Exercise Red Flag (also Red Flag – Nellis) is a two-week advanced aerial combat training exercise held several times a year by the United States Air Force. It aims to offer realistic air-combat training for military pilots and other flight crew members from the United States and allied countries.
The 414 CTS mission is to maximize the combat readiness and survivability of participants by providing a realistic training environment and a pre-flight and post-flight training forum that encourages a free exchange of ideas. To accomplish this, combat units from the United States and its allied countries engage in realistic combat training scenarios carefully conducted within the Nellis Range Complex. The Nellis Range complex is located northwest of Las Vegas and covers an area of 60 nautical miles (111 km) by 100 nautical miles (190 km), about half the area of Switzerland. This space allows the exercises to be on an enormous scale.
A F-22 Raptor during Red Flag 10–2 with Las Vegas in the background
In a typical Red Flag exercise, Blue Forces (friendly) engage Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations.
Red Forces (adversary forces) are composed of the 57th Wing's 57th Adversary Tactics Group (57 ATG), flying F-16s from the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) and F-35s from the 65th Aggressor Squadron (65 AGRS) to provide realistic air threats through the emulation of opposition tactics. The Red Forces are also augmented by other U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and U.S. Marine Corps units flying in concert with the 507th Air Defense Aggressor Squadron's (507 ADAS) electronic ground defenses and communications, and radar jamming equipment. The 527th Space Aggressor Squadron (527 SAS), an Active Duty unit, and the 26th Space Aggressor Squadron (26 SAS), an Air Force Reserve Command unit, also provide GPS jamming. Additionally, the Red Force command and control organization simulates a realistic enemy integrated air defense system (IADS).
A key element of Red Flag operations is the Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System (RFMDS). RFMDS is a computer hardware and software network that provides real-time monitoring, post-mission reconstruction of maneuvers and tactics, participant pairings, and integration of range targets and simulated threats. Blue Force commanders objectively assess mission effectiveness and validate lessons learned from data provided by the RFMDS.
A typical flag exercise year includes ten Green Flags (a close air support (CAS) exercise with the U.S. Army), one Canadian Maple Flag (operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force) and four Red Flags. Each Red Flag exercise normally involves a variety of fighter interdiction, attack/strike, air superiority, enemy air defense suppression, airlift, air refueling and reconnaissance missions. In a 12-month period, more than 500 aircraft fly more than 20,000 sorties, while training more than 5,000 aircrews and 14,000 support and maintenance personnel.
Before a "flag" begins, the Red Flag staff conducts a planning conference where unit representatives and planning staff members develop the size and scope of their participation. All aspects of the exercise, including billeting of personnel, transportation to Nellis AFB, range coordination, ordnance/munitions scheduling, and development of training scenarios, are designed to be as realistic as possible, fully exercising each participating unit's capabilities and objectives.
The origin of Red Flag was the unacceptable performance of U.S. Air Force fighter pilots and weapon systems officers (WSO) in air-to-air combat ("air combat maneuvering," ACM) during the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars. Air combat over North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973 led to an overall exchange ratio (ratio of enemy aircraft shot down to the number of own aircraft lost to enemy fighters) of 2.2:1 (for a while in June and July 1972 during Operation Linebacker the ratio was less than 1:1).
Among the several factors resulting in this disparity was a lack of realistic ACM training. USAF pilots and WSOs of the late 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s were not versed in the core values and basics of ACM due to the belief that "Beyond Visual Range missile" engagements (BVR) and equipment made "close-in" maneuvering in air combat obsolete. As a result of this BVR-only mindset reached its zenith in the early 1960s, nearly all USAF fighter pilots and weapons systems officers (WSO) of the period were unpracticed in maneuvering against dissimilar aircraft because of a concurrent Air Force emphasis on flying safety. Many U.S. aircrews had also fallen victim to SAMs too.
An Air Force analysis known as Project Red Baron II showed that a pilot's chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had completed ten combat missions. As a result, Red Flag was created in 1975 to offer USAF pilots and weapon systems officers the opportunity to fly ten realistically simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measurable results.
Colonel Richard "Moody" Suter, who was well liked at Nellis Air Force Base, became the driving force in Red Flag's implementation, persuading the Tactical Air Command (TAC) commander, General Robert J. Dixon, to adopt the program. General Dixon approved the idea in May 1975 and ordered the exercise established within six months. The first Red Flag exercise was conducted in compliance with General Dixon's schedule on 29 November 1975 and included 37 aircraft, supported by 561 personnel, flying some 552 sorties.
