Red Flag With a Difference

Aug. 1, 2005

They hesitate before they say it, but many veterans of the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and even the 1991 Gulf War reluctantly admit that their Red Flag experience in the skies over Nevada was tougher than anything they faced in actual combat.

This is exactly what Air Force and Red Flag commanders want to hear, because the goal of USAF’s premier combat training exercise is to subject airmen to the most extreme environments imaginable—but over friendly territory. That way, aircrews that go to war overseas are battle tested and familiar with the capabilities and problems of the forces around them. Stress, confusion, and the “fog of war” will be nothing new, and life-threatening mistakes are reduced.

This spring, a new version of Red Flag was held in the Air Force’s vast training ranges north of Nellis AFB, Nev., and at dozens of other sites nationwide. The first-ever Joint Red Flag (JRF) provided combat training that went far beyond stylized dogfights between friendly “Blue” and hostile “Red” fighter forces.

Joint Red Flag was the Air Force’s largest realistic training event of the year, and it represented the largest-ever use of simulators for training. More than 10,000 people participated at 44 sites nationwide.

Joint Red Flag, sponsored by US Joint Forces Command, combined live, virtual, and “constructive” (computer-generated) missions to give airmen, troops from the other US services, and coalition partners an opportunity to work together and face rigorous challenges before actually heading off to combat.

JRF generated about 29,000 sorties of all kinds. Most of the action took place at locations other than Nellis. Officials noted that fewer than 4,000 Joint Red Flag sorties were “live combat training missions.” Some 6,500 were virtual sorties “flown” on a simulator. The great majority—18,500 sorties—came via computer as constructive missions.

Red Flag now serves as the final “spin up” for forces about to deploy on Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) assignments overseas. Crews from around the country that will soon fight together get the opportunity to meet and hone their skills as a team.

March’s Joint Red Flag was attended by aircrews, crew chiefs, and air operations center (AOC) personnel belonging to the Air Force’s AEF 5 and AEF 6. Many of them are now deployed to Iraq and other foreign hot spots.

Joint and international participation was prominent. There was a full range of coalition aircraft, ground troops, and AOC personnel on hand.

Like all other Red Flags, JRF was designed with an eye toward “Blue Four”—the inexperienced wingman who has not yet been to war. By thrusting lieutenants and captains into realistic, chaotic combat situations, the Air Force greatly increases their chances of survival and success when the bullets start flying.

The Joint Red Flag scenario overlaid on the southwestern United States a fictional nation, “Heartland,” stretching from Las Vegas in the west to El Paso, Tex., in the east. Nearby in the Mojave Desert was the tiny, friendly nation “Enclave.” Heartland was flanked by two hostile states, “Eureka” in the California area and “El Dorado,” which encompassed eastern New Mexico and most of Texas. For purposes of this joint exercise, which included Navy participation, much of Mexico was treated as water.

The mission—defend friendly territory and destroy the enemy’s long-term ability to wage war—was simple but not easy.

Joint Red Flag was linked to the Army’s Roving Sands wargame, held at the same time. Kirtland, Cannon, and Holloman Air Force Bases in New Mexico and Ft. Bliss and Ft. Hood in Texas hosted major portions of the exercise. At Nellis, 71 aircraft and 1,700 airmen supported Joint Red Flag. In New Mexico, another 59 aircraft and 600 personnel were dedicated to the Roving Sands portion of the exercise.

Joint Red Flag became more challenging as its two-week run progressed, said Col. Michael McKinney, commander of the 414th (Red Flag) Combat Training Squadron. Early in the exercise, enemy surface-to-air missile operators would fire a shot and then wait to shoot again, McKinney explained. Red air also regenerated slowly in the early days. Over time, though, Red teams became more aggressive.

The graduated approach is important, because organizers do not want to demoralize younger pilots. Experienced Red Flag aggressors have the ability to repeatedly “cream” them in the early days of the exercise, said Lt. Col. Jeffrey H. Wilson, assistant operations director for the 414th. Facing even basic tactics and old equipment is “tough” for the newer pilots, he said.

The Joint Red Flag officials said aircrew success comes not from “winning” but through participation. “Eighty to 90 percent of the value is in the process,” said Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Goldfein, commander of Nellis’ Air Warfare Center. The pilots and first-time mission commanders gain essential skills by working through problem sets, which the commanders strive to “keep in balance,” Goldfein said.

