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Red Flag: "The First Ten Missions"

By Richard VanderMeulen

Tasked with the SEAD or Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses role an F-16CJ Viper of the 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, SC bristles with armaments. On the wingtips are a pair of AIM-120 AMRAAMs for use against enemy aircraft, inboard are an AIM-9 Sidewinder for close-in self defense against enemy aircraft on the right wing and an ACMI pod capable of constantly updating the aircraft’s position on the range complex. Further inboard is the primary armament, an AGM-88 HARM (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) used to destroy enemy radar sites. Under the nose is carried a HARM targeting pod and Lantirn laser designator pod for identifying targets at a distance and designating them with a laser for precision guided bombs. (Richard VanderMeulen)

Red Flag tracks its existence and basic format to lessons learned during the Vietnam War, when United States Air Force analysts noted a dramatic drop in mission survivability and dropping success rates among USAF pilots. According to past Red Flag sources, “After Vietnam we figured out that if you survived the first ten missions your chance of survival went up dramatically. Red Flag simulates the first ten missions a pilot flies in combat.” Red Flag however allows pilots to fly those first ten missions in a learning environment where the only missiles they face are represented in computer models and the closest they come to dying is hearing “you’re dead” on the radio.

First established in 1975, Red Flag has grown to become one of the world’s premier military training exercises. Based at Nellis AFB, within sight of Las Vegas strip, Red Flag exposes pilots and military planners to the most realistic combat simulations possible.

Red Flag, operated by the 57th Wing, is tasked to plan and control training. The 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons’ mission is to maximize the combat readiness, capability and survivability of participating units by providing realistic training in a combined air, ground and electronic threat environment while providing a free exchange of ideas between forces.” Participating units and the free exchange of ideas go far beyond the scope of the US Air Force, to include the air forces of the US Navy and Marines, and those of allies from around the world for one Red Flag each year.

The view from the front office of “Baja 25,” lead KC-135R of a two ship element during return to Nellis AFB after a successful mission transferring over 30,000 pounds of fuel to US and Norway F-16’s. Baja 25’s crew of pilot Capt Ryan Hyatt, co-pilot Capt Brandon Kovell and boom operator SSgt David Drain of the 91st Air Refueling Squadron, based at MacDill AFB, FL provide a vital function allowing fighters and attack aircraft extended time on station while operating aircraft far older than the crew members. (Richard VanderMeulen)The Nevada Test and Training Range, home to the air war that can involve more than one hundred aircraft, covers a significant portion of the state of Nevada, measuring approximately 120 nautical miles square, and covering well over a million acres. The range is divided into a series of smaller areas, which support specific activities. Live ordnance deliveries may take place only “70” series ranges while the “EC” series supports electronic warfare. Some areas represent high-threat environments, with large number of simulated radar and SAM sites including mobile sites that change between missions.

Radar and SAM sites accurately simulate those found in the “real world.” Entire airfields, military bases and convoys have been constructed in the desert to provide targets for blue force attackers working to defend a fictitious nation which is being threatened by an attacking nation. Fictitious names of the blue and red force nations are changed for each Flag.

While most of the restricted ranges are approved only for captive carry of ordnance or small practice bombs – the Air Force simply cannot afford to build target complexes just to blow them up – several ranges are cleared for full-scale inert weapons or live ordnance, giving air crews a rare opportunity to experience the real thing. Allied air force aircraft can often be seen departing Nellis with live ordnance, taking advantage of good weather and live fire ranges often not available in Europe. According to Red Flag sources “75 percent of the live ordnance dropped in the US is dropped in the Nellis range complex.” Live ordnance delivery is typically restricted to the second week of each period as crews build their experience.

Red Flag scenarios are designed to closely resemble “real world” situations, and are tailored to mission aspects or requirements requested by visiting units. To accomplish this goal, the 414 Combat Training Squadron works closely with the aggressor pilots of the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons and range control officers operating fixed and mobile assets on the range.

In addition to aircraft operating from Nellis AFB during each period UAV’s (unmanned Aerial Vehicles) such as the Predator operated from Creech AFB along the western edge of the range. Of the large missions flown twice daily—when possible missions are divided into day and night missions to best simulate combat situations—each tactical aircraft carries a pod connected to the Nellis Air combat Training System which can monitor up to 100 aircraft in the high-activity aerial combat environment with complete information regarding altitude, speed, position and attitude, with information collected and transmitted real-time from pods carried by each aircraft. Additionally, the system can monitor 100 low activity aircraft such as tankers and AWACS by monitoring IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) systems and GPS.

“Weasle one-one” through “Weasle one-four” F-16CJ’s of the 20th Fighter Wing, Shaw AFB, SC loiter off the wing of “Baja 25” a 91st Air Refueling Squadron KC-135R while awaiting their scheduled time on target. Like any highly choreographed event, each element of a Red Flag training mission is timed to the second to provide an absolutely realistic combat environment complete with live weapons. (Richard VanderMeulen)Although simulated missile launches and kills can, and are, called over the radio, the final analysis of the probable kill will happen in the post mission debrief when computer analysts make the final decision. Lt. Col Huffman notes most pilots don’t call shots unless they’re pretty sure. “If there’s any doubt [about a kill], you’ll see guys asking for change because of the five dollar rule.” The rule requires any pilot who calls a kill that isn’t confirmed by range operators to pay the “killee” $5 on the spot, “and I.O.U.’s are not accepted.”

During Red Flag exercises operational tempo and arrangements closely resemble what crews can expect in combat. Aircrews receive all the briefings, including intelligence and satellite imagery of their targets and the daily “frag” delineating the mission requirements. Planning for missions keep personnel working at all times to coordinate the entire operation. The beginning stages of an evolution can see as many as hundred or more aircraft launching from Nellis’ parallel runways in as little as 30 to 40 minutes. It is through this real-world combat situation that pilots and crewmembers sharpen their skills.

By the end of their two weeks at Red Flag, crews go home with the equivalent of their first ten combat missions, greatly increasing their preparation and their survivability. “Kills” at Red Flag are debated at post-flight debriefings. “Kills” in real combat are far more permanent and there is no second chance. Training boils down to honing an aircrew member’s skills and giving them the ability to competently and confidently flying combat missions in a hostile environment. In the end it becomes a matter of training like you fight, and fighting like you train. Thanks to Red Flag, our aircrews and those of our allies are the best trained in the world.

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