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RF16 2   B 52H banking

Red Flag 16-2, a different angle

We attended the Red Flag 16-2 Mediaday at Nellis AFB, NV. Obviously, our goal was to take photographs of the attending assets and get a look behind the scenes of the infamous exercise. When we underwent the proceedings it dawned on us; the media day is just a routine part of the exercise to cater for the bulk of the many requests they get.

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Why Red Flag

Nellis AFB has always been involved in weapons training. From 1941 onward, named Las Vegas AFB then, it trained B-17G tail gunners and later also air-to-air and new weapons tactics for F-86 crews. This particular type of exercise, dubbed Red Flag, was incepted to train the US forces in coping with ever changing tactics of the opponents. As most of you are aware, the Vietnam War showed the US air force that their text book tactics and four-ship formations did not work in the real world anymore. Catering for large waves of Russian bombers and their escorts by missile equipped interceptors, did not fit the scenario of swarms of small agile aircraft getting into gun range. The newest fighter aircraft at that time did not have guns to start with, and pilots received little training in aerial combat, or ‘dog fighting’. Also, flying in an airspace that is not controlled but rather filled with opponents and surface to air missile threats, was too hot to handle at first. To cope with all these threats, both the ‘original’ and many new scenarios and adversary tactics, a radical change was needed. It may sound simple, but it is rather complicated to change a whole curriculum as well as the hardware itself, do it while the war is still going on and become the best at it too.

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A typical present-day Red Flag

Time warping to the present day it is evident; Red Flag sets the standard in sophisticated training. When asked, both the Italian commander, Colonel Bertoli, and Colonel Bernard, the RF16-2 AEW commander answered, “this is the most difficult threat package you can encounter. There is no easing into the exercise, day 1 starts with a full threat.” Also, on the strange variety of assets present “we assess the threat and work with the assets and possibilities we have.” In other words, trying to combine the different systems into an integrated whole, is one of the key features of a typical Red Flag. This makes sense if you see recent conflicts. Most of the time there is a coalition and assets from various countries need to be combined into one smooth working package.

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The typical mission gets planned all morning with the first launches taking place around 13:00 hours and recoveries starting about 1.5 hours later. It takes about 3.5 hours before the whole bunch is back, due to the sheer quantity of aircraft having to take off and recover on Nellis’ two parallel runways. During RF16-2, a Green Flag was also still running and that is aimed at cooperation with the army. Normally this huge, mainly ground forces’, exercise is held and coordinated from Fort Irwin and although it was officially finished during RF16-2, the Aviano F-16s and Draken International Skyhawks were still at Nellis and they were not there for Red Flag.

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When the typical becomes a-typical

Without underestimating the prowess of the Italian and Turkish Air Force, there are primary and secondary allies. Normally, the first Red Flag of each Fiscal Year is aimed at the ‘incrowd’, a nearly all-US line-up in which only the RAF and RAAF are allowed to participate. The political correct explanation is that this is because of the use of stealth assets. But how realistic is a coalition where Italian F-2000s get to escort B-1B and B-52H bombers? Where only a handful of Turkish’ oldest F-16s participate while their block 50-plusses stay at home? Or no F-22 and B-2 participate although the adversary deploys the latest defence assets? Where the aerial adversaries are T-38 trainers? True, the 65th AGRS F-15s are dispersed among other units nowadays, leaving only F-16s as adversaries at Nellis, so some variation in dissimilar air combat needs to be sought elsewhere.

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All in all, it seems that Red Flags come in various sorts. The first is the 4.5/5th generation training including stealth, cyber-attacks, and virtual threats and combining the ideal coalition you would want to go to war with. The second type is providing top notch training facilities for allied nations and “making the scenario together as you go along” as Colonel Bernard described it. The first thing that Italian Air Force Colonel Bertoli said when asked what the training value of Red Flag was for the Italians: “Firstly, getting here from over 6000 miles away.” Of course, he went on to elaborate on the very realistic threats and training value, lessons learned in cooperation et cetera.

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For humble enthusiasts, these question marks we are putting with the realism of it all, do not matter much. It provides you with a large variation in aircraft types ranging from US Marines with their AH-1 “Zulus” and UH-1 “Yankees” to B-52Hs and from US Navy MH-60S to Draken Intl A-4K Skyhawks. With the photographic opportunities outside the base, where spectacular banking shots can be made, and the vast amount of aircraft present; there is simply no other place where you can see this many different aircraft in one day!