The balance is between current needs and future possibilities. Current needs include honing the counterterrorism techniques and urban close air support skills airmen need before heading to Iraq or Afghanistan.

Final Spin Up

Matching up Joint Red Flag with the AEF rotations offers an orderly way to assign forces to the limited number of flag-level events each year, Goldfein told Air Force Magazine.

The other side of the equation entails training airmen for what McKinney described as the “absolute worst case scenario.”

Officials are loath to pin their exercises to specific threats, such as China or North Korea, but, in the last phase of JRF, airmen were battling an enemy with weapons of mass destruction, advanced fighters, and targets defended by heavy concentrations of mobile surface-to-air missiles.

Being engaged by enemy forces is a Joint Red Flag goal, not a failure. If strike packages fly and drop bombs uncontested, Wilson asked, “What have they learned? Nothing.”

Airmen are involved in every aspect of mission planning. The daily debriefing process takes hours, as every shot fired and every mistake made is reviewed in excruciating detail in front of one’s peers.

The pilots learn quickly as the intensity grows. By the end, when Joint Red Flag is “gloves off,” the aircrews can handle it, Wilson said.

Being able to handle the intensity does not mean Blue forces win. The later missions are “designed to be almost impossible,” said Capt. Jeremy Holmes, a B-52 pilot and flight safety officer at Minot AFB, N.D. Holmes flew several JRF missions, going after “bomber-size targets” such as an airfield and a WMD facility.

There was a full range of moving and static aim points to attack after during JRF. The Nellis range alone has 1,600 “bombable” targets. Airfields, parked aircraft, defensive bunkers, missile sites, vehicle convoys, and tanks are all available, and the attacks are closely monitored and recorded for later evaluation.

Holmes’ B-52 was “shot down” on its first mission, but this was hardly unique—another officer said B-52s were getting shot down almost every day. Holmes noted, however, that his crew always released its bombs before being targeted.

A major benefit of Joint Red Flag, Holmes said, was the ability to fly and integrate with the aircraft that would accompany a BUFF on a real combat mission. The realism of flying in large strike packages was repeatedly cited as one of JRF’s primary benefits.

The B-52 teams saw what the F-15Cs (providing air-to-air cover) and E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (directing traffic and warning of threats) could and could not do.

Another benefit was that, contrary to being handed a final mission plan as in Afghanistan and Iraq, during JRF the bomber crews were involved in the mission planning from the outset, said Holmes.

Stressing the AOC

Getting air operations center personnel out of their comfort level was difficult. For the AOC personnel, even the combined live and virtual portions of Joint Red Flag would have been “not particularly stressing,” said Lt. Col. Rob Vanderberry, commander of the 505th Operations Squadron, which runs the Nellis combined air operations center, or CAOC-N. This is what made the constructive portion of JRF so important.

For Joint Red Flag, CAOC-N was manned partly by crews from 12th Air Force’s AOC at Davis-Monthan AFB, Ariz.

The 12th Air Force crews were on hand as spin up for their own deployment. Some of the same international staff that would be present at the CAOC in Southwest Asia were there as well. The exercise was a rare opportunity to give them their own taste of Red Flag intensity. Making the CAOC personnel manage the virtual and constructive sorties exposed them to “the mass and the stress they need,” said Vanderberry.

Command and control personnel were trained in all the skills they would likely use on deployment, and emerging targets were used extensively as a way to introduce “fog and friction” into the scenarios.

The CAOC manages the air tasking order, and, at any given time, four different days’ worth of ATOs are being planned and executed. Targeting is a dynamic process, said Col. Jeff Mineo, who was deputy CAOC director at Joint Red Flag. The CAOC personnel plan against emerging targets “for a living,” Mineo said. The challenge is that “there are more targets than resources, typically,” which makes prioritization key.

If a Scud were launched or an enemy aircraft suddenly appeared, Joint Red Flag had aircraft waiting on ground alert, explained A1C Joshua Cook, who worked in CAOC-N’s replanning cell. The highest priority targets were always pushed first, he said. Some fighters were armed and ready to launch in five minutes.

Other time critical targets that could be hit in, say, six hours, got more deliberate but still dynamic planning. Changes would include adding tanker and intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft support as needed.

