Operation Red Flag/Nellis AFB 1978-today

This exercise is taking place at Nellis Air Force Base (at the northwestern edge of Las Vegas) 3-4 times a year since 1975. Red Flag is organized by the United States Air Force Warfare Center (USAFWC), while it is executed by the 414th CTS/57th Wing. The aim of the exercise is to train the pilots and crews of the United States, NATO and allies for the real combat. This includes the use of “hostile” hardware like SAMs and radars and also the use of live ammunition in the Nevada Test- and Training area.

The Nellis Range is a training area which has the size of about 15,000 square miles.

For the exercise, allied countries are often invited i.e. Israel, India, Saudi-Arabia, Columbia, South Korea and Singapore. Some start their training at home long before the actual exercise they’re later participating. The exercise includes a near-war realistic scenario and this is getting “worse” each following day. In the beginning, each day had a different scenario, nowadays the scenario is “developing” over the days, in this way becoming even more realistic. Each exercise has different assets and the mission-commander had to work with it (“Use what you have”). With this, each exercise is unique and there might be different ways to get the final aim of the day. To get a realistic scenario, former Warsaw Pact equipment, mostly for Air Defence, is used (ZSU23-4, SA-3, SA-6 etc.). The 57th Wing has two Aggressor Squadrons, the 64th AGRS is flying with the F-16C and the 65th AGRS uses the F-15C/D. For better recognition, these have unique colours, which were used by the former Soviet-Union and both squadrons use their tactics to become a realistic “target” for the Blue Forces.

Bombers, Fighters, Reconnaissance, Tanker and special mission aircraft (for SEAD, jamming and/or signal intelligence) form a mix to run “the war”. There are two teams, the “Reds”, which consist mainly of the Nellis based aggressor squadrons and the “Blues”, which are the guests. Most times, the red team operates at the western part of the range while the blue team tries to fulfill its mission within the red territory. While the blue forces loose a “shot down” aircraft, the red aircraft have lots of life, including their own tanker.

Each weekday, two missions are flown. One is executed in daylight, the second mission is flown in the night, one of the “lessons-learned” from the gulf wars. The first ones to take off are the AWACS aircraft, most times an E-3 Sentry of the USAF or one of the other countries which uses this aircraft. A quarter later, the bombers (B-1B Lancer, B-2A Spirit and/or B-52H Stratofortress), tankers (KC-135 Stratotanker) and transport aircraft (from C-130 Hercules to C-5 Galaxy) follow them, a further quarter later the fighters (i.e. F-15 Eagle, F-22 Raptor or Eurofighter/Typhoon), ground attack aircraft (i.e. F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-15E Strike Eagle, Tornado or A-10C Thunderbolt) and electronic assets (i.e. EA-18G Growler, RC-135 Rivet Joint) follow them. That means about 80 – 100 aircraft take off within 60 – 90 minutes. Sometimes, just after the last take-off, the first aircraft start to come back. Red Flag costs about 35-40 Million a year and the USAF works very hard to keep that budget. It turned out that the exercises are vital to the service and the allies, most Air Forces include one of the exercises in their training to get combat ready pilots. Since 1975, 31 states participated at one of the exercises, 480,000 soldiers participated with 150,000 crews, which flew 400,000 missions, completing 690,000 flying hours.

One of the most important elements of the Red Flag Operations is the Measurement and Debriefing System (RFMDS). RFMDS includes a computer-hardware and software network, which includes real-time monitoring, post-mission debriefing of the procedures and tactics. It can debrief the full mission but also only parts of the mission or only a pair of a participant. It can be focused on the targets, on the threats and also on the different reactions and tactics used during the exercise and ensures so the best lessons-learned debriefing for all participants. Blue force commanders can judge the success of the missions and can react in going further with the exercise or decide to repeat a part of the mission to ensure the best learning effect.

A lot of things have changed with Red Flag in the past years. Nowadays, half of the missions of the exercise will be flown in the night, a lesson learned from the conflicts in southern Europe and southwest Asia. To ensure the best learning effect, the Pacific Air Force introduced Red Flag Alaska. There, the environment fits more for the European and Asian part of the world. There it is easier for countries from Asia to participate like the participation of Japan in different Red Flags proved. But also European Air Forces like from Germany, France and the UK participated in an environment which fits more to there own country.

Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base will continue for the time being. It is an more than valuable asset to learn to survive in a hostile environment. Its success is proven by the “export” of its training to Europe with exercises like “Frisian Flag” in the Netherlands or “Anatolian Flag” in Turkey.

The following pictures show some participants over the last 20 years.

-F-5E from the collection Erik op den Dries


Peter Boschert

Peter is a photographer covering events in the United States and in Europe. He likes to cover Nellis AFB, NAS Fallon and RAF Lakenheath.

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