Las Vegas is known to many as a city of conventions and indulgence, but it is also the host of one of the most intricate training exercises conducted by the US Air Force, as many as eight times a year. The exercises are known as “Red Flag”, and they take place several times a year at Nellis Air Force Base adjacent to Las Vegas.
Red Flag is considered the ultimate exercise for any combat aviator. The amount of aircraft participating, the scenarios, the countries from around the world participating and diverseness makes it the mecca for combat aviation. Many air forces around the World see Red Flag as a way to raise the level of combat readiness of their own aviators, since most world air arms cannot put the same number and type of aircraft into any of their domestic exercises. Israel, which was looking to raise its training level, has conducted a biannual exercise named “Blue Flag,” similar to Red Flag, but like most things in life – its always bigger in America.
Red Flag Exercises commenced in 1975 following lessons learned during the Vietnam War. The US Navy also founded a similar program, in the form of a flight school famously known as “Top Gun”.
Red Flag’s purpose is tactics on a high level and interoperability between different aspects of combat aviation such as Airborne Early Warning, Electronic Warfare (radar jamming) Signals Intelligence Aircraft (eavesdropping on the enemy) and Airborne refueling aircraft.
The coordination between all elements, along with the mission specific nature of assignments employed on the battlefield, allow for a wide range of airborne elements to prove their capabilities in theater.
Since the US Defense budget is undergoing a downsizing process, the number of Red Flags taking place along with the sister exercise, Green Flag, has been cut by more than 50%. This year there may only be four Red Flags, including one taking place in Alaska.
Still, Red Flag is the exercise that every foreign Air Force aspires to participate in. Almost every Red Flag includes at least one – and sometimes as many as three – foreign air forces.
At this last Red Flag 14-1, elements from the RAF and the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) were in attendance. The RAAF brought conventional weapons platforms along with the new state of the art AEW aircraft, the “Wedgetail.” The Royal Air Force supplied another AWACS platform, the E-3B Sentry, to complement it.
The lineup provided by the US Military was impressive, and included the B-2 Spirit Stealth Bomber, F-22 Raptors, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Falcons, F-18 Hornets and Super Hornets, EA 6B Prowlers and EF 18G Growlers along with Signals Intelligence EC 130H Hercules and a number of KC 135 Tankers.
In a briefing, INN had the opportunity to meet with some of the aviators in command of the exercise and speak with them, including Lt. Col. Jordan “Gadget” Grant of the 414th Fighter Wing, Capt. Haley “Zap” Hartstein of the 547th Intelligence Squadron, Major Eric “Yogi” Flattem of the 57th Adversary Tactics Group and Lt. Wheeler, aka “Wheels,” a young RAAF F18 pilot who remarked that he had to fly for 20 hours in 10 hour intervals to get his aircraft over the Pacific – not a very comfortable flight in a fighter jet.
“We do many exercises back home but nothing on this level and it provides us with a remarkable amount of experience,” he said.
The process of playing an adversary “Red Force” is a tradition in Red Flag, and the 57th has a proud tradition of keeping the “Blue Forces” on their feet. When Maj. Flattem was asked what type of tactics are employed in order to create a credible training scenario, he answered: “We look at various tactics, whether from the Vietnam era or the former Soviet Union for example, we look carefully at what was done and we pick something from there that we can create a 'lesson of the day' from and teach the Blue Force how to deploy towards the relevant threat.”
Cutbacks notwithstanding, Red Flag's heightened sense of combat along with high tempo of operations are unchanged. We were fortunate enough to see the various forces in action and take to the sky along with them.
Sincere thanks to the men and women of the US armed forces who made this article possible.