During JRF, 2nd Lt. Lisa M. Vandergraaf worked as a liaison between intelligence and mobility staffs inside CAOC-N. Because aerial tankers are big, slow, and vulnerable, but also critical to the success of a mission, intelligence staffs must give them the “best threat picture and keep them out of threat areas,” Vandergraaf said. Airmen had to set up refueling tracks well away from enemy SAMs and areas where Red air was likely to be active.

Intelligence also played a key role in mission planning for the pilots.

Hands-On Mission Planning

In the mission planning room on March 30, goals for the day were to gain air superiority, destroy enemy weapons of mass destruction, render Red command and control ineffective, and eliminate the terrorist and insurgent threat to coalition operations.

Blue forces were dealing with an enemy that would not retreat unless absolutely forced to do so, that was willing to launch surface-to-surface missiles, and that had “sufficient parts, maintenance, and expertise to regenerate most systems,” according to a mission overview.

Also complicating the planning was the assumption that the “enemy retains WMD capability and will employ it against coalition forces.”

Dozens of aircraft in packages of different sizes, with different missions, had to be coordinated. A software program called Falcon View was used for mission planning. It shows the actual flight paths and times over target, allowing planners to spot possible schedule and location conflicts, eliminate them, and begin planning the takeoff times, tanker support, and ISR taskings.

One new wrinkle at JRF was the addition of Army air defense teams. Both of the Army’s air missile defense task force units, which combine Patriot, Avenger, and Stinger missile batteries, participated in the exercise. Since fratricide is always a concern, assimilating with the Army air defense presence on the battlefield is something the Air Force needs “to work out, so we don’t frat our own folks,” explained Maj. Robert Cunningham, Joint Red Flag air boss. During Iraqi Freedom, Patriot batteries engaged coalition aircraft on three occasions and shot down two friendly fighters. For Joint Red Flag, Patriots were only to engage if a target was declared hostile by the appropriate controller, or in self-defense.

Midway through the day in the mission planning room came an update. The enemy leadership had dispersed, creating a dynamic situation in Red territory. Su-27, Su-30, and MiG-29 fighters were all still in theater, and there were “lots” of SA-6 SAMs arrayed against Blue forces, the briefer said. The SAMs were “moving nonstop.”

A series of ATO change requests had come in by this point: B-52 Gamble wanted some cruise missiles; four-ship Rocket 51 was now a two-ship mission; somebody needed to swap the times over target for Tiger and Maul; and a flight of AV-8 Harriers was dropping 1,000 feet in altitude so that a tanker could set up an orbit above them.

This level of dynamism is not always present even in real war. Capt. Curt Green, an HH-60 combat search and rescue tactics officer, said that at Joint Red Flag, the best-laid plans got “messed up.” JRF planners often did this deliberately, and the participants learned from the experience.

Green had previously deployed for Operation Iraqi Freedom, where he normally “sat alert all day long” in the north. At JRF, the HH-60 teams had the opportunity to fly and recover downed aircrews with the A-10 escorts and E-3 controllers they would team with on actual rescue missions. That is nearly impossible to do when training at a home station.

Red Flag’s Origins

Red Flag was an outgrowth of the Air Force’s difficult Vietnam War experience. In the Korean War, USAF downed up to 10 enemy aircraft for every one it lost in air-to-air combat. In Vietnam, the ratio fell to two-to-one, and for a period in the spring of 1972, more USAF aircraft were being shot down than enemies. The Air Force needed to know why this was happening.

The famous “Red Baron” study identified three primary problems that led to the Air Force’s poor tactical performance in Vietnam. First, combat pilots were flying such a diverse set of missions that they could not become experts in any of them. Second, most pilots who were shot down never saw their attackers—because they were not properly trained to look for smaller, agile MiGs. Finally, USAF pilots never developed tactics to exploit enemy weaknesses.

Meanwhile, other studies of pilot losses found that surviving the first 10 combat missions is critical. Experienced pilots are much more proficient and more likely to survive.

These findings led the Air Force to push for a wide range of tactical air force improvements that ultimately coalesced into Red Flag.

Needs included dissimilar combat training (so that large, heavy F-4s were not “fighting” only against other F-4s); realistic domestic combat training, so that young pilots could perform their first 10 combat missions in a controlled environment; “Red Teams” utilizing enemy tactics; and focused mission training to build mission expertise.

