Red Flag is an advanced aerial combat training exercise hosted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Since 1975, air crews from the United States Air Force (USAF), United States Navy (USN), and United States Marine Corps (USMC), United States Army (USA) and numerous NATO or other allied nations’ air forces take part in one of several Red Flag exercises held during the year, each of which is two weeks in duration.

Under the aegis of the United States Air Force Warfare Center (USAFWC) at Nellis, the Red Flag exercises, conducted by the 414th Combat Training Squadron (414 CTS) of the 57th Wing (57 WG), are very realistic aerial war games. Their purpose is to train pilots and other flight crew members from the U.S., NATO and other allied countries for real air combat situations. This includes the use of “enemy” hardware and live ammunition for bombing exercises within the adjacent Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR).

Captain Garrett Houk from the 96th BS Barksdale AFB explained what the main purpose for attending was:

“Biggest thing to get from Red Flag is integration, the opportunity to sit down and discuss tactics with other airframes and what they are capable of. A lot of the younger guys in the squadron can get the bigger picture of tactics and how best to deploy the B-52 with other assets.
Focus at Red Flag is on the younger guys, we have a lot qualified mission commanders but the goal is to integrate with the different assets and we want to get as many of the guys mission commander qualified, and here at Red Flag it’s an opportunity to make mistakes and learn, so it’s a case of having a mix of experienced and young crews”.

Captain Gabriel Lewis from the 356th Fighter Squadron Seymour Johnson AFB also summarised what he and his unit were looking to get from Red Flag 14-2:

“Large force exercise which we don’t get the chance to do back at home base. Allowing us to fly with notional assets out there and also integrating with our own assets and also asking questions on how to mission plan the exercise on a day to day basis”

Some of the foreign participants in Red Flag 14-2 included Saudi Arabia, UAE, Belgium and Denmark. Major Lars Stokholm from the Royal Danish Air Force and flying the F-16 stated the value in taking part in a multinational exercise on such a large scale:

“Great opportunity to come in to an international environment, cooperating on all levels with several different nations and working closely with our US counterparts, it’s a great opportunity for us”.

Lt Col Peter Leufen (German Air Force) detachment commander for NATO E-3A AWACS also added his thoughts on the main aspect in participating in a Red Flag exercise:

“Red Flag for the NATO AWACS crew is very high value training; the airspace that is covered at Red Flag is something that we just don’t have back in Europe”

The 414th Combat Training Squadron (414 CTS) is the unit currently tasked with running Red Flag exercises, while the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) and the 65th Aggressor Squadron (65 AGRS) also based at Nellis AFB utilse F-16 and F-15 aircraft to emulate, respectively, the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-30 Flanker. These aircraft continue to be painted in the various camouflage schemes of potential adversaries.

The mission of the 414th Combat Training Squadron (Red Flag) is to maximize the combat readiness and survivability of participants by providing a realistic training environment and a pre-flight and post-flight training forum that encourages the free exchange of ideas. To accomplish this, combat units from the United States and its allied countries engage in realistic combat training scenarios carefully conducted within the Nellis Range Complex. This complex is located northwest of Las Vegas and covers an area of 60 nautical miles (111 km) by 100 nautical miles (190 km), approximately half the area of Switzerland and this space allows the exercises to be on a very large scale.

Lt Col Jordan Grant Deputy commander 414th combat training squadron explains what Red Flag offers participants and how participants are selected to attend;

“From a Red Flag planning perspective it’s the opportunity to give aircrews or any personal in an air war campaign to do things that they can’t do back at home. We have the ability to add a level of threat that they can’t see or get back at their home base. The ability to bring people from all over the world and the US to work together in an environment that they can learn a lot from each other.
The exercise is an ACC (Air Combat Command) run exercise and they ultimately decide who attends a Red Flag from the US units and beyond that it go up to the International Affairs that the Pentagon who put out invitations to the other countries and their units around the world. A lot of the time there is more demand than time we have available and so we do our best to pick and choose and give everybody an opportunity to attend. At Nellis we don’t have a say as to who attends, our job is to simply put on the exercise.
As for which aircrew are selected from which units that is decided by the commanders of the units that have been selected, but they have to strike a balance between experienced guys who have been around the block and can teach and ‘hold hands’. The whole point of these exercises is to give first and combat experience to new crews so there is a need to bring the young guys too so they are get that experience at Red Flag”.

