Nellis AFB Red Flag 15-1

Monday 26th January to Monday 13th February 2015

Red Flag is 40 years old this year and its longevity is cause to celebrate. While the occasion may have a hugely successful effect on US forces morale, to the men and women of the US forces and its allies it is just another year of training to keep them at the pinnacle of effectiveness to fight in any future conflicts; and those being fought right now.

Paul Newbold and Stuart Skelton report for UK Airshow Review from Nellis Air Force base, near Las Vegas, NV, USA.

The overseas partners of Red Flag 15-1 were the Royal Australian Air Force with two new C-130J Hercules and a AP-3C Orion, and the Royal Air Force who brought eight Typhoon FGR4s and two Sentinel R1 ELINT aircraft.

Red Flag traces its origins back to the Vietnam War and since then has adapted to the many changes to how wars are fought and where.

The exercise delivers valuable experience for new aircrew, while keeping seasoned crews up to date with the latest tactics, including cyber warfare which is an ever growing component encountered in contemporary warfare. Red Flag, organised by the 414th Combat Training Squadron, was designed to give inexperienced aircrew an experience as close as possible to real war situations to aid them in quickly acclimatising to their work in their first ten combat missions and beyond.

The new keyword on the block is 'Integration', a phrase that was mentioned on many occasions during our briefing with air and ground crew from various units this word came up many times. This can be applied int different forms from aircraft talking to each other via electronic means, to aircrew learning other nation's procedures and of course listening to their experiences. Many contemporary fighter and bomber aircraft can collect valuable intelligence in their own right, whilst carrying out their own mission.

Red Flag is not about who wins, but learning lessons from the data and aircrew experience gathered over the massive range North West of Las Vegas. In general the missions last between two to five hours but the briefing/debrief time can last much longer and from start to finish it could be a twelve hour day for the aircrews. The tempo does not slow down when the sun sets. On the contrary, during our time out on the busy ramp after dark it was busier than the day mission, with all three B-2A Spirit bombers launching for their Blue Force interdiction mission. The 393rd Bomber Squadron Whiteman, MO based bombers made for an impressive sight when departing.

The 'heavies' depart first to get in position, followed by the 64th AGRS F-16C Fighting Falcons and F-15C Eagle Aggressors of the red defending force. The latter, consisting of former 65th AGRS F-15C Eagles have been absorbed into the 64th AGRS and six are being used(plus one spare) until the end of March 2015 when they will be retired to the AMARG boneyard in Arizona. Budget cuts having taken their toll once again with a one-type aggressor force required to keep costs down. The forty year old Eagle’s main advantage was it’s greater manoeuvrability at high altitude than the F-16C ‘Viper’, however this was not enough to save it.

As F-15C Eagles became surplus, the The 65th Aggressor squadron was formed to fly them in the aggressor role from 2005. As well as providing adversaries during Red Flag and Maple Flag exercises, the squadron has also performed other less well known duties such as operational test support, weapons school support and occasionally travelling to other bases for adversary tactics training. Some of the paint schemes adopted over the years have been stunning and will be sorely missed from the skies over Nevada, examples of which can be seen in the images accompanying this report.

The attacking Blue Forces had their work cut out as the Seymour Johnson based 4th FW was lending a hand to the Red Force with their very capable F-15E Strike Eagles. The blue force were not without their own dedicated fighter escort with the UK-based 493FS F-15C Eagles providing top cover along with the 1st FW F-22A Raptors from Langley, VA. Most of the other fast jet players are also capable of a 'swing role', able to switch between striker to fighter and vice-versa. Around 50-60 aircraft are launched during an intense period with up to sixteen fighters seen waiting at the last chance checks area before heading to the two parallel runways. Air to Air refuelling is always a part of Red Flag and KC-135Rs from various units assisted in this role, day and night.

If an attacking aircraft is 'shot down' by a simulated missile or gunshot, the crew have no knowledge and will continue with the mission, only finding out if they made it successfully during the debrief. If a Red Force aircraft is 'downed' it flies to a box and rejoins the fight. Nobody said it would be easy!

The Blue Force usually use a combination of simulated and live conventional air to ground weapons including dumb bombs, laser guided bombs and anti-radiation missiles for attacking enemy radar. Enemy threats are simulated on the range and almost all aspects of modern warfare can be practised here.

For this edition of Red Flag, the attacking Blue Force consisted of the following units and aircraft from the US Air Force:

TypeUnitHome BaseAir ArmNotes
F-22A Raptor94FS / 1FWLangley AFB, VAUSAF
F-16C Fighting Falcon134FS / 158FW ANGBurlington, VTUSAF
F-16C Fighting Falcon175FS / 114FWSioux Falls, SDUSAF
F-16CM Fighting Falcon555FS / 31FWAviano AFB, ItalyUSAFE
F-16CJ Fighting Falcon79FS / 20FWShaw AFB, NCUSAFSuppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD)
F-15C Eagle493FS / 48FWRAF LakenheathUSAFE
B-2A Spirit393BS / 509BWWhiteman AFB, MOUSAF
HC-130J Hercules79RS / 23WgDavis Monthan AFB, AZUSAFCombat Search and Rescue (CSAR)
HH-60G Pave Hawk66RS / 23WgNellis AFB, NVUSAFCombat Search and Rescue (CSAR)

Additional Units:

F/A-18D HornetVMFA-225MCAS Miramar,CAUSMC
EA-18G GrowlerVAQ-129 / VAQ-132NAS Whidbey Island, WAUSNSuppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD)
Typhoon FGR41(F) SqnRAF Lossiemouth, UKRAF
C-130J Hercules37 SqnRichmondRAAFPara-dropping & CSAR

Electronic and Signal intelligence and Command and Control mission:

E-3 Sentry965AACS / 552ACWTinker AFB, OKUSAF
RC-135 Rivet Joint38RS / 55WgOffut AFB, NBUSAF
EC-130 Compass Call43ECS / 55EGDavis Monthan AFB, AZRAF(Flying from home base)
U-2S Dragon Lady99RS / 9RWBeale AFB, CAUSAF(Flying from home base)
EP-3E Aries IIVQ-1NAS Whidbey Island, WAUSN
P-3C OrionVP-46NAS Whidbey Island, WAUSN
n/a526 IS / 57WgDCGS, Nellis AFB, NVUSAF
Sentinel R15(AC) SqnRAF Waddington, UKRAF

Air to Air Refuelling was provided by USAF KC-135R Stratotankers from the 22ARW, McConnell AFB, 916ARW, Seymour Johnson AFB, 121ARW, OH ANG and the 92ARW, Fairchild AFB

A huge thanks goes to the Public Affairs Team at Nellis AFB for all their assistance in enabling us to write this report.