Red Flag 15-2: Red Flag Meets Virtual Red Flag
Article and Photos by Barry Griffiths
April 26, 2015
The second Red Flag premier air combat exercise of 2015 took place recently at Nellis AFB, Las Vegas, NV and the Nevada Test and Training Range and provided more than 2500 military participants with realistic opportunities to enhance their combat skills and experiences. Red Flag exercises are designed to simulate the first surge of aerial warfare, usually the first 10 combat sorties in that conflict and, as a result, all spectrums of air warfare such as command and control, intelligence, electronic warfare and combat SAR are included in the missions flown.
Each day during its two weeks of operation, Red Flag 15-2 scrambled over 100 aircraft in day and night missions from Nellis AFB and other US bases and utilized 13 different USAF squadrons, as well as ten F-16s and a C-130J from the Royal Norwegian AF, plus two NATO E-3A AWACs.
Virtual Red Flag
It was fitting that, on the 40th anniversary of Red Flag, Virtual Red Flag assets were integrated with Red Flag aircraft and aircrews for the first time ever. The virtual participants, in simulators at their home bases or at Kirtland AFB, NM, provided real time ground surveillance to support the attack operations and targeting during the actual exercise. The inclusion of Virtual Red Flag in this long-running air combat training exercise proved to be a cutting edge experience for the military personnel involved as it integrated platforms that can’t always be tasked for training.
Lt. Col Philip Stodick, from the 57th Operations Group, described how a high demand asset such as the E-8C JSTAR would participate virtually in the Red Flag exercise by having its crew operate in a simulator at their home base “pumping out virtual surface tracks to task actual aircraft flying in the exercise”. In a combat training environment, where operational costs are a critical factor and assets may not be readily available, Virtual Red Flag is now well positioned to ensure that intensive combat training can continue into the future.
The Red Flag 15-2 Participants
In a typical Red Flag exercise, Blue Forces (friendly) engage Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations and this year’s second Flag was no different. There were two mass launches daily with the AWACs and tankers departing first, followed shortly afterwards by the Red Team aircraft heading out to their defensive positions on the NTTR to wait for the arrival of the Blue Air attackers.
Red Air Assets
The 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS), permanently based at Nellis AFB, NV with its F-15s and F-16s, was tasked as the Red Air hostile defensive force with the addition of 4 T-38 Talons from Randolph AFB, TX and a B-1B Lancer and 2 EA-6B Prowlers from Blue Air operating with Red Air in a swing role for specific missions.
After the inactivation of the 65th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) in late 2014, seven of its F-15 Eagles carrying camouflage schemes identical to those observed on Russian-manufactured Su-27 Flankers, were assigned to fly with the F-16s of the 64th AGRS for a short period of time during the drawdown. Although the Aggressor F-15s flew daily sorties, it now looks as though Red Flag 15-2 was likely their swan song as these all-weather tactical fighters, with their advanced jamming and self-escort electronic warfare pods, will shortly be re-deployed to other USAF squadrons.
Some Blue Air Assets
It seems as if each Red Flag has a different twist with a different mix of aircraft being used in each to meet the objectives of the respective exercise. In this case, the fighter assets of Blue Air were F-16s variants operated in complimentary roles by the aircraft of several US squadrons and those of their Norwegian ally.
421st FS “Black Widows”
The 421st FS, a night fighter squadron from Hill AFB, UT., with their fully modified CCIP F-16CMs, equipped with night vision goggles, Harm Targeting System, and the Advanced Targeting Pod launched daily with full racks of laser-guided and inertial-aided munitions.
125th FS “Tulsa Vipers”
The F-16C Tulsa Vipers of the 125th FS, with their distinctive Indian Head tail schemes (now the symbol of the Oklahoma Air National Guard), launched daily in their air superiority role. The squadron brought a large number of its pilots and ground crews to Red Flag 15-2 and, as Lt. Col. Robin Cavanaugh, the public affairs officer for the 138th Fighter Wing, remarked, “We try to bring as many as we can, for this exercise provides the operational and maintenance sides of the squadron as best an experience as they could have in a training environment”.
