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Nellis Aggressor Nation, F-35 pilots ‘punish’ blue air to develop unstoppable force

crew chief with hands in air with wrists crossed to the side of an F-35 on the flight line

U.S. Air Force Col. Scott Mills, F-35 Lightning II pilot and 57th Operations Group commander, performs pre-flight checks before launching to participate in Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Aug. 3, 2021. Red Flag 21-3 is the first Red Flag exercise where blue air participants will go head-to-head with F-35 Lightning II aggressor pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

crew chief with hands in air with wrists crossed to the side of an F-35 on the flight line

U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Michael Dolan, F-35 Lightning II crew chief assigned to the 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, launches out an F-35 for Red Flag 21-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Aug. 3, 2021. The addition of the F-35 will showcase what blue can do against low-observable type threats similar to what adversaries are developing. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

F-35 Lightning II on flight line

An F-35 Lightning II based at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, taxis for Red Flag 21-3 Aug. 3, 2021. Red Flag takes place over the Nevada Test and Training Range, which has the largest contiguous ground space available for military operations, and is home to the most advanced aerial test and training environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

crew chief with hands in air with wrists crossed to the side of an F-35 on the flight line

An F-35 Lightning II based at Nellis Air Force Base takes off for Red Flag 21-3 from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Aug. 3, 2021. The F-35 is the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter aircraft in the world, giving pilots an advantage against any adversary. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Rufus)

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. --

At Red Flag-Nellis, blue air pilots climb into their jets, don their helmets, buckle in and take off into the wild blue yonder.

They’ve conducted their intel and mission planning, but when their wheels lift up from the flight line and the friendly view of the Las Vegas Strip fades away as they reach the Nevada Test and Training Range, it’s game on. The aggressors are waiting.

During Red Flag-Nellis 21-3, blue air participants will for the first time go head-to-head with F-35 Lightning II aggressor pilots, making already daunting training scenarios all that more difficult to successfully overcome.

The power of Nellis’ Aggressor Nation

Col. Scott Mills, commander of the 57th Operations Group and an F-35 aggressor pilot, said Red Flag originated as an air-to-air fight of blue players against red players, but it has advanced in every domain.

“I have air-to-air aggressors. I have surface-to-air aggressors. I have space and information aggressors,” he said. “The aggressor is the person who's here to train blue by providing a realistic and robust adversary that they, being blue, have to actively fight against. They have to use every bit of the capabilities that they have and every bit of integration that they can compile to achieve what their intent is for that day.

“Knowing what I know about those blue air capabilities and the blue air integration, my job is to pick that apart, to pull at the seams,” he continued. “The aggressor nation here is one of the best in the world at finding those niches, finding those gaps and seams, and absolutely punishing those mistakes that blue air makes.”

F-35 aggressor pilots join fight

Lt. Col. Chris Finkenstadt, commander of the 64th Aggressor Squadron, said F-35s are being introduced this Red Flag to expand upon the F-16 aggressors’ threat capabilities. He said this changes the scenario so it more accurately represents advanced enemy fighters.

While F-35s have augmented aggressors in previous Red Flag exercises, they have not been manned by dedicated aggressor pilots.

“What aggressors are able to present to them is a more challenging problem for blue air assault,” he said. “The aggressors know the threat replication a little bit better, and they have studied the adversary and the way that the adversary would actually react to a specific situation. Based on our focus toward great power competition, we need to make sure that those guys are ready, and we do that by presenting the best possible atmosphere we can.”

Mills said the addition of the F-35 will showcase what blue can do against low-observable type threats similar to what adversaries are developing.

“At the end of the day, my job is not to give blue an easy day. My job is to give blue the absolute toughest day that I can. And the way for me to do that is to bring the F-35 into the fight. And the F-35 is going to make it exceptionally difficult for blue to achieve their objectives. They're going to need to take every bit of capability they have, every bit of integration they can, to achieve their intent,” said Mills.

Red air will win . . . at first

During the initial sorties, there are a lot of red air victories. Blue air pilots go up preparing for a one-to-two-hour fight, but because of a tactical mistake, red air capitalizes on that error and sends them back quickly.

“It’s a defeating call hearing your call sign and dead,” said Mills.

As a former blue air pilot who lost to previous aggressors, he said the de-brief after each mission is invaluable, because that’s when pilots re-attack their mission planning. They look at how they reacted, what the threat was, what they didn’t see and what they didn’t do.

“The first two days, blue's nose gets pretty bloodied. And then by the end of week one, you start to see their lessons learned are getting passed around and they're starting to figure things out a little bit,” said Finkenstadt. “Then, day one or two of week two, they may get their nose bloodied again, because we tend to ramp it up a little bit. It usually takes a couple of days to start figuring out different game plans and how they want to package their forces to solve their problems.”

Blue air learns, adapts

Mills recalled when he had his first blue air victory.

“I remember it like it was yesterday. That was a day when I realized that it's one thing to train by yourself as one asset and to see the limitations of your own capabilities. But at the end of the day, when you put us all together on one playing field and you watch what we can do against an incredibly robust, aggressive force, when we work together, it's an amazing site,” said Mills.

Now as an aggressor pilot, he said it’s a great feeling to hear lessons learned and to see growth.

“We see walls come down between communities. We see stovepipes disappear. We see teams that have never before worked together, not only working together, but truly integrating their capabilities to achieve an end result. And I'll tell you when blue air does that, it's exceptionally difficult for red air to pull that game plan apart,” he said.

“At the end of the day, the truth is that no one of us, no one capability is outstanding or the best in the world. Our outstanding capability comes from the fact that we work together well through exercises like this,” Mills added. “We operate across our joint and coalition partners to form one truly unstoppable blue force.”