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Red Flag adjusts for today’s challenges

An Airman sits in the cockpit of an F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet.

U.S. Air Force Capt. Matthew Spotka, 77th Fighter Squadron (FS) F-16 pilot, gears up prior to taking-off from the flightline at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 28, 2019. Pilots assigned to the 77th FS assisted the participating 79th FS during Exercise Red Flag 19-1. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Maldonado)

A pilot sits in the cockpit of an F-16 fighting Falcon fighter jet at night.

A U.S. Air Force F-16 pilot assigned to the 79th Fighter Squadron adjusts his gear prior to take-off during Exercise Red Flag 19-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 30, 2019. Throughout the exercise, 79th FS pilots will be performing the suppression of enemy air defenses mission as well as going head-to-head with aggressor forces in both daytime and nighttime scenarios. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Maldonado)

An Airman sits on the edge of an F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter jet.

U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Alyssa Rodriguez, 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 79th Aircraft Maintenance Unit crew chief, gathers safety pins from an F-16CM Fighting Falcon during Exercise Red Flag 19-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 28, 2019. The goal of Red Flag is to prepare Air Force, Joint, and Coalition pilots, aircrews and operators to fight against peer-level adversaries in any combat environment. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Maldonado)

Airman walk the flight line looking for foreign object debris.

U.S. Airmen assigned to the 20th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, 79th Aircraft Maintenance Unit, perform a foreign object and debris (FOD) walk during Exercise Red Flag 19-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., Jan. 28, 2019. FOD walks help clear the runway of any objects that may cause harm to pilots and aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Christopher Maldonado)


The 414th Combat Training Squadron (CTS), which oversees Red Flag, is making changes to the exercise for improved efficiency at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.


Red Flag is a realistic multi-domain training exercise that maximizes the combat readiness and survivability of participants by providing a robust, accurate training environment.


“We see units arrive at Nellis at varying levels of being prepared,” said Col Michael Mathes, 414 CTS commander.  “By the end of three weeks, units are not just capable of executing their wartime mission with confidence. They are ready for combat.”


While early Red Flag exercises focused on survivability of combat pilots, Red Flag integrates the five core functions of the Air Force: Intelligence Reconnaissance Surveillance (ISR), Command and Control, Air Superiority, Strike and Personnel Recovery to ensure Airmen are ready for today’s fight.


“The value of integration exercises like Red Flag is in the building block approach,” said Mathes.  “It starts with unit-level preparation, making sure that unit can function as a team.  It moves to package integration, which is making sure that functional teams, like strike fighters and bombers – can work together.  Then we get to Red Flag where multi-package integration comes into play, learning how to integrate different packages –superiority, strike and mobility aircraft -- into one mission to achieve the same goal.”


According to Mathes, Red Flag exercises enable the Air Force to more quickly harness readiness through exposure to professional adversaries, also known as the red force; working with our coalition and joint partners; and integration with the personnel recovery mission in a singular environment and scenario.


Looking to the future, we can expect Red Flag to continue to evolve to meet today’s challenges.


“We’re continuing to improve threat replication, how we focus on the supported commands and implementing improvements to our debrief process to make the training more effective and efficient,” said Mathes.


Expanding on the latter, Mathes explained the importance of debriefs – the process of examining a completed mission to assess what went well and what could be improved – and why they are critical to the training.


“We are leveraging new technology to validate mission effects and compile data so we can quickly give facts to the mission commander, tactical mentors and air expeditionary wing leadership,” said Mathes. “This facilitates a more efficient and effective process of providing information for the human-to-human debrief, where the learning really happens.”


Additionally, Mathes envisions further improvements for the exercise, especially with international partners.


Roughly 2,900 personnel assigned to 39 units are participating in Red Flag 19-1. Ninety-five aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, Royal Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force are scheduled to complete 26 missions over a three-week period.


Mathes said that the partnership with U.S. allies and other nations will become the most important part of the exercise because a strong coalition will be critical to the success of future conflicts.


Although the aircraft in the sky are visible reminders of air power, Mathes recognizes none of it is possible without the tireless work behind the scenes that make Red Flag and the Air Force a success.


“It’s important to give thanks to the Airmen and joint participants and not just to the operations personnel, but also the maintenance and support,” said Mathes. “The real facilitator (for Red Flag) is the human element that chooses to sacrifice their time and energy to come together for unity of purpose. Airmen make airpower.”


While our adversaries are constantly changing, Red Flag will adjust. The legacy of the exercises remains a commitment to giving aircrews the best odds of survival while adapting to make U.S. and coalition forces as lethal as possible.

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