55th FS “Fightin’ Fifty-Fifth”
The F-16CJ Wild Weasels of the 55th FS Shaw AFB SC were extremely active in the daily training missions and were among the first to launch after the Aggressors and Tankers had left. The Wild Weasels were always heavily loaded with armaments to support their enemy defense suppression role.
555th FS “Triple Nickel”
The combat-ready F-16CM’s of 555th FS, ferried in from Aviano AB, Italy, had a primary mission of air superiority and participated in Red Flag 15-1 and again in Red Flag 15-2.
VMAQ-3 “Moon Dogs”
The Grumman EA-6B Prowlers of VAMQ-3 (Moon Dogs), recently deployed against Islamic State militants in Iraq, and now back at their home base at MCAS Cherry Point, brought six aircraft to Red Flag 15-2. Although the US Marines’ all-weather, twin-engine, tactical electronic attack Prowlers have been in the business of suppressing enemy air defenses for 38 years with VAMQ-3, its future is now short term only. The US Navy has recently retired its Prowlers and the USMC’s EA-6B Prowlers will be phased-out beginning in 2016 with the program concluding in 2019. Perhaps, as a result of their imminent disappearance, the “Moon Dogs” Prowlers generated a lot of interest from the onlookers as they launched and recovered at this year’s second Red Flag.
NATO E-3A Component
The E-3A Component is unique as it is NATO’s only integrated multinational operational flying unit, and provides rapid deployability, airborne surveillance, command, control and communication for NATO operations. There are currently 17 E-3A Component AWACS in the multi–national NATO fleet based at Geilenkirchen, Germany. The two E-3A Components participating in Red Flag 15-2 were quite unique as they were operated by a NATO air and ground crew from 11 NATO nations, including crew members from Romania participating in their first Red Flag exercise. These aircraft flew daily sorties at Red Flag 15-2 and were tasked as the primary air battle command and control aircraft of the exercise thus exposing their crews to realistic and stressful combat situations in the controlled environment of Red Flag.
23rd BS “Bomber Barons”
The B-52H Stratofortress, with its capacity to loiter for extended periods over, or even well outside, the battlefield and deliver precision standoff and direct fire munitions, was well represented at Red Flag 15-2 with four “Bomber Barons” of 23rd BS, Minto AFB, ND flying for Blue Air. After watching a number of take-off and landings, it’s clear that the BUFFs may have had their original J57 turbojet engines upgraded to TF33-P-3 turbofans, but they must still be the smokiest aircraft in the USAF inventory. On final approach their eight engines emit swirling vortices of thick smoke and at launch they disappear into a bank of dense black fog. On another note, it was fascinating to watch these behemoths executing multiple go-arounds; they would approach to within 100 feet of the runway and then change to full throttle and lumber back into the circuit. And then, on landing, they would pop their bright yellow 40 foot diameter drag parachute to slow down their momentum.
37th BS “Tigers”
The B-1B Lancer, the USAF’s long range supersonic heavy bomber, is all about raw power for at launch the “Bone”, with a full load of fuel and ordnance, has each of its four General Electric turbofans generating almost 31,000 lbs of thrust with their afterburners lit. The naked power of the “Bone” was evident to us as we watched several launches from the side of the active departure runway. Astonishingly, it had its nose up within 3500’ of starting its roll and then was fully airborne with a steep angle of attack at 5000’; solid proof that the Lancer’s wing sweep at the full-forward position allows a short takeoff roll and a fast base-escape profile when departing airfields under attack. Since the B-1B continues to be upgraded along many lines, and with its ability to carry out a wide range of missions, the “Bone” is expected to continue in service until the 2040s.
Red Flag 15-3 is scheduled for this summer from July 13-31. Information about the aircraft participating in this combat training exercise may be found on the Nellis AFB website.
Aviation Photography Digest would like to thank MSgt David W Miller Jr and the rest of the 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs for their support during this exercise.