8Z0A0606[1]As I board the bus to head over to the media briefing and interview panel, I can’t help but think about how incredibly fortunate I am to be able to be a part of Red Flag Media Day 17-1. From Joe Kates, (the Publisher and Editor in Chief of giving me the chance to write an article for the site several years ago, to the public affairs staff here at Nellis AFB for opening their doors and putting together these amazing opportunities to share the importance of Red Flag exercises, I am truly blessed.


The day started with a question and answer session with some of the participating units’ commanders, who spoke to us about what Red Flag means to their individual units as well as the ability to integrate with one another.
The hot topic of the day seemed to be the integration of the first F-35A unit to participate in a Red Flag exercise, which belonged to the 34th Fighter Squadron (FS), based at Hill Air Force Base, and what they brought to the fight. Various questions were asked about information sharing between different platforms, challenges posed by the adversary group, mission scenarios, and ‘takeaways’ for the exercise so far. Wing Commander Billy Cooper from the Royal Air Force’s 6 Squadron explained, “We’ll be working a fourth/fifth gen mix of Typhoon and F-35B in the future, so these sorts of exercises are critical for us to gain experience to be able to develop our tactics and operating procedures, so that we can operate effectively in the future.”

Australian Contingent Commander, Captain Stewart Bellingham, discussed some of the tough but valuable training they were getting with their own aircraft, as well as things they are learning about working with the F-35 and F-22. “It is kind of grueling and rigorous, but all of our personnel are having a fantastic time… but getting some great value out of this exercise, and we’ll take that back and feed that straight back into our force preparation” explained CPT Bellingham.


Lieutenant Colonel George Watkins, 34th Fighter Squadron Commander, talked about some of the differences between the last Flag he was at, where he flew F-16s, to flying in the F-35 now. He explained that this exercise was equipped with a “significantly more complex and aggressive” adversary threat than he had seen in his previous visit. Red Air assets were supplied by the 64th Aggressor Squadron in F-16Cs, contract Red Air in A-4 Skyhawks, and various aircraft from participating unit’s augmenting the Red Air team. “I think we’ve seen something like 22 to 24 adversaries in total, before they regen[-erate], so that’s how many actual aircraft are out there, and then they get shot down and they’ll go regen, so you’ll see three to four times that number of bad guys in the air”. He added that there was also the most advanced surface-to-air threat that he had ever encountered, but even with all of that said, the kill ratio of F-35 to Red Air was 15-1 up to that point in the exercise.

He added, “…it’s really for pilot training, it’s to put up a realistic training environment, and if we didn’t suffer a few losses, it wouldn’t be challenging enough.” I asked Lt. Col. Watkins what percentage of bombs on target were simulated, inert, or live ammunition during this Flag for them. “We are carrying a large number of inert weapons. We’re not carrying any live weapons in this Red Flag, and by inert weapons, they’re real weapons they’re just not filled with explosives, so they have the same guidance kit that we would carry in combat, and we’ve been carrying about four of those a day, every day, one per jet on a four ship. We were told we are carrying more inert weapons than other units here, and more inert weapons than they’d seen other units carry in the past” he replied.



After our briefing we headed out in between the two runways to capture the mass launch. Reconnaissance aircraft such as the Sentinel R1 and RC-135 Rivet Joint went out early to set up in their positions, as did the tanker force of KC-135s and the RAF KC3. A pair of C-130Js from the RAAF and RAF followed the rest of the heavies to prepare for their part in today’s mission.


Then the ground shook and our chests started pounding as the mighty B-1 Lancer (or commonly known as the ‘Bone’) from the 37th Bomber Squadron and it’s four General Electric F101 afterburning engines thundered down the runway belching fire and spitting out 30,000 pounds of thrust per engine. If you’ve ever seen one launch during the day, try watching one at night. It’s absolutely amazing to see the long trail of fire coming off those engines in an otherwise dark sky and hear the crackle as it tears through the sky.

The aggressor force launched soon after using their specially painted F-16Cs mimicking real world adversary paint schemes, as well as a couple of F-16CMs from the 77th Fighter Squadron out of Shaw AFB and F-15Cs of the 159th FS from the Florida Air National Guard.


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The blue team was quick to follow with the remainder of the Vipers and Eagles from the 77th and 159th, as well as the following: EA-18G Growlers from VAQ132 and VAQ134, Royal Air Force FGR4 Typhoons from 6 Sqn, F-16Cs from the 176th FS, Wisconsin ANG, F-22s from the 27th FS, Langley AFB, and F-35As from 34th FS, Hill AFB.
Other units participating, and flying only under the cover of darkness this week, included:
RAF RC-135V, 51 Sqn; RAAF E-7A Wedgetail, 2 Sqn; E-8C, 12 Airborne Command and Control Sqn; EC-130H, 41st Electronic Combat Sqn; and HH-60Gs, 55th Rescue Sqn.


Once the launch was complete, we prepared to board the bus for our return trip to the gate. A few aircraft had begun recovering, and the public affairs staff allowed us to capture those as well. It was an amazing day, that again I feel very privileged to have been a part of. Stay tuned for more coverage from this exercise as well as RF 17-2 which is slated to kick off February 27th and run through March 10th.

A huge ‘thank you’ goes out to Senior Airman Kleinholz, Master Sergeant Smith, and the entire 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs Office for their service, and for all their hard work setting this day up for us to be able to share what goes on behind the scenes at RED FLAG.

Steve Lewis

Steve is a Southern California based photographer living in the Los Angeles area.

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