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Home on the range

Mark Rouse reviews this year's Red Flag 07/2 exercise, held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. Pictures by the author and Glenn Beasley

February 2007 gave me my first taste of photography in the United States - I travelled out with the Cottesmore Aviation Group on its 'West Coast tour', during which was a visit to what has to be a highlight for any aviation photographer, Nellis, home of the 'Red Flag' exercise. Nellis, for anyone who's not been, is located approximately eight miles north-east of downtown Las Vegas, covering around 14,000 acres of land. Nellis and the Nevada test and training range cover the topside of 4,800 square miles, with an additional 10,000 square miles of airspace to the north and east available for military flight operations. There are currently over 12,000-plus employees on Nellis, being a mix of military and civilian, making it one of the largest single employers in southern Nevada.

Red Flag is an advanced aerial combat training exercise that takes place for the duration of six weeks in four to six cycles a year, hosted by the 414th Combat Training Squadron of the 57th Fighter Wing. The purpose of these exercises is to train pilots of the US, NATO and other allied nations in how to handle real combat situations, including the use of enemy hardware and live bombing missions on the Nellis ranges.

In a typical Red Flag exercise, 'Blue' forces (friendly) engage 'Red' forces (hostile) in as near realistic combat situations as possible. Blue forces are made up of branches of the United States Armed Forces (Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army) as well as the Canadian Air Force, Royal Air Force and others. Red Forces are composed of the 57th Fighter Wing's 57th Adversary Tactics Group, flying F-16s (64th Aggressor Squadron) and F-15s (65th Aggressor Squadron) to emulate the opposition's tactics, augmented by US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps assets.

The role of the Blue forces is to attack the areas defended by the Red forces; the Blue aircraft typically depart Nellis towards the desert making use of its twin runways regardless of wind direction to avoid flying over residential areas to the south of the base with live weapons. If the aircraft are non-Red Flag then they do often take off from both ends, using both runways, creating fun and games for the photographer!

Once airborne the Red forces will often transit to the west of the range to the Tolicha Peak area, whereas the Blue forces start in the east over Delamar dry lake. The objective is to attack the targets in ranges 74, 75 and 76 south-east of the Tonopah test range, which would typically include mock airfields with airfield defences (anti-aircraft and SAM sites), vehicle convoys, tanks, moving trains, parked aircraft, bunkered defensive positions, command posts and missile sites.

The aim of the Red force is to prevent the Blue attacking forces reaching their targets, so the attackers are engaged over the ranges. In later stages of the exercise some of the Red forces do depart later to bounce the Blue Forces returning from their attack missions, just to add that bit more realism. Then it's recover to Nellis for a debrief.

Colonial cousins

Each of the attack missions is tracked by a series of cameras on the range that are there to track the aircraft as they go through on their target runs. Also, every aircraft carries an AIS pod, which is used on most ACMI ranges, here to relay information to the specially designed Nellis Air Combat Training System (NACTS) that in turn is able to simultaneously track up to one hundred aircraft whilst providing up to seventy-five surface to air missile launcher threats - this all helps greatly in finding out what happened to who in the heat of battle.

Red flag 07-2 included more than two hundred aircraft - as well as the US aircraft such as F-15, F-16, F-117, F-22, B-2, A-10, EA-6B, E-3, J-STARS, RC-135, KC-135, C-130 and Predator, foreign participating came from the Royal Air Force (Tornado GR4s) and the Royal Australian Air Force (F-111C Aardvarks). This year's Red Flag received the nickname 'Colonial Flag' because of the United States and Australia once being colonies of the United Kingdom.

This Red Flag was the first time the US F/A-22A Raptor had taken part in the exercise, the 94th FS from Langley AFB deployed fourteen aircraft and around two hundred airmen to support its participation in the exercise. The main role for the F-22 in the exercise was air-to-air, but it did perform air-to-ground missions alongside its sister stealths, the B-2 and F-117.

In the air-to-air role it's believed to have performed very well, with 65th Aggressor Squadron exchange pilot Squadron Leader Stephen Chappell saying "The thing denies you the ability to put a weapons system on it, even when you can see it though the canopy - it's the most frustrated I've ever been!"

The RAAF attracted a lot of attention turning up with six F-111Cs from 1 Squadron, based at Amberley. It was a real pleasure for me to photograph this beautiful plane, which I have great memories of from when USAFE used these right into the mid-90s. With the RAAF being the only operator of this aircraft now, it was a very rare opportunity to photograph it so close. The F-111 still provides the RAAF with a potent strike aircraft, but with rumours of the withdrawal date being as soon as 2009 or even before this may have been one of the last chances to photograph the 'Aardvark' at Red Flag.

I would like to thank our hosts Capt Justin Mcvay, Mike Estrada and Lt Randi Norton for all their kind help and co-operation in making this all happen; also to Flight Lieutenant Lauretta Webster ACG PAO of RAAF for making every thing happen with 1 Squadron, and of course not forgetting the Cottesmore Aviation Group for a great West Coast Tour.

 

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