One of the premier integrated air warfare exercise in the world would be Red Flag. Red Flag is a realistic combat training exercise involving the air, space, and cyber forces of the United States of America (USA) and its allies. Its purpose is to train the participating pilots and crew members for real air combat situations. This could include the use of live ammunition during bombing missions and enemy hardware. Red Flag celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Therefor Global Air Power Media visited the second edition of Red Flag in 2015, which took place from the 2nd until the 13th of March at Nellis Air Force Base (AFB), Nevada.


The origin of Red Flag was the unacceptable performance of United States Air Force (USAF) in air combat maneuvering during the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars. Too many USAF aircraft were shot down in comparison with the enemies losses. Evaluations led to a simple conclusion: USAF fighter pilots and weapons systems officers (WSO) lacked training in realistic air combat maneuvering (ACM). Project Red Baron II (evaluation of ACM) showed that chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after a pilot or WSO had completed ten combat missions. This led to the creation of the Red Flag exercise in 1975. The exercise since then offers the participants the opportunity to fly ten realistically simulated combat missions with measurable results.

The basics

A typical flag exercise year includes ten Green Flags (close air support exercise with the US Army), one Canadian Maple Flag (operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force) and four Red Flags. In one year more than 500 aircraft fly over 20,000 sorties, while training more than 5,000 aircrews and 14,000 support and maintenance personnel.
Red Flag exercises are conducted by the 414th Combat Training Squadron of the 57th Wing at Nellis AFB. During a Red Flag the Blue Forces or Blue Air (friendly) engage the Red Forces or Red Air (enemy). The Blue Forces are made up from several commands and units from the USAF, US Navy and US Army. They are supplemented by allied air forces and fleet arms from all over the world. Red Air consists mostly of F-16s and F-15s from the 64th Aggressor Squadron, but are also supplemented with aircraft from US forces as well as from allied forces. Every effort is made to simulate realistic, known and unknown tactics of potential enemies.
Daily Red Flag-missions are flown within the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), about 25 miles north of Las Vegas. The NTTR is the USAF's premier military training area with more than 15,000 square miles of airspace and almost 3 million acres of land. With 1,900 possible targets, threat systems and an opposing enemy force, Nellis AFB and the NTTR are the home of a simulated battlefield were all threats and possible combat situations are integrated in a dynamic war game.

The 15-2 edition

Red Flag has evolved over the last 40 years. At first, the exercise was focused on letting pilots and crews experience their 10 realistically simulated combat sorties to increase survivability in aerial combat. Nowadays pilots and crews have to work with far more advanced instruments and electronic threats. Red Flag 15-2 had a scoop: for the first time during a Red Flag exercise, hundreds of virtual participants in simulators at their home stations or in simulators at the Distributed Mission Operations Center at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, participated in taking down Red Air. This was done by providing ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting to delay, disrupt and destroy the enemy. This combination of Red Flag and Virtual Flag was a first and is called the USAFs Live Virtual Constructive training (LVC). The benefits are obvious. At first the LVC reduces the costs of using only a live training theatre is stead of combining with a virtual environment. Second, the scope and complexity of the flag exercise increases together with the possibilities to enhance the number of participants. Aircraft that especially participated for the virtual aspects of the 15-2 edition, amongst others, were two European based NATO E-3A AWACS and one USAF E-8C JSTARS (Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System). The actual flying part of the missions may last only about 90 minutes, but the entire time spent in preparation, mission and debriefing can take up to 12 hours. The debriefing includes real-time reviews so pilots and crews can learn from the used tactics. The lessons learned are to be taught to non-participating units and personnel back home.

Participants of Red Flag 2015-2

Besides the F-15s and F-16s flying for the Blue and Red Airs a variety of participants of this edition can be mentioned. T-38s participated as enemy aggressors, B-1B and B-52H bombers conducted weapon runs, EA-6Bs interfered radio communications with Electronic Counter Measures (ECM), Mirage 2000s from the United Arab Emirates mostly flew combat air patrol missions and KC-135Rs offered air-to-air refueling possibilities. Also one C-130J-30 and ten F-16s from the Royal Norwegian Air Force were present.
During Red Flag 15-2, as during most other editions, training missions were not limited to air-to-air and air-to-ground operations. To train specifically for rescue missions within the bigger war scenario, personnel from the 23rd Wing from Moody AFB participated with HH-60G helicopters and one HC-130 for example. These helicopters, as almost all other participants, were temporarily deployed at Nellis AFB. The Hercules however flew out of the mentioned base in Georgia.

The need to continue training

Flag exercises simulate combat circumstances and address modern conflicts within a realistic but safe environment. Also taken into consideration the fact that the allied forces can work together and can coordinate the different aircraft and other material used, one could say that exercises as Green Flag, Red Flag and its European version Frisian Flag are not only a golden formula but at the same time also a must considering modern day threats. As a former RNLAF F-16 pilot and 1984 Red Flag participant once said: "You fight like you train, you train like you fight." If elementary exercises like Red Flag would be victimized due to budget cuts, the chance of similar losses as were suffered 40 years ago during the Vietnam War could be a realistic scenario once again. So, that old phrase still applies and emphasizes the need to continue the Red Flag exercises.