Airmen from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, recently returned from Red Flag 21-1, a large-scale, highly-complex Air Combat Command exercise in the Nevada desert.
Approximately 200 Airmen from the 388th Fighter Wing’s 34th Fighter Squadron and Fighter Generation Squadron, alongside Reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, deployed 12 F-35As to Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., from Jan. 25-Feb. 12.
“When you factor in the complexity of the missions, and the sheer number of aircraft, there aren’t many training opportunities for an entire squadron that can match Red Flag,” said Col. Steven Behmer, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “It’s a great time to further develop tactics across platforms, as well as gain experience within the unit.”
This Red Flag featured a variety of Department Of Defense aircraft in addition to Hill’s F-35s – B-2 Spirits, B-1B Lancers, F-22 Raptors, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-15E Eagles, EA-18G Growlers, E-3 Sentries, and E-8 Joint Stars.
Combined, these aircraft made up a friendly “Blue Force” that took on a number of Nellis aggressors who made up an enemy “Red Force.” The joint team tackled missions based on scenarios carefully crafted by the exercise planners in the 414th Combat Training Squadron.
In 2017, the 34th FS was the first unit to take the F-35A to a Red Flag. A lot has changed since then. The training scenarios have continued to shift from counterinsurgency operations, to more intense missions against scores of high-end or “near peer” aircraft, surface threats, electronic warfare, space and cyber threats.
“We’re flying in packages of 50-60 aircraft, against 40-50 peer-level aircraft and advanced surface threats, including fifth-generation assets. It’s impossible to replicate at home station,” said Lt. Col. Aaron Cavazos, 34th Fighter Squadron commander.
During the exercise, the 34th FS was primarily tasked with using the fifth generation sensors and stealth capabilities of the F-35A to perform offensive counter-air, suppression of enemy air defenses and escort duties. That’s pretty typical for the F-35A, he said, but the adversary has grown stronger.
“In prior flags, you were almost shocked if more than a few blue players were killed in a given scenario,” Cavazos said. “With the current threat level offered, the priority of target sets, and acceptable level of risk, you now expect it.”
While failing at Red Flag is never the goal, it can be a good thing. It’s a chance to discover undetected shortfalls, unintended complications, and unrealistic expectations in mission planning and execution, Cavazos said.
“This training is absolutely crucial for the squadron,” Cavazos said. “We’re facing an enemy where it’s likely that we’ll lose if we don’t go into every mission with a solid, joint game plan.”
All these challenges are debriefed and debated for hours after each mission in the Red Flag auditorium. This is the most vital portion of the training experience, especially for younger pilots, Cavazos said.
“The younger flight leads in the 34th have stepped up to help solve scenarios that have previously been reserved for weapons school-level training,” Cavazos said.