Red Flag, a realistic combat training exercise involving the air forces of the United States and its allies, is conducted on Nevada's vast bombing and gunnery ranges. It is one of a series of advanced training programs administered by the Air Warfare Center and the 414th Combat Training Squadron here. A typical flag exercise year includes one Canadian Maple Flag, one Coalition Flag (emphasis on allied participation) and two Red Flags. Each Red Flag exercise normally involves a variety of interdiction, attack, air superiority, defense suppression, airlift, air refueling and reconnaissance aircraft. Within a 12-month period, more than 1,200 aircraft fly 20,000+ sorties, while training over 26,750 personnel.
Most of the aircraft and personnel deployed here for Red Flag make up the exercise's "blue" forces. These forces use various tactics to attack range targets, such as mock airfields, vehicle convoys, tanks, parked aircraft, bunkered defensive positions and missile sites. These targets are defended by a variety of simulated ground and air threats to give participant aircrews the most realistic combat training possible.
A typical Red Flag exercise involves a variety of attack, fighter and bomber aircraft (F-15Es, A-10s, B-1s, etc.), reconnaissance aircraft (UAV - Predator), electronic countermeasures suppression aircraft (EC-130s, EA-6Bs and F-16s), air superiority aircraft (F15s, F-16s, etc), airlift support (C-130s, C-141s), search and rescue aircraft (HH-53s, HC-130s), and aerial refueling aircraft (KC-130s, KC-135s). The E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft plays a significant role in the training by using its unique radar capability to monitor and support many aspects of the "Blue" force effort.
This exercise sharpens aerial combat skills by providing realistic training in a combined air, ground and electronic threat environment -- the same environment that is found on any potential battlefield around the world. The base hosts four Red Flag exercises every year. Red Flag has affected almost every pilot who takes to the skies in defense of the US. Today, Red Flag includes the air forces of the United States and its allies. Most of the people deployed are part of the "Blue" forces. These forces participate in attacks on mock airfields, vehicle convoys, and missile sites.
The "Red" -- or aggressor -- forces' threats include electronically simulated surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery, as well as an opposing enemy force composed of pilots trained to fly the F-16C to duplicate the tactics and techniques of potential adversaries.
The exercise had previously been held four to six times a year, with every Red Flag exercise made of 1, 2 or 3 periods. In 2000 ACC decided to use Red Flag as the capstone training event in a unit's "spin-up" to an Aerospace Expeditionary Force [AEF] deployment. The Air Force now schedules Red Flag participation to coincide with AEF rotations, so units are able to train night and day in a realistic environment and with the same units they will fly with while deployed. A typical Red Flag is six weeks long, which is broken into three two-week periods. Each period is 2 weeks long. At the end of each period, a whole new group of flying units arrives, and the last one leaves. Each period, we receive enough participants and aircraft to compose an AEF size flying wing. The goal is for each crew member to fly eight to 10 missions during the two-week period.
When units deploy to Red Flag, they must perform all aircraft maintenance, being as self-sufficient at Nellis as they would be in a wartime environment. The average Red Flag fields more than 100 aircraft, including fighters, bombers, refuelers, airlifters, rescue, airborne warning and control system, and electronic jammers. In 25 years, more than 311 different types of aircraft from 25-plus nations have participated. Since its inception, Flag has trained more than a half million pilots, maintainers and support troops. Exercise participants come from flying units around the Air Force. Sometimes the Navy, Marines, Army and allied forces take part too.
Red Flag was established in 1975 as one of the initiatives directed by Gen. Robert J. Dixon, then commander of Tactical Air Command, to better prepare forces for combat. Tasked to plan and control this training, the 414th Combat Training Squadron's mission is to maximize the combat readiness, capability and survivability of participating units by providing realistic training in a combined air, ground and electronic threat environment while providing for a free exchange of ideas between forces.
Col. Richard "Moody" Suter based his plan for Red Flag on lessons learned from Vietnam. Young pilots and crew members were either shot down or had an accident during their first 10 sorties. His plan was to get those young pilots into a combat-structured environment, where those first 10 missions could be performed in the controlled arena of an exercise. As legend has it, he drew up the initial concept on a cocktail napkin when he was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. As a major, working as an operations officer on the Air Force staff in the Pentagon, he took his vision and saw it through to fruition in 1975.
Another Suter legacy is his driving force behind setting up Checkmate, which Air Force officials have described as a "think tank" for wartime scenarios, and the Warrior Preparation Center, Einsiedlerhof Air Station, Germany, which is used for training senior battle commanders in the art of war.
The single most significant change to the Red Flag structure over the past decade was the establishment of a combined air and space operations center (CAOC) at Nellis. In July 2000, the Air Force chief of staff released a message outlining his vision for realistic training at the operational level, just as the Air Force had done with tactical training over the previous 20 years. The message specified that "all USAF assets/capabilities will now plan and execute together in a 'live fly' training environment, to include realtime command and control." This directive drove the creation of a CAOC tasked to incorporate -operational-level play into all of Nellis's training, testing, and exercises-including Red Flag.
Red Flag also shifted its training focus, "greening up" to compensate for the Air Force's elimination of Green Flag exercises, an electronic combatoriented exercise. This change acknowledged the fact that our air forces will never operate in a hostile air environment without the protection afforded by suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) and electronic-combat aircraft.
In 2001 the annual Red Flag exercise brought in more than 7,000 participants and 120 aircraft from U.S military and allied air forces from Spain, Singapore, Germany, France and the United Kingdom March 3 to April 13. Red Flag is divided into three periods lasting two weeks each. Allied aircraft flying in the first period include GR-7 Harriers from the United Kingdom; EF-18 Hornets from Spain, Tornados from Germany; and F-16 Fighting Falcons from Singapore. United States forces included F-16s, F-15 Eagles, B-52 Stratofortresses, E-3 Sentries and KC-135 Stratotankers. Allied aircraft during the second period included GR-4 Tornados from the Royal Air Force; Mirage 2000s from the French air force; and Tornados from the German air force. United States forces will included A-10 Thunderbolts, F-16s, EA-6 Prowlers, E-3s and KC-135s. During the final period of Red Flag, March 31 to April 14, allied participation continued to include Tornados from the United Kingdom and Germany, and the Mirage 2000 from France. United States aircraft continued to include B-52s, F-16s, E-3s, and F-15C's and KC-135s. All three periods included various cargo and support aircraft as well as helicopters.