The USAF held a pair of Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB back to back early in 2016. Rob Edgcumbe attended the first of these two exercises, Red Flag 16-1.
The USAF has recently settled in to a new pattern of Red Flags with four exercises a year. Two are held early in the year and two in the summer. The story of Red Flag has been told on many occasions. Fundamentally, it was found that pilots were most likely to be lost in their first ten missions. If they could experience those missions in relative safety, they would be better prepared for a real war.
The scope and scale of Red Flag has changed a lot since it was conceived. It now covers many more aspects of warfare with cyber and space being included in the exercise. Even base security is exercised with flight line operations being tested by incursions and threats. Cyber attacks can include efforts to disrupt maintenance systems. If you visit the line during the exercise, you are treated with much suspicion given the possible scenarios participants experience. Always have your authorization and escort with you!
Foreign air forces are a frequent feature of the exercises these days. RF16-1 involved USAF assets alongside Navy forces joined by Australian and UK contributions. The U.K. Royal Air Force brought Typhoons for strike work, an E-3D Sentry to support the airborne early warning force, a Sentinel for monitoring ground activities and a C-130J Hercules that, judging by the dust on its underside, was making landings out at remote strips with special forces.
The Royal Australian Air Force had a mixed fleet of legacy Hornets and their newer F/A-18F Super Hornets. They also had an E-7 Wedgetail to support AEW and an AP-3C Orion for surveillance work. The deployment had been supported by an Airbus KC-30 tanker and the team were pleased to have brought all aircraft to the US on schedule and with no aircraft left en route due to maintenance.
The majority of US assets operated from Nellis during the exercise. Some missions were operated remotely by types from their home bases and some other units operated virtually. The based aircraft included B-1B Lancers, F-22 Raptors, F-16C and F-16CJs (Fighting Falcons), F-15E Strike Eagles, F-15C Eagles, E/A-18G Growlers and the aggressor F-16s based at Nellis.
The exercise evolves over the course of the three weeks (RF16-2 was only two weeks) with a greater level of complexity in the missions being flown in the later stages as the crews learn and their experience grows. However, the format is relatively constant with two missions per day, the first launching around noon and recovering in late afternoon while the second launch is at night with most aircraft heading out around 9-10pm and recovering after midnight. Combine that with the lengthy debrief each mission requires and the night crews will get to bed early the following morning.
The launch is usually started with the AWACS and tankers heading out, often closely followed by the large bombers. There then follows a steady stream of jets from both of the runways phased in accordance the with requirements of their missions and planned times on target. Tanker support will keep the aircraft up as long as the missions require and then the recovery process will commence. The return of the tankers and AWACS is usually a sign that everyone is back.
The end of the runway during the launch is a hive of activity. Aircraft line up awaiting their turn to depart and the ground crew run through all of the last minute checks. The Nellis ramp is very long but everyone has to come to the same area to get ready to launch so the coordination of the movements is a complex exercise.When everything is gone, the sudden quiet that descends over the area is quite a contrast.
There was a period in recent years when funding for major exercises such as Red Flag was in doubt. However, the current commitment to four exercises a year has brought some stability to the program. It certainly is popular with allied overseas forces taking the chance to undertake large scale exercises with different countries and types. Meanwhile, it continues to meet the training needs of the USAF and to a lesser extent Navy and Marine Corps. We should expect to see a lot more of the same for the foreseeable future.
The author would like to express his thanks to SSgt Spangler and all of the public affairs team at Nellis AFB for their help and support in preparing this feature.