Beginning the week of Jan. 24, 2022, the 388th Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah, is serving as the lead wing at Red Flag, the Air Force’s premier combat exercise, which takes place at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., several times throughout the year.
The 421st Fighter Squadron and 421st Fighter Generation Squadron, alongside Reservists from the 419th Fighter Wing, have deployed 12 F-35A Lightning IIs and approximately 200 Airmen to train alongside other Air Force, DOD, and allied-nation units.
For the next three weeks, they will form a joint Air Expeditionary Wing, working together in a simulated deployed environment. In addition to the 421st FS maintaining and flying the F-35A in daily combat scenarios, as the lead wing, the 388th FW will be the hub for integration, support, and resources for the deployed force.
“Since our first Red Flag with the F-35A in 2017, we have come a very long way. Both the jet and our tactics have improved,” said Col. Craig Andrle, 388th Fighter Wing commander. “We have more Weapons School graduates and a handful of pilots with more than 1,000 hours in the F-35. We’re also more experienced at deployed maintenance and sustainment after 18 months of combat deployments and multiple high-end exercises.”
During Red Flag, a friendly “Blue Force” (a variety of fighter, bomber, and command-and-control aircraft) takes on an equally integrated enemy “Red Force” in simulated combat missions that grow progressively more complex.
The exercise was created in 1975, following the Vietnam War, when America lost a great number of Airmen and aircraft due to a lack of combat experience. In response, Red Flag was designed to simulate a pilot’s first 10 combat missions in a realistic but controlled environment.
Planners say that what began as a drill designed to help pilots survive, has since transformed into a multi-domain, simulated war that includes air, space, cyber and intelligence components — all designed to align with the National Defense Strategy — replicating and better preparing for modern adversaries. The F-35A is a key component in that fight.
“Red Flag allows us to show other units and our allies the capabilities of the F-35 in a training environment that cannot be replicated anywhere else,” Andrle said. “The jets perform very, very well. It’s truly a fifth-generation platform, with not just stealth, but a sensor suite that sees and makes sense of everything that’s going on in the fight. With that situational awareness, we are able to make other legacy aircraft more lethal and survivable.”
While the scope of Red Flag’s missions has expanded, a primary goal remains giving younger pilots and maintainers much needed experience prior to combat.
“This is especially for all of our younger wingmen,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Redmond, 421st Fighter Squadron commander. “All the planning, preparation and all the work put in by the folks at Red Flag and Nellis and the 388th — it’s all for the benefit of our wingmen. We want them to take advantage of the opportunity and learn as much as possible with every launch, every sortie generated, every brief and debrief. That is what Red Flag is for.”