In a typical Red Flag exercise, Blue Forces (friendly) engage Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations.

Blue Forces are made up of units from the Air Combat Command (ACC), Air Mobility Command (AMC), Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE), Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), Air National Guard (ANG), Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), and Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), aviation units of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, the Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force, as well as other allied air forces and fleet air arms. They are led by a Blue Forces commander, who coordinates the units in an “employment plan” scheme of operation.

A typical Red Flag exercise involves a variety of attack, fighter and bomber aircraft (F-15E, F-16, F/A-18, A-10, B-1, B-2, etc.), reconnaissance aircraft (Predator, Global Hawk, RC-135, U-2), electronic warfare aircraft (EC-130s, EA-6Bs and F-16CJs), air superiority aircraft (F-22, F-15C, etc.), airlift support (C-130, C-17), search and rescue aircraft (HH-60, HC-130, CH-47), aerial refuelling aircraft (KC-130, KC-135, KC-10, etc.), Command and Control aircraft (E-3, E-8C, E-2C, etc.) as well as ground based Command and Control, Space, and Cyber Forces.

Red Forces (adversary forces) are composed of the 57th Wing’s 57th Adversary Tactics Group (57 ATG), flying F-16s from the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) and F-15s from the 65th Aggressor Squadron (65 AGRS) to provide realistic air threats through the emulation of opposition tactics. The Red Forces are also augmented by other U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps units flying in concert with the 507th Air Defence Aggressor Squadron’s (507 ADAS) electronic ground defences and communications along with radar jamming equipment. The 527th Space Aggressor Squadron (527 SAS), an Active Duty unit, and the 26th Space Aggressor Squadron (26 SAS), an Air Force Reserve Command unit, also provide GPS jamming. Additionally, the Red Force command and control organization simulates a realistic enemy integrated air defence system (IADS).

Lt Col Jon Berardinelli 57th commander Adversary Tactics Group explains the adversary role in a bit more detail:

“From the adversary perspective it is something unique that we offer, we are the air forces only professional adversary force here at Nellis. There are subject matter experts that know adversary systems inside out and can replicate those systems for those units that show here to train.
Ultimately what we do is we take the four main domains, that is the air domain, the air defence which are the missiles on the ground and the different components that make that up and also cyber and space, we replicate and put all that together in a realistic and relevant set of potential threats that might be encountered in actual combat.
We have levels at which the adversary executes and integrates during a Red Flag, and will dial that up based upon what the Red Flag leadership is observing in the exercise, so either we’ll push it up because they are doing well or they will say let’s stay on this building block for another day”.

A key element of Red Flag operations is the Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System (RFMDS). RFMDS is a computer hardware and software network which provides real-time monitoring, post-mission reconstruction of manoeuvres and tactics, participant pairings and integration of range targets and simulated threats. Blue Force commanders objectively assess mission effectiveness and validate lessons learnt from data provided by the RFMDS.

Each Red Flag exercise normally involves a variety of fighter interdiction, attack/strike, air superiority, enemy air defence suppression, airlift, air refuelling and reconnaissance missions. In a 12-month period, more than 500 aircraft fly over 20,000 sorties, while training more than 5,000 aircrews and 14,000 support and maintenance personnel.

Before a “flag” begins, the Red Flag staff conduct a planning conference where unit representatives and planning staff members develop the size and scope of their participation. All aspects of the exercise, including movement of personnel, transportation to Nellis AFB, range coordination, ordnance/munitions scheduling, and development of training scenarios, are designed to be as realistic as possible, fully exercising each participating unit’s capabilities and objectives.

Lt Col Jordan Grant Deputy commander 414th combat training squadron explains how a Red Flag is put together:

“We come up with a set of scenarios that are standard throughout the year, and that is the baseline that is the same for each exercise. However this base has to tailor based on who is attending and the assets that will be present.
The way in which the Red Flag is managed in terms of scenarios by means of a threat matrix, this is the guiding document in setting how difficult the Flag gets and from week one to week two the difficulty gets ramped up accordingly”

The origin of Red Flag was the unacceptable performance of U.S. Air Force fighter pilots and weapon systems officers (WSO) in air combat manoeuvring (ACM – air-to-air combat) during the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars. Air combat over North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973 led to an overall exchange ratio (ratio of enemy aircraft shot down to the number of own aircraft lost to enemy fighters) of 2.2:1 (for a period of time in June and July 1972 during Operation Linebacker the ratio was less than 1:1).

