January 2008 gave Mark Rouse another taste of photography in the States, a visit to what has to be a highlight for any aviation photographer; Nellis, home of 'Red Flag'
Nellis, for anyone who's not been, is located approximately eight miles north-east of downtown Las Vegas, occupying 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 employees on base, due to it 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 four to six cycles a year, each a duration of six weeks. 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 Armed Forces, Royal Air Force and other allied forces.
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, the Red forces being augmented by USAF, Navy and Marine Corps aircraft.
The role of the Blue forces is to attack the areas defended by the Red forces; the aircraft of the Blue forces typically depart Nellis towards the desert, making use of its twin runways regardless of wind direction - this is 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, again making it '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 Blues 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 Red forces' aim 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. Each of the attack missions is tracked by a series of cameras on the range as the aircraft go through on their target runs - also every aircraft carries an AIS pod, used on most ACMI ranges, to relay information to the specially-designed Nellis Air Combat Training System (NACTS), which in turn is able to simultaneously track up to a hundred aircraft whilst providing up to seventy-five face-to-air missile launcher threats. This all helps greatly in finding out what happened to whom in the heat of battle.
'Red Flag 08-02' included more than a hundred aircraft, including F-15s, F-16s, F-22s, B-1Bs, A-10s, EA-6Bs, E-3s, JSTARs, KC-135s, C-130s and Predators - also running at the same time was a 'Green Flag' exercise, which was previously known as 'Air Warrior', an electronic warfare exercise that has now been integrated into 'Red Flag'.
The new 'Green Flag' is geared toward the current ground fight, focussing on Air Force partnership with the ground forces. 'Green Flag' exercises are split into east and west Flags (east at Barksdale and the west at Nellis) - in the past, 'Air Warrior' focussed on traditional Close Air Support missions, but with the current situation in deployed areas air support is being called upon to support a broad range of missions in irregular environments. With the west coast Flag air operation out of Nellis, the army ground forces deploy to the National Training Centre at Fort Irwin.
'Green Flag' occurs approximately ten times per year, and during each exercise more than 5,000 army troops and joint terminal attack controllers will practice in the Californian desert - multiple aircraft will be involved, including A-10s, FD-16s, F-15Es, F-18s, AV-8s, B-1s, B-52s, P-3s, E-8s and MQ-1 Predators, as well as partner forces; RAF Harriers and Tornados, French Air Force Mirage 2000s and tanker support from USAF KC-135s and KC-10s.
One of the units taking part in January was the 174th TFW from the Air National Guard flying F-16s - this was to be its last 'Green Flag' as the unit is converting to UAVs.
The author would like to thank his hosts, Mike Estrada PAO and his team, for all their kind help and co-operation in the making of this article.