In Sun Tzu's masterpiece on strategy, The Art of War, it is quoted "Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril." It can be said the intent of the USAF Red Flag exercise follows this dictum quite seriously.
Lessons learned during the hard fought Vietnam War drew Air Force planners to the conclusion that more realistic training was needed. It was painfully apparent that pilots new to combat were often those that suffered the highest attrition rates. If the aircrews could survive their first ten combat missions, their chances of longer-term survival were much higher. The loss ratio of American Navy and Air Force fighter aircraft against North Vietnamese Air Forces was unacceptable and a mere 2:1 compared to the 10 to 1 ration experienced during the Korean Air War. The USAF took notice of the Navy's success with its fledgling TOPGUN program and set out to build its own specialized aggressor and formal training programs.
The very first Red Flag was held on November 29, 1975 with the goal of providing American Air Force pilots with the most realistic training possible. Red Flag sought to accelerate and prepare the pilots for their initial combat missions more thoroughly, thereby increasing their survivability. The vast ranges and superb weather available at Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, Nevada proved to be the perfect location for this serious training.
For an aviation enthusiast and any serious photographer, there is nothing that tops a Red Flag for activity, excitement and sheer variety of aircraft. During the launches and recoveries the pace is simply amazing with all types of aircraft participating. Fighter/Bombers like the F-15E, A-10, B-1 and Navy/Marine F/A-18's blast off the runways in full afterburner. As new systems come into service they are incorporated into the exercise. The new 5th generation F-22 Raptor fighter is now participating. Electronic warfare birds like the F-16CJ, EA-6B and EC-130 play a vital role. Aerial refueling aircraft such as the KC-10 and KC-135 provide the tactical jets with the gas needed to handle the missions. E-3 AWACS command and control aircraft as well as C-17 air lifters are part of the program as are HH-60 Pave Hawk Search and Rescue helicopters.
Today the 414th Combat Training Squadron administers Red Flag. The 414th mission is to plan and control the training and thereby maximize the combat readiness of participating units. A vast array of fighters, tankers, bombers, cargo and other specialized aircraft participate in the bi-annual Red Flag exercises. In fact, over the course of a single year, Red Flag exercises will launch over 10,000 sorties encompassing 250 units from the US and allied countries with over 750 aircraft deployed. Typically there will be two missions one during the day and another at night. A stepping stone approach is taken to acclimate the friendly "Blue Forces". The initial missions are meant to familiarize the Blue Forces aircrews to the range complex and the flights get progressively more challenging. Each 2 week Red Flag will cover a wide variety of mission types. Learning to properly plan, coordinate and execute complex missions is one of the main objectives of Red Flag. The training is realistic, intense and pressure filled.
Playing the roles of the bad guys are dedicated aggressor squadrons or "Red Forces". These specialized units are outfitted with camouflaged F-16 and F-15 fighters flown by some very good fighter pilots. The 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) operates the F-16 Viper, the quintessential close in dogfighter. Sister squadron, the 65th AGRS, flies the F-15 Eagle the large air superiority fighter that boasts a 101-0 record in combat. Both units are assigned to the 57th Adversary Tactics Group (part of the 57th Wing) and are a critical aspect to the success of Red Flag. Their job is to present a credible, realistic threat to the Blue Forces.
Perhaps the unsung heroes of the Red Flag story are the 98th Range Wing (98 RANW), which provides command and control of the Nellis Test and Training Range. The Wing is comprised of two squadrons, the 98th Operations Support Squadron and the 98th Range Squadron. These units handle the day-to-day control of the sprawling, 12,000 square mile range. The vast instrumented ranges provide the space to conduct the most realistic training possible.