Red Flag, coming up on its 40th year as the world’s premiere air combat wargame, has always adapted to changing threats and technology. The Nellis AFB, Nev.-based exercise—and its Alaska counterpart—is now transforming into a new kind of training event.
In recent years, Red Flag Nellis has grown from a live-fly exercise—teaching USAF, other service, and allied pilots the advanced skills of fighting an operational-level air war—to include a constructive digital environment that expands the real-world 3.1 million-acre arena by hundreds of miles, populated with computer-generated players and out-of-area assets.
Next year, Red Flag will also include growing numbers of virtual aircraft and other assets operated from simulators.
Moreover, these simulation-enhanced exercises will be the exclusive means for trying out and practicing tactics unique to fifth generation aircraft and technologies that Air Combat Command wants to keep hidden from watchful adversaries.
As a percentage of the overall wargame, the live-fly portion of Red Flag will diminish, though USAF experts predict that no matter how good simulation gets, the need for live-fly will never go away completely.
Conceived in the 1970s as a way to reverse the kill ratios of the Vietnam War—where US airmen achieved only a two-to-one victory ratio over enemy pilots—Red Flag began as a way to give aircrews a better chance to survive in the air combat arena, marked by increasingly lethal air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles.
The idea was to give Air Force pilots the equivalent experience of 10 combat missions without the peril of learning under real fire.
Why We Need It
Statistics showed that if pilots survived the first 10 missions, chances were they would survive to the end of the war. Red Flag was the Air Force’s means to provide those critical first 10 missions in a controlled, peacetime environment.
Untested combat pilots were thrown against seasoned experts who played the Aggressor force. “Red Air” was equipped with nimble F-5E fighters that approximated the performance of Russian MiG-21s serving in dozens of world air forces. Tweaking the capabilities of their jet aircraft and immersing themselves in Soviet-style tactics, the Aggressors usually started out the exercise by giving “Blue Air” visitors a dogfight thrashing. By replaying the recorded aerial engagements afterward, young pilots could see and learn from their mistakes.
By the end of the exercise, Blue Air would not only be combat experienced, but the rookie combat pilots had valuable immersion in countering the specific threats they were likely to face.
As time went on, Red Flag grew, adding more players and more capabilities. To dogfighting were added bomber missions, suppression of enemy air defenses, rescue operations, and more.
Green Flag, for example, was once a separate exercise aimed at testing USAF’s electronic warfare specialists.
Since EW became so integral to air combat, it was combined with Red Flag, and Green Flag now denotes a close air support drill flown in conjunction with Army and Marine Corps ground units.
As now incarnated, Red Flag replicates “the operational level of war,” according to its commander, Col. Jeff Weed, head of the 414th Combat Training Squadron.
In just the past three years, Red Flag planners have integrated command and control functions at the theater level, space and cyber operations, the Nellis Air Operations Center, and constructed environments. These expand the fight in a “scenario that plays itself out … from about Eugene, Oregon, down to Phoenix [Arizona], out to the Gulf Coast of Texas and off the West Coast,” Weed said in a July interview.
The air tasking order for Red Flag typically comprises some 500 sorties, he said, but only 60 to 80 of those “are taking place on the Nellis ranges.” Many of the aircraft on the ATO are phantoms in the wargame digital construct. The push is now on to integrate simulated aircraft being flown by real pilots, as if they were actually flying with the real airplanes over Nevada.
The blending of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, command and control, cyber, and space are some of the more subtle changes in Red Flag over the last decade, said Weed, while the introduction of stealthy F-22 fighters and B-2 bombers are some of the most obvious.
There’s also been an increase in the number of foreign participants in Red Flag. In the last few years, the wargame has included Eurofighter Typhoons, French Rafales, and Russian-designed Su-27s (flown by India), although partner participation doesn’t always mean fighters. In Red Flag 14-3, which played out in July, France sent C-130s and commandos to practice special operations. In addition to its F-15SGs, Singapore sent CH-47
In Red Flag 14-2, F-16s from four international air forces—including Belgium, Denmark, and the United
Arab Emirates—participated. “We don’t mix the formations” of different nation F-16s, Weed said, but “they’re all on the range all at the same time.”
