involve GPS electronic attack (putting noise over the GPS signal to prevent reception), satellite communications electronic attack (send noise to the satellite so communication on the satellite is no longer possible) and orbital engagement systems (playing the role of an adversary against satellites).