Each year multiple countries, hundreds of aircraft, and thousands of military staff come together in the Nevada desert to execute complex warfare exercises. They are simply known as Red Flag. For the February 2009 exercise Jetwash Images was able to obtain access for media purposes.
The exercise was created in 1975 by Richard 'Moody' Suter to help military pilots from the United States, Allied Countries, and NATO experience combat without the high risk of actual warfare. It was determined that if a pilot could survive their first ten combat missions, the likelihood of future combat survival increased exponentially. Red Flag was designed to simulate these first combat missions and sharpen a pilot's skills so that they would become more successful in the event of an actual war.
The exercise pits a Red Force (Aggressor) against a Blue Force (Allied) in possible combat situations. The launch of aircraft is an experience that cannot be paralleled. Aircraft from both forces, along with support aircraft that fuel and referee the exercise, all get airborne in approximately one hour. Before the launch takes place, aircraft taxi into position at the end of the runway (EOR) for final checks before they are sent into the fight. Below, a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon and McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle are at EOR getting a final check by ground crews.
Generally, the first aircraft to depart is a Boeing E-3 Sentry equipped with an airborne early warning and control system or AWACS. These aircraft play the roll of referee in the sky, calling out 'kills' and other rules to all forces to ensure a fair fight. All aircraft participating in the exercise wear Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System (RFMDS) pods, which generate telemetry information as well as other statistics to the AWACS in real time. This helps build simulation information during the fight and allows the commanders of the Red and Blue Forces to analyze what the pilots did right or wrong in an educational environment on the ground. A large part of Red Flag is devoted to acquiring knowledge before and after flying missions. The AWACS are the only aircraft that can provide this type of learning material to the Red Flag players.
Just as important to the success of the Red Flag Exercise are tankers. These flying gas stations have been around for decades, transferring thousands of pounds of fuel to all types of participating aircraft. The in-flight refueling capability provided by aircraft like the KC-10 and KC-135 (seen left) is vital to combat pilots in fast moving jets. Due to small fuel capacity and thirsty engines, the tanker plays a key role in keeping the fight going without the need for pilots to return to base for fuel. The teams that refuel aircraft keep pilots in the air longer so they can train as much as possible in high intensity combat scenarios.
When ready to fly, squads taxi into position for takeoff in rapid succession. In this exercise units from Elmendorf AFB played the Blue Force with multiple F-22 Raptors. They were opposed by the Red Force made up of local Nellis AFB aircraft that form the 64th and 65th Aggressor squadron. These F-15's and F-16's are piloted by some of the most skilled fighter pilots in the world. Seen below and left, an F-22 Blue player departs, while in the middle and right, an F-15 and F-16 Aggressor display their bright paint colors, making them easily identifiable in the air.
Along with the air to air dogfights that occur between Red and Blue Forces, several other aircraft train in operations focused on destroying high value ground targets. This air interdiction is another focus of the Red Flag Exercises making them feel even more like an all out war. Interdiction pilots are briefed on possible threats like surface to air missile sites that could complicate the delivery of their target destroying ordinance. To make the threats as real as possible, ground teams will operate SAM sites throughout the Nevada Test Range that try to lock on to Blue Force aircraft and 'shoot' them down. At this exercise, interdiction was given by the Rockwell B-1 Lancer, Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle, General Dynamics F-16 Falcon, and BAe GR-9 Harrier aircraft. Examples of these interdiction aircraft can all be seen below.
Shaw AFB supplied multiple F-16CJ Fighting Falcons for suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) which involves destroying surface to air threats. These come namely in the form of surface to air missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft artillary (AAA). These types of missions are mostly done at the start of an actual conflict to clear aircraft threats which allow interdiction or airspace patrol aircraft to easily penetrate enemy territory with a lesser threat of being fired upon.
Finally, combat search and rescue (CSAR) was provided by NAS North Island and their MH-60 helicopters. These crews practice extracting up friendlies that have become stranded in enemy territory. Their primary goals are find, communicate with, and recover downed aircrews. They are extremely skilled at performing nap-of-the-earth flights that remain very low to the ground and try to avoid radar. They are also highly trained at using night vision goggles to help them fly in difficult circumstances at night.
During the two week duration of Red Flag, immeasurable experience of simulated combat is gained by the participating pilots. After they leave, the knowledge will stay with them, and it will be used when flying combat missions over a foreign land. It is exercises like Red Flag, that are so close to the actual thing, that make military pilots of the United States and their Allies, the best in the world.