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Operation Red Flag (USAF)

F-16C aggressor aircraft during Red Flag 06-1(Image: F-16C aggressor aircraft during Red Flag 06-1)

RED FLAG is an advanced aerial combat training exercise hosted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada and Eielson Air Force Base Alaska. Since 1975, air crew from the United States Air Force (USAF) and other U.S. military branches and allies take part in the exercises, each of which is six weeks in duration. Red Flag is similar to the U.S. Navy's Top Gun aerial combat training school.

The Red Flag exercises, conducted in four-to-six cycles a year by the 414th Combat Training Squadron of the 57th Wing, are very realistic aerial war games. The purpose is to train pilots from the U.S., NATO and other allied countries for real combat situations. This includes the use of "enemy" hardware and live ammunition for bombing exercises within the Nevada Test and Training Range.

Organization of Red Flag

An Australian F-111 bomber approaching a Washington Air National Guard KC-135 tanker during Red Flag 06-1(Image: An Australian F-111 bomber approaching a Washington Air National Guard KC-135 tanker during Red Flag 06-1)

The mission of the 414th Combat Training Squadron (Red Flag) is to maximize the combat readiness and survivability of participants by providing a realistic training environment and a 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 very large scale.

Two Israeli Air Force F-15 Ra'ams practicing air defense maneuvers at Red Flag 2004(Image: Two Israeli Air Force F-15 Ra'ams practicing air defense maneuvers at Red Flag 2004)

In a typical Red Flag exercise, Blue Forces (friendly) engage Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations. Blue Forces are made up of units from Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, United States Air Forces Europe, Pacific Air Forces, the Air National Guard, U.S. Air Force Reserve, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, the Canadian Air Force as well as other allied air forces. They are led by a Blue Forces commander, who coordinates the units in an "employment plan". Red Forces (adversary) are composed of the 57th Wing's 57th Adversary Tactics Group, flying F-16s (64th Aggressor Squadron) and F-15s (65th Aggressor Squadron) to provide realistic air threats through the emulation of opposition tactics. The Red Forces are also augmented by U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps units flying in concert with the 507th Air Defense Aggressor Squadron's electronic ground defenses and communications, and radar jamming equipment. The 527th (Active Duty) and 26th (Reserve) Space Aggressor Squadrons also provide GPS jamming. Additionally, the Red Force command and control organization simulates a realistic manual integrated air defense system.

A key element of Red Flag operations is the Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System. RFMDS is a computer hardware and software network which provides real-time monitoring, post-mission reconstruction of maneuvers 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 exercise with the Army), one Canadian Maple Flag (operated by Canadian Forces Air Command) and four Red Flags. Each Red Flag exercise normally involves a variety of fighter interdiction, attack, air superiority, defense 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, range coordination, munitions scheduling, and development of training scenarios, are designed to be as realistic as possible, fully exercising each participating unit's capabilities and objectives.

Origin of Red Flag

Indian Air Force's Sukhoi Su-30MKI conduct post-flight maintenance during the Red Flag exercise in 2008(Image: Indian Air Force's Sukhoi Su-30MKI conduct post-flight maintenance during the Red Flag exercise in 2008)

The origin of Red Flag was the unacceptable performance of U.S. Air Force pilots in air combat maneuvering (ACM) (air-to-air combat) during 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 during 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 were not versed in the core values and basics of ACM due to the belief that BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements and equipment made maneuvering combats obsolete, and nearly all pilots were unpracticed in maneuvering against dissimilar aircraft because of an Air Force emphasis on flying safety.

An Air Force analysis (Project Red Baron II) showed that a pilot's chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had completed 10 combat missions. Red Flag was created in 1975 to offer US pilots the opportunity to fly 10 realistically-simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measurable results. Many aircrews had also fallen victim to SAMs and Red Flag exercises provided pilots experience in this regime as well.

The concept of Colonel Richard "Moody" Suter became the driving force in its implementation, persuading Tactical Air Command commander Gen. Robert J. Dixon to adopt the program. At Nellis, Suter was well-known and well-liked. He had 232 Vietnam combat missions. The series of briefings that he delivered inspired enthusiasm among key personnel at Nellis. The first 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 mammoth task of establishing the program. Their hard, imaginative work over the early years would confirm Red Flag's promise and turn it into the finest training system in aviation history.

The Aggressor squadrons, the opponents who flew against the pilots undergoing training, were selected from the top fighter pilots in the Air Force. These pilots were trained to fly according to the tactical doctrines of the Soviet Union and other enemies, to better simulate what NATO pilots would encounter in real combat. The Aggressors were originally equipped with readily available T-38 Talon aircraft to simulate the MiG-21. F-5 Tiger II fighters, painted in color schemes commonly found on Soviet aircraft, were added shortly thereafter and became the mainstay until the F-16 was introduced. The 64th and 65th AGRS currently use F-16 and F-15 aircraft to emulate, respectively, the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker, and continue to be painted in their camouflage schemes.

This approach differs from that employed during the Vietnam War by the United States Navy to improve fighter aircrew performance. Rather than a large, multi-squadron exercise, the Navy established the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (more widely known as TOPGUN) in 1969 to "train the trainers," with squadrons in the fleet selecting their best aircrew for training. Graduates returned to the fleet to share lessons learned with their fellow pilots. Navy Adversary squadrons were also established at Fighter and Attack Master jet bases (NAS Miramar, NAS Oceana and NAS Lemoore as well as NAS Key West) for fleet squadrons to conduct dissimilar air combat training as part of unit level training. These squadrons initially flew the A-4 Skyhawk. The Navy later added the F-5E to its Adversary lineup as well as the F-21 Kfir and a specially built F-16N as well as the F/A-18A. Air Wing level training analogous to Red Flag is conducted at NAS Fallon where
NSAWC operates dissimilar adversary aircraft (F-16A and F/A-18A) and VFC-13 flies the F-5E.

The United States Marine Corps (USMC) conducts Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) exercises at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma twice a year as part of the WTI course conducted by MAWTS-1 and uses locally based VMFT-401, the only USMC adversary squadron. Originally equipped with the F-21 Kfir, it now operates the F-5E.

Red Flag was also depicted in a 1981 TV movie "Red Flag: The Ultimate Game".[1] Red Flag is also featured in a 2004 IMAX film Fighter Pilot: Operation Red Flag.


1. Red Flag: The Ultimate Game IMDb plot summary
2. "IAF's first ever participation in exercise 'Red Flag' " July 2008

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Source: WikiPedia

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