The first two Red Flag aerial war games of the year have come to a close. Both saw US air combat units combine with allied ones from around the globe to work as a team to take on the staunch defenses laid out across the vast Nellis Range Complex, including enemy SAM sites and F-16s and F-15s masquerading as enemy fighters.
Aviation Photographer Chris Heaton was on the ground at Nellis AFB for both Red Flags and took some awesome images of the majority of the Red Flag participants launching and recovering for us to enjoy:
A snow camouflaged 64th AGRS F-16C Block 32 launches on a Red Flag aggressor mission. The aggressors fight using a strict set of enemy aircraft and aircrew threat profiles, mimicking their unique attributes and limitations. For instance, if a aggressor pilot is mimicking a MiG-21 Bison, that means their rearward visibility is blocked and their sustained g is limited. They will fly this profile as if the aircraft had those exact limits. Additionally, if the threat nation they are replicating uses ground control intercept (GCI) to find and target coalition aircraft, they will use that instead of relying primarily on their own radar sets.
Fighters are not the only bad guys on the playing field. Enemy SAM sites, both of the real hardware and synthetic hardware variety, and very talented radar operators, are also located out in the ranges, some of which are road-mobile and can surprise coalition aircraft. Also, an electronic and cyber warfare aggressor unit plays havoc with allied radio communications and data-link systems. One F-15 pilot told me the first time he crewed up for a Red Flag mission he tried to radio his flight before taxiing and all he could hear was the Russian national anthem blaring in his headset on every frequency.
The otherwordly B-2 is always a big hit at Red Flag and often plays a 'center piece' role in the strike package of aircraft that have to infiltrate their way into 'enemy territory' on the vast Nellis Test and Training Range complex. B-2s usually only participate during Red Flags where only our most trusted allies are present. For instance, the B-2s would be part of a Red Flag when the British or Australians are involved, but may not be part of the exercise if the Indian or Brazilian Air Force were present.
A USMC EA-6B ICAP III Prowler rolls out after a mission to protect allied aircraft by detecting and jamming or suppressing 'enemy' radars and communications.
The Navy's EA-6B Prowler replacement, the EA-18G Growler, is a common player at recent Red Flags as its new capabilities are still be integrated into the total force. The Growler has found an especially tight relationship with the USAF's F-16CJ 'Wild Weasel" community as both aircraft communities working together to destroy and/or suppress enemy air defenses equal much more than the sum of their parts.
A former 65th AGRS F-15C blasts out of Nellis to give allied aircraft a run for their money. Sadly, the F-15C aggressor force is being shuttered due to budget cuts and Red Flag 15-2 was most likely the last time the aircraft will be flown in a permanent aggressor role during Red Flag exercises.
The E-3B/C Sentry Airborne Warning And Command System (AWACS) is the heart of the Red Flag mission. From here, controllers manage the complex and hectic allied assault on 'enemy' territory and call out marauding aggressors for fighters to intercept.
A South Dakota ANG F-16CM Block 40 Viper lands after a Red Flag sortie. The F-16CM upgrade allows for the F-16C Block 50's Harm Targeting System pod to be carried on one of the intake stations across from the Sniper targeting pod. Conversely, the F-16CJ Block 50 will be able to carry the Sniper pod. Under the F-16 Common Configuration Implementation Program (CCIP) which is based around a series of common hardware and software upgrades, the F-16C Block 40 and Block 50s will be nearly interchangeable.
A Royal Air Force Typhoon lands backs at Nellis after another Red Flag sortie. The Typhoon is an incredibly capable aircraft and brings some new tricks to Red Flag, include the highly capable PIRATE infrared search and track system, advanced sensor fusion and supercruise capability (flying faster than the speed of sound without the use of afterburner). With its towed decoys, advanced electronic warfare suite, and impressive kinetic performance, the Typhoons are a hard nut for Red Flag adversary forces to crack. With the upcoming AESA radar upgrade they may very well be the deadliest fighter on the planet after the F-22.
Some of the most important assets at Red Flag, and any allied air war for that matter, are the RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic intelligence aircraft and the E-8 J-STARS ground moving target indicator and radar mapping aircraft. The RC-135 builds a 'picture' of the enemies electronic order of battle on a strategic level. This intelligence is used to locate and classify enemy surface to air missile, early warning radar and other air defense nodes. This information is used in mission planning to give strikers the best routes to their targets and Wild Weasels and electronic attack aircraft the locations and profiles of what systems they need to take out (destroy), suppress (fire a High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile at) or jam. RC-135s can also call out 'pop up' threats on the fly during the actual missions, which can be passed off via data-link to the strike package, allowing individual aircraft to avoid, destroy or jam the threatening emitter. This information is especially crucial for B-2 Spirit stealth bombers who need to stay a different distances away from different radar systems depending on their angle to them in order to remain undetected.
The E-8 J-STARS works at mapping the movements of vehicles on the ground and taking high-resolution maps of different target areas. This information is especially critical for strikers who are tasked with battlefield interdiction as the J-STARS can see a line of tanks on a road, regardless of the weather conditions, and then direct attackers to those targets. It's high-resolution synthetic aperture radar mapping modes can also provide read time radar 'images' of enemy targets and help evaluate the bomb damage to those targets after strikers have hit them.
A F-16CM Block 40 heads out to the ranges with an ALQ-184 self protection electronic warfare pod slung under its centerline station.
