40 years of Red Flag at Nellis

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Joshua Kleinholz
  • 99th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Some called them the "Iron Majors" though this group in particular went on to be known as the "Fighter Mafia." Never mind the title, that was the last thing on their minds as the group of the Air Force's best and brightest young officers congregated in the little known depths of the Pentagon's basement offices.

Assigned to the Air Force Directorate of Operations tactics branch for showing consummate professionalism and ferocious pursuit of innovation, the officers of the early 1970s Fighter Mafia poured over a number of air combat studies conducted in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.

"In Southeast Asia we were posting kill-loss ratios of around 2:1," said retired Maj. Joel Reed, an F-4 Phantom electronic warfare officer and member of the original Red Flag staff. "It was pathetic compared to Korea where we had an overall average of 10:1 and in some periods 25:1."

The Fighter Mafia was hungry to know why.

One of the most impactful studies was the Red Baron reports, which was presented to the group by Maj. Richard "Moody" Suter. The reports brought to his attention a disturbing trend of general inexperience and resulting fatalities, within our pilots' first ten combat sorties. The problem was apparent.

"The analysis exposed a costly lack of experience," said Reed, who experienced the feeling of general disarray illustrated in the Red Baron reports during his first 10 combat sorties over the skies of Southeast Asia. "Our training was adequate to get us in the airplane, but once you got to combat it was a whole new deal; every day was an entirely new learning experience."

Unfortunately for many U.S. aircrews involved in operations over Vietnam, war doesn't always allow for a learning curve. Losing aircrew at such a rate was deemed unacceptable by an Air Force aspiring to be the best in the world. Suter and company brewed some coffee and got to work.

Their proposal came in early 1975 in the form of Red Flag, an exercise that would pit student "Blue Forces" against dedicated aggressor piloted "Red Forces" in a series of combat scenarios over the vast Nellis Range in Nevada. The Fighter Mafia engaged in fiery debates over various aspects of the project, but the basic objective of exposing warfighters to those crucial first 10 combat sorties had the Mafia in mutual agreement.

Prior to the Red Flag project, students flew identical aircraft against each other, with class "top guns" assuming the aggressor role attempting to outfly their student counterparts.

"It was F-4 Phantom II against F-4, so all of your reactions and all of the training you employed was based on your understanding of that adversary in the same aircraft that you were flying," said Reed, a contracted senior graphics analyst at Red Flag. "Then to be put up against something like a MiG 21 like we saw in Southeast Asia - then we had a whole new ballgame."

Red Flag, as drawn up and articulated by Capt. John Vickery, the youngest of the Fighter Mafia on the Air Staff at the Pentagon, and briefed to leadership by the ever-ambitious Suter, would thrust students into simulated combat against legitimate air and ground threats.

In theory, aircrew would be "skipping" those deadly first ten combat sorties and ensuring that no matter what conflict might arise in the future, our aircrews were already ten sorties into the flow.

After hundreds of enthusiastic briefings and a series of stern rejections from the three-star general in charge of Air Force budgets, the Mafia was finally given orders to go fourth with Red Flag 75-1 on July 15, 1975, from Tactical Air Command boss, Gen. Robert A. Dixon, who was swayed by a persuasive Moody Suter brief.

A squadron of F-4 Phantoms from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, arrived just five months later in December 1975 and Red Flag was born.

Retired Lt. Col. Jack Lefforge, a member of the original Red Flag staff as a white force analyst, now Red Flag Plans and Engineering Division deputy division chief, worked tirelessly with his colleagues in a makeshift office to lay the framework for the first exercise scenarios.

"We realized that just like any other unit, we'd only be as good as our foundation was," said Lefforge, who along with other original Red Flag staffers adopted a 'do what needs to be done' mindset in rapidly establishing a brand new exercise from the ground up. "We knew we'd be the pedestal upon which the statue would be continually constructed."

Red Flag continued to expand dramatically in the following years as word got around to the rest of the Air Force about the training innovations taking place at Nellis AFB. Simulated electronic threats like jammers, simulated surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery guns on the range grew more advanced; attack packages grew more complex with inclusion of different units and airframes from around the service; and debriefs became infinitely more fruitful with the addition of GPS tracking, advanced radar and digital video, among others.

"When the exercise first started, putting everything together in a debrief was left up to a person essentially standing in front of a chalk board, although very skilled at doing that, you lose some element of fidelity," said Col. Jeff Weed, 414th Combat Training Squadron commander. "Now because of the systems that the Nevada Test and Training Range is equipped to employ, we're narrowed down to tracking within the feet of where an airplane was, or a person or vehicle on the ground was, then play it all back in a thorough debrief so that everybody can see it at the same time."

This kind of overwhelmingly thorough feedback is just one of the attributes that sets Red Flag apart from every other air, space and now cyber, exercise in the world 40 years later. Word of resounding Red Flag successes spread not only among all four U.S. military branches, but to 28 partner nations around the globe who have also sent units to participate.

"A lot of the lessons we learn during Red Flag are about communication," said Weed, who participated in his first Nellis Red Flag in 1997. "We share, to some degree, certain tactics, we fly some of the same types of airplanes, and every nation has their own niche in what they bring to the fight. It's that kind of partnership that makes us stronger and that all starts with Red Flag."

General Dixon, Moody Suter and the Fighter Mafia brought Red Flag to Nellis AFB at a time when Nevada's tallest hotel peaked at just three stories; the population of Las Vegas was just 149,000; and the single airstrip was an aging reminder of the Second World War

The Nellis Range made it a diamond in the rough that a few great minds refused to ignore.

As the scope, complexity and resulting logistical challenges have increased over the years, Nellis AFB and it's countless other units have expanded greatly to support the cause when needed.

The Combined Air Operations Center hosts hundreds of the world's finest cyber operators. The 99th Force Support Squadron guarantees food for the thousands of service members visiting the base temporarily for the exercise. And the 99th Logistics Readiness Squadron races to unload, offload and fuel the more than 120 aircraft involved in a modern Red Flag.

To Lt. Col. Erin Cluff, 99th Logistics Readiness Squadron commander, a successful flag means putting together the ultimate base-wide effort.

"Red Flag allows our people to get training on a myriad of aircraft at a very fast pace that they would not get at their home station," said Cluff. "So in addition to the amazing things happening on the cyber and aviation fronts, our support Airmen are getting very similar opportunities to practice skills inherent to our mission set."

Red Flag 15-1, the first of four exercises scheduled for the year, is set to kick off Jan. 26 and will welcome an entirely new group of aircrew, maintainers and cyber warriors, among others, ready to get their taste of the "first ten." For the folks of the 414th CTS, there will be little time to reflect on achievements of the past.

"It takes a year of planning to get Red Flag off the ground," said Weed, crediting the men and women throughout the years who've worked tirelessly to maintain the Red Flag standard. "It' s important to remember that it wasn't normal and natural in 1975; that it was during a time of difficult budgets; and it was a high amount of risk they were taking. But thank God they did because it's made all the difference when we've gone to war."