Red Flag Over Alaska

Oct. 1, 2008

The back door of the C-17 hadn’t been open more than a few minutes when the loadmasters shrugged and hit the switch to close up. Their planned airdrop, they were told, was an abort.

The weather was not cooperating. Worse, surface-to-air missile sites in the area had not yet been suppressed by Blue Air. So, it was time to get out of Dodge. The C-17 lurched and wove around a bit while the jolts of the egress from the drop zone rattled the brains of crew members. Then it was gone.

This could have been a combat mission over some far-distant drop zone. The sounds were the same. The actions were the same. Yet this “mission” was unfolding in Red Flag-Alaska, playing out over America’s vast Pacific Alaskan Range Complex.

Three F-16 aggressors in the skies above Eielson AFB, Alaska. (USAF photo by A1C Jonathan Snider)

The combat airdrop is just a snapshot of RF-A, the newest franchise in a successful air combat training program.

The Air Force’s combat and mobility forces use Red Flag to master operations in realistic, high-stress situations. “It pays off when you have to go to war,” said Lt. Col. Andy Hird, a veteran C-17 pilot who flew the transport on this particular mid-June mission. Hird is head of operations for the 517th Airlift Squadron, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska.

As if to emphasize that point, Hird recalled an incident from the 1990s, when he began flying these kinds of missions over the Balkans. He noted that the first time he ever talked to an E-3 AWACS aircrew member was when he was already en route to a combat zone. That was not an ideal situation, Hird noted.

Thanks to the Red Flag training missions, future aircrews won’t have the same experience.

The new regime is an offshoot of USAF’s former Cope Thunder exercise, established in 1976. It was elevated to Red Flag status in 2006 by the then Chief of Staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley. The service’s leaders saw an opportunity to enhance the Cope Thunder training in the wide open spaces of the American north, and it has turned out to be a profitable step.

Links With Nellis

Not long ago, USAF’s two main Alaska sites, Elmendorf Air Force Base and Eielson Air Force Base, could together handle some 600 Cope Thunder participants. Now, nearly twice that number are operating from Eielson alone, said Capt. Ronald K. Strobach, the senior team chief for RF-A at the 353rd Combat Training Squadron at Eielson—the host of the exercise.

Air Force leaders make a conscious link between the two components of Red Flag—the part in Alaska and the original part at Nellis AFB, Nev. They want to make sure that those training in Alaska don’t replicate events in Nevada, and vice versa. Though much looks the same, the training regimes are different.

The guidance is for RF-A actions to be “comparable and complementary but not identical,” said Brig. Gen. Mark W. Graper, commander of the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson.

True to the Red Flag template, Eielson is the home of its very own aggressor squadron—the 18th AGRS—which flies F-16s adorned with the iconic Flanker-style paint schemes. The aggressors put participants through the aerial wringer over the course of the two-week event, held up to four times a year.

Amn. Brad Ivey, a crew chief with the 354th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, removes chaff from an 18th Aggressor Squadron F-16 during Red Flag-Alaska. (USAF photo by A1C Jonathan Steffen)

Red Flag was born from the Air Force’s frustrations in Vietnam, after which it was determined that most pilots shot down were rookies with fewer than 10 combat missions under their belts. Red Flag gives junior aircrews the fog and friction of those critical first sorties in a controlled environment.

“Some of the things … we strive to replicate [are] those first eight to 10 combat sorties,” said Graper. The intensity and demands of the exercise are also the same. The difference is in the details.

The 18th Aggressor Squadron will eventually boast 24 fighters. Moreover, the Air Force is in the midst of a long-term buildup of infrastructure and capabilities for RF-A, though bad weather limits work to about five months out of the year. An estimated $57 million is allocated for range and infrastructure improvements over the next three to five years. The funding will be used to build new targets, upgrade current ones, and expand other facilities used on the range.

Those with firsthand experience at RF-A say the long trek north is worth it. The participants get to fit together, over US territory, all the pieces of an air operation before they do it in enemy airspace.

“Here, we’re brought in on the air side, where we’re learning how things work [together],” said TSgt. Nathan Hoffman, RF-A’s joint terminal attack controller coordinator. He called the experience “a side of operations we don’t normally see.”

Added Graper, “I think it’s a pretty accurate representation of how we prosecute an air campaign.”