A 64th AGRS aggressor F-16C Block 32 banks its way around the landing pattern as a division of F-16CM Vipers prepare for the overhead break. Watching a Red Flag recovery is one of the most awe inspiring aviation spectacles to see, period.
The world's only operational 5th generation super fighter, the F-22 Raptor, this one being from Langley AFB in Virginia, thunders out of Nellis AFB on its way to take on the aggressors and/or enemy air defense targets. The Raptor can supercruise high over the Nellis Range complex (the F-22 can operate from a perch of almost 60k feet and fly at up to mach 1.6 for prolonged periods of time without afterburner). Its speed, low radar signature, advanced sensors and godlike data-fusion put the aircraft into a class of its own during large force employment exercises. In fact, it is so good at its job that if left unbridled it can ruin training opportunity for other players.
The F-22's teammate, the F-15C, has never been more deadly, with new upgrades including a helmet mounted sight (JHMCS) and the most powerful and capable fighter radar in service today, Raytheon's APG-63V3 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA).
Nobody kicks ass without tanker gas! A Fairchild Base based KC-135R begins its takeoff role at the very start of a Red Flag mass launch. The tankers, E-3 AWACs, RC-135s and E-8 J-STARS are first aircraft to depart during Red Flag large force employment missions. Next the bombers depart and then the fighters start their long string of roaring departures. 65 to 85 aircraft are in the air for the average Red Flag 'vul.' There are usually three tankers used for Red Flag. One refuels the aggressors over Tonopah, the other two, of which one has a 'iron maiden' basket adapter on its boom for probe equipped fighters, orbit over the south central area of ranges and refuel allied aircraft. It is amazing that even though the fighters are just a hundred or so miles from home, they are all thirsty for gas by about mid-mission.
Another F-16C block 32 aggressor, this time in the hard to spot overall desert scheme, heads out to attempt to ruin an allied pilot's day.
Often times different logistics aircraft show up at any given time to bring spare parts and personnel to units participating in Red Flag. In this case a Navy C-2A Greyhound arrives in support of a Navy Hornet detachment participating in the exercise.
This Australian C-130J took part in Red Flag, delivering soldiers and material to one of the many austere landing locations that dot the Nellis Range Complex.
The Royal Air Force's incredibly capable Sentinel R.1 provides similar, but in some way superior, capabilities as the E-8 J-STARS although it is designed with advanced defensive countermeasures so it can operate forward of normal strategic standoff assets. It also houses and advanced satellite communications and data-fusion system.
The B-52H is America's flying weapons and sensor truck and its smokey presence is familiar at Red Flag exercises. Usually, the bomber force is represented by either the B-1 and B-52 communities or the B-2 community.
The Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16AM MLU (Mid-Life Update) heads out for a Red Flag mission packing AIM-120B AMRAAM captive training round, an air combat instrumentation (ACMI) pod which tracks every move and action the aircraft makes in real time, and a 500lb GBU-38 GPS guided bomb, an ALQ-131 electronic countermeasures pod and the renowned Sniper targeting pod along with a 370 gallon drop tank.
Another 64th AGRS F-16C Block 32 aggressor, this one in the rare blue, white and gray scheme. I have heard this paint job referred to this as the 'water snake' scheme on multiple occasions. Under this colorful F-16's belly is an ALQ-188 electronic warfare training pod.
A USMC EA-6B ICAP III Prowler takes to the skies under the screech of its twin J-52 engines. This particular prowler is outfitted with three ALQ-99 jamming pods, two of which are the coke bottle shaped low-band versions and one is the standard mid-band version. In addition, a pair of external tanks are carried.
The charismatic, swing-wing B-1B rumbles past Nellis tower with Sunrise Mountain as a backdrop. The "Bone" has become an increasingly versatile asset within the USAF inventory. With close air support becoming a new specialty of the B-1 force, albeit controversially, these massive aircraft that were once relegated to low-altitude interdiction, area bombing and cruise missile launch platforms could now perform tasks once only in the domain of fighter aircraft. This means that on any given Red Flag deployment, the B-1 force could provide a whole slew of tactical options to mission planners.
A 1st Fighter Wing F-22A rolls out during landing after a Red Flag sortie. The stealthy F-22 brings a massive leap in capability to coalition air power operations.
Another angle of the B-1 as it claws its way into the Las Vegas gloom, it's quartet of GE-F101 turbofans in full reheat.
A F-16C Block 30 from the Vermont Air National Guard heads out to join the fight.
A Royal Norwegian Air Force C-130J takes part in air assault operations over the massive Nellis Range Complex during Red Flag.
Now the considered the 'tip of the spear' when it comes to America's presence in Europe vis-a-vis Russia, this Aviano, Italy based F-16CM Block 40 pilot from the 555th 'Triple Nickle' fighter squadron hones their skills in mock combat at Red Flag.
The F-22, which usually only makes an appearance at Red Flags where only close allies are invited, not only offers stealth, speed and advanced sensor fusion, but it also brings super-maneuverability to the fight. As a result, if an aggressor gets within visual range of an F-22, due to rules of engagement, a breakup in the mission plan, mistakes made by a F-22 pilot, or just the fog of virtual war, the Raptor still has the ability to turn on a dime and point its nose where it wants via its two dimension thrust vectoring exhaust nozzles and massive control surfaces.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com