Winds of Change to Standard Red Flag Operations.


In late January, the first of three planned Red Flag exercises for fiscal year 2018 kicked off at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. All four branches of the United States Armed Forces, as well as those of the Royal Air Force from the United Kingdom and the Royal Australian Air Force converged on the air base, just north of the famous Las Vegas strip, to take part in this massive exercise.


Several changes were implemented for this iteration of Red Flag, among which was a pause in flying operations mid-exercise to hold what’s known as ‘Flag Friday’. As explained by Major Michael Cahill, Director of Maintenance for the 414th Combat Training Squadron, “Flag Friday is a heritage and social event we started for our Red Flag participants, partners and friends,” He went on to say, “It’s comprised of guest speakers who talk about their heritage, leadership style, lessons learned, and unique combat experiences.”



The 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, which brought F-15E Strike Eagles, was tasked to lead this Red Flag. Colonel Richard Dickens, the 4th FW Detachment Commander and Air Expeditionary Wing Commander for RF 18-1, also touched on this while discussing some of the exercise’s objectives during a longer three week Flag. He explained how the 414th CTS had three main goals they were leaning on. “First of those is ‘courage under fire’. It’s a trade off with anything else for 3 weeks, obviously we’re trying to increase our operational readiness with further time on the road, but to have that number of sorties in that new construct allows you that opportunity to build that ‘courage under fire’ in these training scenarios for when we later deploy. Then also it’s looking at ‘integrated leadership’. It gives us more opportunities for folks to have an opportunity to go out and lead an integrated multi-domain joint coalition package and learn from that. We get more training squares as a large force through that. As well as embracing the third goal which is the ‘warfighter culture’. So they get a couple more opportunities to gather together and tell stories and learn from each other and learn about each other’s culture as well.”

Another important change was the tempo of various stages including the planning, execution, and mission debriefs. “Red Flag has done a little bit of soul searching over the past 4-6 months, trying to redefine or re-identify what Red Flag is.” explained Col. Chris Zuhlke, Commander, Nevada Test and Training Range.


After a decade of focusing on primarily the counter insurgency fight, mainly due to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Red Flag is now focusing back on the high end and very advanced fight, which includes the cyber and space aspects of it as well.

“By doing that, Red Flag has had to look at what does Red Flag make itself out to be?’ Is it the high end fight, or is it what Col. Moody Suter’s original vision, which was to give the Lieutenants their first ten missions in the fight? Because post Vietnam, the analysis said that those who survived their first 10 missions were likely to survive the entirety of the war. So that’s why when we came back from Vietnam and he looked at why did we go from a 15/1 advantage in Korea to a 2.5/1 in Vietnam, one of the things was we didn’t have that advanced training environment.” Col. Zuhlke went on to say “So, we’ve come to a point where we have to do both. The trade off for that was the extension of that last week to allow for the 3 day cycle, get the Lieutenants their first 10 missions, but do it in a manner that they can actually fly, come back, decompress, debrief, and then plan for the next mission. Rather than just going from event to event day to day with no debrief opportunity.”

In a more advanced training environment, I was interested in how the adversary threat here compared to other exercises they’ve participated in regards to both air to air and surface to air threats?


Col Dickens explained, “The opportunity to come to Red Flag is a unique experience because we get the more robust and complex threat that we can face here as opposed to other exercises. A lot of that is due to the Nevada Test and Training Range……The size of the airspace we have here allows us to train as an integrated coalition against a more robust threat that we can’t necessarily get other places just due to the available airspace that we have.”

Col. Zuhlke also added, “One of the unique things that we bring as compared to some other place during normal training is the ability to actually cross into not just the air to air realm, but also the surface to air, and even bring some space and cyber capabilities into that adversary picture.”

Needless to say, the knowledge and experience gained by all warfighters involved during a Red Flag exercise is second to none they would get anywhere else on the globe.

Stay tuned for more coverage on upcoming Red Flag exercises. Red Flag 18-2 starts in just a few weeks.
For more Information on Red Flag and Nellis AFB, please visit

I’d like to thank the media panel’s subject matter experts, as well as the entire 99th Air Base Wing’s Public Affairs Office for putting together an opportunity to gain an insight as to what makes Red Flag such an important exercise for today’s Warfighters.

Steve Lewis

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

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