Red Flag exercise challenges, improves Air Force warfighting skills

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Jeremy Wentworth
  • 57th Wing Public Affairs

The front gate at Nellis boldly displays the words Home of the Fighter Pilot - a title it has earned through decades of the most realistic fighter training in the Air Force.

This training, Red Flag, provides combat training for pilots that is unavailable anywhere other than actual combat.

During the exercise, participating pilots take the role of the “blue force” and execute realistic combat maneuvers against the aggressors, or “red force,” a squadron at Nellis that mimics actual enemy combat methods to put their combat skills to the test.

“We needed an opportunity to train our aircrews in, large force, for deployment in an environment unlike the way we’re being challenged now,” said Col. William Reese, the 414th Combat Training Squadron commander. “When participants come here they can expect to get courage and confidence under fire.”

Reese said attendees can also expect to be challenged, shot at and stressed out in ways they don’t normally experience, but they could also expect to leave Red Flag as improved Air Force warfighters.

Though Red Flag 20-3 is currently in progress, the history of the exercise dates back to 1975. A need for realistic aerial combat training was identified after senior leaders conducted multiple studies of the correlation between pilot training and combat related casualties.

“The studies indicated that the first ten combat sorties proved to be the most dangerous for aircrews,” said Daniel Wheaton, the 57th Wing historian. “Red Flag would provide that realistic training as participants practiced defending against hostile interceptors from aggressor units.”

Indeed, Red Flag proved to be a success, and has been an integral part of pilot training since inception. According to Wheaton, the exercise has more than proved itself effective.

“From 1962-1973, the USAF lost approximately 1,737 aircraft in combat (Vietnam),” said Wheaton.  “Since the first Red Flag, the USAF has lost approximately 43 aircraft in combat.  Much of this can be attributed to the rigorous training that members gain during Red Flag exercises at Nellis.”

As time has gone on however, the training needs of the aircrew have changed and Red Flag has adapted. The formerly singular mission of just trying to survive has evolved to developing combat leaders in a combined air, ground, space and cyberspace threat well.

“Red Flag has moved from mainly instructing participants on how to survive the first ten combat missions to focusing on composite force integration, which is allowing participants to plan and work together,” said Wheaton.

While Red Flag has noticeably evolved into the largest aerial combat exercise in the Air Force and one of the largest in the Defense Department over the last 45 years, the growth and work of the Weapons School, and its contribution to pilot training along with it, should not go unnoticed.

“In the early 2000s, the weapons school was only for fighters, intel and some space assets,” said Donna Van Dyke, Foreign Participant Coordinator at the 414th Combat Training Squadron and former secretary for the Weapons School. “Shortly after we added bombers, refuelers, cargo aircraft and more we got a little bit of pushback, but at the end of the day that’s to be expected. Now it’s one of the biggest training programs in the Air Force.”

“The training we do here is so important,” added Van Dyke. “The future of the Air Force starts at Nellis.”

As Red Flag and the Weapons School continue to innovate and grow, one thing is for sure—nowhere or no one does combat innovation quite like Nellis.

“As Nellis does, so does the rest of the Air Force,” said Van Dyke.