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Red Flag

Last weekend at the gracious invitation of the US Air Force, I flew down on assignment to Nellis AFB to shoot images of Red Flag, a continuing series of multi-national war games where allied nations bring their aircraft and crews over to the United States to engage and practice high intensity aerial combat. This particular exercise Red Flag 08-04, was a multi-national exercise comprising US, Indian, French and South Korean air forces with the Indian Air Force who brought over their Su-30s, and Il-78, the South Korean Air Force who just took delivery of brand new (even had the new car/new electronic smell) F-15K from the factory in St. Louis, the French Air Force who brought their Dassault Rafales, and of course the US Air Force along with the Aggressor squadrons of Nellis AFB flying an assortment of aircraft including the A-10, KC-135, AWACS, F-16 and F-15 platforms. All told, Red Flag 08-4 included 64 aircraft with 1400 personnel from 13 separate units, which while on the small side for a Red Flag exercise, included for the first time, the Indian Air Force.


Nellis AFB is located just NorthWest of a rapidly growing Las Vegas, Nevada. There was a time when Nellis was out in the middle of nowhere, but Las Vegas has been steadily growing to surround the base over the last 20 years. Those who live in the area are familiar with the base as it is essentially next to the Las Vegas Speedway where the wail of race car engines competes with the roar of jet engines. Indeed, standing on the tarmac while jets taxied around me, I could still make out the sounds of the speedway through the jet exhaust and my earplugs. Interestingly, over at the DOE ramp at Nellis AFB, there was one of two remaining B-57 Canberras in the world still flying. This one is flown by NASA for high altitude research…


Despite the city of Las Vegas encroaching on the base, Nellis is ideally positioned at the South end of the Nevada Test and Training Range. This range is the largest combined training range in the United States with an area comprising almost 4700 square miles and rivaled in size and convenience only by the Utah Test and Training Range. Because of this large, open area with essentially unlimited aerial access to military pilots (with the one notable no-fly exception being the area around Groom Lake), realistic training scenarios can be engaged in comprising air to air, air to ground, surface attack, deep interdiction, close air support, airlift, command and control along with surveillance and reconnaissance, electronic warfare, combat search and rescue as well as one of the most unique opportunities in the world, suppression of enemy air defenses, all with the highest degree of realism. Interestingly, Red Flag is also increasingly integrating UAV operations as well as INFO Ops, Aggressors including operational security testing through networked systems as well as Space Aggressors testing barrier and point defense as well as GPS and SATCOM counter warfare exercises.


All US combat forces participate including Air Combat Command, the Air Reserve and Guard, the US Navy, the United States Air Forces Europe, the US Army, the Pacific Air Forces, Air Mobility Command, Air Force Special Operations Command and the United States Marine Corps. Additionally, Nellis AFB truly has an international flavor and while this visit afforded me the opportunity to visit with air crews from South Korea, India and France, I also saw pilots at Nellis from the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and Germany on base and it is precisely this integration of other countries forces that strengthen Red Flag exercises with 28 countries participating since 1975 to exchange tactical ideas,
learn about each others capabilities and optimize strategic and logistical integration.

As for the actual air operations, you can imagine how busy the ramp at Nellis gets with all of these operations going on. Launch and recovery operations take considerable time with aircraft lining up and beginning their take off rolls within seconds after the previous plane begins its rotation. Tanker planes and AWACS aircraft also queue up typically before all of the fighter platforms and the whole launch and recovery operation is done in about an hour and a half for this relatively small Red Flag exercise. I’d love to return on a larger Red Flag exercise with more participants to observe the logistics of launch and recovery.


The 64th and 65th Aggressor squadrons roles are fundamentally to provide training to air crews participating in Red Flag by acting as realistic opposing forces that implement tactics and strategies commonly used by “unfriendly” forces. The goal is survivability or to increase the chance that a novice combat pilot will survive their first engagement. Additional goals are to learn how other air forces fly and fight to facilitate interactions that seem to be on the rise with many more joint and coalition operations between countries occurring now and in the future.

The first Aggressor squadrons were created much like the Naval Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program, back in the 1970s as a response to poor air to air combat performance in the Vietnam War. The goal of course was to increase survivability in air combat situtations and the results were immediate. Red Flag has continued to expand the role outside of actual air to air combat to include a number of other Aggressor components.

