Desert Dogfight

"Fox 2!” radioed the pilot of a green, brown and…

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“Fox 2!” radioed the pilot of a green, brown and tan-striped F-16 role-playing a Russian Su-27. “Fox 2” is the brevity code signaling the launch of a heat-seeking AAM (air-to-air missile), and the pilot launching that missile is a member of the 64th Aggressor Squadron stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, NV. Because of his AIM 9 missile’s high PK (percentage of kill), it is quite likely that the missile’s target would be toast. The pilot just “killed” his “enemy,” a strike aircraft in the February 2008 version of Red Flag, the world’s premier large-scale air-warfare training exercise.

untitled-1.jpgRed Flag 08-2.2 takes place at Nellis’ Range Complex, which encompasses 15,000 square miles of restricted airspace over northern Nevada. Red Flag is the USAF’s name for its full-spectrum, large-scale, integrated training exercise.

Train to Win
Red Flag’s goal is to provide the world’s most realistic combat air training for the United States and Allied forces. The experience gained during the exercise has proven vital to the survival and success of pilots in actual combat. Since inexperienced pilots suffer most combat losses, Red Flag provides the most realistic training possible—so that the mistakes made over the Nevada desert, won’t be repeated over hostile territory.

Because of airspace constraints and basing requirements, most combat training is performed at a pilot’s home station, flying against similar planes in a sterile, familiar space. But real-world combat is not flown near a home base, and a true combat environment is anything but sterile. Since 1975, Red Flag has prepared our flyers for combat over unfamiliar terrain, against enemy planes with vastly differing capabilities, flown by pilots driven by an unfamiliar doctrine. This program works, and in large measure it works so well because the program is constantly being improved. The success of Red Flag is spoken of in terms like “air superiority” and the men and women who trained in Nevada are more likely to survive their first combat mission having been there. But for the grunts in our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the success of the program is more tangible: The challenges they face are all ground based, that is, our soldiers have nothing to fear from enemy aircraft. In fact, enemy aircraft have not attacked a U.S. ground soldier since World War II. And because of the quality of our pilots, their aircraft, and the quality of training such as in Red Flag, that is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Held several times a year, this Red Flag, like most, is a joint exercise. Elements of all of our services train together. In this cycle, Navy EA-6B prowlers will provide radar jamming and destruction of SAM (surface to air missile) sites while Air Force assets provide the other capabilities. This is also a combined exercise where assets from Allied countries train with U.S. personnel. Simulated ground targets are attacked by fighters from Saudi Arabia, with their fighter/bombers fully integrated with American forces. The Saudi’s two-seat F-15S is a capable bomber and further enhancements to its performance are being studied now.

Not a Small War Game
In every aspect, Red Flag simulates a large-scale tactical operation. The enemy is referred to as “Red,” friendlies are called “Blue.” “Red” air forces simulate the tactics of a specific adversary. The “Red” team is usually made up of members of the 65th Aggressor Squadron flying F-15’s, or F-16’s flown by the 64th Aggressor Squadron, both based at Nellis Air Force Base. Their job is to shoot down blue aircraft—whose mission is to attack simulated ground targets. Aggressor pilots are not only some of the Air Force’s more experienced fighter pilots, but they are also some of the best educated. They have spent hundreds of hours studying potential enemy’s aircraft and tactics so they can mimic those enemy fighters and employ tactics as would a specific enemy. Their planes are painted in distinctive patterns to denote their special role.

Blue air fighters will support interdiction (bombing) missions flown by strike and bomber aircraft. KC-135 tankers provide refueling to Blue aircraft and the E-3 AWACS provides command and control over the entire mission.

Training Outside the Box
Because of the scale of the exercise, the Nevada range is the only place in the lower 48 to provide enough space for the exercise. The 99th Range Squadron controls the range complex, and they coordinate with other users of the range to ensure safety. Within the complex lies “the box” as it is affectionately known. The box is within Restricted Airspace R4808N that is an off-limits test facility. Both Blue and Red pilots are warned to stay out of the box—and that is not a simulated warning.

The 39th Intelligence Squadron maintains realistic threat simulators scattered over the complex. Enemy surface-to-air radar sites are simulated, as are anti-aircraft artillery, communications jamming and acquisition radars. Air combat has been an electronic battlefield from the moment the SA-2 surface-to-air missile system was fielded against U.S. fighters in Vietnam, and to provide the most realistic training, the 39th ensures that the radar attack warning receivers onboard the Blue fighters are bombarded with signals that force the pilots to react. Those reactions include dispensing flares and chaff and maneuvering their aircraft in a specific manner that is designed to defeat both the radar and the flight of the enemy missile.

Several hours before takeoff, the mission plan is briefed en-masse before individual flights and crews separate to be briefed on the specific small-unit tactics they will employ. Radio communications are emphasized and backup plans are reviewed. Communication jamming is expected, as is often the case in actual combat, so individual decision making is emphasized when control from the AWACS is lost. Everything from fuel requirements, bomb-fuse settings, electronic counter-measures and times on target are reviewed. No detail is left for to chance.

Through Unblinking Eyes
After the mission, the whole exercise is replayed. A key element of Red Flag’s successful training experience is the RFMDS (Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System), a computer hardware and software network that provides real-time monitoring and post-mission reconstruction. Each aircraft is fitted with pods that measure parameters and data-link to ground-based receivers. During the exercise, RFMDS continuously records both data and communications from each aircraft. After the mission, RFMDS playback lifts the fog of battle on a huge video screen so all can see and learn from the experience—a far cry from the old gun-sight cameras. In the case of the Blue fighter who was on the receiving end of the IR (infrared) missile, he sees his mistake from a God’s-eye view. But, unlike the reality of combat, tomorrow can be another day, where this pilot is better trained to survive and more capable to fight.

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