2015 Event Review

Red Flag 15-1, January 26- February 13, 2015
Location: Nellis AFB, NV
Admission: Accredited media only
Parking: N/A
Value: Excellent
Rating out of 10: None, not an air show
 
Red Flag emblem
Red Flag 15-1

For forty years, Red Flag exercises have taken place at Nellis AFB and in the skies above the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). Since 1975 the exercise has given its participants the opportunity to gain experience in an environment and with scenarios that have been developed to be as close as safely possible to those they are expected to fight in. While this still remains the primary goal of Red Flag, the scope of the exercise has expanded significantly beyond the original Air Combat Manoeuvring (ACM) and Surface to Air Missile (SAM) threat training. Now Red Flag incorporates nearly every aspect of the type of coalition operations that participants expect their forces to be ready to face, including air to ground strike attack, suppression of enemy air defences, ground troop insertion, communications and GPS jamming, all levels of operational command and control, night time operations and even space and electronic warfare.

Red Flag 15-1 was a three-week exercise which attracted around 120 aircraft, with roughly 3000 personnel temporarily deployed to Nellis AFB. USAF units from across the US and Europe were joined by Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command units, as well as squadrons from the US Navy and Marine Corps. Coalition forces included air and ground assets from the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force. Over the course of the three-week exercise, 29 missions were undertaken, one during the afternoon and another under cover of darkness. More than fifty fighters and up to 10 “heavies” (bombers, tankers and ISR aircraft) were involved in each flight. It is also at night that most of the Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft are engaged. The AWACS, EC-130s, (E)P-3Cs and RC-135s are rarely seen flying during the day. It was a treat, therefore, to see the two RAF Sentinel R1s, which made their Red Flag debut this year, fly day missions. The Sentinel R1 is the RAF’s only long-range wide area battlefield surveillance asset, providing critical intelligence and target tracking information. They were joined by a number of Navy EA-18G Growlers, to provide active electronic attack capabilities such as jamming.

Deployed against the Blue Forces (the good guys) were the resident Red Forces under the command of the 57th Adversary Tactics Group. Most visible of these were the boldly painted F-16s and F-15s of the 64th Aggressor Squadron. This was the penultimate Flag for the last six operational Aggressor Eagles, which are scheduled to be retired at the end of March, 2015. The nature of the exercise has grown significantly beyond the original tactical dogfighting exercises and other units, such as the 547th Intelligence Squadron, provide improved tactics and present threats of a different nature, such as cyber, space or informational. “From an intelligence perspective, I'm studying things that are real world and in our shop we're putting together the Lego pieces so the guys and gals can come here and fight the war they might be doing for real overseas,” explained 1st Lieutenant Paul Heins, the Deputy Targets Chief with the 547th Intel Squadron at Nellis. “We train towards future wars. We take what we know about our adversaries at large as a coalition, we study their tactics, and then we fight against it. It’s a dynamic planning cycle. We’re making changes to Red Flag right now. If the operator sees something that is within our capability to change for the next day we will do that. We’re constantly working to give the warfighter the best [training] experience.”

This expansion of the exercise’s scope offers valuable insight to the participants well beyond their specific duties. "It's not just about the other fighter aircraft in the air and the bombers, it's also about the non-kinetic effects that you can get through space, through cyber, through all these different facets that we're learning are out there that we might actually be able to use," explained Captain Brendan "Bloc" Bond, a B-2 bomber pilot with the 13th Bomb Squadron from Whiteman Air Force Base. "For me that's really been eye opening. Other than just dropping bombs there's a lot of different ways to do things to effect change as required and I think that's where Red Flag is really good." He went on to say "Normally, day to day, we're primarily operating the B-2, flying missions and doing air to air refuelling (AAR) but we don't do a lot of integration with assets. Here at Red Flag we're down the hall from the F-22's, the AWACS, working with all the different resources the Air Force and coalition partners have and that's been a really useful experience."

