Found 110 miles south of the Arctic Circle, Eielson Air Force Base was a hive of activity between June 8 and 23 2017 with pilots, maintainers and support staff from four air arms descending on the site for Exercise Red Flag Alaska 17-2 (RF-A 17-2). With participants from the United States Air Force (USAF), United States Air National Guard (USANG), Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) and Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) squadrons using the base, other exercise participants operated out of Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson Elmendorf (JBER) while those from the US Army worked out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska. Mark McGrath reports from the exercise for AeroResource.

In 1976, Brigadier General Richard G Head conceived the idea of having an exercise that would draw crews from Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and Allied forces based in the Asia Pacific region and introduce them to air warfare by use of a realistic training environment. Becoming the ‘premier simulated combat airpower employment exercise’ for the PACAF, Exercise Cope Thunder was held at Clark AFB in the Philippines until the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in 1991 forced it’s move to Eielson AFB in Alaska – the eruption leading to the closure of Clark. With over 67,000 square miles of training airspace and the availability of three air-to-ground weapons ranges within Alaska, 1992 saw the first Cope Thunder held at Eielson AFB. In 2006, the exercise was re-designated as Red Flag Alaska and is held three to four times per fiscal year.

Red Flag Alaska is a combat training exercise designed to hone the skills of the PACAF fighter squadrons, other USAF units and allied air forces, and is hosted by the 353d Combat Training Squadron of the 354th Fighter Wing (FW) at Eielson. The mission of the 354th FW is “To prepare aviation forces for combat, deploy Airmen in support of global operations and enable the staging of forces.”

Responsible for Red Flag Alaska, Alaska Command’s Northern Edge exercise and for management of the world’s largest air training area, the 353rd Combat Training Squadron are also in charge of looking after the 67,000 square mile Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and its air-to-ground weapons ranges. The range covers an area approximately the same size as the state of Oklahoma and is often compared to the 5,000 square miles of restricted airspace of the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR).

In August 2007, the Eielson based 18th FS was re-designated as the 18th Aggressor Squadron and became responsible for providing Dissimilar Air Combat Training or DACT to squadrons across the PACAF, by flying as Red Air during Red Flag Alaska missions. Operating some 18 Block 30 F-16C and D aircraft in the role, the squadron fly – or mimic if you would like – both the tactics and types flown by adversaries. To become a member of the 18th Aggressor Squadron, the prospective pilot must be qualified as a flight lead and have experience on a combat squadron. The main difference between the 18th Aggressor Squadron and their 64th Aggressor Squadron counterparts at Nellis AFB, Nevada, is that the 18th AS are assigned solely to PACAF and are able to focus on the specific needs of the PACAF units. That said, in recent years the 18th Agressor Squadron have deployed to the home bases of PACAF units in order to better understand the needs of their ‘customer’ squadrons and bring their experience to the wider PACAF community. The 18th Aggressor Squadron have recently repainted two of their F-16Cs into a black, white and grey Arctic Splinter Scheme, and have started to fit Sniper targeting pods to some of their airframes.

Captain Robert Glenn, F-16C pilot of the 18th Aggressor Squadron explained the rationale behind fitting the Sniper pods:

Our adversaries are capable of carrying targeting pods so we want to be able to replicate what they can do. We are doing our best to take our weapons system and make it a different weapons system.”

The RoKAF deployed six KF-16D multi-role fighters to Eielson to participate in Red Flag Alaska 17-2, with pilots drawn from the 20th Fighter Wing based at Seosan AFB and the 111th Fighter Squadron based at Kunsan AFB, along with an instructor pilot from the RoKAF Tactical Weapons School. RoKAF Fighter Wings have been participating in Red Flag Alaska since 2013, with the 11th Fighter Wing (F-15K) and 19th and 20th Fighter Wings (operating the KF-16C/D) deploying on a rotational annual basis to participate the war games.

On what the RoKAF hoped to achieve from Red Flag Alaska 1702, Major Minkyu Baek, a 20th Fighter Wing RoKAF KF-16 Instructor pilot, said:

“[to] Practice fighting in a coalition environment with multiple forces, mainly our partners the USAF fighters. Red Flag is a great opportunity as they have a lot of experience of integrating these forces from around the world.

The JASDF were one of the larger participants at this year, deploying six of their F-15J/DJ air superiority fighters and two KC-767 aerial refuelling tankers to the base along with both a single C-130H Hercules and E-767 AWACS airborne surveillance aircraft to JBER Elmendorf. The role of the F-15J/DJ – from 201 Hikotai at Chitose AFB – during Red Flag Alaska 17-2 was to escort the main strike packages as well as establishing air superiority in the battle space.