Which countries will participate is a decision made at the highest levels of the Air Force, and there is no typical role for partner nations, Weed said. It’s a function of what strengths their air forces have—from fighters to bomb-droppers to electronic warfare to airlift.
“It really depends on … what that nation plans to do with its own air force” in wartime, Weed said. “We roll them in just like any other US units, into those roles and missions.”
For many international participants, Red Flag is their sole opportunity to drop live ordnance or fly to the edges of their machines’ performance, he said. Many can’t do that anywhere else because of the flight restrictions in many countries.
Weed said he was assigned to US Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa when the 2013 sequester caused USAF to cancel a Red Flag, and he saw some of the international fallout of that decision.
When a Red Flag is called off, he observed, “it not only degrades our ability to train and go to war but our partners’ ability to train and go to war.”
The Air Force has reduced the number of Red Flags it has run annually since 2001. The demands of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took their toll on the budget and on the simple availability of people and equipment—since so much of the Air Force was either preparing to deploy to war, deployed, or recovering from a deployment.
There wasn’t much time or money available to practice for a major war against a near-peer enemy when the top Pentagon leadership wanted the real-world fight to take priority. Force structure was also cut, as were flying hours and other training events.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said in July that all these factors have led to serious concerns about USAF readiness, and she repeated her frequent request that Congress not cut readiness accounts further. An ACC spokesman said the Air Force spends “approximately $35 million annually” on Red Flag exercises.
Four Red Flags were scheduled last year, but only three took place because of sequestration. Three were scheduled for this year, but USAF wants to add the fourth one back, because three a year is too infrequent to give everyone the needed training.
“Let’s say your average time at a base is 28 to 30 months,” Weed explained. “When we do three per year, that unit comes back every 39 to 40 months,” so some air and ground crews might completely miss their unit’s participation in Red Flag. “When we get back to four a year,” he said, “that number comes back to something … more like [every] 24 months. … So that we should cover people during an assignment cycle.”
That said, “there are some units”—flying F-22s, conducting suppression of enemy air defenses, E-3 AWACS, RC-135 Rivet Joints, and other ISR platforms—“that will always have to come back at a higher rate” because they are limited in number but crucial to the wargame and in wartime.
Of four annual Red Flags, two are done at “higher classification levels,” Weed said.
Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III, ACC commander, recently said the F-22, and soon the F-35, introduces complications to the Red Flag model.
Fifth generation technology—which he defined as principally about stealth and sensor fusion—“has brought us capabilities and lethalities that are straining my ability at Red Flag to produce that same realistic environment.” Hostage said.
“I can’t turn on every bell and whistle on my new fifth gen platforms because a) they’re too destructive and b) I don’t want the bad guys to know what I’m able to do.”
Potential adversaries watch Red Flags closely, Hostage said, and ACC in turn watches the watchers to gauge what USAF capabilities worry them most.
For the future, Hostage sees the increasing fidelity of simulators as “reversing the training paradigm.”
The notion of a “live constructive virtual arena … I think will provide us the path to the future.” While today’s live-fly Red Flag is the “pinnacle event” in training combat air forces, Hostage said for fifth generation forces, “the live virtual constructive arena will be the pinnacle event, … the highest-end training.”
He continued, “I will still do Red Flags. I will still do live training in live platforms, but the place where I’ll be able to take all the gloves off, turn on all the bells and whistles and get full capability” will be in the virtual constructive arena.
It’s not a pipe dream, Hostage said, noting that the computer game industry is “rapidly approaching the point at which you can’t tell if you’re in a simulated, … or [virtual], environment, unless you peek under the flap on the canopy … to see if you’re in a simulator or … an airplane.” Once simulation can “replicate the kinesthetic awareness” and sensory inputs a pilot can get in a real airplane, “then I think we’ve reached that point where I can now simulate everything that [the pilot] would need to see in a combat environment.”
