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Red Flag-Alaska 15-3: Thunder over Alaska

Red Flag-Alaska 15-3: Thunder over Alaska

Article and Photos by Barry Griffiths

September 25, 2015


he Joint Pacific Range Complex (JPRC) over Eastern Alaska and Western Canada, with its unique terrain and vast airspace, is home to Red Flag-Alaska exercises and it’s where US and partner nation air forces test and hone their fighting capabilities in advanced aerial combat situations.  The genesis of Red Flag arose with the need to improve the dog-fighting skills of USAF pilots, but now it has morphed into a much more comprehensive set of elements that encompass surface to air threats, air to ground strike missions, space warfare and cyber-attacks.

During the two weeks of air combat training, aircrews are subjected to every conceivable combat threat and as Maj. Derrick Vincent, the Director of Operations for the 353rd Combat Training Squadron, commented in a USAF interview, “Our primary mission is to expose pilots to the real-life stressors they will experience in their first eight to ten combat sorties. We have historically seen most combat losses from our side of the house occur during the first ten combat sorties”

This year, Red Flag-Alaska 15-3, sponsored by the US Pacific Air Force (PACAF), was one of the most complex Red Flag exercises ever and included over 90 aircraft of various types from seven countries: the USA, Australia, Britain, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea and Thailand. These aircraft were spread out between two Alaskan bases: the coalition airlifters and F-22A Raptor fighters were at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) in Anchorage, while the JASDF F-15Js, South Korean KF-16s, and assorted other aircraft, were deployed to Eielson AFB at Fairbanks in the north.

One of the many benefits of hosting Red Flag exercises in Alaska is the number of allied nations that can reach Eielson AFB and JBER conveniently. Maj. Seo Dongwoo, a KF-16 pilot with the 19th FW of the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), described how his unit had flown to Alaska directly from South Korea in a non-stop 10 ½ hr flight that included taking on fuel from USAF tankers 11 times. He also pointed out that “In South Korea, since we have a lot of noise complaints from civilians, we cannot fly supersonic over land, so the large air space here in Alaska is a great training experience for us”.

Aviation Photography Digest visited both bases, during Red Flag-Alaska 15-3, and observed how everyone trained together, in a simulated combat environment.  From the Japanese, US and Australian AWACS and the South Korean, Japanese and US fighters, to the coalition airlifters from the US, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and Britain, this exercise was a classic example of integration, interoperability and cross-cultural cooperation.

The weather in Alaska during the month of August ranges from sunny days with light winds, to solid cloud cover and horizontal rain, so APD was not surprised to experience high winds and driving rain during two days at Eielson AFB and one day at JBER.  However, these adverse conditions emphasized how well prepared all the participants were, from maintainers, ramp crews and pilots, for all the weather eventualities. They were exceptionally up to the mark for the challenge of launching their twice-daily Red Flag training missions with split second timing.

APD was invited to observe several combat mission launches and recovery sequences, each of which began with the launch of air-refueling tankers from Eielson AFB and two coalition AWACs from JBER. However, before any allied fighters departed, two critical operations took place.

Red Flag Pre-Launch Preparations:

First a two-ship Aggressor F-16 formation took off to conduct a range-clearing pattern to make sure all the targets were clear and that there were no personnel in the area.  If no problems were encountered by the F-16 scouts, the players could then enter the range and drop their weapons on their first pass in accordance with safety regulations.  Once the range had been deemed safe for combat training, both the Red Force (hostile) and Blue Force (friendly) launched up to sixty aircraft in a mixed, highly choreographed and tightly-timed operation.

Secondly, prior to this mass launch, all the fighters taxied down to the “arming” or “last chance” area, at the end of the runway, where each aircraft was given a final pre-flight inspection and had its weapons armed. Once this was completed, they were ready to go and fight.

The 18th AGRS is the only dedicated aggressor squadron of the Pacific Air Forces and it plays a dual role in the Red Flag exercise; Red Force simulates threats, posed by potentially hostile nations, trains and sharpens the edge of the participating pilots in air combat, and is also a big safety valve for the exercise in that it is responsible for maintaining a safe, air combat scenario. To accomplish this, aggressor pilots are fed some information about Blue Force operations and tactics by the Air Boss, but are not given the full picture.

A great deal of planning by the neutral controlling agency (White Force) goes into the development of the scenarios being played out during the Red Flag exercise. But as Maj. Vincent emphasized; “We are quite unique in that we reach out to the customers and let them know that we are here for you; we will host you but you have to tell us what you want to do”.

Once the White Force understands what training the participants want, its planners start to work on such logistics as the number of aircraft and weapons loads that will be needed. This allows them to create a scenario that is then pitched to the Blue Force players at the first of the three planning conferences. The finale comes the day before the start of the exercise when there is a Trusted Agent brief, at which time White Force planners introduce everything they have, and the Blue Force leadership confirms that the planned scenario meets their training objectives.

