Red Flag 16-1: Integration and the Power of Three
Article by Steven Valinski
Photos by Steve Gurley and Steven Valinski
February 14, 2016
In 1946 Winston Churchill used the term “Special Relationship” to describe the relationship between the UK and the U.S. This relationship began, and was fostered, during WWII and has continued since. The 1951 ANZUS Treaty solidified relations between the U.S. and Australia to cooperate on military matters around the world. Together, the U.S., UK and Australia represent the backbone of a strong partnership that was further enhanced by the UKUSA Agreement, also known as the “Five Eyes” intelligence alliance, which also includes Canada and New Zealand. This alliance symbolizes an elite partnership based on a mutual trust between these nations. Today, the U.S., UK and Australia represent the strongest of allies in post-9/11 military matters.
For Red Flag 16-1, this relationship was on display with a combination of forces from these countries integrating together for a common goal, to participate in the largest, most realistic, air combat training exercise in the world.
Executed by the 414th Combat Training Squadron (414 CTS), and hosted by Nellis Air Force Base, Red Flag is often described in Nellis press releases as: “a realistic combat training exercise involving the air, space and cyber forces of the United States and its allies.” Most of the Red Flag action utilizes the over 15,000 square miles of airspace and the vast ranges of the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR).
The term “power trio” has been used to describe rock-n-roll bands that utilize three members while creating the dynamic sound of much larger bands. The same concept can be applied to the air forces of the U.S., UK and Australia working together, in harmony, to reach common objectives. This harmony, or synergy, requires an understanding of the assets that each country brings to the fight, learning the strengths and weaknesses of these assets and working together to maximize the potential of these assets. If this synergy is reached, the force is maximizing its potential and is highly effective.
Integration has always been the core objective with Exercise Red Flag. Yes, the exercise was born out of the need to simulate a pilot’s first ten combat missions, but Red Flag has grown to be much more than combat mission simulation. Red Flag is integration, Red Flag is problem solving, Red Flag is learning how to deal with a multitude of sophisticated threats, Red Flag is learning how to execute under pressure…and much more.
Colonel Kenny Smith, 57th Operations Group Commander, explains what one of the key objectives is with Red Flag exercises: “What we are trying to set up here is, we have units that are at home station doing, basically, single role type of aircraft. The F-16’s that are from Aviano that are here, just here today. They don’t get a chance to train with other platforms very often. And so, when they show up here, one of the things we really want to tease out of them is: how do you integrate with other platforms? I’m going to think about the problems of an F-16 pilot, from an F-16 perspective. I want that F-16 pilot, the mission commander is going to leave that large-force package, to be able to understand what the capabilities of an F-22 is, what the capabilities of the E-3 is, what the capabilities of the Super Hornets from Australia are and be able to integrate those to be able to deliver an effect for a joint force commander. Essentially, the big takeaway for the people that are flying in these exercises here is, when they go home, they have a better understanding of what those things are.”
During the course of Red Flag 16-1, the U.S., UK and Australia worked together to overcome communication and terminology differences, a lack of understanding of each other’s capabilities, differences in strategies and tactics and more to successfully reach common objectives.
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) participated with one of its largest contingents ever for a Red Flag with 14 aircraft and over 400 personnel. The RAAF’s role was vital to the success of the overall mission of Red Flag 16-1. Group Captain Philip Gordon, Air Expeditionary Wing vice commander, RAAF, explains: “We are part of this big coalition here, this air expeditionary wing. So we’re fully plugged into all the mission planning and it’s a great opportunity for each of the countries to learn a bit more about each other’s capabilities. And, really building a good team that imparts the strengths of individual systems and mitigates any weaknesses. So, we have different scenarios each day which present different tactical problems. So, we develop a solution, we brief it, we go fly it, we learn a bunch of lessons. But, we are fully integrated with the US and the UK in the missions and we’ll fly all the elements and the roles there be it, air control, strike, dynamic targeting…we’ll be involved in all of that with our aircraft.”
