Men and women in flight suits of green passed through the halls in a hive of activity. The building was buzzing with the language and accents of different nationalities, all in preparation for the day’s oncoming events here.
As personnel filtered through the doors of the building and onto the flightline, three distinct aircraft stood out, all the marked with the Royal Australian Air Force roundel – a circle with a crimson kangaroo in the center. Members of the Royal Australian Air Force came to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, to participate in Exercise Red Flag Alaska 2012.
The Royal Australian Air Force’s airborne early warning and control E-7A Wedgetail as well as medium transport C-130H and C-130J Hercules aircraft are participating in the advanced international air combat training exercise.
The C-130H is crewed by RAAF veteran airmen who know the value and significance of the plane. A veteran aircraft in its own right, this will be the last Red Flag the C-130H attends before being retired and officially replaced by the J model, said RAAF leadership participating in the exercise.
The C-130H will be missed, lamented RAAF Group Capt. Donald Sutherland, the commanding officer of No. 84 Wing at RAAF Base Richmond and the Red Flag Task Group commander for the RAAF C-130s and Wedgetail. The H has been a fantastic work horse for the RAAF since 1978, he said.
“The C-130H is an aging platform that requires major fixes,” Sutherland stated. “It will be with much sadness that the RAAF retires the C-130H.”
Red Flag presents a unique opportunity to train a new generation of C-130 crews. The exercise includes a mix of missions in terms of aerial drops and combat landings.
“One thing we’re doing is using the complex ranged environment and the scenarios to transfer some of the skills that are resident in the veteran C-130H workforce across to the newer C-130J workforce,” Sutherland said. “Every time the H flies here, C-130J crew will fly with them.
“We’re doing it as a complex mission, making time-on-targets and working with the other nations to support our mission.
“The C-130H and C-130J Hercules personnel must be proficient in operating their aircraft in a range of environments and scenarios in order to support defense operations,” Sutherland said. “One of the key objectives is to practice our large package integrations with each other. The other nations we are working with now are the ones we will most likely work with in any event in the Pacific theater.”
White, slender and regal, the Wedgetail looks like a jetliner with a bar top bolted to its back. According to a RAAF fact sheet, the Wedgetail increases Australia’s surveillance and air combat capability, provides air defense support to their naval fleet and assists in civil operations such as border protection and search and rescue. The Wedgetail provides the same role as the U.S. Air Force’s E-3 Sentry airborne early warning and control aircraft.
This is first appearance of the Wedgetail at Red Flag, Sutherland said. The difference between traditional E-3 AWACS and the Wedgetail is the multi-role electronically scanned array radar. There is not physical movement of the array as there is in the E-3’s rotodome.
“The way we detect targets is by electronically scanning through the array,” said RAAF squadron leader Neil Whitehead. “The advantage we have over traditional (AWACS) is because we scan with a beam, we can work the beam very cleverly.”
The mission is still the same as a traditional AWACS platform.
“The radar is different, the job is the same, we just do it in a different way,” Whitehead explained.
“We can increase the update rate over any given area we decide upon and we are able to get a much clearer picture of the target or interest,” Whitehead said. “Also, because there are no moving parts, the reliability increases as to the constant rotating disc on an E-3.”
“Red Flag will provide excellent opportunities for our personnel to integrate with a joint task force to learn how other countries operate,” wrote Commanding Officer No. 2 Squadron Wing Commander Paul Carpenter in a media release concerning the Wedgetail. “This exercise will be an important one as we move towards declaring initial operational capability later this year.”
“We want to integrate with all the players so we can learn from them and in turn they can learn what our platform does,” Whitehead said. “At the same time we need to practice the high end war fighting skills that we are not able to practice back in Australia.
“The Pacific is a huge area and involves lots of nations,” Whitehead continued. “What we’re doing here is establishing relationships.”
“It’s good to make individual contacts and understand how each other operate,” Sutherland said. “If we ever have to come together for any particular reason, whether it is humanitarian assistance right through to higher level operations, if we already know how each other operate, we can hit the ground running.
“Red Flag-Alaska is a fantastic event to facilitate and foster that relationship between the respective air forces,” he said. “At the end of the day we can all go somewhere and operate independently, but that’s not what this is about. This is where Red Flag brings us together, across the tyranny of distance.”