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Red Flag 16-3: Fly, fight, win in air, space, cyber

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Julius Delos Reyes
  • 50th Space Wing Public Affairs

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - “Being a fighter pilot is all about information processing,” said Maj. Cory Jerch. He would know; he is one.

However, the processing begins not in the cockpit, but way before that and it takes more than Jerch as he is just a piece of the puzzle.

At approximately 6:30 p.m., Jerch’s day is just about to start. Seated in the auditorium, he listened as individuals with remarkable job titles spoke one by one – mission commander, command and control players, tankers, bombers, and space and cyber cell among others.

Jerch together with everyone has to understand the big picture—the who, what, when, where, why, how and other decisions in fighting and overcoming the enemy.

As an F-16 pilot, the major needs to know a lot—his aircraft, his role, his team, other weapon systems at his disposal and more.

More than that, everyone has to learn to integrate all the weapon systems in each domain -- air, space and cyber -- to provide an effective response to the adversary.

Simply put, how to be a team?

This has been the Red Flag 16-3 concept. The exercise on Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, was designed to be as realistic as possible to prepare warfighters for air combat—from planning to execution.

Back in Vietnam War, the Air Force lost more than 1,700 aircraft. Following a study, the service found the magic number—the first 10 combat sorties were the most dangerous events for aircrew personnel.

“The whole purpose of the exercise was to try to get that experience as close to combat environment as possible before going to the real one,” Jerch explained.

As the Air Force weapon systems evolved, the exercise changed as well. Every Red Flag highlights various training objectives – drop bombs, practice suppressing radars, air to air, coalition partners, joint and more.

This year’s third iteration involves U.S.-only forces with 115 aircraft and 3,500 service members. Red Flag 16-3’s main objective is “establishing habits of achieving multi-domain combat success today to enable the rapid defeat of America’s adversaries tomorrow.”

“We need to do this is because our enemies continue to grow and their capabilities in the multi-domain environments as well,” said Col. DeAnna Burt, Red Flag 16-3 Air Expeditionary Wing commander. “We have to make sure we are practicing and working through how we integrate that timing and tempo so it becomes a habit and second nature.”

Integrating air, space and cyber is a different beast for Jerch. He participated in his first Red Flag several years ago.

“It was definitely eye opening,” said Jerch, 79th Fighter Squadron assistant director of operations at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, about his experience then.

From the number of aircraft in the sky to what his job was, he had to learn all he needed to know about mission planning process at a fast pace.

“It definitely helps out during the combat environment,” Jerch said.

However, 16-3 is definitely different due to the larger role that space and cyber play in the exercise. Add to the fact that Burt is the space officer to occupy the AEW commander seat, a position usually held by a rated officer.

“We want a multi-domain battle space,” said Capt. Neil Fournie, 414th Combat Training Squadron chief of Advanced Warfighting Division. “We brought it in Red Flag to establish how we integrate as a service together, get through the command and control hoop, and make sure everything is timed and properly synchronized together.”

Threat scenarios at 16-3 were robust enough to provide a contested and degraded environment, not just in air, but space and cyber realms as well. Virtual and realistic adversary simulations include operationally degraded GPS environment, red force system network, serving as blue forces’ targets and more.

“That’s what this exercise is so special. You’re able to see all these capabilities layered on top of each other and actually see it play out in the live environment,” Burt said.

According to Jerch, the key for this exercise is to know all the capabilities available and figure out how to use them at the right place and the right time.

“It’s been very challenging,” he said. “This is the first time I have experienced an exercise where space and cyber played such a critical role. They’ve come up with training scenarios that require us to use the best of their capabilities to achieve success.”

Indeed, during its three-week course, Red Flag 16-3 upped the ante in training on all domains, reflecting the Air Force’s mission – flight, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.

“Red Flag 16-3 participants successfully met all of their objectives and then some.  We have amazing Airmen across the board working together to deliver combat effects in the Defense of our Nation.  I am very proud of their performance and honored to have served as their Air Expeditionary Wing commander,” Burt concluded.