This Is What Nellis Air Force Base's Ongoing Red Flag Exercise Looks Like From Space
Red Flag is nearly half a century old and it is still the world's top air combat training event, the latest iteration of which is very exclusive.
Red Flag is traditionally the world's premier air combat exercise and it serves as the foundation of allied aerial warfare cooperation and interoperability that is absolutely crucial for fighting and winning wars in a coalition environment. Having been finely tuned and evolved over 45 years, the mother of all large force employment (LFE) drills takes place over the vast Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) complex that encompasses a massive portion of southern Nevada. The majority of the aircraft involved launch and recover at the famed Nellis Air Force Base, located at the tip of North Las Vegas. A few times a year, the base gets flooded with domestic and international flying units and from here Vegas's biggest and most expensive show is put on, albeit one that few of the strip dwellers to the south even know exists.
Red Flag, which first sprung from lessons learned during the Vietnam war, namely that if an aircrew survives their first 10 missions they are far more likely to survive their entire combat tour, is more critical now than ever before. Air combat is becoming ever more complex. Pilots will face advanced and intricate threat scenarios that often times cannot be replicated on their local training ranges. These include advanced and unfamiliar ground-based threats and a robust and highly trained aggressor force in the air, as well as complex electronic warfare tactics, and more. The Nellis range complex has evolved over the years to support these training situations and new live-virtual-constructive training is being introduced to make what can't be done on the physical range a reality, as well.
So, with all that in mind, a few times a year dozens of military aircraft and hundreds of personnel migrate to southern Nevada to attend the holy grail of air combat training. Each Red Flag is different. They are uniquely tailored both in storyline/scenario and in scope to the attending force's size, capabilities, and security concerns. Although the Red Flags that have the most diverse set of foreign and local players, and the largest armada of aircraft, get the most publicity, the smaller ones that include just America's closest allies often are the most cutting-edge in terms of new and sensitive capabilities and adversary challenges being presented during training. This is precisely the type of Red Flag that is currently underway at Nellis.
Red Flag 20-1 has been one of the least publicized Red Flags in memory. Official photos and video from the event are slim, to say the least. The only foreign flying participants are the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force—two of America's closest allies that are also customers of its most advanced military aerospace exports. This intimate, smaller, and quieter Red Flag allows for a level of training and advanced tactics and capabilities integration not possible when lesser allies are present.
Just three official images of participating aircraft at Nellis have been posted from Red Flag 20-1, although more may appear now that the second half of the exercise is underway:
The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has brought their F/A-18F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers, and E-7 Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft. The Royal Air Force has brought their Typhoon FGR4s, F-35B Lightnings, and an A330 Voyager Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). The Air Force has a variety of aircraft playing a part as usual, including F-35s, F-16Cs, B-1Bs, RC-135Vs, E-3Gs, EA-18Gs, EC-130H, HH-60Gs, and HC-130Js.
Here is a list based on a few combined sources of the players at Red Flag 20-1:
- 1 Squadron, RAAF - F/A-18F
- 6 Squadron RAAF - EA-18G
- 2 Squadron RAAF - E-7A
- 101 Squadron RAF - A330 MRTT
- 41 Squadron RAF - Typhoon FGR4
- 617 Squadron RAF - F-35B
- 421st Fighter Squadron - F-35A
- 119th Fighter Squadron - F-16C
- VAQ 135 - EA-18G
- 37th Bomb Squadron - B-1B
- 343rd Reconnaissance Squadron - RC-135V
- 41st Electronic Combat Squadron - EC-130H
- 960th Airborne Air Control Squadron - E-3G
- 66th Rescue Squadron - HH-60G
- 79th Rescue Squadron - HC-130J
- 64th Aggressor Squadron - F-16C/D
- Draken International Aggressors- A-4K, L-159/39
You will note how heavily electronic warfare (EW) is playing a role in this Red Flag iteration, with Navy and RAAF Growlers involved, as well as an EC-130H Compass Call. The F-35 also possesses one of the most capable electronic warfare suites on the planet. EW is one of the most sensitive capabilities the U.S. and its allies possess. Being able to more freely apply it during a Red Flag with no other international players opens the door to bringing the latest and greatest EW capabilities to the forefront of the mock air war, both in terms of the 'blue force' allies and the 'red force' bad guys. Also note, these are the aircraft we know about flying from Nellis. Other assets will be brought in from remote locations, some of which may be entirely classified, or at least not disclosed, in nature, as well as the electronic warfare capabilities deployed on the range itself.
