JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS: Imagine an enemy who knows how you operate.
They know your game plans, have been in your position and used your gear. On top of that, they outnumber your team and have the ability to regenerate.
The 27th Fighter Training Squadron’s T-38 Talon red air pilots were that opposing force during the allied exercise, Atlantic Trident 17.
Through their mass in numbers and understanding, the red air adversaries posed a viable threat to the participating blue forces, which included U.S. Air Force fifth-generation aircraft and partnering nations’ fourth-generation aircraft that may operate together in future contingencies.
“Having a former (F-22) Raptor pilot fly the T-38 essentially allows them to get inside our brains a little bit; they know where a good plan could fail,” said Capt. Michael, a 94th Fighter Squadron F-22 Raptor pilot. “For me, and I think any blue pilot in general, when you see a lot of adversaries out there, you have that, ‘Alright, here we go,’ moment. It’s a problem to solve and that’s what we like doing, solving problems out there.”
According to Lt. Col. Charles Hebert, the 71st FTS commander and an aggressor pilot, the red air pilots, like 1st Lt. Duston “Champ” Obrien, the 71st FTS aircraft commander, don’t need Raptor cockpit experience to understand what the Raptor can do, or to expose any weaknesses that might unveil during a coalition training like Atlantic Trident 17.
“A guy like Champ (Obrien) has flown adversary air and even though he doesn’t have fighter jet experience prior to being here, he’s as capable as anybody in the squadron flying adversary air,” Hebert said pointing to a 71st FTS adversary T-38 pilot. “He briefs and debriefs with the Raptor (pilots) day-in and day-out; he’s deployed, he’s mission planned for the Raptor, he’s flown Raptor sims; the guy knows how the Raptor employs in a broad sense. Therefore, he knows how to fight against it and may expose weaknesses.”
According to Michael, finding those weaknesses is what the exercise was all about. The blue and red teams work much like any sports teams. They go into the fight with a coach that talks over the plan, the expected interruptions and contingencies. During that fight, if the blue team experiences something they didn’t see coming, they can add a play to their books for use in future operations against real adversaries.
During this exercise, the coach, or mission commander, rotated to give not only experience to all the allied pilots, but the ability to share lessons learned as well as tactics and techniques with allied air forces.
“We give an initial game plan during mission planning, poke holes in that plan and toward the end, we pose questions like ‘well, what if they do this, and how are we going to tackle that?'” said Michael. “The French (air force) and U.K. (Royal Air Force) definitely bring a unique perspective on how they would tackle a problem and that is helping everyone. They tackle problems differently and give us that unique perspective a coalition force brings.”
In addition to partnering with allied nations to take on red air, the Raptors also teamed up with a fellow fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II.
While both the Raptor and Lightning provide fifth-generation stealth capabilities, the aircrafts’ strengths are in different specialties that, when combined with fourth-generation partners, create an ideal line-up.
“What this exercise really helps us with, in regard to our foreign partners, is figuring out how are we going to integrate and how we all get on the same sheet of music, so that when something kicks off, we can go in there with very little prep time and know how we’re going to integrate with those forces,” said Hebert. “It’s the same with the F-35 just coming online and the unique challenges that the aircraft brings to the fight. It’s about how we come together and work together to maximize the efficiency of the entire fighting force out there.”
To utilize the allied force to its best capabilities, the fighters are placed in certain roles. The French and Royal air forces’ fourth-generation fighters act as the linebackers bringing a larger fleet and a heavy load of weapons while the F-22 and F-35 act as running-backs and quarterbacks, bringing a stealth aspect but specializing in different areas.
“Where we do our work best is in those separate arenas,” said Michael. “The F-35 takes care of the air-to-ground while backing us up in the air-to-air side of the house and vice versa.”
In addition to fine tuning tactics, techniques and procedures between the U.S., French and Royal air forces against future adversaries, Atlantic Trident 17 also aimed to give future F-22 pilots a unique perspective through the red air program. Much like the advantage red air has in understanding the F-22, the adversaries learn to think like an enemy.
“What benefits adversaries like Champ (Obrien) is, he is thinking about adversary weapons all the time because he is employing them during this assignment,” said Hebert. “When he moves over to the Raptor, he’s going to have that filed in the back of his mind knowing what kind of threats, and depending on what part of the world he is in, what weapons they have.”
The adversaries who were on their way to playing on blue team as F-22 pilots were able to attend the blue team meetings – getting an inside look to how their future team operates in a coalition environment.
“Getting to sit in on all the briefs and debriefs is very eye-opening in that I get to see how everything is integrated together, so that is a great knowledge base,” said Obrien. “Talking to everybody here, from the Raptors to the (F-15E) Strike Eagles or British and French, getting to see their perspective on how things are supposed to go and how they operate is great for us because all we know is what we’ve seen from the Raptors.”
While it may be possible to predict what the next fight looks like, there’s no guarantee that the prediction will be accurate. However, each time the world’s most technologically advanced aircraft teams with the U.S. Air Force’s oldest allies, the red and blue players gain more insight, techniques and tactics to add to the coalition playbook.