On 1 March 1976, the 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group (Red Flag) was chartered with Col P.J. White as the first commander, Lt Col Marty Mahrt, as vice commander Lt Col David Burney as Director of Operations. This small crew under Col White's leadership undertook the task of firmly establishing the program.
The "aggressor squadrons", the opponents who flew against the pilots undergoing training, were selected from the top fighter pilots in the U.S. Air Force. These pilots were trained to operate according to the tactical doctrines of the Soviet Union and other enemies of the period, to better simulate what then-TAC, as well as USAFE, PACAF and other NATO pilots and WSOs would likely encounter in real combat against a Warsaw Pact or other Soviet-proxy adversary. The aggressors were initially equipped with readily available T-38 Talon aircraft to simulate Mikoyan MiG-21, the T-38 being similar in terms of size and performance. F-5 Tiger II fighters, painted in color schemes commonly found on Soviet aircraft, were added shortly after that and became the mainstay until the F-16 was introduced.
Today, the 414th Combat Training Squadron (414 CTS) is the unit currently tasked with running Red Flag exercises, while the 64th Aggressor Squadron (64 AGRS) also based at Nellis AFB uses F-16 aircraft to emulate the MiG-29 Fulcrum. These aircraft continue to be painted in the various camouflage schemes of potential adversaries. An additional squadron at Nellis, the 65th Aggressor Squadron (65 AGRS), operated F-15 aircraft in various camouflage schemes of potential adversaries to replicate Su-27 Flanker and Su-35 Flanker threats. However, the 65 AGRS was inactivated on 26 September 2014 due to the Fiscal Year 2015 budget constraints imposed upon the Air Force that zero-lined the squadron's budget.
Time-lapse of the ramp at Nellis AFB during Red Flag 21-1 in February 2021
The U.S. Navy operates a similar large-force training exercise known as Air Wing Fallon at NAS Fallon and the Fallon Range Training Complex in northern Nevada. Air Wing Fallon is a month-long evolution designed to enhance a carrier air wing's war-fighting ability in both the air-to-air and air-to-ground arenas, with the primary focus being for the air wing to become familiar with the complexity of a massive force strike (LFS). Previously under the aegis of "Strike University" (STRIKE U), an O-6 level command when it was formed in 1984, Strike U was later merged with the fighter community's TOPGUN and the carrier airborne early warning community's TOP DOME following those organization's 1993 BRAC-directed relocation from the former NAS Miramar, California, forming the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center (NSAWC) under the command of naval aviation flag officer at NAS Fallon in July 1996. NSAWC then became the executive agent for Air Wing Fallon.
In the 2010s, NSAWC incorporated the electronic attack community's HAVOC directorate, and in 2016, NSAWC was re-designated as the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC). The Commander of NAWDC at NAS Fallon, the Commander of the USAFWC at Nellis AFB, and their respective subordinate units and staffs maintain natural rapport with each other in areas of shared equities and the tactical development of the Joint Force.
Red Flag and Air Wing Fallon should not be confused with smaller, but longer duration, programs that the USAF and USN run to train individual weapons and tactics instructors. In 2009, the 416th Flight Test Squadron from Edwards AFB, California, participated in Red Flag as well, the first time an Air Force Materiel Command (AFMC) unit had been part of the program.
Red Flag 22-3, hosted in July 2022, marked a near tripling of the usual exercise area, with the 414th Combat Training Squadron and the Federal Aviation Administration having worked out a network of airspace corridors connecting the Nevada Test and Training Range with the Utah Test and Training Range and the R-2508 Special Use Airspace Complex around Edwards Air Force Base, California. This arrangement brought the total airspace area for Red Flag 22-3 to 36,000 square miles (93,000 km2), an adjustment needed for the training with fifth-generation fighter aircraft, which use longer-range maneuvers than previous fighters.
A USAF E-3 Sentry AWACS used to control the large number of aircraft during Red Flag exercises
Only countries considered friendly towards the United States take part in Red Flag exercises. So far, the countries to have participated in these exercises are:
On 7 February 1980, a Royal Air Force (RAF) Blackburn Buccaneer S.2B, RAF Serial XV345 of No. XV Squadron crashed after suffering a failure of the main spar, resulting in the deaths of Sqn Ldr Ken Tait and Flt Lt Charles "Rusty" Ruston. Buccaneers were grounded following the accident