Exercise Red Flag is an advanced aerial combat training exercise hosted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Red Flag – Alaska is held at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, being a successor to the previous COPE THUNDER exercise series in the Western Pacific and Alaska. Since 1975, air crews from the United States Air Force (USAF), United States Navy (USN), United States Marine Corps (USMC), United States Army (USA) and numerous NATO or additional allied nations' air forces take part in one of several Red Flag exercises held throughout the year, each of which is two weeks in duration.
Under the aegis of the United States Air Force Warfare Center (USAFWC) at Nellis, the Red Flag exercises, conducted in four to six cycles a year by the 414th Combat Training Squadron (414 CTS) of the 57th Wing (57 WG), are quite realistic aerial war games. The purpose is to train pilots and additional flight crew members from the U.S., NATO and additional allied countries for real air combat situations. This includes the use of "enemy" hardware and live ammunition for bombing exercises within the adjacent Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR).
The mission of the 414th Combat Training Squadron (Red Flag) is to maximise the combat readiness and survivability of participants by providing a realistic training environment and a pre-flight and post-flight training forum that encourages a free exchange of ideas. To accomplish this, combat units from the United States and its allied countries engage in realistic combat training scenarios carefully conducted within the Nellis Range Complex. The Nellis Range complex is located northwest of Las Vegas and covers an area of 60 nautical miles (111 km) by 100 nautical miles (190 km), approximately half the area of Switzerland. This space allows the exercises to be on a quite large scale.
In a typical Red Flag exercise, Blue Forces (friendly) engage Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations.
Blue Forces are comprised of units from the Air Combat Command (ACC), Air Mobility Command (AMC), Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC), Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), United States Air Forces Europe (USAFE), Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), Air National Guard (ANG), Air Force Reserve Command (AFRC), and Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), aviation units of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Army, the Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, and Royal Australian Air Force, as well as additional allied air forces and fleet air arms. They are led by a Blue Forces commander, who coordinates the units in an "employment plan" scheme of operation.
Red Forces (adversary forces) are composed of the 57th Wing's 57th Adversary Tactics Group (57 ATG), flying F-16s from the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) and F-15s from the 65th Aggressor Squadron (65 AGRS) to provide realistic air threats through the emulation of opposition tactics. The Red Forces are additionally augmented by additional U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps units flying in concert with the 507th Air Defense Aggressor Squadron's (507 ADAS) electronic ground defences and communications, and radar jamming equipment. The 527th Space Aggressor Squadron (527 SAS), an Active Duty unit, and the 26th Space Aggressor Squadron (26 SAS), an Air Force Reserve Command unit, additionally provide GPS jamming. Additionally, the Red Force command and control organisation simulates a realistic enemy integrated air defence system (IADS).
A key element of Red Flag operations is the Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System (RFMDS). RFMDS is a computer hardware and software network which provides real-time monitoring, post-mission reconstruction of manoeuvres and tactics, participant pairings and integration of range targets and simulated threats. Blue Force commanders objectively assess mission effectiveness and validate lessons learned from data provided by the RFMDS.
A typical flag exercise year includes ten Green Flags (a close air support (CAS) exercise with the U.S. Army), one Canadian Maple Flag (operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force) and four Red Flags. Each Red Flag exercise normally involves a variety of fighter interdiction, attack/strike, air superiority, enemy air defence suppression, airlift, air refueling and reconnaissance missions. In a 12-month period, more than 500 aircraft fly more than 20,000 sorties, while training more than 5,000 aircrews and 14,000 support and maintenance personnel.
Before a "flag" begins, the Red Flag staff conducts a planning conference where unit representatives and planning staff members develop the size and scope of their participation. All aspects of the exercise, including billeting of personnel, transportation to Nellis AFB, range coordination, ordnance/munitions scheduling, and development of training scenarios, are designed to be as realistic as possible, fully exercising each participating unit's capabilities and objectives.