Runway resurfacing works at Misawa AFB in Japan meant the temporary deployment of the 13th and 14th FSs while they are being carried out. For the 13th FS, this entailed a deployment to Eielson AFB to participate in Exercise Northern Edge, followed by a deployment to Kunsan AFB in South Korea, with the 14th Fighter Squadron deploying to Kunsan AFB first prior to heading to Eielson to participate in Red Flag Alaska 17-2. Most of the jets used by the 14th Fighter Squadron during the exercise belonged to the 13th Fighter Squadron, with only personnel of the 13th and 14th FSs switching between Kunsan and Eielson during the temporary deployment. The primary mission of the 14th FS is Suppression of Enemy Air Defences or SEAD and for this mission their F-16CJ aircraft are equipped with the AGM-88 HARM (High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile) missile and HTS (High Speed Anti-Radiation Missile Targeting System) pod.

F-16Cs of the 36th Fighter Squadron, Osan AFB, provided additional multi-role fighter aircraft to the exercise. Aircraft of the 36th FS flew a variety of missions including SEAD, air-to-ground and fighter escort. Although flying the earlier Block 40 F-16Cs, SEAD is a secondary mission of the 36th FS with their aircraft also capable of carrying the HARM and HTS pod.

Two squadrons of A-10C close support aircraft took part in Red Flag Alaska 17-2, the regular duty 25th FS – also based at Osan AFB – and the 107th FS from the Michigan Air National Guard based at Selfridge ANGB. Along with close air support (CAS), the A-10Cs missions included flying as part of a Combat Search and Rescue Package (CSAR) escorting HH-60 helicopters from Det 1 of the 210th Rescue Squadron (RS) based at Eielson and providing CAS while working with US Army AH-64D Apache helicopters basing out of Fort Wainwright.

Aerial refuelling support for Red Flag Alaska 17-2 participants was provided by KC-135Rs of the 22nd Aerial Refuelling Wing (ARW) from McConnell AFB, a KC-10 of the 514th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) from McGuire AFB and two KC-767 of 404 Hikotai (normally homed at Nagoya AFB, Japan). One of the 22nd ARW KC-135Rs had a drogue basket fitted to the ‘boom’ to refuel the USMC F/A-18Cs of VMFA-251 operating out of Elmendorf for the duration of the exercise. The Eielson based 168th ARS – a unit of the Alaskan ANG – provided additional aerial refuelling capacity.

Airborne command and control was provided by E-3C Sentry aircraft of the 962d Airborne Air Control Squadron based out of JBER Elmendorf and an E-767 of 601 Hikotai, JASDF joining it from its home base of Hamamatsu AFB, Japan.

Various transport aircraft participated in exercise, including C-130H of 401 Hikotai, JASDF and another from 601 Squadron, RTAF, joining the rest of the transport aircraft operating from JBER Elmendorf.

Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC) from the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF) were also there along with observers from the Finnish Air Force and the Israeli Defence Forces for the duration.

With the current ‘heightened’ regional tensions, RF A 17-2 allowed individual USAF and allied squadrons an excellent training opportunity to hone their skills, while operating as part of a larger and complete force package. A common theme amongst aircrew was how limited the airspace is in both South Korea and Japan – a huge difference to that which they had to operate in during Red Flag Alaska 17-2.

Captain Sean Knowles, an A-10C pilot from the 25th FS summed it up:

“Alaska gives us the chance to work in an environment where there are less trainingisms (sic) and its a wide open airspace. You are facing simulated and real air to air threats and air to ground threats and you are being able to react and practice in a much more open environment. Alaska is definitely an advantage in that.”

Participating Units in Red Flag Alaska 17-2:

Blue Air

  • 14th Fighter Squadron, Misawa AFB, Japan F-16CJ / DJ
  • 25th Fighter Squadron, Osan AFB, South Korea A-10C
  • 36th Fighter Squadron, Osan AFB, South Korea F-16C / D
  • 107th Fighter Squadron, Michigan ANG, Selfridge ANGB, Michigan A-10C
  • VMFA-251, USMC, MCAS Beaufort, Louisiana F/A-18C
  • 20th FW, RoKAF, Seosan AFB KF-16D
  • 201 Hikotai, JASDF, Chitose AFB, F-15J / F-15DJ
  • 22nd ARW, McConnell AFB, Kansas, KC-135R
  • 514th AMW, McGuire AFB, New Jersey, KC-10
  • 168th ARS, Alaska ANG, Eielson AFB, KC-135R
  • 962d AACS, JBER Elmendorf, Alaska, E-3C
  • 404 Hikotai, JASDF, Nagoya AFB, KC-767
  • 401 Hikotai, JASDF, Nagoya AFB, Japan C-130H
  • 601 Hikotai, JASDF, Hamamatsu AFB, Japan E-767
  • 601 Squadron, RTAF, Don Muang AFB, Thailand, C-130H
  • Det 1 210th Rescue Squadron USAF, Eielson AFB, Alaska HH-60

Red Air

  • 18th Aggressor Squadron, USAF, Eielson AFB, Alaska F-16C