In terms of aircraft, the RAF (United Kingdom) brought Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s, a Raytheon Sentinel R1, a Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules C4 and a Boeing E-3D Sentry. The RAAF (Australia) participated with its McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet, a Boeing E-7A Wedgetail, a Lockheed AP-3C Orion and, for the first time ever at Red Flag, its Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornets. In total, over 2,400 personnel, over 120 aircraft and 39 units participated in Red Flag 16-1.
Executing the Mission
While the objectives change, the structure of the Red Flag missions is essentially the same daily. Each day there are two “fights” one during the daytime and one at night. Cancellation of these missions is rare but can happen. For example, high winds or bad weather over the range could jeopardize the safety of the aviators and crews and can result in a “no go” for the mission. The safety of the aviators and crew always takes precedence during Red Flag.
Lt. Col. Kevin “Flash” Gordon, 414th Combat Training Squadron deputy commander, gives us some insight into these missions, or “fights”: “So, the fights are 90 minutes and when the ‘Blue’ participants are flying, they are taking off usually anywhere from 45 minutes to 20 minutes before the VUL starts. They may go hit a tanker first to top-off with gas before the fights starts. And then, typically the first 10 minutes or so it’s solely air to air going on where you’d have the ‘Blue’ escort fighters, so your F-22’s, the British Typhoons, maybe the F-15C’s or whatnot, going across the airspace and trying to clean the aggressors out. To provide that air supremacy for the rest of the fight. And the next phase goes into the suppression of enemy air defenses, to now where you’ll have the Growlers or the F-16CJ’s come in and now try to suppress some of those surface-to-air threats, just like you would expect in the real-world. Again, we are trying to make Red Flag as realistic as possible. So, all those aspects that you are going to see in a live, real-world, combat operation, you are going to see at Red Flag. And then, kind of the final phase is now the air-to-ground strike aircraft, the B-1’s, F-15E’s, F-16’s, whatever…they’ll come in drop their bombs on the targets and they’ll all get out of ‘bad guy land’ successfully…go back home. And, all that takes place in about a 90 minute fight. ”
An important player in the fight is the pilots and aircraft of the “Red”, or enemy, forces. Just a few years ago, Nellis AFB had two aggressor squadrons, the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) flying F-16 Fighting Falcons and the 65th Aggressor Squadron (65 AGRS) flying F-15 Eagles. In 2014, the 65th AGRS was inactive, leaving a void in the “Red Air” capabilities. This void is often filled, on a rotational basis, by pilots and aircraft from visiting units. Lt. Col. Gordon explains: “A certain percentage of the ‘Blue” participants on certain days will have to cut a few forces over to fly ‘Red’. Just to augment, and get that adversary up to the level that we would like for our ‘Blue’ participants to face.”
While these “Blue Air” pilots do not have the level of sophisticated training that “Red Air” aggressor squadron pilots go through, they are well-prepared for the role. “It’s not too far stretched. When they are back at home station, that’s what they do day in and day out whenever they want that contested fight, if you will, where they need to face “Red Air”. So a lot of them have done it at home station, they haven’t done it with the professional aggressor force we have here at Nellis. So, a little bit of a challenge, yes, but it’s not too far-fetched because the basic fundamentals of how an aggressor flies is still based on American flight discipline, if you will. A standard flight discipline. While some of the tactics are different, and some of the ways that we implement, we give them academics from day one. So, all the guys that are going to be flying on our side we go ‘hey this is how the aggressors fly’ and, then, whenever a “MiG One” gets up and stands and gives his brief, they are really good and thorough on what the differences are, from what you flew yesterday in ‘Blue’…OK, this is how it’s going to be different today when you fly on ‘Red’. So those guys take a lot of time to make sure that’s understood before we go out and fly,” Lt. Col. Gordon said.
For “Red Air” most of the missions are air-to-air, but there are exceptions: “It is mostly air to air. I will say on Mondays, Monday’s fight is a defensive counter air fight for the “good guys”. So, we will take some of the air to ground strike aircraft and bombers, like the B-1’s, for instance, on Mondays, are ‘bad guys’ and they are trying to get over to ‘good guys’ and bomb their targets,” Lt. Col. Gordon told us.
