NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — For the last two weeks the skies over Las Vegas have been constantly alive; a living, breathing, anthem of airpower signifying Red Flag is at full throttle.
More than 120 aircraft, along with their supporting cast of international pilots, maintainers and intelligence officers set up shop on the flightline and in various facilities around base. Miles were traveled, preparations were made and countless hours were spent planning: all in the name of Red Flag.
Red Flag 14-1 marks the first iteration of the 414th Combat Training Squadron’s signature air combat exercise since the onset of sequestration in April 2013, which led to the combat air forces being stood down and the cancellation of Red Flag 13-4.
However, the staff at the 414th CTS continued to review scenarios and plan for future Red Flag exercises.
“Planning has been intense,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. Nathan Boardman, Red Flag 14-1 team chief, describing the 414th Combat Training Squadron’s efforts in planning this fiscal year’s first exercise.
Boardman, a space and missile operations officer by trade, is the first non-aircrew team chief in the history of Red Flag, just one indicator of the increased focus on the seamless integration of cyber and space assets into Red Flag.
“We’ve been pretty much non-stop since July; coming up with scenarios, handling the logistics, and coordinating with multiple units. Countless hours of planning and pre-coordination go into an exercise of this magnitude,” he said.
He wasn’t kidding.
Red Flag 14-1 was conducted Jan. 27-Feb. 14. Along with the aircraft, more than 3,200 service members from every branch of the U.S. military, along with coalition partners from the Royal Air Force from the United Kingdom and the Royal Australian Air Force from Australia, came from across the world to participate in the excercise.
Participants flew a projected total of 1,700 sorties for an approximate total of 3,600 flight hours. With the integration of night training missions, combat scenarios typically happened twice a day with wave after wave of aircraft taking off in the early afternoon and afterburners glowing late into the night.
Most of the training happened over the Nevada Test and Training Range, the largest contiguous air and ground space available for peacetime military operations in the free world. The NTTR also serves as the arena for the intense simulated confrontations between the Blue Force, made up of U.S. joint and coalition forces, and the Red Force, a group of U.S. Airmen trained in the use of adversary tactics and equipment organized under the 57th Adversary Tactics Group. The 2.9 million acre mile range provides 5,000 square miles of airspace for the realistic training of aircrews to prepare them for future conflicts or war. A wide variety of live munitions can also be employed on targets on the range.
“The environment that we provide is just second to none,” Boardman said. “The things that they can see out there, the things that they can do out there – they don’t get that anywhere else.”
RAAF No.77 Squadron Group Capt. Robert Chipman knows that better than anyone else.
“The immersion into the fog of war is just phenomenal in Red Flag, and that’s what really sets it apart from any other exercises we’ve participated in,” Chipman said. “You’re expected to be ready to perform in a complex air environment on Day 1.”
While the aircrews soared over the NTTR duking it out with the aggressors and intelligence officers fought off “enemy” cyber and space attacks at the Combined Air Operations Center–Nellis, aircraft maintainers on the ground fought a “battle” of their own ensuring the aircraft were ready to go at all hours — day or night.
“Every single aircraft we have that’s mission capable is on the [flying] schedule,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Ron Eckman, 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Viper Aircraft Maintenance Unit production superintendent. “That drastically expands our scope of responsibility, and we’re accomplishing that mission with the same amount of people.”
Eckman has experienced multiple Red Flags, both as an Airman and now as a production superintendent, and explains that he still gets a high level of satisfaction from being a part of it.
“It’s one of those challenges you’re always looking forward to – a time to shine, and an opportunity to put our best foot forward,” Eckman said. “I love seeing these [coalition military units] here knowing they’ve come from all around the world to work towards a common purpose.”
With Red Flag 14-1 winding down, the flightline won’t be peaceful for long. Red Flag 14-2 is set to hit the skies just three weeks later starting March 3.
“The fact is that in some past conflicts, and in all future conflicts, we’ll need to work together as a coalition – we need to understand the capabilities that our foreign partners bring to the fight,” Boardman said. “Red Flag gives us all the opportunity to learn how to work together, that opportunity is essential.”