Airmen from the 77th Fighter Squadron here are participating in Red Flag 15-4 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Aug. 11 to 17.
Red Flag, executed through the 414th Combat Training Squadron at Nellis, is a realistic combat training exercise conducted at the Nevada Test and Training Range by the United States and its allies.
The exercise traces its roots back to the Vietnam War, when it was found that a pilot was most at risk during their first 10 missions before they had developed the skills and experience needed to become more capable. Thus Red Flag was established in 1975, as a way to get pilots through those crucial first missions without being in any significant danger.
“The Red Flag mission is to take people from all types of different assets and platforms, bring them together, learn how to execute your particular mission set, and integrate with others against a very advanced threat that is fighting back throughout the entire period,” said Lt. Col. Michael Horlbeck, 55th FS commander. “It gets us ready for a much more advanced adversary, which is something that you can’t try to do when it’s upon you. That’s something that takes an incredible amount of investment both in time and effort.”
For an Airman who has never been to a Red Flag exercise, the difference in operations tempo can be astounding.
Horlbeck remembers watching a young lieutenant sitting in a mass briefing for the first time, and seeing his eyes as he realizes the magnitude of how many different assets are playing.
“You go from home station training where you may have six to eight aircraft when we do a training sortie,” said Horlbeck, “to all of a sudden now you’ve got 70 on one side and 30 on the other – more than a tenfold increase in the number of players.”
Held four times annually, the exercise consists of diverse missions ranging from close air support, dynamic targeting, and even combat search and rescue.
Working together, allied forces are able to utilize the myriad capabilities of their aircraft to execute these missions.
A benefit of this diversity is that the units that work together at Red Flag are usually the same units that will deploy together. This allows Airmen to build trust and rapport with other Airmen that they would normally never have a chance to interact with.
“Having built that relationship, we know what each other’s systems and capabilities are, what kind of techniques we like to apply,” said Horlbeck. “And on a personal level, we’ve got a relationship that allows us to work together and trust each other.”
During a typical Red Flag, 20th Fighter Wing forces are in charge of the suppression of enemy air defenses such as surface-to-air missiles, however this time around they have another responsibility on their plate – for Red Flag 15-4, Shaw’s Airmen have taken on the role of the “core wing.”
Being the core wing means that Airmen from the 20th FW will form the “skeleton crew” that the participating units fall under, and Col. Stephen Jost, 20th FW commander, will act as the Air Expeditionary Wing commander for the entire exercise. Even though each unit may have their own mission commander for each sortie, Jost will be in charge of the mission as a whole.
For most, a Red Flag exercise is the only opportunity they will have to realistically train under these conditions – not only working with unfamiliar people and terrain, but also the movements that it takes to get to a new location – before they have to do it for real when lives are at stake, said Horlbeck.