Among the several factors resulting in this disparity was a lack of realistic ACM training. USAF pilots and WSOs of the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s were not versed in the core values and basics of ACM due to the belief that BVR (Beyond Visual Range) missile engagements and equipment made “close-in” manoeuvring in air combat obsolete. As a result of this BVR-only mindset that reached its zenith in the early 1960s, nearly all USAF fighter pilots and WSO of the period were unpractised in manoeuvring against dissimilar aircraft because of a concurrent Air Force emphasis on flying safety.

An Air Force analysis known as Project Red Baron II showed that a pilot’s chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had completed 10 combat missions. As a result, Red Flag was created in 1975 to offer USAF pilots and weapon systems officers the opportunity to fly 10 realistically simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measurable results. Many U.S. air crews had also fallen victim to SAMs during the Vietnam War and Red Flag exercises provided pilots and WSOs experience in this regime as well.

The concept of Colonel Richard “Moody” Suter became the driving force in Red Flag’s implementation, persuading General Robert J Dixon, commander of what was then Tactical Air Command, to adopt the program. At Nellis, Suter was well-known and well-liked and the first Red Flag exercise came off on Gen Dixon’s schedule in November 1975. On 1st March 1976, the 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group (Red Flag) was chartered with Col P.J. White as the first commander, Lt Col Marty Mahrt as vice commander, and Lt Col David Burner as Director of Operations. This small crew under Col White’s leadership undertook the task of firmly establishing the program.

The “aggressor squadrons”, the opponents who flew against the pilots undergoing training, were selected from the top fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force. These pilots were trained to fly according to the tactical doctrines of the Soviet Union and other enemies of the period, in order to better simulate what then-TAC, as well as USAFE, PACAF and other NATO pilots and WSOs would likely encounter in real combat against a Soviet, Warsaw Pact, or a Soviet-proxy adversary. The aggressors were originally equipped with readily available T-38 Talon aircraft to simulate the MiG-21, the T-38 being similar in terms of size and performance. F-5 Tiger II fighters, painted in colour schemes commonly found on Soviet aircraft, were added shortly thereafter and became the mainstay until the F-16 and F-15 were introduced.

Red Flag 14-2 ran from the 3rd March 2014 through to the 14th March 2014. Below is a list of aircraft that took part in the exercise

– 142nd Fighter Wing, 123rd Fighter Squadron, F-15Cs, Portland Air National Guard Base, Ore.
– 96th Test Wing, 40th Flight Test Squadron, F-15Cs, Eglin AFB, Fla.
– 4th Fighter Wing, 336th Fighter Squadron, F-15Es, Seymour Johnson AFB, N.C.
– 388th Fighter Wing, 4th Fighter Squadron, F-16CMs, Hill AFB, Utah
– 2nd Bomber Wing, 96th Bomb Squadron, B-52H, Barksdale AFB, La.
– 20th Fighter Wing, 77th Fighter Squadron, F-16CJs, Shaw AFB, S.C.
– 552nd Air Control Wing, 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron, E-3C, Tinker AFB, Okla.
– 57th Wing, 66th Rescue Squadron, HH-60s, Nellis AFB, Nev.
– 23rd Wing, 79th Rescue Squadron, HC-130Js, Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.
– 57th Wing, 64th Aggressor Squadron, F-16Cs, Nellis AFB, Nev.
– 57th Wing, 65th Aggressor Squadron, F-16Cs, Nellis AFB, Nev.
– NATO AWACS, E-3As, Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany

In addition to U.S. aircraft, the Belgian Air Force flew F-16AMs and a C-130, the Royal Danish Air Force flew F-16AMs, the Royal Saudi Air Force flew F-15Ss and the United Arab Emirates Air Force flew F-16Es.

AeroResource would like to thank the Public Affairs Team at Nellis AFB for taking the time to guide us through our visit and fulfilling our request to be able to bring you this report.

The official YouTube account of Nellis AFB (Nellis TV) has posted a number of videos showing the varied aircraft and movements from Red Flag missions and one example is given below. Head over to their YouTube channel for further videos. © Nellis TV/YouTube