The origin of Red Flag was the unacceptable performance of U.S. Air Force fighter pilots and weapon systems officers (WSO) in air combat manoeuvring (ACM) (air-to-air combat) throughout the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars. Air combat over North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973 led to an overall exchange ratio (ratio of enemy aircraft shot down to the number of own aircraft lost to enemy fighters) of 2.2:1 (for a period of time in June and July 1972 throughout Operation Linebacker the ratio was less than 1:1).
Among the several factors resulting in this disparity was a lack of realistic ACM training. USAF pilots and WSOs of the late 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s weren't versed in the core values and basics of ACM due to the belief that BVR (Beyond Visual Range) missile engagements and equipment made "close-in" manoeuvring in air combat obsolete. As a result of this BVR-only mindset that reached its zenith in the early 1960s, nearly all USAF fighter pilots and WSO of the period were unpracticed in manoeuvring against dissimilar aircraft because of a concurrent Air Force emphasis on flying safety.
An Air Force analysis known as Project Red Baron II showed that a pilot's chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had completed 10 combat missions. As a result, Red Flag was created in 1975 to offer USAF pilots and weapon systems officers the opportunity to fly 10 realistically simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measurable results. Many U.S. air crews had additionally fallen victim to SAMs throughout the Vietnam War and Red Flag exercises provided pilots and WSOs experience in this regime as well.
The concept of Colonel Richard "Moody" Suter became the driving force in Red Flag's implementation, persuading the then-Tactical Air Command commander, General Robert J. Dixon, to adopt the program. At Nellis, Suter was well-known and well-liked. The first Red Flag exercise came off on Gen Dixon's schedule in November 1975. On 1 March 1976, the 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group (Red Flag) was chartered with Col P.J. White as the first commander, Lt Col Marty Mahrt as vice commander, and Lt Col David Burner as Director of Operations. This small crew under Col White's leadership undertook the task of firmly establishing the program.
The "aggressor squadrons", the opponents who flew against the pilots undergoing training, were selected from the top fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force. These pilots were trained to fly according to the tactical doctrines of the Soviet Union and additional enemies of the period, in order to better simulate what then-TAC, as well as USAFE, PACAF and additional NATO pilots and WSOs would likely encounter in real combat against a Soviet, Warsaw Pact, or a Soviet-proxy adversary. The aggressors were originally equipped with readily available T-38 Talon aircraft to simulate MiG-21, the T-38 being similar in terms of size and performance. F-5 Tiger II fighters, painted in colour schemes commonly found on Soviet aircraft, were added shortly thereafter and became the mainstay until the F-16 was introduced.
Today, the 414th Combat Training Squadron (414 CTS) is the unit currently tasked with running Red Flag exercises, while the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) and the 65th Aggressor Squadron (65 AGRS) additionally based at Nellis AFB use F-16 and F-15 aircraft to emulate, respectively, the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-30 Flanker. These aircraft continue to be painted in the various camouflage schemes of potential adversaries.
—The U.S. Navy operates a similar large-force training exercise at the Fallon Naval Air Weapons Center in northern Nevada, informally called "Strike University" by naval aviators. Both Red Flag and Strike University are large-force training exercises that shouldn't be confused with the smaller, but longer duration, programmes that the USAF and USN run to train individual weapons and tactics instructors. In 2009, the 416th Flight Test Squadron from Edwards AFB, California, additionally participated in Red Flag, the first time an Air Force Material Command (AFMC) unit had been part of the program.
Only countries considered friendly towards the United States take part in Red Flag exercises. So far, the countries to have participated in these exercises are:
- In 1979, an F-111A, USAF Ser. No. 67-0105, of the 430th Tactical Fighter Squadron crashed, resulting in the deaths of Maj Gary Mekash and Lt Col Eugene Soeder.
- In 1980, a fatal crash occurred when a Royal Air Force (RAF) Blackburn Buccaneer suffered failure of the main spar.
Notable appearances in media
Red Flag was depicted in a 1981 made-for-TV movie, Red Flag: The Ultimate Game. Red Flag is additionally featured in a 2004 IMAX film, Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag. An depicting a standard Red Flag campaign is available for the PC flying combat Simulator Digital Combat Simulator. It allows the player to pilot either an A-10C or F15C.