Hand-held missiles challenge Red Flag pilots

  • Published
  • By Maj. Erin Dorrance
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. - Military pilots are testing their mettle at Red Flag 16-3 at Nellis AFB, Nev., July 11 to 29 in the Air Force’s premier air-to-air combat training exercise with approximately 100 aircraft and 3,500 participants from 40 U.S. military units, according to a Red Flag press release.

During the exercise Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines will go up against the most sophisticated enemy aircraft, cyber threats and air defense systems. One of the threats is the man-portable air-defense system (MANPADS), a shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile (SAM) which is operated by three Office of the Secretary of Defense civilians from the Center for Countermeasures (CCM) at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.

The MANPADS team travels to various locations throughout the 2.9 million-acre Nevada Test and Training Range, and can be set up to fire within 20 minutes. The team’s MANPADS set up allows them the capability to simulate threat missile “lock on” of the aircraft. Once the “lock on” occurs, the system triggers an aircraft’s missile warning system by employing the Mallina stimulator to emulate the signature of a SAM.  

The operation is executed by a three-person team. One person shoots the MANPADS, one person records each engagement on a laptop and one person operates the Mallina stimulator. The aircraft can automatically or manually fire flares so that the heat-seeking missile will follow the flares instead of the aircraft. It is now up to the pilot to use tactics to either find the threat or leave the hostile area.

“Red Flag uses MANPADS because it is the most prolific SAM threat aircrew can encounter,” said Maj. Christopher Bulla, Red Flag team chief. “This technology can be found in just about any country around the world. It is a realistic threat that aircrew need to be ready to encounter.”

Tony Rankins, program manager for the Warfighter Integration Office at CCM, said his three-person team will fire over 100 shots during the three-week exercise. All of the shots are recorded with audible video which is available in debriefs his team will give feedback and training to aircrew on MANPADS’ engagement capabilities and limiting factors.

“The more aircrew know about the characteristics of MANPADS, the better suited they are to stay alive while in hostile territory,” said Rankins who has more than 28 years of active duty and civilian experience with MANPADS.

Although MANPADS are used as a threat-based scenario for all types of aircraft, they are typically a threat to low-flying helicopters and tactical aircraft, said Rankins.

Rankins’ team typically spends 10 to 12 hours in the middle of the barren desert on Nevada’s Test and Training Range during exercises. During Red Flag 16-3 surface temperatures range from 105 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.

“We work long days during the hottest days of the year, but it is all worth it,” said Rankins. “This realistic training will save lives.”