One realistic touch: working with allies. Foreign air force participants in June’s RF-A 08-3 included airmen from the German Air Force, which sent 16 Tornado fighters to the exercise. The Japanese Air Self-Defense Force deployed several surface-to-air missile teams and ground control elements to Eielson, while JASDF F-15Js and an E-767 command and control aircraft deployed to Elmendorf. South Korea deployed a C-130 to Elmendorf to participate in airlift operations.

RF-A planners focus on tactical training—getting participants in the air, mixing it up and throwing curveballs. This keeps all the participants busy, said Maj. David Michaud, 18th AGRS assistant director of operations.

“We are flying 10 Red Air aircraft on any given day,” he said. “If I fly, and I die every day, I’m doing my job because I’m training [Blue Forces].”

Using sites arrayed across the ranges, aggressors got shot down then flew back over the point to simulate regeneration from low altitude before re-entering the fight. Sometimes the aggressors were augmented by other forces, including allied participants (Japanese F-15Js, for example, have performed Red Air functions in the past over Alaska), while ground crews replicated a host of other threats.

The ranges, while not as sophisticated as those found at Nellis, host many relevant sites. There are simulated airfields, control facilities, bases, and surface-to-air threats arrayed across the ranges and live fire areas.

Both the pilot and the radar intercept officer in this German Tornado crane their necks to watch a B-1B taking off from Eielson during RF-A. (Photo by Andre Benschop/Aeropromotion)

Open Skies

Some 400 targets are spread out over the space, and the 353rd’s targeting shop stays busy setting them up as everything from anti-aircraft artillery to rail switchyards. The new franchise’s main asset is its backyard—the range complex known to fliers as “The Park.” The sheer space of the place was the primary reason for bringing a Red Flag to Alaska in the first place. The main section of the ranges could cover the entire state of Florida, with room to spare.

“This is a fantastic training space … that we cannot get at home,” said Lt. Col. Oliver Eckstein, commander of the German Air Force contingent flying from Eielson.

German airmen had been flying in Alaska for a few weeks before the official start of the exercise. With demands ranging from participation in NATO response forces to flying reconnaissance over Afghanistan, Germany’s need to train both aircrews and personnel for large deployed operations is crucial, Eckstein said.

“This is about as close to an operational detachment as you can get,” he added.

The advantage is large. The Nellis ranges feature 12,000 square miles of airspace over mostly desert terrain which, while fully developed with threats and infrastructure, gives a distinct desert training experience. Over Alaska, however, participants have access to more than 64,000 square miles of airspace over Alaskan wilderness, with widely varied topography. The space is so vast that different weather systems converge from the north and south sides—creating yet another training hurdle for planners and crews to manage.

Lt. Col. John Koss, deployed from the 7th Bomb Wing at Dyess AFB, Tex., was the deployed forces commander for RF-A 08-3, the boss of the White Air forces. Koss made sure all the Red and Blue elements got where they needed to be, and early in the exercise he already had his hands full.

Koss gave a bird’s eye view of what was unfolding in the distance as a pair of B-1Bs rumbled off the flight line. The large-force exercise was set to go for the first hour as soon as the “war call” was made, followed by the close air support exercise.

Based on the weather, and what “MiG One,” the Red Air boss, said, Koss would decide if it would be a “high war” (above the clouds), a “low war,” or a mix of the two. Five minutes before 10 a.m., the call was made and the airmen sprang into action.

The Eielson auditorium for the morning mission brief was full as the day’s mission commander—Capt. Dan King from the 9th Bomb Squadron at Dyess—gave a quick introduction and turned the podium over to the briefers. They reviewed the weather, strike packages, the air-to-air package, and intelligence.

SSgt. Steven Lewis, an intelligence briefer from the 55th Fighter Squadron, Shaw AFB, S.C., told pilots that “Aleskyan” forces had invaded a friendly allied country and a full-scale conflict was now under way, with coalition forces responding.

Intelligence suggested that targets were fortified with SA-6 and SA-11 batteries in strategic locations, with ground forces concentrated near the SA-11s to better protect them from air attack. Critical infrastructure had been protected with SA-8s and assorted anti-aircraft artillery emplacements.

Those flying in the south “might get some harassment from Flanker bases in the area,” Lewis cautioned. The Red fighters should engage slightly past the “MIZZI line”—a sort of bull’s eye airspace reference point for all Blue Forces that separates certain aspects of the fight.

“Engage and acquire your targets autonomously and watch for possible airborne jamming of your radars,” Lewis said. Soon, the aggressor pilots left to prepare for takeoff.

