During the Vietnam War, the United States Air Force lost more than 1,700 aircraft and thousands of aircrew, sparking an immediate need to better prepare aircrews for combat. After the war ended in 1975, the Air Force established an air-focused exercise called Red Flag where aircrews could simulate their first several “combat” missions in a training environment.
Since its inception, Red Flag has been held three times a year at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., nestled on the northeastern outskirts of the Las Vegas metropolitan area. It’s been a pivotal training exercise for units across the Department of Defense alongside more than 30 allied countries and coalition forces. Units like the 389th Fighter Squadron (FS) come from all over the world to refine their combat skills at Red Flag, giving aircrews a distinct advantage over adversaries.
The 389th FS, also referred to as the Thunderbolts or T-Bolts, is one of many squadrons that make up the 366th Fighter Wing based out of Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The T-Bolts have more responsibility as the core wing for Red Flag 22-2 which includes commanding and controlling approximately 55 aircraft from several different wings across the U.S. Air Force, in addition to units from the U.S. Navy, U.S Marine Corps, Air National Guard, Royal Saudi Air Force, and the Republic of Singapore Air Force.
“Red Flag 22-2 gives us a chance to strengthen our partnership capacity, in addition to further developing relations with our allies and sister services.” said Lt. Col. Breacher ‘Magnus’ Webb, 389th Fighter Squadron commander. “In a growing number of potential conflicts, we’re going to need to rely on our security partners, so integration is not only key to ensuring air dominance, but great real-world experience for all Red Flag personnel.”
In addition to aircrews, there are a variety of other career fields present during Red Flag, including maintenance, intelligence, safety, logistics and other various support roles that work around the clock during the 2-week long exercise to ensure mission success.
“This is the first TDY (temporary duty assignment) for most of us working as support.” said Staff Sergeant Brad Clifton, 389th Fighter Generation Squadron (FGS) support NCO in charge. “I’ve been a maintainer for many years, but working as support is a completely different ballgame, so I really lean on Senior Airman Shiaikis because he brings a lot of valuable experience to the team.”
Red Flag 22-2 not only improves an Airman’s technical skills in a deployment-like environment, but also strengthens team camaraderie and cohesion.
“This is my first time being in a leadership position at Red Flag, and it can definitely be stressful at times, but leadership has been great.” said Senior Airman Ely Shilaikis, 389th FGS consolidated tool kit primary custodian. “I’ve taken a ton of notes which will be helpful in the future, but this opportunity has already strengthened my communication skills and taught me to be less emotional and more calculated when it comes to making decisions.”
Although the main Red Flag has been held at Nellis Air Force Base for decades, there are two other iterations of Red Flag: Red Flag-Alaska and Red Flag-Rescue. These exercises run throughout the year with different aircraft, allies and objectives to ensure a more ready and lethal force.
“There’s something special about going TDY with the T-Bolts to Nellis, you just get to know people on a deeper level,” concluded Webb. “Watching the Thunderbolts grow is not only exciting, but really brings it all home for me as a commander.”