The Real Red Flag: Up Close at the Air Force’s Largest Combat Exercise
The dull roar of jet engines could be heard in the distance. Looking down the flight line of 3L/21R at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, the F-15, a streak of black and gray, raced towards the waiting group photographers and journalists on its take off roll. Cameras clicked and ears were covered as it passed the group with its afterburners visible until shortly after liftoff.
Red Flag 12-2 was on.
The two week event is the US Air Force’s largest and most important air combat training exercise. Held up to four times per year, more than 145,000 aircrew members and 440,000 military personnel have participated in Red Flag during its 37 year history. The US Air Force Warfare Center and Nellis administer and the 414th combat training squadron execute the exercises. They launch from the air force just base north of Las Vegas and take place over the Nevada Test and Training range. The base also holds the regular cyber flag and green flag exercises for data asset and air-to-ground protection training, respectively.
Red Flag participants come from all over. Fighter squadrons at 12-2 included the fourth from Hill Air Force Base in Utah, the 122nd from the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans in Louisiana, the 131st from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Massachusetts as well as ones based at Nellis. In addition, the Republic of Korea Air Force sent F-15Ks straight from the Boeing factory in St. Louis and the Royal Saudi Air Force flew in its own F-15s to participate.
First lieutenant Kenneth Lustig, a public affairs officer at Nellis, said planning for Red Flag exercises begins three to four years before the exercises occur and coordination with the individual squadrons and overseas participants about two years prior. However, he noted that the participants can change as little as six months before the event.
“It’s as real as it gets without going to war,” said lieutenant colonel Jay Sabia, fourth fighter squadron commander from the 388th fighter wing based at Hill, in an interview. The wing sent 16 F-16s and nearly 180 personnel, including pilots, life support and maintenance staff, to Nellis.
Sabia said that the exercises allow squadrons to improve the skills of their individual pilots, enhance the cohesion of their units, and gain experience with coalition partners and new airframes. For example, “blue fours” – the youngest wingman in a four ship – are purposely put in demanding situations that they may not experience during normal training exercises. In addition, some personnel participate as mission a commander, which includes two days of planning, briefing and debriefing in addition to the actual combat exercise. Sabia has participated in six previous Red Flags and flown in active combat duty.
“As individuals and as a unit we performed well,” said Sabia on his squadron’s performance at Red Flag. “I’m very impressed and it validates that we are ready.”
Navy captain Frank Ault planted the seed for Red Flag. He found that the existing peacetime training programs for pilots left them largely unprepared for air combat during the Vietnam War in the aptly named Ault Report that he published in 1968. Further analysis by the Air Force found that fighter pilots with more than 10 successful combat missions had a significantly greater chance of survival. The creation of the Navy Fight Weapons School (Top Gun) in 1969 and, under the direction of Air Force general Robert Dixon, Red Flag in 1975 resulted from these findings.
A variety of military aircraft could be seen from the flight line at 12-2. The most common aircraft was the F-15 but numerous A-10s, B-1B Lancers, an E-3 Sentry (AWACS), F-16s (including the Thunderbirds) and KC-135 Stratotankers also launched for the exercises that day.
After the fighter jets had recovered and the KC-135s circled and landed, the smoking Awac lumbered back to Nellis. This was normal for the original TF33 engines, which were manufactured by Pratt & Whitney between 1959 and 1985. The group along 3L/21R watched the bird belch along gracefully as it touched down and came to a stop at end of the runway. Another Red Flag exercise successfully completed.
Photos by David Lilienthal