There is also one other aircraft that has arrived ahead of Red Flag that is totally new to the Nellis ramp—Draken International's refurbished and upgraded Mirage F-1s. The first example is now at the base, although it is unclear if it is participating in Red Flag 20-1. You can read more about these advanced aggressors in these past posts of ours linked here and here.
With all that being said, you can take a look at what Nellis AFB looks like from space during such an operation. The images below, which are from of larger exclusive satellite image obtained by The War Zone that you can download in full resolution here (not for distribution). Here is a lower resolution version of it:
The southern end of the western ramp is where the majority of the international and visiting tactical jet players are parked. F-35s, F/A-18Fs, EA-18Gs, Typhoon FGR4s, and F-16s are seen lined up awaiting Monday's next Red Flag mission.
No Red Flag aircraft are visible just to the north of the last area and the image is a bit misleading as the sunshade structures that now cover large portions of the ramp at Nellis keep the fighters sitting idle below out of view. Resident F-22s, F-15s, and F-35s all live in this section of the base. Just three F-15s are seen. Also visible to the far left in the image is the famous Nellis Threat Training Facility, better known as the "Petting Zoo."
Farther to the north on the main ramp, we see Draken's impressive and growing fleet of contractor adversary support aircraft. Seven A-4s, 10 L-159/L-39s, and the first Mirage F-1 advanced aggressor to arrive at the base are visible. These aircraft are essential to bolstering the resident 64th Aggressor Squadron's "red air" ranks in order to challenge 5th generation fighters like the F-35 and F-22, and those 4th generation fighters equipped with AESA radar systems. You can and should watch a clip of how aircraft like the F-22 run these jets down on the NTTR by clicking here.
The Air Force is investing in the private aggressor support big time, with seven companies being tapped recently to provide these services all over the U.S. and beyond. Still, Nellis has been the proving ground for this concept as the USAF is years behind the Navy in adopting it. As such, the Nellis ramp will become increasingly crowded with these 'adversaries for hire' in the years to come.
In addition to Draken's lineup, a special operations/combat search and rescue HC-130J is seen next to the RAAF's E-7A Wedgetail. The E-7A is among if not the most advanced AEW&C aircraft in the world and is part of Australia's deep investment in electronic surveillance and electronic warfare aircraft as of late.
Farther north, the Thunderbirds hangar is seen with their gleaming white Block 52 Vipers sitting neatly lined-up out front. The team is currently undergoing winter training in preparation for its upcoming show season. Next to them is the 64th Aggressor Squadron ramp where the base's resident flying adversary unit keeps its eclectically painted F-16C/Ds. The unit will be joined by its reactivated sister squadron, the 65th Aggressor Squadron, flying F-35s in the aggressor role in just a couple of year's time. More resident F-16s are based just to the north.
At the northern end of the main ramp, a pair of E-3G Sentry airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft are seen, along with another HC-130J Combat King II and a single EC-130H Compass Call electronic warfare variant of the Hercules. The resident HH-60G Pave Hawk squadron is located in their own ramp just north of that.
The northern portion of the east ramp is where the heavy bombers are parked. In this case, five B-1B Bones. A single RC-135V Rivet Joint electronic intelligence aircraft—like the E-3Gs, a staple of Red Flag exercises—is also present.
On the central annex portion of the east ramp at Nellis is where the A-10s usually live, as is seen below. These aircraft were not taking part in Red Flag. The base supports a wide range of missions, from tactics development to the vaunted Weapons School, and more. Flying operations that are not part of Red Flag occur around the two mass launches and recoveries that happen each weekday for the duration of the exercise, which occur usually mid-day and well after sunset.
The southern extension of the east ramp area is fairly sparsely populated, with a single RAF A330 Voyager MRTT and three pairs of F-16s.
So, there you have it, a snapshot in time taken from space of what America's premier air combat base looks like during Red Flag, and a relatively unique one at that. The exercise and its Alaskan spin-off, are truly national treasures and remain the most accurate living example of the old adage "train as you fight and fight as you train."
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com