The Red Flag exercises, conducted in four-to-six cycles a year by the 414th Combat Training Squadron of the 57th Wing, are very realistic aerial war games. The purpose is to train pilots from the U.S., NATO and other allied countries for real combat situations. This includes the use of "enemy" hardware and live ammunition for bombing exercises within the Nevada Test and Training Range.
In a typical Red Flag exercise, Blue Forces (friendly) engage Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations. Blue Forces are made up of units from Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, United States Air Forces Europe, Pacific Air Forces, the Air National Guard, U.S. Air Force Reserve, U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, the Canadian Air Force as well as other allied air forces. They are led by a Blue Forces commander, who coordinates the units in an "employment plan". Red Forces (adversary) are composed of the 57th Wing's 57th Adversary Tactics Group, flying F-16s (64th Aggressor Squadron) and F-15s (65th Aggressor Squadron) to provide realistic air threats through the emulation of opposition tactics. The Red Forces are also augmented by U.S. Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps units flying in concert with the 507th Air Defense Aggressor Squadron's electronic ground defenses and communications, and radar jamming equipment. The 527th (Active Duty) and 26th (Reserve) Space Aggressor Squadrons also provide GPS jamming. Additionally, the Red Force command and control organization simulates a realistic manual integrated air defense system.
A key element of Red Flag operations is the Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System. RFMDS is a computer hardware and software network which provides real-time monitoring, post-mission reconstruction of maneuvers and tactics, participant pairings and integration of range targets and simulated threats. Blue Force commanders objectively assess mission effectiveness and validate lessons learned from data provided by the RFMDS.
A typical flag exercise year includes one Green Flag (a close air support exercise with the Army), one Canadian Maple Flag (operated by Canadian Forces Air Command) and four Red Flags. Each Red Flag exercise normally involves a variety of fighter interdiction, attack, air superiority, defense suppression, airlift, air refueling and reconnaissance missions. In a 12-month period, more than 500 aircraft fly more than 20,000 sorties, while training more than 5,000 aircrews and 14,000 support and maintenance personnel.
Before a "flag" begins, the Red Flag staff conducts a planning conference where unit representatives and planning staff members develop the size and scope of their participation. All aspects of the exercise, including billeting of personnel, transportation to Nellis, range coordination, munitions scheduling, and development of training scenarios, are designed to be as realistic as possible, fully exercising each participating unit's capabilities and objectives.
Among the several factors resulting in this disparity was a lack of realistic ACM training. USAF pilots were not versed in the core values and basics of ACM due to the belief that BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements and equipment made maneuvering combats obsolete, and nearly all pilots were unpracticed in maneuvering against dissimilar aircraft because of an Air Force emphasis on flying safety.
An Air Force analysis (Project Red Baron II) showed that a pilot's chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had completed 10 combat missions. Red Flag was created in 1975 to offer US pilots the opportunity to fly 10 realistically-simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measurable results. Many aircrews had also fallen victim to SAMs and Red Flag exercises provided pilots experience in this regime as well.
The concept of Colonel David Burney, Colonel Richard "Moody" Suter became the driving force in its implementation, persuading Tactical Air Command commander Gen. Robert J. Dixon to adopt the program. On 1 March 1976 the 4440th Tactical Fighter Training Group (Red Flag) was chartered to conduct this mission. Red Flag is one of a series of colored "flags" providing realistic training under combat conditions, many of which are also conducted at Nellis. Black Flag is a portion of the Red Flag exercise for training ground maintenance crews under field combat conditions.
The Aggressor squadrons, the opponents who flew against the pilots undergoing training, were selected from the top fighter pilots in the Air Force. These pilots were trained to fly according to the tactical doctrines of the Soviet Union and other enemies, to better simulate what NATO pilots would encounter in real combat. The Aggressors were originally equipped with readily available T-38 Talon aircraft to simulate the MiG-21. F-5 Tiger II fighters, painted in color schemes commonly found on Soviet aircraft, were added shortly thereafter and became the mainstay until the F-16 was introduced. The 64th and 65th AGRS currently use F-16 and F-15 aircraft to emulate, respectively, the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker, and continue to be painted in their camouflage schemes.
This approach differs from that employed during the Vietnam War by the United States Navy to improve fighter aircrew performance. Rather than a large, multi-squadron exercise, the Navy established the United States Navy Fighter Weapons School (more widely known as TOPGUN) in 1969 to "train the trainers," with squadrons in the fleet selecting their best aircrew for training. Graduates returned to the fleet to share lessons learned with their fellow pilots. Navy Adversary squadrons were also established at Fighter and Attack Master jet bases (NAS Miramar, NAS Oceana and NAS Lemoore as well as NAS Key West) for fleet squadrons to conduct dissimilar air combat training as part of unit level training. These squadrons initially flew the A-4 Skyhawk. The Navy later added the F-5E to its Adversary lineup as well as the F-21 Kfir and a specially built F-16N as well as the F/A-18A. Air Wing level training analogous to Red Flag is conducted at NAS Fallon where NSAWC operates dissimilar adversary aircraft (F-16A and F/A-18A) and VFC-13 flies the F-5E.
The United States Marine Corps (USMC) conducts Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) exercises at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma twice a year as part of the WTI course conducted by MAWTS-1 and uses locally based VMFT-401, the only USMC adversary squadron. Originally equipped with the F-21 Kfir, it now operates the F-5E.