Red Flag 16-1 Total Force Integration: the Aerial Warfighting Game-Changer

Feb 22 2016 - 4 Comments
By Todd Miller

RF 16-1 unveiled.

Three weeks of intensive Red Flag aerial warfighting culminated Feb. 12, 2016.

This first of four Red Flag exercises of 2016 featured 39 units, 120 aircraft and 2400 personnel from three countries, the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia.

The Red Flag exercises are well-known as the premier aerial warfighting exercise on the planet. Utilizing the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) as well as adjacent airspace provides participants with over 2.9 million acres of land and 12,000 sq miles of airspace.

F-16C of the AATC (Tucson, AZ) in a guest appearance launches from Nellis AFb on Red Flag 16-1 sortie.

F-16C of the AATC (Tucson, AZ) in a guest appearance launches from Nellis AFb on Red Flag 16-1 sortie.

The NTTR not only provides 1200 possible ground targets, it hosts an integrated “Red” adversary force of surface to air missile systems, threat emitters, and dedicated air-to-air and mission dependent air to ground threats. Visiting units assigned to “Blue” or friendly forces are challenged to achieve mission success day and night against this well prepared Red force.

F-16C of the Nellis AFB based 64th Aggressor Sqd launches for Red Flag 16-1 sortie.

F-16C of the Nellis AFB based 64th Aggressor Sqd launches for Red Flag 16-1 sortie.

The exercise is designed to replicate all aspects of future air warfare including Air, Space, and Cyberspace. All personnel (including the maintainers) are challenged to work with limited resources in the contested environment with obstacles to overcome including degraded networks or systems and tools deemed inoperable.

Col. Kenny Smith, Commander of the 57th OG noted great value for participants to understand the unique capabilities of each unit (F-22A, F-16CJ, RAAF F/A-18F, B-1B, E-3G B40/45, E-7A etc), and collaborate as a team. Nationalities and specific unit identities quickly go by the wayside as participants gel into an integrated “Blue Force.”

F-15C of the California ANG 144th FW & 194th FS "Griffins" based at Fresno ANGB launches from Nellis AFB during Red Flag 16-1.

F-15C of the California ANG 144th FW & 194th FS “Griffins” based at Fresno ANGB launches from Nellis AFB during Red Flag 16-1.

Group Captain Philip Gordon, Air Expeditionary Wing Vice Commander, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) noted that a very real portion of the exercise for the RAAF was the deployment from Australia to Nellis AFB Las Vegas, NV. The RAAF deployment of 400 personnel, 14 aircraft and all required support equipment took one week with stops in Guam and Hawaii. The deployment was supported by the RAAF C-17 and KC-30A refueling tanker and the group was proud to have departed and arrived on time. Such an effort by Australia represents a very successful force projection halfway around the world. The exercise also gave the RAAF an opportunity to deploy the legacy F/A-18As and the F/A-18Fs side by side in a combat environment.

F/A-18A of the RAAF 75 SQN, RAAF Base Tindal launches from Nellis AFB on Red Flag 16-1 sortie.

F/A-18A of the RAAF 75 SQN, RAAF Base Tindal launches from Nellis AFB on Red Flag 16-1 sortie.

From day one of the exercise, the learning curve is steep. Rather than “dumb targets” working in isolation, Red Air threats are fully integrated and the entire adversary force thinks and adapts. It is an intense and very unforgiving environment by design, and if Blue air is not fully integrated, it is a given they will take losses. Even the ultimate air superiority platform the F-22A Raptor will get shot down when they make mistakes. This is the entire purpose of Red Flag, the best lessons are learned from experience and this ensures they are learned before they are in theatre in a real conflict.

F-22A Raptor from the 95 FS "Boneheads" of Tyndall AFB launches on Red Flag 16-1 sortie.

F-22A Raptor from the 95 FS “Boneheads” of Tyndall AFB launches on Red Flag 16-1 sortie.

New aircraft capabilities are changing the face of the air battle, and the participating Air Forces are adapting their tactics to utilize these most effectively. The RAAF F/A-18F Super Hornets AESA radar adds enhanced capabilities that make the aircraft and the Blue force more effective. The wide variety of sensors combined with the stealth of the F-22A provide an unparalleled ability to gather and fuse information and create an effective picture of what is happening upfront in the battle space. These capabilities enable Raptor pilots to function as battle managers, passing information to other platforms and as such becoming force multipliers. The amount of information from Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) assets, Drones, and Sensor laden aircraft (RC-135s, U-2, P-8, P-3C, E-7A, E-3G & others) is staggering and must be assessed and directed effectively.

This Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail (from 2 Sqd RAAF Base Williamtown) is noted for "Hide & Seek Champions 19 Aug - 15 Dec 2015"

This Royal Australian Air Force E-7A Wedgetail (from 2 Sqd RAAF Base Williamtown) is noted for “Hide & Seek Champions 19 Aug – 15 Dec 2015”

The opportunity to deploy these assets side by side “in theatre” and learn how best to utilize is unrivaled.

1st Lt. 1st Lt. Emily Lebeau, 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron air battle manager, Tinker Emily Lebeau, 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron air battle manager,
1st Lt. Emily Lebeau, 965th Airborne Air Control Squadron air battle manager, (Tinker AFB, OK) noted that her unit had deployed the vastly improved E-3G Block 40/45 (its second Red Flag appearance) to manage the airspace and provide the big picture in support of the F-22As and other assets. The technology leap from 1970’s technology to current is staggering and represents quite a steep learning curve. In effect E-3 operators let the F-22As employ their tactics, while providing a broader overview of the theater ensuring no movement is overlooked.

B1-B "Last Lancer" from the 7th BW, 9th BS "Bats" out of Dyess AFB Texas launches on a Red Flag 16-1 sortie, Nellis AFB.

B1-B “Last Lancer” from the 7th BW, 9th BS “Bats” out of Dyess AFB Texas launches on a Red Flag 16-1 sortie, Nellis AFB.

Given Red air regenerates after being killed, there is a continuous and ongoing Red air threat for the 90-minute exercise window (Red Flag consists of two 90-minute exercise windows one at night, one at day each day during the 3-week exercise). Group Captain Philip Gordon, AEW VC RAAF noted the need to manage the battle with available weapons resources. While the F-22As may appear to be the obvious choice to eliminate the air threats, they only carry 6 AMRAAMs. As a result, battle managers on the “networked” Blue Force determine the best asset to engage the threat. Real time information and target data is communicated to the designated asset to engage. In many cases, AMRAAMs are “fired” (simulated) from an F/A-18 or F-15E on a strike mission (exiting the range after attacking their target) an F-16CJ on a SEAD mission or from another platform – preserving AMRAAMs on the F-22 for a future threat.

There is no question that the advanced capabilities of the F-22A, the incoming F-35, the E-3G, E-7A, F/A-18F, EA-18G and other platforms are changing the face of aerial warfare. Utilized effectively, the integrated team approach to the aerial campaign will effectively overwhelm and defeat any threat in the foreseeable future. Red Flag ensures all operators are well prepared to achieve success day one of any conflict.

EA-18G Growler of the VAQ-138 "Yellow Jackets" of NAS Whidbey Island launches for Red Falg 16-1 sortie.

EA-18G Growler of the VAQ-138 “Yellow Jackets” of NAS Whidbey Island launches for Red Falg 16-1 sortie.

Special thanks to MSgt S. Allen, SrA T. Spangler and the entire 99th ABW Public Affairs team

Todd Miller is an avid photographer and contributor to a number of Aviation media groups. Utilizing www.flyfastandlow.com as a personal “runway” it is Todd’s goal to reflect the intensity and realism of the military aviation mission, as well as the character and commitment of the military aviation professional.

  • McPosterdoor

    Any idea what equipment is mounted rear mid-line on the AT 240 F-16? Camera?

    • Mr. Culper III

      Looks like the AN/ALQ-131 Self Protection Jammer Pod

  • vegass04 .

    Aren’t Italian fighter jets present at this year’s Red flag? Anyway, the air to air engagement is evolving fast. I wonder what
    will F-35 bring to the table with its unrivaled sensor fusion capability? There will have to be many Red flags for a seamless integration of 5. gen capabilities into the fighter package. I think we aren’t even aware of all the capability and assets that F-35 will give warfighter. There are many wrinckles to be ironed out but I have great confidence in USAF and NATO superiority over any near peer foe. Keep practicing guys, an keep hoping you’ll never need it.

  • David James

    Such a fascinating exercise, when you start get an idea of whats going on here, the design of the F-35 begins to make sense — in a realistic networked battle space she is a game-changer like the F-22.