It was not easy to implement these reforms, because the post-Vietnam training priority was safety, not combat effectiveness. But by the end of Vietnam, the Navy had already begun improving its aerial combat results after starting a dissimilar combat training program with its “Top Gun” school.

Maj. Richard “Moody” Suter was Red Flag’s advocate. He proposed that “green” Air Force pilots be given 10 simulated combat missions during realistic training exercises. The environment was designed to be a learning experience and not a “make or break” evaluation.

Suter briefed the concept to Gen. Robert J. Dixon, Tactical Air Command chief, who immediately approved it. In November 1975, Red Flag was born.

In its early years, a safety conscious time for the Air Force, Red Flag mishap rates were four times higher than TAC averages. But the operational benefits to the combat forces were clear, and the concept quickly took hold.

“Realistic training initiatives completely transformed the culture of Air Force training,” wrote Maj. Alexander Berger in USAF’s Air & Space Power Journal. “With the advent of Red Flag,” the train-the-way-you-fight mentality “became firmly entrenched in the vernacular of aircrews everywhere.”

Safety has also improved. Though two fighters crashed at Nellis while Joint Red Flag was in progress, they were Nellis aircraft and not part of the exercise. The last time an airplane crashed during a Red Flag was in 2000, when an F-15 visiting from RAF Laken­heath, UK, went down.

Safety regulations are strictly enforced, and airspace “deviations” will bring the offending pilot an automatic grounding. One pilot commented that it was “amazing” there are not crashes “every day, with all those planes zipping around out there.”

The Red Flag model was widely replicated. Proliferating flag-level events included Pacific Air Forces’ Cope Thunder and Canada’s Maple Flag exercises frequented by US aircrews. Blue Flag was established for command and control personnel, and Green Flag battle-tested electronic warfare personnel. Today, Black Demon now tests information warfare capabilities, and Eagle Flag provides realistic training for personnel establishing expeditionary bases.

Joint Red Flag is an important part of the Air Force’s overall training regime, said Goldfein, because the service needs to maintain a full range of opportunities to provide “breadth” in training. USAF has found that even if airmen perform narrow missions while deployed, their Red Flag experiences are “still useful,” Goldfein said.

But not every exercise needs to be a Red Flag, because home station “two vs. two” training is still important, he said. Home station training builds the basic combat and flight skills that are then expanded upon in large events such as Joint Red Flag.

“One lesson constantly relearned is to integrate, not deconflict,” Goldfein noted, and JRF offered airmen the rare opportunity to coordinate and team with all the parts of a force package.

The “Virtual” Flag

From a distance, this year’s inaugural Joint Red Flag looked like any other Red Flag event. F-15s and F-16s crowded the flight line at Nellis AFB, Nev., parked alongside British Tornados, Marine Corps Harriers, Navy F/A-18 Hornets, and distinctively painted “aggressor” F-16s.

One March morning, as a dozen or so crew chiefs sought shade under the canopy of an outbuilding near the flight line, a series of B-1B Lancers taxied out and took off, headed for the vast Nellis range and the day’s missions. The fighters promptly followed.

But the “live fly” at Nellis, large as it was, was just one part of Joint Red Flag. The “Virtual Flag” portion of the event brought airmen and aircraft from the eastern United States into the event by integrating them with the flying participants through the use of simulators.

These participants flew the simulators as if they were also in the desert and were tasked just like on-site aircrews. It was up to individual pilots to contribute to the campaign—or get shot down. The “man in the loop” trains both the pilots in the simulators and the command and control personnel overseeing the mission.

Even more sorties were flown by “constructive” participants—“basically a video game,” said Lt. Col. James E. Murray, combat planning director for 12th Air Force. The constructive missions played out independently, he said, and were used to keep the air operations center (AOC) personnel busy and to “stress” them.

The data from all the live-virtual-constructive forces were then “merged” by computer to “create a common tactical picture all the participants can see,” explained a Joint Forces Command news release.

Thousands of sorties, using actual wartime tactics and equipment, collectively gave the AOC personnel their version of their first 10 combat missions, Murray said—before they deployed for the real thing.

Constructive sorties are also efficient. Murray noted that REFORGER exercises in Germany used to cost “a couple hundred million dollars,” while Joint Red Flag, with more than 10,000 participants, was but a fraction of that cost.