AWACS: The Allied Aircraft

Once Red Flag is underway, the AWACS platform, a sophisticated electronics-laden, Command and Control aircraft, takes to the skies and provides the White Force and the air combat participants with a precise, real-time picture of the battlespace. This information, which includes the visibility and direction of practically all aircraft in the Joint Pacific Range Complex, allows Red and Blue Force aircraft fighting in the airspace to keep safe as they practise their complex battle maneuvers, often at supersonic speeds.

The PACAF E-3 Sentry assets based at JBER (962nd AACS) and Kadena AB in Japan (961st AACS), along with a JASDF Boeing E-767 and an Australian Boeing E-7A Wedgetail from RAAF 2 Sqn., were the coalition assets that participated in Red Flag 15-3. To ensure that the AWACS aircrews were fully involved in the missions, they operated in pairs and swapped roles on a regular basis.

Command and Control: Air Battle Management

While visiting JBER during Red Flag-Alaska 15-3, APD was able to interview two E-3 Sentry pilots from 962nd AACS; namely, Maj. Brian McManus and Capt. Travis “Baja” Church. This was a great opportunity to have a wide-ranging conversation on the role of the AWACS in air battle management.

Capt. Church described the AWACS’ role in Red Flag as being: “Primarily Command and Control for Blue Air, as we are the ones who are talking to all their aircraft. We make sure safety happens by keeping Blue Air aircraft, the good guys, from colliding with each other and making sure they have space awareness. We also help with the execution of Blue Air’s overall game plan, whether it’s a defensive counter (DC) role defending our Homeland, or an offensive counter (AC) role where we would be going to another area to strike targets and be on the offensive”.  He went on to say that since they were the Blue Air Command and Control aircraft, they also help the fighters and bombers locate their targets, whether they are on the ground or in the air.

“We typically have about two dozen crew members on board when we are on a mission”, reported Maj. McManus, “with two commanding officers. One of the pilots, like me, is the aircraft commander who looks after the safety of the airplane and puts it up to a safe, suitable area where we are able to provide a safe platform for the guys in the back to operate. Then there is a Mission Crew Commander (MCC) who is in charge of everyone in the back and makes sure the fight happens”.

Although a single AWACS platform could perform all the Command and Control (CAC) functions during a Red Flag mission, the training objectives of Red Flag were met by launching two AWACS for each mission and then splitting the CAC role. Although there were three distinctly different AWACS aircraft platforms in the exercise, their roles were exactly the same, and they split their responsibilities.  One AWACS was responsible for checking Blue Air aircraft safely into the holding area before the start of the DC or AC, and the second AWACS then took the aircraft from the holding area and controlled them in the actual air combat fight. For example, if Blue Air was going to attack a target in an offensive counter, the second AWACS would gather everybody on to new frequencies and talk them to their targets, then return them safely to the first AWACS in the holding area. The two roles were swapped among the US, Japanese and Australian AWACS for each mission.

Command and Control: Safety is Paramount

Since the primary role of the AWACS is to make sure that safety is paramount at all times during the mission, identifying conflicts and communicating them to the airplanes is a key issue that the crew is alert to, at all times.

“We see ourselves as the Keepers of the Comm”, said Capt. Church, “so we talk to all the Blue Air aircraft and make sure we have two-way communications with them at all times”.

Capt. Church pointed out that on Red Flag missions safety always comes first, especially in Alaska where there are a lot of bush pilots who are flying VFR and don’t necessarily talk to Tower or Squawk to let ATC or AWACS track them. “They fly through our space a lot and often at altitudes that our players may be flying. Since we don’t have communication with them, we have to make sure all of the players we are controlling are de-conflicted and know the location of that aircraft”.

As long as two‐way communications have been established, the AWACS make sure that the airplanes are aware of any traffic in co-altitudes and are de-conflicted quickly. For example, if there are two airplanes at 25,000 ft, AWACS would make sure that one climbs and the other descends to ensure that they are laterally de-conflicted.  Aircraft are permitted to be at the same altitude as long as there is enough space between them laterally but, if they get too close, the AWACS makes sure that their altitude is de-conflicted.

There are also training rules where Red Air and Blue Air each have blocks of altitude reserved for them to ensure that they are automatically de-conflicted and fly safely.  This rule inherently helps to maintain safety in the air combat missions being flown.

The issue of how the AWACS is able to communicate effectively with pilots from partner nation air forces, whose first language is not English, was discussed by Capt. Church. “We keep the operations language very simple by using brevity words in all of our communications….code words that are standard across platforms. We are able to extend their use to the players from other countries, so when they come and play in our exercises, they know they are going to be using these code words. When they are familiar with their roles, they are able to pronounce and enunciate these words better, whereas general conversation does not come as easily”.

The Blue Air Players:

There was a large contingent of fighter aircraft participating in Red Flag-Alaska 15-3 and all of them, with the exception of the Raptors, were based at Eielson AFB. Eielson AFB is much closer to the JPRC so that the fighters, having shorter legs than the airlifters from JBER, are able to fight with less reliance on the tankers flying orbits above them.

The 179th FS “Bulldogs”, from the Minnesota ANG in Duluth, based 130 airmen and eight F-16 Vipers at Eielson AFB and was there to train in its primary suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) mission.

