Red Flag is the United States Air Force’s premiere training exercise and involves aircraft from the United States and its Allies. Jason Grant explains the history behind the exercise and then travels with AeroResource’s Mark Forest to Nellis AFB to experience the first Red Flag of 2013, known as Red Flag 13-2.

Red Flag History

The Red Flag exercise began in 1975 as a direct result to the dramatic drop in the Air Force’s air-to-air kill ratio. During the Korean War, the kill ratio was 10:1 and this fell to only 2:1 during the Vietnam War. This dramatic fall showed that the Air Force needed to understand the reason behind the significant drop in proficiency by United States airmen in conflict. The USAF Tactical Weapons’ Centre at Nellis AFB was tasked with a series of studies at analyze Vietnam War air-to-air engagements. This study was named “Project Red Baron”. The findings from the report found three areas that contributed to the reduced kill ratio:

1 – Multi-role fighter units were expected to perform a broad range of missions and pilots lacked proficiency across the board. Home station training measured the number of hours flown regardless of individual mission training.

2 – Most USAF pilots who were shot down never saw their attackers and did not know they were being engaged. This was because pilots routinely trained against larger US aircraft from the same squadron and they were unaccustomed to looking for smaller, more agile aircraft flown by North Vietnam.

3 – USAF pilots were unfamiliar with enemy fighter tactics and aircraft capabilities. As a result, the pilot was unable to adapt to the faster manoeuvring jet experienced in dogfights and unable to exploit the enemy weakness.

The Litton Corporation studied air combat trends in every conflict since WW1 through to the Vietnam War and concluded that a pilot’s first 10 combat missions were the most critical. Survive the first 10 and the chances for victory and survival increased dramatically.

The results of the studies completely overhauled the training of aircrews. Multi-role Air Force fighter units were specified a primary and secondary Designed Operational Capability (DOC) for each squadron, focusing on either air-to-air or air-to-ground missions and the number of roles the aircraft were expected to perform was reduced. This allowed pilots to train and specialize in their assigned mission. DOC training measured the quality of training missions rather than number of hours flown.

The problem of identifying enemy fighters and developing tactics to exploit enemy weakness was taken up by Tactical Air Command (TAC) Commander General Robert Dixon who devised an initiative known as “Readiness Through Realism”. The idea was to make training more realistic and intense. As a result of one of the recommendations from the Red Baron report which stated “Realistic training can only be gained through study of, and actual engagements with possessed enemy aircraft or realistic substitutes”, Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) became a mandatory part of a pilot’s mission qualification and continuation training programme. Aggressor Squadrons were created, flying T-38s and then F-5s wearing Soviet style paint schemes. The pilots adopted Soviet style manoeuvres and tactics and were assigned to Ground Control Intercept controllers who controlled aggressor aircraft using Soviet methods.

In 1975, “Coronet Real” was set up by TAC to improve air-to-ground training. This programme significantly upgraded Air Force ranges with realistic target displays, ground threat simulators and assessment equipment. Electronic warfare ranges were also set up at Nellis AFB and Eglin AFB using ground threat simulators to mimic Soviet integrated air defence systems including surface to air and anti-aircraft artillery radar simulators. Styrofoam rockets called “smokey SAMs” were also placed across the range to allow visual cueing of a shoulder-fired SAM launch. Video cameras were slaved to SAM tracking radars to capture video of a pilot’s reaction to being targeted and optical scoring equipment was placed to accurately measure the impact point of live or inert ordnance.

With an increased emphasis on specialized and realistic aircrew training, Major Richard “Moody” Suter, backed by his peers proposed creating a purpose built training environment in which pilots could experience the rigours of air combat in a realistic training environment. The Red Flag concept of operations was presented at the TAC Fighter Weapons Symposium in April 1975 in a briefing called “Red Flag: Employment Readiness Training” and on 15th July 1975, General Dixon received the Red Flag concept brief and approved it for immediate implementation. Major Suter is known as the “Father of Red Flag” and the Red Flag building on Nellis AFB bears his name today.

Red Flag Today

Red Flag at Nellis AFB follows a set of scenarios which play out in a high threat yet “safe” environment over the Nevada Test and Training Range. The range is the United States premiere military training area with more than 12,000 square miles of airspace and 2.9 million acres of land situated to the North West of Nellis AFB, Nevada. The range has been strategically enhanced to test the pilot incorporating 1,900 possible targets, realistic threat systems and an opposing enemy force trained to simulate enemy tactics in battle.

The two week exercise involves aircraft from the United States and its Allies and comes under the command of the 414th Combat Training Squadron at Nellis AFB. Flying takes place during both daytime and night-time hours with mission times lasting up to eight hours. The aerial war games are split into two teams, the Blue Force and the Red Force. The Blue Force is the friendly forces and the Red Force is the enemy force. The Blue Force is made up of the visiting aircraft and is set a series of objectives for each mission. The Red Force which is made up of the specially painted Aggressor Aircraft based and Nellis AFB and flown by some of the most skilled and experienced pilots in the United States Air Force have one objective, to stop the Blue Force completing their mission goals.

The Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System is a real time computer hardware and software network which allows real-time monitoring of each mission. The system also enables pilots to watch each engagement in a post mission reconstruction. This gives the pilot the ability to learn from mistakes made during the exercise thus increasing mission readiness for the day the skills learnt during the Red Flag exercise are put into practice in a real air-to-air engagement.

Running alongside the Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB whilst we were there was the Green Flag exercise which takes place up to ten times each year. The Green Flag exercise: an air-to-ground training exercise incorporates aircraft flying from Nellis AFB in support of ground combat training at Fort Irwin in California. With two large scale exercises running side by side, Nellis AFB is a hive of activity with aircraft departing and landing every few minutes throughout the daylight hours and well into the night.

Red Flag 13-2 ran from the 21st January 2013 through to the 1st February 2013. Below is a list of aircraft that took part in the exercise:

57th Wing, 64th Aggressors Squadron F-16Cs from Nellis AFB, NV.
57th Wing, 65th Aggressors Squadron F-15Cs from Nellis AFB, NV.
138th Fighter Wing, 125th Fighter Squadron F-16Cs from Tulsa, OK.
United States Navy, VFA-25 F-18Es from NAS Lemoore, CA.
United States Navy, VAQ-138 EA-18G Growlers from NAS Whidbey Island, WA.
366th Fighter Wing, 389th Fighter Squadron F-15Es from Mountain Home AFB, ID.
2nd Bomb Wing, 20th Bomb Squadron B-52Hs from Barksdale AFB, LA.
7th Bomb Wing, 9th Bomb Squadron B-1Bs from Dyess AFB, TX.
52nd Fighter Wing, 480th Fighter Squadron F-16CJs from Spangdalem AFB, Germany.
23rd Wing, 41st Rescue Squadron HH-60s from Moody AFB, GA.
23rd Wing, 71st Rescue Squadron HC-130s from Moody AFB, GA.
552nd Air Combat Wing, 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron E-3s from Tinker AFB, OK.
22nd Air Refuelling Wing KC-135Rs from McConnell AFB, KS.
154th Wing, 199th Fighter Squadron F-22s from Hickam AFB, HI.
56th Fighter Wing, 425th Fighter Squadron F-16Cs and F-16Ds from the Republic of Singapore Air Force.
F-16AMs from the Royal Netherlands’ Air Force.
JAS39Cs from the Swedish Air Force
M2000-9s from the United Arab Emirates’ Air Force.

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