With the strong relationship between the U.S., UK and Australia comes a certain degree of trust. This trust creates a comfort level which allows these countries to utilize some of the more enigmatic assets in their arsenal. The United States participated with its stealthy Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit and its infamous Lockheed U-2 “Dragon Lady” ultra-high altitude reconnaissance aircraft. Both of these aircraft flew missions supporting Red Flag 16-1 out of their home station. The Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint STARS (JSTARS), Boeing P-8 Poseidon and a variety of U.S. Navy P-3 Orions sporting several different configurations were also utilized by the U.S. forces.
Australia brought its unique Boeing E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft. Based on the Boeing 737, the E-7 is designed to help control the battlefield from the sky by communicating with other aircraft while utilizing an advanced Multi-Role Electronically Scanned Array (MESA) radar. This sophisticated technology gathers information from a variety of sources and sensors, analyses it, then distributes pertinent information to the other assets in the battlefield. Australia also brought its uniquely configured AP-3C.
The UK also brought its own specialized aircraft with the Raytheon Sentinel R1. Also known as the ASTOR (Airborne STand-Off Radar), the Sentinel is a modified Bombardier Global Express that is utilized for ground surveillance. The Sentinel contains systems that are interoperable with other coalition/NATO systems which makes the sharing of information in the battlefield a valuable asset.
For Red Flag 16-1, standing out among the Gen 4 and Gen 4.5 fighters is the Gen 5 Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor air superiority fighter. With its stealth capabilities and technology such as the BAE Systems EI&S AN/ALR-94 radar warning receiver (RWR), Lockheed Martin AN/AAR-56 infrared and ultraviolet Missile Launch Detector (MLD) and Northrop Grumman AN/APG-77 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, the F-22 is capable of air superiority in a matter of minutes.
However, with payload limitations, the F-22’s are best utilized when working together with other assets to help manage the battlefield and take out the enemy. 1st Lt. Emily Lebeau, 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron air battle manager out of Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, discusses how the Boeing E-3 Sentry works together with the F-22s: “The F-22 has a much better ability to command the air-to-air. We work with them just because they know their tactics so much better than we ever could. So, it’s a lot more of us picking up the things they’re not looking at. Because their radar is going to look somewhere, but we’re looking everywhere. So, it’s more of backing them up…’hey, the entire fight’s happening over here, but nobody is talking about this person’. And, we can manage that, at the same time we are working with other C-2 agencies, other intelligence platforms, to get them more data, more information to make their decisions in the air-to-air fight.”
The 965 AACS brought the latest E-3G block 40/45 to Red Flag 16-1, which is only the second time this upgraded model participated in a Red Flag exercise.
Occasionally, a unit will arrive at Red Flag that was not listed on the original press release. For Red Flag 16-1, one such unit was the Air National Guard Air Force Reserve Test Center (AATC) F-16s based out of Tucson International Airport in Tucson, Arizona. AATC utilizes F-16 Block 25/32 aircraft with the primary mission of F-16 Operational Flight Program (OFP) testing.
On to the next…
With the completion of Red Flag 16-1, Red Flag 16-2 is just around the corner. The 414 CTS and Nellis AFB are already prepping for the second Red Flag exercise of the year which is set to begin on February 29, 2016. Red Flag 16-2 will be much smaller than 16-1, but will feature Italian Eurofighters and Turkish F-16s fighting alongside several varieties of U.S. aircraft.
Red Flag 16-3 and Red Flag 16-4 will take place this summer. Red Flag 16-3, a three-week long exercise, will feature an all U.S. (with UK and Australia possible) lineup. Based on a 2015 USAF interview with Col. Jeffrey Weed, 414th Combat Training Squadron commander and the fact that Italy and Turkey are participating in Red Flag 16-2, Red Flag 16-4 should have Spain, UAE and Pakistan participating.
Red Flag 16-1 took place from January 25 to February 12, 2016.