An Aggressive Launch
The 18th Aggressor Squadron (18 AGRS) has called Alaska’s Eielson AFB home since 2007. Flying modified F-16 jet fighters, the 18th AGRS “prepares Combat Air Force, joint and allied aircrews for tomorrow’s victories through challenging, realistic threat replication, training, test support, academics and feedback. The Aggressors job is to know, teach and replicate the threat better than any other squadron”, according to a USAF fact sheet. Pilots and planes both visually and electronically simulate diverse opponents during large-scale exercises such as Red Flag Alaska, normally held three to four times per fiscal year. Usually, there’s a Blue Force (good guys) and a Red Force (bad guys) involved; the 18th AGRS usually handles most, but not all of the Red Force duties.
Throughout each two week Red Flag Alaska exercise, a pair of daily missions containing 60 to 80 aircraft are launched and recovered from Eielson AFB and (relatively) nearby Elmendorf AFB. Six to eight of the Aggressors’ F-16s are launched during each mission, with specific objectives to keep. Thorough debriefs from both the Aggressor pilots and ground-based training personnel, “lessons learned” are presented to the Blue Force participants.
One highly visible modification to the Aggressors’ F-16s is that they wear very noticeable, non-standard colors. Instead of your standard low-visibility gray, their jets are painted in a trio of multi-colored schemes. One appears as a throwback to the 1970’s Southeast Asia color scheme, although it closely simulates some more modern desert camouflage schemes. A second scheme is of blues and gray, and the third is an eye catching Arctic scheme of black, gray and white. All three schemes work well over the Alaskan wilderness, which greens up for a few months during the spring and summer months, when most exercises are held. The browns and green of the desert-style camouflage blends into the foliage, and the blue and gray scheme is similar in hue to the haze and big blue skies that are prevalent during the May through August time frame. The Arctic scheme works surprisingly well in the summertime as many (or most) of the taller mountain peaks in Alaska remain snow covered year-round.
This Photorecon reporter was invited to witness a morning launch and recovery sequence of the 18th AGRS during a June, 2014 Red Flag Alaska exercise. Normally, a launch and recovery cycle for the Aggressors contains between six and eight aircraft. While the numbers of available aircraft and crews needed for the two daily missions could support up to 12 sorties per cycle, continuous operations at this level would push the resources of the Squadron to its limits. Since Red Flag missions are timed almost to the second, the preflight and start-up processes are done well ahead of scheduled departure times at the squadron’s ramp and hangars. There’s a well choreographed dance between the Crew Chiefs, other maintenance crewmembers, and the pilots; it takes two people on the ramp and the pilot in the cockpit to start up a jet. After an initial inspection, the jets depart their parking spaces and taxi to their next stop on the ground, usually called the “last chance” and/or “arming” area. This is where a final inspection for leaks and other problems occur, weapons are armed (instead of being “safed”), and this is the point where the last “Remove Before Flight” pins with their bright red tags are pulled. And then, per script and additional air traffic control instruction, the pilots taxi their jets onto the runway and launch into the fight.
Recovery after their mission was accomplished near the same “last chance” area as the departure routine was. After landing, the Aggressors taxi to a stop while each jet is checked for structural integrity, leaks, and possible bird strike damage. Pins are inserted for landing gear and other safety assurance; once all is completed, they taxi back to their parking spots where the jets are shut down. The pilots climb out after their “routine” of spending between an hour and a half to two and a half hours in their seats.
No matter where the F-16s of the 18th AGRS operate from, whether it be from their home base at Eielson AFB or from distant bases (the unit deployed most of it’s assets to Australia for multiple weeks last year), the Aggressors are a highly regarded training asset. With their head-turning color schemes and extra electronic capabilities, they can simulate a wide range of adversaries. Watching personnel perform launch and recovery operations from a few feet away impressed me with both the precision and the focus to detail everyone showed. Seeing F-16s that weren’t wearing the normal gray color scheme was a treat too.
Special thanks go to the many personnel from the Eielson Public Affairs Office and the 18th AGRS ground crew/crew chiefs who escorted me while on base and answered my questions, very impressive, thank you!