NELLIS AFB, the self-styled ‘Home of the Fighter Pilot’, is a major Tactical Air Command airfield situated no more than eight miles from the glitzy town of Las Vegas, Nevada. The base itself occupies an area of over 11,000 acres, and has aprons of a size which can — and have, in the past — accommodated upwards of 400 fighter aircraft.
But it is the existence of 4,742 square miles of restricted ranges and a further 7,700 square miles of airspace to the north and east of the ranges which make Nellis an ideai location for realistic tactical training exercises on a large scale. Five Flag exercises are held each year at Nellis — four Red Flags and a Green Flag, along with a Maple Flag at CFB Cold Lake, Alberta in Canada.
Red Flag is the best known of these, and involves a ‘blue Force’ friendly package of fighter-bomber and bomber aircraft and their escorts being tasked to attack targets on the Nellis ranges — airfields, convoys — using practise or live weapons. Opposing them are a range of ‘Red Force’ adversaries, including not only F-l6s flown by pilots trained in the tactics and doctrine of their likely enemies, but also the full range of ground threats.
The effectiveness of these adversary F-l6s is enhanced by their being directed by their own fighter controllers who, in the best Soviet tradition, know their home territory well and take full advantage of this. Conducting these exercise operations is the USAF’s Fighter Weapons Center (FWC), which directly controls 12 staff agencies. Amongst tfiese are the 57th Fighter Wing at Nellis, whose 414th Composite Training Squadron is directly responsible for Red Flag, and the 547th Adversary Threat Squadron which provides the necessary intelligence support for realistic operations.
Successor to the 64th and 65th TFTAS ‘aggressor’ squadrons is a smaller unit of F-16C now known as the Adversary Tactics Division, whose pilots provide realistic air threats by simulating all facets of enemy tactics. Unit establishment is just six F-l6s, although Adversary Air currently has nine aircraft and 13 pilots qualified in this all-important role.
Red Flag has reached a high degree of sophistication, enabling a large number of aircraft to take part in a realistic exercise free from most of the all-too-familiar constraints regarding airspace, noise and environmental considerations. Over the Nevada Desert, participating aircraft can practise their EW tactics ‘for real’, and be far more liberal in the employment of ECM than they ever could on a European range. Flying as low as 100ft (30.5m) above the desert poses no problems: neither does going supersonic — not that this is frequently required in combat. Even so, there are some noise restrictions when overflying certain ranches. Some parts of the Nellis range area are ‘no go’ areas even to Red Flag participants, and may in no circumstances be overflown.
Emergency diversions can, in extremis, be mode to Tonopah or even to the ‘Dreamland’ complex at Groom lake, although the aircrew’s continuing participation in Red Flag would almost certainly be terminated by such an action. One pilot offered the opinion that such a diversionary landing was seen as being ‘better than throwing away an aircraft. But only just’. The air-ground ranges are large enough — and in sufficiently remote locations — for live weapons to be dropped on exercise sorties. Nellis has two parallel runways, which are used concurrently for take-offs and landings, but aircraft carrying live weapons always takeoff on runway 031 or R, to avoid flying towards the centre of Las Vegas.
It is generally accepted that the EW aspect of training can hardly be over-accentuated. The importance of having suitable Weasel and jammer aircraft was demonstrated in Desert Storm. Despite this, the USAF has seen a run-down in its Weasel squadrons and only the Luftwaffe — and soon the Aeronautica Militare — amongst European air forces have invested in a dedicated EW and defence suppression type, in the shape of the Tornado ECR.
The annual Green Flag exercise is primarily EW orientated, and draws in all available EW assets and intelligence units; most Red Flags have few if any dedicated EW participants. In discussions, Col William L Schwetke, commander of the 414th Composite Training Squadron admitted that he would like to ‘Green up’ Red Flags, to improve further their realism.
At the centre of the air activity is the Red Flag Measurement and Debrief System (RFMDS), a computerised system which keeps track of each aircraft in a fast-moving air battle which might involve over 100 aircraft. This system, run and maintained under contract by Cubic Corporation, gives an unequalled facility to record every facet of the air battle, and then to replay the action on demand. Each mission is followed by extensive debriefs, both at a unit level and then involving all the crews who participated in the package. Blue Force commanders can now objectively assess their mission effectiveness.
RFMDS can simultaneously track 32 ‘high activity’ aircraft, these being the ones fitted with an Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) pod underwing. Parameters of altitude, IAS, Mach no, angle of attack and weapons information are continuously monitored, information being transmitted back to the mainframe computers for storage and analysis. Up to 100 further low activity’ (ie non pod-fitted) aircraft can also be tracked, although their input to RFMDS is limited to positional information.
Each high-activity aircraft’s armament configuration is input to RFMDS before takeoff, with the computer knowing the release parameters for each type of weapon, air-air or air-ground. RFMDS is able to calculate the success or otherwise of each weapon fired or released during the exercise, and is the judge of its effectiveness against the target. Each Blue Force aircraft attacking range targets is videoed on its target run, with a representation of the ground-based radar picture superimposed on the lower port of the image area.