Each Red Flag is structured around a 2 week period centered around threat replication and threat presentations with 2nd to 4th generation weapon systems operated by Aggressor Squadrons. Each week begins with briefings and a brief course of academic work followed by easy exercises, progressing to more difficult and demanding operations against globally common weapon systems. The exercises begin with relatively simple systems including manually controlled SA-2 surface to air missiles with Su-27 or equivalent aircraft flown by Aggressor Pilots. Intermediate scenarios involve semi-automated SA-5 surface to air missiles and Su-30MKK equivalent aircraft while the most difficult scenario involve automated systems operating SA-10 surface to air missiles and Su-30MKI aircraft such as those flown currently by the Indian Air Force. Additional training includes surface to air and RADAR systems from coalition forces including Patriot missile systems to practice safe passage and friend/foe identification.


These operations are controlled through the Nellis Air Combat Training System allowing the identification, management and tracking of 100 high activity aircraft as well as 100 additional low data aircraft systems throughout the training range via microwave for near real-time display of location and activity for management and post-mission review and debriefing on engagement results, tactics and survival with both group and individual pilots.

Additional operations can be carried out on 2 air fields in the training area including a gravel as well as an asphalt runway with 4 additional drop zones to practice convoy resupply missions, personnel parachute drops, equipment drops as well as high altitude and Special Operations Forces insertion. An urban operations complex is even present within the range to practice urban assault, convoy protection, IED detection and more within an urban environment.


I had the opportunity to spend some time with Lcl Frabrice Grandclaudon talking about the French Air Force’s experience at Nellis. Lcl Grandclaudon saw the experience as absolutely unique, providing a training environment that was unparalleled in his experience. And though there were significant language barriers, most of the job of being a combat pilot is relatively consistent across languages. It turns out that the French Air Force has participated in Red Flag many times, but this was the first time the Dassault Rafale has made an appearance making for a unique opportunity for US pilots to become familiar with the aircraft. However, Lcl Grandclaudon was surprised that very little academic effort was spent by the participants in familiarizing themselves more thoroughly with the aircraft of other air forces. Of course we discussed the practical reasons why this was not possible including concerns with intellectual property and issues of national security on the part of the US, France and India, but nevertheless, it was felt that more academic time might have been a valuable investment.


Wg Cdr Mahesh Upasani and I sat down with Wg Cdr George Thomas to discuss their experiences at Red Flag. While they had been to Red Flag before as observers, this was the first time they participated. Having brought their recently acquired Su-30, they flew over six IAF Su-30 MKIs, two IL-78 mid-air refullers due to the IAFs utilization of a chute and drogue system for refueling and an IL-76 heavy-lift aircraft, I was eager to hear about their experiences which were somewhat hampered through their lack of compatibility of targeting systems. There were of course other concerns present given their development of proprietary radar and targeting systems, but their performance was respectable considering they were flying “with one hand tied behind their backs”. Their concerns with opening up their electronic systems too much are justified to an extent in that the relationship with Russia and India has evolved beyond that of a provider/customer relationship in that India is now developing extensive suites of electronics for command, control and radar to outfit their Su-30 aircraft as well as participating in the development of 5th generation aircraft now coming from Russia such as the new MiG-35. These new electronic suites are expected to be made available to the IAF in 2010, but even now, the IAF is using principally home grown radar, targeting and combat electronic systems. So, while this exercise represents a new apogee in US-Indo military relations, there is still some concern that the US would profile their radar systems as well as their electronic emissions. This of course resulted in an increased workload on the IAF pilots and weapons systems officers, and flying “blind” electronically speaking opened them up to particularly surface to air missile attacks. This was particularly difficult for the Su-30 aircrews as that platform is one the relies on its electronic suite to function as an air superiority, “umbrella” fighter designed to drive off other enemy aircraft entering the combat arena. However, the consensus was that the IAF aircrews felt the experience was most rewarding and even though they were familiar with many of the weapons systems they were wargaming against, the experience was unique and it contributed tremendously to the experience and capabilities of their pilots. Asked if they experienced any problems with Red Flag, Wg Cdr Upasani felt that they were well prepared by their orientation the week before coming to Nellis, but in actual combat exercises they were not typically used to dealing with the integrated net-centric warfare practiced by the United States Air Force, particularly integrating with the AWACS platforms. However, they felt this unfamiliarity contributed to the realism and fog of war. The ultimate goal Wg Cdr Upasani felt was to continue to build familiarity between the USAF and the IAF and continue to learn from each other to address any potential future conflicts together despite differences in training and weapon systems.


