It’s one hour before their first Red Flag 21-1 mission, and U.S. Navy Airmen from Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 132 at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash., pour out of their building onto the Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., flight line to prepare their jets for launch.
As they approach the flight line, a crew member mid-conversation stops and yells to another; “Hey! You can’t cross that red line!”
This flight line rule, known as “breaking red,” is common across the U.S. Air Force, but for many in the Navy, it’s rare. This split-second moment mirrors the experience of the majority of joint partners and allies at Red Flag 21-1.
Teams are given three weeks of working and training together with friends who operate slightly different, so they must communicate well, learn about each other and get on the same page to win.
The 414th Combat Training Squadron Red Flag exercises provide the U.S. Air Force, partners and international allies the opportunity to experience realistic combat scenarios to prepare for future warfare. It ensures combat forces are ready to win future conflicts by building partnerships and interoperability across multiple domains.
This environment matches allies together with a common goal, pits them against expert opposition and allows them to work together, building a stronger, more lethal and adaptable force.
“This is as close to actual war you can get in a training environment,” said Lt. j.g. Douglas Reneau, VAQ 132 warfare and public affairs officer. “We’re in the air with 50 to 100 aircraft, executing a mission; in briefings together; and our crews launch jets all at the same time. Working at a high operations tempo, exposes the difference between what was planned and what is executed, showing us what works and what doesn’t.”
Each partner brings unique capabilities to the fight and VAQ 132 doesn’t disappoint with their EA-18G Growler and electronic warfare expertise. Among other things, they provide radar capabilities and tactical jamming so allied aircraft are not readily seen during missions.
“We support the fighters by employing tactical jammers and air-to-ground missiles to support the destruction of Surface to Air Missile sites with violent prejudice,” said Reneau.
Joint training allows mission commanders to interact with their supporting units and plan together. Commanders armed with a full understanding of the capabilities of their partners can plan missions to be safer and more effective.
“What is awesome about Red Flag is showing our partners what the Growlers and our squadron can do,” said Reneau. “When Growlers integrate with the exercise, mission commanders usually change the way the mission is planned. We give them more options.”
As a Department of Defense asset, VAQ 132’s Growlers often integrate with the Air Force, Marines and Army during deployments. Red Flag exercises hone the communication skills of their leadership, while the rapid pace of its battle rhythms provides critical training for maintainers and air crew heading down range.
“We like our squadrons to participate in two to three Red Flags before they deploy,” said Chief Petty Officer Danny Sprueill, VAQ 132 maintenance controller. “This environment is so dynamic, and it constantly gives our guys something to think about. It can’t be replicated.”
Red Flag and large joint force exercises, because of their scale, foster better integration between forces as they get a real-world opportunity to see how they affect the fight. It helps many participants see where they fit into the large puzzle of a battle.
Following the “train as we fight” motto, it provides a proving ground for the U.S. and its allies to learn hard lessons.
Individual units train at their home bases or squadrons, sharpening their skills, and Red Flag is the place they are proven before they go downrange.