A replay of this video gives an indisputable judgment on whether defensive radar obtained a good ‘lock on’ to the attacker, or whether the aircraft’s evasive measures -chaff, flares, ECM, or aircraft manoeuvring -would have allowed if to drop its weapons and exit the area unscathed. Even after weapons release, the attacking aircraft is still opposed by a variety of ground threats, and has to pass througn the ‘valley of death’, which simulates a range of CIS weaponry.
Although the participating pilots may not know their fate at the time, RFMDS computer simulation determines which aircraft were ‘shot down’ in the air combat by radar-guided missiles. No such estimation of the kill probability by infra-red guided missiles is posible, since IR is a passive system. In the heat of the battle, it is by no means unknown for an attacker to be brought down by a AAM from another ‘friendly’ Blue Force aircraft.
The course of the air battle can be viewed live at one of the screens in the Red Flag building at Nellis, although the real value of RFMDS comes during the intensive debriefs. Using realistic symbology, postmission reconstructions of the battle — from the whole picture down to individual participant pairings — can be represented from a number of viewpoints. Standard representation is a ‘pilot’s eye’ (ie HUD) view, although a ‘6 o’clock’ wingtip viewpoint is also available. The display is realistic (in colour, using clear symbology to depict each aircraft type), and shows the relevant flight parameters of each participant at any given instant. Even the position of the sun is indicated.
It is the training value which is derived from participation in Red Flag which makes it worthwhile for the Royal Air Force to deploy aircraft, air and ground crew the considerable distance to Nellis, despite the cost involved. Up to now, some 20 air forces have participated in Red Flags, the most recent newcomer being Venezuela, whose F-l6s flew in an exercise in summer 1992. But the RAF has been the most frequent overseas participant, and Tornados and Jaguars have been regular visitors during recent years.
The RAF recognised from the start that Red Flag operations represent the closest thing to real combat missions; G/P Doug McGregor, the RAF Detachment Commander described Red Flag as ‘the best integrated training in the world’.
Indeed, inside the Red Flag building at Nellis on the first day of Red Flag 93-1 (which commenced, confusingly, on October 13, 1992 since the US Fiscal Year 93 started on October 1, 1992) a senior RAF officer remarked that he felt the same ‘buzz’ during aircrew briefing and mission preparation that he had last experienced in Desert Storm.
Red Flag 93-1 was one of the smallest exercises held at Nellis for some time, with the ‘package’ comprising no more than 48 aircraft, this figure including the four ‘Red Air’ F-16s. Alongside the USAF Blue Force participants — 4th Wing F-15Es from Seymour-Johnson, 58th Training Wing F-l6s from Luke, 410th Bombardment Wing B-52Hs from K I Sawyer and 302nd Airlift Wing C-130s from Peterson — were RAF and Italian Aeronautica Militare aircraft making up almost half of the package. F-l 17As from the 49th Fighter Wing also took part, but flew from their home base at Holloman AFB, New Mexico.
Their participation was thus unseen, at least as far as those on the ground at Nellis were concerned. The exercise lasted six weeks, divided into three periods of two weeks, with a changeover of participating aircrew — and sometimes aircraft — at the end of each period. For the duration of Red Flag 93-1, the RAF established a flight line on the southeast end of the Nellis apron.
The Tornado F.3 was making its first appearance at Nellis for a Red Flag. Six aircraft from the Leeming Wing deployed to Nellis on October 5, staging via Goose Bay with RAF tanker support. These aircraft were marked in the colours of 11, 23, 25 and 29 Sqns, and were scheduled to remain at Nellis for the whole of Red Flag 93-1. Aircrew from different squadrons were to participate in each of the two-week periods of the exercise, starting with 5 Sqn, and continuing with 11 and 29.
Eight Tornado GR.ls were also deployed from Goose Bay for the exercise, these aircraft having been based in Canada since January, to participate in a number of North American exercises. A nucleus of the ground crews and technicians supporting the detachment of Tornados was provided from the RAF Unit at Goose Bay. Following completion of Red Flag 93-1, all the Tornados were scheduled to return to their home bases in the UK and Germany by the end of November.
Aircrews from 617, 2 and 9 Sqns were to rotate through Nellis, each for a two-week period of exercise flying. The other RAF aircraft at Nellis was a single Hercules C. 1P from 47 Sqn, which was taking part in the exercise alongside USAF and Italian C-l 30s. Red Flag saw these transports tasked to do air drops, landings and take-offs in a period of intense air activity. Not present at Nellis but nevertheless taking part were two Victor K.2 tankers, whose primary task was to refuel the F.3 on the northern edge of the range area, after their take-off from Nellis but before they entered the air battle.