The Air Force is working on building that environment, he said, but there are challenges, both technical and policy-driven. The ability to protect the networks “that would run such a thing” is a concern.
Still, the simulated battlespace will resolve one of the toughest limitations Red Flag has always faced, Hostage said: the fact that, with “100 airplanes up over the Nellis range … nobody blows up when you take them out of the fight.” Adding that realism will, he thinks, “fundamentally” change the dynamics of the air battle. “It looks different. You react differently.”
Hostage recounted how as a young officer, he would participate with the Army’s National Training Center ground battle exercises. Airpower would be allowed to make a few passes at the enemy formation, but then were “shooed away.”
Had the airpower been allowed to continue working over the enemy, there would have been little left for the ground units to do, and they would have missed out on the training they needed. Airpower’s decisiveness can be a curse when training is involved.
Something similar is happening at Red Flag now, he said.
“We bring the cyber guys and the space guys in—and they play—but then we have to say, ‘All right, go to the bar and have a Mountain Dew, because you guys make it too damn dangerous.’”
That, he said, is a “very hopeful sign” because “we have some capabilities that are astounding, and the way they leverage [off] our airpower is very positive.”
In a virtual constructive arena, he said, cyber and other shadowy elements can be turned loose. “I will have real-time kill removal [and] … not hurt anybody,” and participants will know the full capability of their hardware, so they can fully exploit it in real combat, he said.
ACC’s 2014 Strategic Plan, released in June, said that “our ability to hide our countertactics from our adversaries is also more difficult in the live-fly arena,” and this is one more reason to “flip the realistic training paradigm.”
According to the ACC document, “physical aircraft and live-flying continue to be important, but can no longer be the primary training environment for the high-end fight. The aircraft, and other hands-on training, will continue to provide basic ‘blocking and tackling’ skills” but the virtual and constructive environment “will become the primary method for advanced training in all aircraft, not just our fifth generation assets.” The command said it will explore similar approaches “across all career fields” to avoid wasting resources.
The Air Force is reducing its fleet of E-8C JSTARS ground-radar aircraft, hoping to save money that it can put into recapitalizing the already limited fleet with new aircraft that will be easier to maintain. This financial reality will drive one of the first forays into simulation at Red Flag, Weed said.
Among the things “on track to happen next year” is to pipe data about the real Red Flag battlefield to a JSTARS simulator, and “pump the [communications] of the real fight to the sim and back” so the E-8 can “play” in the game without pulling a real asset from a real-world mission, Weed explained. This move will both enhance the exercise, provide training for new operators, and avoid having to take a real E-8 from real-world missions for an exercise.
By the fourth Red Flag of next year, “Virtual Flag,” traditionally a separate event, will become part of the live-fly wargame.
“It will be the first time at the Flag that we’ll have live, virtual, and constructive happening all at the same time,” Weed said. While a Red Flag of this year is 20 percent live and 80 percent constructive, “during Red Flag 15-4, I expect it to be 20 percent live, 40 percent constructive, and 40 percent virtual through sims. … The virtual
sims will be flying a constructive adversary at the same time the live-fly is going on.”
“We have never lost our core of doing the high-end fight, but there are also days and times … where it’s not the high-end,” Weed said. Particularly at the height of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Red Flag has
occasionally been tailored to “some low-end stuff—things like Predators, MC-12s, a lot of intensive ISR over that urban fight.”
Some target villages were set up on the southern end of the Nellis range, he said, “so people could run in and out of buildings and you could have to deal with collateral damage and the difficulty of finding targets in a slightly more urban terrain.”
Recently, however, the focus has shifted to more “core mission sets” at the high end of the threat, which “we just didn’t spend as much time on over the last 10 years,” Weed said.
Red Flag typically doesn’t start with the worst Weed can throw at the Blue Forces.
“I let them, in a building-block approach, learn to fight together, because frankly, [for] a lot of them, … this is the first time they’ve been to a Flag. … It’s a huge number of airplanes” and they have to learn to work with each other.
