Red Flag 17-3 underway at Nellis Air Force Base features both U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force F-35s, for the first time together.
Red Flag is simply one of the largest and more realistic exercises in world, designed to simulate the first 10 days of a modern conflict.
Hundred of combat aircraft along with pilots, ground forces, intelligence analysts, cyber and space operators take regularly part in RF exercises at Nellis AFB, just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, to validate tactics and weapon systems employment within the context of the Nevada Test and Training Range.
As already explained the RF scenario continuously changes in order to adapt to the real world threats: the old “fixed” battlefields, where the location of the enemy was known and remained pretty much unchanged until the aircraft reached the target area, have evolved in a more dynamic and unknown battlespace that requires real-time data coordinators able to disseminate information on the threats and targets gathered from a variety of assets and sensors. In such new “networked” scenarios, stealth technology (capability to survive and operate effectively where others cannot) combined with 5th Generation features (sensor fusing), are extremely important to achieve the “Information Superiority” required to geo-locate the threats and target them effectively.
That’s why the presence of 5th Gen. aircraft teaming with and “orchestrating” 4th Gen. combat planes (lacking the Low Observability feature but able to carry more ordnance) will become the leit motiv of the future Red Flags.
For instance, Red Flag 17-3, underway at Nellis from Jul. 10 to 28, sees two F-35 Lightning II squadrons (and as many JSF variants) participating in the drills together for the very first time: the Marine Corps’ F-35B STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) aircraft from VMFA-211 based at MCAS Yuma and the Air Force’s F-35A CTOL (Conventional Take Off and Landing) from 33rd Wing from Eglin AFB, Fla. Furthermore, during RF 17-3, the two different variants of the JSF (Joint Strike Fighter) operate alongside the F-22 Raptors from Tyndall AFB, also taking part in the exercise.
The cooperation of the three radar-evading aircraft, including the controversial F-35s, is going to be particularly interesting.
According to the USMC, VMFA-211 will conduct defensive counter air (DCA); offensive counter air (OCA); suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD); destruction of enemy air defense; dynamic taskings, which involve finding a time-sensitive target or series of targets and eliminating them; electronic warfare (EW); preplanned strikes; and combat search and rescue (CSAR).
Whereas U.S. Air Force F-35s (from a different unit) have already taken part in RF, the missions they flew during RF 17-1, at least based on reports and official statements, focused on OCA and air interdiction in a highly contested/denied aerial environment: Air Force F-35As penetrated denied airspace and directed standoff weapons from B-1B heavy bombers flying outside the denied airspace. During these missions, the F-35As with IOC (Initial Operational Capability – the FOC is expected next year with Block 3F) entered the denied airspace and engaged both aerial and ground targets, not only with weapons they carried but also with weapons launched from other platforms such as the B-1Bs as they loitered just outside the threat environment acting as “bomb trucks.” Moreover, during the RF 17-1 sorties, flying alongside the F-22 Raptors, the F-35s achieved the pretty famous kill ratio of “20-1.”
Interestingly, even though it will probably not embed simulated shipborne or remote base operations (that are what the F-35Bs, in spite of the limited range and internal weapons capacity, was somehow designed to conduct) the Marine Corps will expand the role of the 5th Gen. aircraft in RF, covering also EW and CSAR support tasks.
“It’s … important to practice integrating assets from all across the [Armed Forces’] inventory because if we go to conflict, we don’t want that to be the first time we all integrate with each other,” said Maj. Paul Holst, VMFA-211’s executive officer, in a public release.
“This is the first time we [VMFA-211] have deployed on this scale … we brought 10 F-35s here with all of our maintenance equipment, all of our support equipment and personnel,” said Holst. “For the pilots, the opportunity to participate in these exercises prepares us for combat … and the opportunity to integrate and plan with the rest of the force is something you just don’t get anywhere else.”
“A lot of times at home station, we’re basically working just with each other or we’re doing things that are [smaller in] scale and only focusing on our specific mission sets that we do,” said Maj. Chris Brandt, a pilot and administration and logistics officer in charge with VMFA-211. “When we actually deploy, we’re most likely going to be part of a joint force so coming here you get that experience. It’s not until you come to exercises like these that you get to train across services and [train] with platforms that you typically would not work with at your home station.”
According to Holst, Red Flag allows each service and subordinate unit to understand the capabilities of other services, units and their equipment.
“For example, the E/A-18G exists in the Navy and the Air Force doesn’t really have a comparable asset to that. There may be situations where the only F-35s in theater are Marine Corps F-35s … and you have to integrate the F-35s into the entire package,” said Holst. “It’s always going to be necessary to bring everyone’s assets together and practicing that is really important.”
The F-35s of both variants should play a dual role: “combat battlefield coordinators,” collecting, managing and distributing intelligence data while also acting as “kinetic attack platforms,” able to drop their ordnance on the targets and pass targeting data to older 4th Gen. aircraft via Link-16, if needed. More or less what done by the USMC F-35B in exercises against high-end threats carried out last year with some jets configured as “bomb trucks” and others carrying only internal weapons.
As a side note it’s worth mentioning that the integration of the F-35A and B variants is something another partner nation is going to explore in the future. In fact, Italy will have both A and B variants, with the STOVL (Short Take Off Vertical Landing) ones serving both the Air Force (that has already taken on charge its first 7 F-35As with the eight example that has recently performed its maiden flight at Cameri FACO) and the Italian Navy, that will use them on the Cavour aircraft carrier. One day we will analyse (again) whether the F-35B was really needed by the ItAF, but this is going to be another story.