The diversity of pilots and operators in the room was indicative of the Red Flag enterprise’s shift over the years. It has evolved from being a mass air-to-air battle over the Nevada desert to a close simulation of an actual expeditionary war, featuring not only aerial combat but air-to-ground operations, airlift, and so on.

A KC-10 Extender gasses up an F-22 26,000 feet above Eielson during Red Flag- Alaska. (USAF photo by A1C Jonathan Snyder)

“It used to be two big walls of airplanes coming together and mixing it up,” Koss said of Red Flags from days past. After the Gulf War, the Air Force began to work on integrating air-to-air with air-to-ground assets as well—throwing elements such as air defense suppression and ground-based controllers into the mix.

A short Humvee ride from Eielson, joint terminal attack controllers were on the ranges lining up targets for participants.

Hoffman said that by the end of the exercise, his teams planned to have conducted convoy operations, roadblocks, simulated infrastructure attacks, and a host of other scenarios from a different perspective.

“This is a way for JTACs to get beyond their comfort zone,” Hoffman said, noting most of the controllers are used to working in an Army environment. It’s also a push up. … You’re managing a lot of different assets and doing it the same way you’d do in a war.”

From the participation of multiple services and allied forces to the dispersion of aircraft and personnel across two geographically separated locations, the goal was to create the feel of an expeditionary combat environment.

Masses of Aircraft

It felt like expeditionary combat, said Capt. Alison Shore, an E-3 mission crew member from Kadena Air Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Shore’s unit was working alongside an E-767 crew from Japan to deconflict the masses of aircraft. On any given day, some 60 to 90 aircraft would be involved in the fray.

“At Kadena, you’re doing four to eight F-15s at a time,” she said. “Here it’s totally different. It’s the only real replications of what you’d see in combat.”

For those on the ground, the response was similar.

First Lt. Josephine Beacham—the tanker task force maintenance officer in charge—made sure RF-A’s tankers were in the right spaces at the right times. Tankers from MacDill AFB, Fla., Grand Forks AFB, N.D., and Kadena were all in the mix.

Handling all of these aircraft wasn’t always easy. Beacham said one of the tankers had a fuel cell problem, forcing it to abort a takeoff. “Mission capable rates will fluctuate, especially in an exercise like this,” she said. “You don’t know when the jet will break.”

For that reason, RF-A effectively puts maintainers through the paces, she said, because the deployed perspective is better here than any home station training. “The lieutenants, the sergeants, … this is a great chance for us to perform missions,” said Beacham. “Here we can make mistakes that we can’t afford in the desert.”

Four pilots from the 64th Aggressor Squadron, Nellis AFB, Nev., step to their aircraft on the flight line at Eielson during Red Flag-Alaska exercises. (USAF photo by SSgt. Joshua Strang)

In Alaska, events are not as technically sophisticated as those found in Nevada, but the flexibility of the exercise allows commanders and planners a wide range of options.

The Germans “have been here a couple weeks training, and that’s advantageous because if you fly to Alaska you want to get your money’s worth,” Graper said. ” ‘Arrive early, stay late,’ is our mantra, and it’s because we have the range space and the airspace to accommodate that.”

Another difference: dispersion of forces across two big bases, Eielson and Elmendorf. Face-to-face debriefing after a day of flying isn’t available. The upside, though, is that situation is very realistic. Pilots and maintainers will likely be asked to fight in a similar environment, within a network of dispersed operations centers and airfields.

Just over 40 minutes out of Elmendorf, 1st Lt. Joe Aubert—a C-17 pilot deployed from Hickam AFB, Hawaii—refreshed the plan for his flight with Hird, the mission’s pilot. The airlifter was to fly under escort by A-10s and F-16CJs, hold back as the fighters attack ground targets, and then proceed to the drop zone.

Suddenly a siren wailed over the din of the engines and a calm computerized voice informed the crew that a missile launch had been detected. There was a flurry of activity, as Aubert dodged behind the aircraft’s cockpit bulkhead and pulled several pins out near the top. These were the safeties for the aircraft’s flares and countermeasures. The simulated countermeasures were launched as a precaution and the aircraft accelerated.

A few minutes later, Hird gave the all-clear.

The scenario, and many like it, played out many times during the course of RF-A’s missions. By the end of exercise 08-3, all 103 participating aircraft had flown a total of 1,222 sorties and racked up 2,548 hours over the Alaska ranges. About 995 short tons of cargo were delivered and 279,000 pounds of munitions were dropped.

Everyone appeared to think the gain was worth the effort.