A typical week’s worth of Red Flag starts on a weekend. Participants arrive and Weed briefs them, explaining that, right away, “Fight’s on.” There are “info aggressors” already at work trying to gain access to work spaces, the flight line, and materials they’re not supposed to be able to reach—trying to compromise the Blue Force. Cyber aggressors are also trying to exploit the Blue Force networks.
“They’re the people that the Blue Forces love to hate while they’re here,” he said. The info aggressors “exploit
weaknesses in [operational security] and hold it against them.”
The info aggressors will try to disrupt Blue operations “and it’s up to them to protect their resources. … It’s time to put their games faces on, just like they’re going to war.”
The first big air operation at a Red Flag is usually the establishment of a notional “no-fly zone,” focusing on air-to-air threats. The second day progresses to a global strike scenario, a traditional anti-access, area-denial, kick-down-the-door, take out the operating SAMs, adding the surface-to-air threat to a worsening air-to-air threat.
The next night, strikers are tasked to take out the tactical ballistic missiles in the Red Country adversary. The targets are often mobile, “fleeting in nature,” and can be visually identified from the cockpit. The air defense threats persist. This training is meant to break pilots out of a decade-long habit of having to “call and ask permission first” to destroy an obvious target, Weed said.
However, the subsequent tasking is to find a particular “high-value target or high-value individual” that can’t
be identified just from the cockpit. Protocols for getting target confirmation through command and control and ISR resources are rehearsed before clearance to shoot.
The game usually wraps up with air interdiction missions coupled with a combat search and rescue operation “in a higher-threat environment.” The Blue Force must work as a team to get the CSAR assets in and out of enemy territory.
Degrading the Environment
In recent years, Hostage has been adamant that Red Flag compel the Blue Force to operate without all the support it usually gets from space, ISR, and other assets. Weed said this is called CDO, or a contested, degraded, and operationally limited environment.
Some of the degrading happens by itself, he said. “During every fight, there’s always somebody who can’t get on the right net or get on the right radio.”
The Aggressor Forces also “have the ability” to jam or interfere with signals or degrade Link 16 communications data links, he said. Although this part of the training Hostage has described as a day without space, Weed said, “I don’t think we ever get to the point where … we flick it ‘off.’ It’s a more graceful degradation and more
targeted to specific areas.”
He said much of this comes into play when “I tell the Aggressors they have a particular area they must defend” because they have tactical ballistic missiles or some other asset the Red Country
Then, the Aggressors will do “everything they can … to degrade” the Blue Force capabilities, including “electronic jamming, space jamming, [and] navigation warfare issues. They’ll try to make it as difficult [as possible] for the Blue team.”
Planning Red Flag starts a year in advance. In January, the Combat Air Forces Weapons and Tactics Conference discusses areas of interest or concern that have been relayed to ACC by regional combatant commanders. Those issues “get whittled down … to about three to five topics that get discussed in great detail” over the two weeks of the conference.
“ACC allows us to see all of those issues, and we try to roll as many of those into Red Flag for the next year as possible,” Weed explained.
Although China and Russia are developing fifth generation fighters of their own, there’s no plan yet to simulate fifth gen capabilities in the hands of Red Air, he said. Red Flag seeks to exercise the “most
proliferated threats” in the world and stay current, and those fifth gen fighters are not yet operationally available to anyone.
In 10 years, Weed predicted, Red Flag will still have “a significant live portion.” That will be true if only because foreign partners will need to train in integrating with the US, and some of them “can’t afford or won’t get on the virtual networks” necessary to join in a strictly digital exercise.
Ten years out, if the F-35 delivers at the anticipated rate, most of USAF’s fighter force “will be fifth gen,” Weed noted, and “that will create some changes to how we do business at the tactical end.” He said Red Flag is “vitally important” for the Air Force, no matter how the exercise changes, because it’s still the only way USAF can faithfully replicate all the pieces necessary to pull together an air war before those skills are needed in the real world—especially for partner nations that “have consistently, when the chips are down,” gone to war alongside the US.
Weed said, “I think there are some things our Air Force must do, and I think this level of training, no matter what the bill is, is one of those things.”