Red Flag Alaska – Training, Tactics, Testing
The expansive airspace over south central Alaska offers an unsurpassed classroom during Red Flag Alaska (RF-A) training exercises. A pair of Air Force Bases (Eielson AFB is east of Fairbanks and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson is just north of Anchorage) stage dozens of aircraft which take part in each of the USAF Pacific Air Forces’ (PACAF) events. The diverse Alaskan topography below this airspace contains mountains, broad plains and valleys. Within specially located ranges, an extensive series of targets and electronic combat threat simulators test planners’ and pilots’ skills. Operating in this environment offers a pilot some flying experiences not available “back home”, and is a big reason for the worldwide participation at these three or four yearly events. Each two-week exercise is an excellent opportunity for realistic flight training, to test tactics (both time-tested and newly developed) and even validate new equipment in an environment very close to actual air combat.
During the last two weeks of June, 2014, Red Flag Alaska 14-2 (RF-A 14-2) roared into life in the skies and on the ground of “The Last Frontier”. American aircrews and aircraft normally based in Florida, Kansas, Nevada, Washington, and South Korea flew together with Australian and Japanese allies. Crews and aircraft based in Alaska also participated. American units came from the Air Force, Navy, and Air National Guard squadrons. US Marines based in Cherry Point NC deployed a ground-based Tactical Air Operations Center to Alaska to assist the blue forces too.
The general script calls for a 10-day armed conflict for “blue” (friendly) forces to complete. The bad guys, known as the “red” force, offer adversarial challenges. From the ground comes electronic countermeasures or simulated anti-aircraft threats. In the air, the adversarial opposition is supplied by the Eielson AFB-based 18th Aggressor Squadron’s (18th AGRS) F-16C+ aircraft, although in RF-A 14-2, other aircraft – including A-10Cs based in South Korea – simulated different airborne threats. Not only are electrons traded during the training, but practice and live ordinance can be air dropped, dependent upon a unit’s training budget.
An important benefit of using the ranges in Alaska is that supersonic flight is allowed throughout much of it, normally at and above 30,000 feet MSL (Mean Sea Level). There are certain geographic areas where faster-than-the speed-of-sound operations can occur at lower altitudes though; base heights of either 15,000 MSL or 5,000 feet AGL (Above Ground Level) can be used in some remote areas. The lack of many restrictions faced by participants at their home base allows for more realistic training while participating in an RF-A exercise. Additionally, the use of defensive chaff and infrared flares in the Alaskan ranges ensures that pilots can use all of their aircraft’s capabilities while training.
For RF-A 14-2, the Japan Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) trained with a self-contained package of F-15MJ fighters, an E-767 airborne warning and control aircraft, and their own KC-767 tankers. A trio of blue C-130H transports flew missions throughout the Alaskan wilderness too. Before their journey eastward from Chitose Air Base to Eielson, the JASDF F-15s needed to practice air refueling (not a routine event back home) before flying across the Pacific Ocean. To make the trip without making time-consuming stops for fuel, they were “dragged” by PACAF KC-135s. However, when the Eagles flew during their Alaskan missions, they were supported by their own KC-767 tankers. The Royal Australian Air Force brought a pair of newer C-130J-30 Super Hercules transports too; three stops for fuel and rest were made before arriving at Elmendorf AFB.
RF-A missions offer a chance to validate equipment and operating techniques. Both Japanese and Australian aircraft used the realistic battle conditions to evaluate and review how various onboard systems on some of their aircraft worked. With the electronically simulated anti-aircraft missile threats and airborne Aggressor F-16C+s, defensive and offensive systems were “put to the test”, taxed to their limits without actual live fire to contend with.
A pilot from the 18th AGRS noted that each unit brings their own operating techniques to “the fight”. As Aggressors, they work to challenge these techniques, and throughout an exercise, both sides’ plans and tactics change to meet new or different threats. There’s a lot of “lessons learned” discussion both during and at the end of these exercises. When the Aggressors lose a battle, it is actually a “lose-win-win” scenario; as the blue force prevails, the red force has validated their opponents’ tactics.
Twice daily, a massive launch sequence of 50 to 60 aircraft occurred from the pair of air bases. Locally based F-22 Raptors, AWACS, and transports operated from Elmendorf, while the Tanker Task Force KC-135s and the bulk of the fighter and bomber force flew from Eielson. With their departure times tightly controlled to the minute, pairs and quartets of fighters blasted off to assemble for the attack, or to join an orbiting KC-135 tanker for fuel. Tankers and transports operated in pairs or singularly. A few hours later, aircraft returned to their airport in various formations and performed “overhead breaks” for their landing sequence to the runway. Ground crew immediately began to ready them for their next mission… about four hours between the morning and afternoon missions. Heavier maintenance was performed overnight.
Speaking to various participants, one heard that Red Flag Alaska 14-2 was a valuable training event, whether you had very little or a huge amount of experience. It was a great opportunity to validate tactics and test equipment under realistic conditions too.
Special thanks go to Public Affairs personnel that sponsored me during my visits – especially SSgt. Jim Araos at Eielson AFB and SSgt. John Wright at JBER and their staff members. Additionally, thanks to all of the unnamed crew chiefs, pilots, and foreign aircrews and officials that took the time to answer questions in between doing their important RF-A duties.