Based at Mather AFB, alongside USAF KC-135s similarly providing refuelling facilities for the USAF participants, these 55 Sqn aircraft were making what was probably the final appearance by a V-bomber in Red Flag. Although each squadron would probably choose to fly its own’ aircraft in Red Flag, there are obvious cost advantages in bringing just one group of Tornado F.3 across the Atlantic, to be flown by all three squadrons. The aircraft selected were all Stage 1 + aircraft, from the batch of 40 F.3s modified for Gulf service. These feature radar enhancements and software changes, ergonomic cockpit mods including panel lighting, and the ability to carry flare dispensers — initially the American ALE-40 system but now the less draggy’ Vinten -under the rear fuselage. Virtually all Stage 1 + F.3s are now concentrated at Leeming, although a few can be found on the strength of the Coningsby squadrons.
RAF Tornado F.3s were tasked in Red Flag to provide ‘sweep’ (ie escort) for the attack: formation, with four F.3s ‘sanitising the sky’ for the 32-40 attacking Blue Force ‘bomb carriers’. Amongst these attackers were six RAF Tornado GR.ls and a similar number of Italian IDSs. The GR.ls were carrying a pair of AIM-9Ls for self-defence, although their aim was to concentrate on attacking the ground targets, leaving the F.3s to deal with any fighter threat. Should any fighter-bomber have to turn and fight on the run-in to a target, it has already compromised its main task.
F-15E Strike Eagles from 4th Wing formed part of the Blue Force — a type which clearly has a great air defence capability. Even so, the need in Red Flag was for them to integrate with the other Tornado and F-16 fighter-bombers in the attack package.
In its early years of service, the Tornado F.3 received some bad press for the standard of its Foxhunter radar. Only at Stage 2, which is being trialled now, but which is still some way from squadron service, will radar performance meet the original Air Staff Requirement. The F.3 crews at Red Flag, however, felt confident in their ability to carry out their assigned task with their Stage 1 + aircraft, which are to the highest mod state of any in the RAF fleet.
Red Flag also represents a chance for them to practise offensive counter-air tactics, rather than the defensive counter-air which typifies their more normal role in air defence of the UKADR. With the current radar standard and good medium-range AAMs (Sky Flash), the F.3s will undoubtedly attempt to use their advantage to obtain Beyond Visual Range (BVR) kills against Red Force F-l6s, rather than getting involved in a close-in, turning fight which they might well lose.
Because of the requirement for extensive debriefing to get the maximum training value out of the sorties, each pilot can only fly once a day. Red Flag 93-1 is, however, a day and night exercise, and two waves are flown each day — 13:00 ‘day’ and 18:00 ‘night’. With F.3s the RAF brought 12 crews, this representing the maximum crew: aircraft ratio allowed. With four F.3s flying in each package, this equates to eight F.3 sorties a day, and RAF crews were rostered to fly one week days and one week nights.
Despite the elaborate organisation at Nellis, things can still go wrong. One day in the first week of 93-1, the whole RAF GR.l contingent was held at the end of the Nellis runway for reasons of air traffic congestion. By the time they were cleared for take-off, they had no chance to make their time slot over the target, so abandoned the mission. Imagine the feelings of one of the same crews, who suffered a malfunction with their GR.l the following day, and were forced again to ‘scrub’ the sortie.
The RAF invests heavily in North American deployments, and clearly finds it cost-effective to participate in three such exercises a year. By invitation, the F.3 units participate annually in one Red Flag, one Goose Bay deployment and one Distant Frontier exercise at Eielson, Alaska. Thus, each wing could get one North American deployment a year. Different training value results from each exercise. Red Flag allows the greatest degree of tactical freedom, allied with unrivalled debriefing facilities afforded by RFMDS.
Maple Flag takes place over terrain more representative of Central Europe than is the Nevada Desert, while the first deployment this year to Alaska proved well worthwhile; Alaska is seen as having ‘interesting training possibilities’. Eielson will soon be getting an instrumented ACMI range, and the surrounding terrain is undulating and more akin to Europe. Against these advantages, Alaska is a very long way to ferry aircraft, and involves a huge logistical exercise. Goose Bay is almost exactly the half-way point en route UK-Eielson; for the future, deployment across the North Pole is an option being seriously considered.
Red Flag is very much ‘for real’, and almost certainly the closest thing to a live combat mission. There is undoubtedly value in aircrews of various Allied nations getting together for an exercise and planning, briefing and flying together as part of the same attack formation. The Red Flag exercise scenario mirrors well the organisation and effectiveness of the coalition forces who flew multi-national missions in the Gulf in Desert Storm.
Although a ‘real’ war would involve different units flying from a number of bases, Red Flap’s basing of all assets at Nellis makes for easier briefing and debriefing for what is, after all, a training exercise. Unlike a purely national exercise, the RAF had wider challenges than simply to ensure that the GR.l ana F.3 work well together, and staff from the Central Tactics and Trials Organisation were on hand at Nellis to analyse the results from each mission.
Your author had not been to Nellis or to a Red Flag in several years. On his last visit, the standard description was that the ranges ‘occupy an area the size of Switzerland’. Now, this has changed, like so many things in Red Flag, to reflect today’s realities, and the training area is now compared to ‘an area the size of Kuwait’.