Beyond the challenges Red Flag presents to the individual capabilities of participants, they will tell you that a major benefit of such large force coalition based exercises is the experience gained and the relationships built by working directly with partners they may join on future operations. Wing Commander (WC) Darren Goldie of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), the Commanding Officer of #37 Squadron flying C-130J Hercules at Red Flag 15-1, commented that "the RAAF is a very technically advanced air force but a small air force so generally we're going to participate in multinational operations as part of a coalition so Red Flag is a very important step in us understanding how to operate as a coalition." In times of crisis, whether it be disaster relief, humanitarian assistance or combat operations, knowing how to work together prior to being called to act allows forces to hit the ground running and not be bogged down figuring out how to work together. WC Goldie continued the point to say "from an Australian perspective the integration with a coalition force often happens on operations for the first time so it's critical that we're prepared to participate in operations and mutually speak the same tactical language and apply the same tactics, techniques and procedures as our colleagues and partners." A testament to the value the RAAF sees in such experience is provided by the fact that the RAAF has been a consistent participant at Red Flag for 30 of its 40 years.

For part of Red Flag 15-1, Nellis AFB was even busier than the typical high traffic that comes with a Red Flag exercise. During the first week the exercise overlapped with another major exercise held regularly at Nellis called Green Flag. The air to ground component of Red Flag continues to grow and does include elements related to ground troop support in the form of airborne troop insertion, but Green Flag specifically targets providing combat training in air - land force integration for the support of troops on the ground. A major goal of Green Flag is to provide pilots and those troops on the ground that guide them during close air support missions, the same benefits provided by Red Flag. Realistic combat simulations, integration with various air, space and cyber assets available to support ground troop operations along with the same valuable coalition integration experience only available through this type of large force exercise are all elements offered to Green Flag participants.

The Aviation Magazine would like to thank the staff of the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office, in particular MSgt David Miller, for all of their support during our visit.

Red Flag participiants:
The exercise included U.S. forces and aircraft from:
1st Fighter Wing, 94th Fighter Squadron, F-22As, Langley AFB, VA
20th Fighter Wing, 79th Fighter Squadron, F-16CJs, Shaw AFB, SC
55th Electronic Group, 43rd Electronic Combat Squadron, EC-130s, Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ
57th Wing, 526th Intelligence Squadron, DCGS, Nellis AFB, NV
158th Fighter Wing, 134th Fighter Squadron, F-16Cs, Burlington, VT, ANG
114th Fighter Wing, 175th Fighter Squadron, F-16Cs, Sioux Falls, SD ANG
48th Fighter Wing, 493rd Fighter Squadron, F-15Cs, RAF Lakenheath, UK
4th Fighter Wing, 335th Fighter Squadron, F-15E Strike Eagle, Seymour Johnson AFB, NC
31st Fighter Wing, 555th Fighter Squadron, F-16CMs, Aviano AB, Italy
Carrier Air Wing 17, Electronic Attack Squadron 132, EA-18G, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, WA
9th Reconnaissance Wing, 99th Reconnaissance Squadron, U-2, Beale AFB, CA
55th Wing, 43rd Electronic Combat Squadron, EC-130H, Davis Monthan AFB, AZ
509th Bomb Wing, 393rd Bomb Squadron, B-2As, Whiteman AFB, MO
3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 225, F/A-18D, Marine Corps Air Station, Miramar, CA
461st Air Control Wing, 12th Airborne Command and Control Squadron, E-8s, Robins AFB, GA
55th Wing, 348th Reconnaissance Squadron, RC-135s, Offutt AFB, NE
Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing, Fleet Air Reconnaissance Squadron 1, EP-3C, NAS Whidbey Island, WA
Patrol and Reconnaissance Wing Ten, Patrol Squadron 46, P-3C, NAS Whidbey Island WA
22nd Air Refueling Wing, TTF, KC135s, McConnell AFB, KA
23rd Wing, 79th Rescue Squadron, HC-130Js, Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ
23rd Wing, 66th Rescue Squadron, HH-60Gs, Nellis AFB, NV
552nd Air Control Wing, 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron, E-3s, Tinker AFB, OK
57th Wing, 64th Aggressor Squadron, F-16Cs and F15Cs, Nellis AFB, NV
Royal Australian Air Force, flying C-130Js
Royal Air Force flying Typhoons, E-3D's, and Sentinels
Report co-written by Norman A. Graf and Steve Bigg for The Aviation Magazine with images as noted.

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