RED FLAG - Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada


by John Thow

Welcome to the world’s largest air combat war games. This is where pilots and crews from the U.S. and her allies meet to hone their flying skills, learn to work more efficiently as a team, and try their very best to beat those pesky Aggressors! Welcome to Red Flag!

Red Flag is the ultimate in fighter pilot training and has been taking place at Nellis AFB since 1975. It is absolutely as realistic a combat simulation as possible, even going so far as to include enemy tactics and at times weapons.

It has long been established that fighter pilots are most vulnerable during their first ten combat missions. If a pilot survives these ten missions, then the likelihood of surviving his entire combat career increases dramatically. Red Flag was created to provide these ten combat missions.

F-15C of 65th Aggressors

F-15C of 65th Aggressor Squadron makes an afterburner takeoff. John Thow ©

F-15C "Flanker" Eagle

F-15C “Flanker” of the 65th Aggressor Squadron takes off from Nellis AFB during Red Flag exercises. Photo: John Thow ©

Turkish Air Force F-16s

A flight of six F-16Cs of the Turkish Air Force go over “last chance” checks prior to departing Nellis for Red Flag air combat exercises. Photo: John Thow ©

B-1B Lancer

A B-1B Lancer blasts off from the Nellis runway with afterburners lit to fulfill its role in Red Flag. Photo: Dan Thow ©

French Dassault Rafale

French Dassault Rafale takes off at Red Flag. John Thow ©

E-3 Sentry AWAC

E-3 Sentry AWAC approaching KC-135 for refueling. John Thow ©

The role of the enemy or the “Red Force” is played by the Aggressor Squadrons, which now include some civilian contractors as well as Nellis’ own 64th Aggressor Squadron (F-16s). The 65th Aggressors which appear in some of the images in this article flying F-15Cs and Ds were disbanded in 2014. Aggressor pilots are trained in, and fly with the tactics used by potential enemy nations allowing U.S. and allied pilots to experience an air combat simulation that truly feels like the real thing.

Red Flag typically takes place four times per year and each exercise includes a wide variety of aircraft, any or all of them from the USAF, USN, USMC and the armed forces of U.S. allied nations, who join together to make up the “Blue Force”. While Red Flag is air to air combat training, it includes much more than just fighter planes and pilots, but includes all of the assets needed to facilitate an air war including a variety of attack, fighter and bomber aircraft (F-15E, F-16, F/A-18, A-10, B-1, B-2, etc.), reconnaissance aircraft (Predator, Global Hawk, RC-135, U-2), electronic warfare aircraft (EC-130s, EA-6Bs and F-16CJs), air superiority aircraft (F-22, F-15C, etc), airlift support (C-130, C-17), search and rescue aircraft (HH-60, HC-130, CH-47), aerial refueling aircraft (KC-130,

KC-135, KC-10, etc), Command and Control aircraft (E-3, E-8C, E-2C, etc) as well as ground based Command and Control, Space, and Cyber Forces.

In addition to the Red and Blue Forces, there is also a “White Force” that utilizes the Nellis Air Combat Training System (NACTS) to monitor the mock combat between the red and blue forces. This extremely sophisticated monitoring system allows commanders, safety observers and exercise directors to keep an eye on the action as it takes place as well as keeping score of mock “kills” during the battle.

There is also a portion of the training that includes familiarizing pilots with enemy aircraft and surface to air weapons in the Threat Center, sometimes referred to as the “petting zoo”. This gives pilots a chance to get up close and personal with many of the weapons they will be targeting from the air.

All four branches of the U.S. military, their Guard/Reserve components and the air forces of other countries participate in each RED FLAG exercise. Since 1975, 28 countries have joined the U.S. in these exercises. Several other countries have participated as observers. RED FLAG has provided training for more than 440,000 military personnel, including more than 145,000 aircrew members flying more than 385,000 sorties and logging more than 660,000 hours of flying time.


Red Flag Monument

Monument in front of the Red Flag training building at Nellis AFB. Photo: John Thow ©

Luftwaffe Panavia Tornado

Panavia Tornado of the German Luftwaffe waiting in a Nellis hangar for its turn at “Blue Air”. Photo: © John Thow

British GR-9 Harrier

British GR-9 Harrier takes off from the Nellis runway. Photo: © Dan Thow

USAF F-16C Viper

USAF F-16C Viper blasts off for another round. Dan Thow ©

Brazilian F-5EM

This F-5EM of the Brazilian Air Force was formerly a Nellis Aggressor. Dan Thow ©

A UAE Block 60 F-16E/F Desert Falcon

A UAE Block 60 F-16E/F Desert Falcon landing at Nellis after a Red Flag sortie. Photo: John Thow

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