Unfortunately, schedules did not match up to allow some time to be spent with the South Korean aircrews, but if any questions come up that need answering, I know who to contact to get them answered. It really was too bad as the opportunity to talk about the logistics of delivery of a group of new aircraft is an interesting story. As previously noted, the S. Korean Air Force traveled to the Boeing factory in St. Louis to take delivery of these aircraft which are the last of an order of 40 along with engines and other spares that were amazingly well packaged for delivery in beautiful aluminum shipping containers. There will likely be another 20 F-15K aircraft ordered this year for delivery beginning in 2010.


Before leaving Nellis and Las Vegas, I had the opportunity to drop by the 547th Intelligence Squadron’s Threat Systems Area. Established in 1976, this is the USAF’s premier hands on threat training facility that is solely dedicated to educating and training aircrews and support personnel on adversary weapon systems and until relatively recently was a Top Secret facility that focuses on analyzing and disseminating intelligence products on tactics, weapons systems and implementations for a variety of sources within the Department of Defense including the Red Flag program. Weapons systems of all kinds are found here with everything from small arms to crew served weapons, armor, main battle tanks, surface to air missile systems and opposing aircraft. This was actually the first time I was able to get into the cockpits of the MiG-23 and MiG-29, so that was a bit of a thrill for me. The advantage of hands on facilities like this of course is the academic application that can be derived from the experience and the realization of those studies in strategy and tactics has been what this operation is all about.

Unfortunately, it should be noted that this years exercises were marred by the death of Lt. Col. Thomas Bouley, 65th Aggressor Squadron Commander in a Red Flag training exercise. Lt. Col. Bouley dedicated and ultimately gave his life to train US and foreign pilots to better survive combat. It should be noted that these exercises are flown and carried out with extreme precision and accuracy, very much like a real combat operation and the prospect of injuries or fatalities are real.

My thanks to my handlers, Lt. Jen Richard and Chief Master Sgt Gary Emery for facilitating access and working so hard to make this visit possible.


Content in this entry has appeared in the following publications:

Wired Danger Room: Faux Air War’s Secrecy Problem.
Wired Danger Room: Sacked Air Force Secretary: We Should Sent Jets, Troops to Fight Russia.
War is Boring: In Praise of New Air Force Bosses.
Asociacián AIRE Portal Aeronáutico: El blog del Red Flag
War is Boring: Russian Super-Fighter: Not So Scary?
War is Boring: F-15Cs for Future Ground Attack?

War is Boring: 8ak: Indian Air Force Jets Barred from Naxalite Fight

Wired Danger Room: 10 Ass-Kicking Warplanes You’ve Never Heard Of


Categories: Machines.

Comment Feed

12 Responses

  1. Fantastic Photos

  2. Thank you John, it was a good couple of days.

  3. WOW! what a great set of shots.

    Scott StringhamMarch 22, 2011 @ 9:01 pmReply
  4. Thanks Scott!

  5. yeah, amazing photos, specially russian airplane with Blue tint afterburner. nice

    Houman SorooshniaDecember 3, 2011 @ 7:41 amReply
  6. Amazing photographs! I know it was some time ago but do you have something like this in the works again?

    Gabe LunaApril 23, 2012 @ 4:55 pmReply



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Continuing the Discussion

  1. [...] This image was made at Nellis AFB during Red Flag 08-04. The access I had was extraordinary and enabled a number of photographs like this one as pilots prepared to go into intense mock combat. This was dangerous work for pilots and ground crew and unfortunately one pilot, Lt. Col. Thomas Bouley died in this years exercises. Original entry is here. [...]

  2. [...] Mais l'avenir n'est pas là. Alors que la Navy et les Marines gèrent sereinement à Fallon un dispositif fidèle aux origines du programme, l'Air Force innove. Le concept d'agresseur, s'il n'était que l'amélioration de pratiques anciennes, a donné naissance à une véritable culture de l'entraînement agressif, tourné vers la découverte des failles, l'identification des faiblesses et la validation de contre-mesures. A Nellis oeuvrent des milliers de spécialistes au sein du gigantesque complexe décrit, notamment, par Bryan Jones sur son Jonesblog. [...]

  3. [...] secretive WB-57Fs carrying high-tech BACN radio translators, Bryan William Jones reminds us that he spotted one of the jets at Nellis outside Las Vegas four years ago. Share [...]

  4. [...] shopping, etc…  This is only the North part of the base.  Just outside of this image are the Red Flag facilities I visited a couple of years ago, more tarmac parking for F-15 aircraft, ramp space for weapon installation/removal, [...]