“The Fiends” of the 36th FS from Osan AB, South Korea arrived for Red Flag with 10 F-16 Vipers and were accompanied by the six A-10Cs of the 25th FS “Checkertails” from the same base.

The US Navy’s “Star Warriors” of the Electronic Attack Squadron VAQ-209, having recently transitioned from EA-6B Prowlers, brought three of their EA-18G Growlers to the training exercise and launched at least two of them on each of the daily missions.

The Japanese Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) came to Eielson AFB with six F-15Js from the 203rd TFS at Chitose AB, Japan. During a panel discussion, Lt. Col Kawaguchi commented that, “The F-15J is a twin jet fighter that, when put up against a single jet fighter, has some advantages especially at high altitudes”.

The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) Cungju/Jungwan AB presence was unique as it brought six KF-16D Victory Falcons from the 19th FW at Cungju/Jungwan AB to Red Flag-Alaska. When questioned about them all being two-seaters, Maj. Dongwoo replied that the ROKAF wanted more of its pilots to gain experience in this training exercise and added that it was actually safer to fly the two-seaters in Alaska as the pilots could coordinate their actions between the front and back seats.

A dozen fifth-generation F-22A Raptors from the 90th FS and 525th FS, based at JBER, launched daily and were the only fighter squadrons operating from the Anchorage base. All of the coalition jets benefited from the opportunity to fly with these fifth-generation aircraft along with the US Navy`s EA-18G Growlers and find out how they could complement one another in an air combat scenario.

Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR):

An American tradition, and one of the nation’s highest priorities during conflict, is to expend every effort to recover distressed personnel from harm’s way. Since the Red Flag-Alaska operates in a simulated combat environment, Maj. Vincent was asked about Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercises taking place in the exercise, and mentioned that one of the missions he was overseeing the next day was dedicated to the rescue of a downed pilot.

The next day, from our position beside the active runway, we observed a Sikorsky HH-60G Pave Hawk from the Alaska ANG 210th RQS and a Lockheed HC-130N Hercules “Combat King” from the Alaska ANG 211th RQS, 176th Wing being launched to conduct a CSAR mission for a “downed” F-16 pilot from the 36th FS (Osan).

These two rescue aircraft operate in tandem during a CSAR operation with the “Combat King” usually being first on-scene to airdrop para-rescue forces and equipment to the downed pilot. It also provides aerial refueling for the CSAR Pave Hawk helicopter in flight to extend its range and endurance.

In a USAF interview about the Alaska ANG involvement in Red Flag-Alaska missions, Maj. Kirby Chacon, Deputy Chief of Operations Support Squadron –Tactics, of the Alaska ANG’s 176th Operations Group, commented that “Our rescue squadrons participate in personnel recovery events that integrate with A-10s and other fighters out of Eielson AFB for a downed pilot scenario. It’s good training because it provides a realistic scenario where they have to fight to get in and fight to get out after recovering the downed pilot”.

Captain Travis Church also gave APD some interesting insights into the CSAR operation, from the AWACS’ perspective, and emphasized how all of the assets involved in the rescue mission worked together.  “If we do have a CSAR mission, then our role, as the Airborne Mission Commander, is to become the orchestrator of the big picture and plug-and-play our assets where they are needed”.

This Red Flag-Alaska CSAR mission was carried out by a task force of the HH-60G Pave Hawk, AC-10C ground-attack aircraft, the Combat King HC-130N, and an AWACS airborne command post. 


Red Flag-Alaska 15-3, conducted from August 6 to 21, was the largest of the year in Alaska and included more than 1000 personnel and up to 60 aircraft at Eielson AFB, with an additional 500 people and 30+ aircraft deployed to JBER in Anchorage. The generic scenarios using common worldwide threats and simulated combat conditions gave every participant an opportunity to make the tough calls often required in combat. As the Director of Operations, Maj. Vincent, said in an interview, “It is important to build relations with our coalition forces and strengthen them. On a tactical level we are trying to make the warfighter better and, operationally, we are trying to make these relationships stronger. When that crisis does happen and we are called upon to act, we know each other, we know their tactics, and we can execute a smart plan to destroy the enemy and meet the commander’s intent”.

The USAF’s Red Flag mandate is to provide the highest training possible in preparing USAF and international partner aircrews to fight tomorrow’s battles and, as APD has witnessed, this is certainly happening in the vast air combat training airspace of Alaska.

Aviation Photography Digest would like to thank: 1st Lt. Elias Zani and MSgt. Karen Tomasik, from 354th FW Public Affairs, Eielson AFB, and 1st Lt. Michael Harrington and his staff, from 673rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs, JBER, for their support and cooperation in preparing this article.

Barry Griffiths on EmailBarry Griffiths on Flickr
Barry Griffiths
Barry Griffiths is a published author, wildlife photographer and naturalist. After a successful career as an educator, he became founder and President of Quest Nature Tours, a company specializing in worldwide nature tours and expedition cruising. On his retirement from these endeavors, he continues to photograph wildlife and pursue his lifelong interest in all aspects of aviation.

Barry can be reached at: [email protected]
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