Mysterious Exercise Off Baja Brought Nellis AFB, USS Nimitz Aircraft Together

A unique gathering of military jets occurred off Baja Monday night, providing what could be a glimpse of future advanced air combat training.

byJoseph Trevithick, Tyler Rogoway| PUBLISHED Jun 8, 2022 4:20 PM
Mysterious Exercise Off Baja Brought Nellis AFB, USS Nimitz Aircraft Together
Tankers off southern california with USS Nimitz. ADSBexchange.com
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An unusually large gathering of U.S. Air Force aircraft off the coast of Mexico's Baja Peninsula caught our eye on flight tracking software Monday night. The exact purpose of these flights, which included a B-1B bomber, an E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning And Control System radar aircraft, and a mixture of KC-707, K-135R, KC-10A, and KC-46A aerial refueling tankers, are unclear. However, this is an area where the U.S. Navy often conducts exercises, including complex pre-deployment workups for carrier and amphibious strike groups. You can get an idea of what that type of activity usually looks like in this past piece of ours. In addition, satellite imagery showed what was likely the USS Nimitz sailing in this same general area on Monday. All told, this very well could be a glimpse of what's to come in regards to cross-service integrated air and naval combat training, especially the kind focused on countering the growing threat from China.

The aircraft in question began to coalesce in the airspace over the Pacific Ocean off Baja between 8:30 and 9:00 PM local time on Monday night. The last of them similarly began to depart the area between around 11:00 PM and 12:00 AM on Tuesday morning. Keep in mind that while tanker aircraft executing non-combat missions are often trackable using flight tracking software, tactical jets and bombers most often are not. The sheer number of tankers packed into that airspace is far larger than we have ever seen. It is pretty safe to say that the airspace was filled with combat jets as well, beyond the Nimitz's air wing. Usually, air wing workups are supported by a contractor-owned and operated KC-707 from Omega Air Refueling and an Air Force tanker or two, if even that. Needless to say, this was a very peculiar and large operation that also included an E-3.

A view of the density of air activity off the coast of Mexico's Baja California Peninsula as visible through online flight tracking software at around 10:15 PM local time on June 6. The dotted lines represent periods of incomplete data and do not reflect actual routes taken by any of the aircraft. ADS-B Exchange

"At the very least, the openness of the B-1 involved (at least one) is certainly unusual, but the number of tankers at the same time suggests there was perhaps several [bombers], or perhaps [that they were] providing service to a number of fighters that we wouldn't be able to track so easily," open-source flight tracker Evergreen Intel told The War Zone. "There was at least one F-35 using the typical default hex code, but that is not terribly surprising considering the squadrons at San Diego."

Evergreen Intel put together a full list of aircraft that were visible flying in the area through the tracking data, which is as follows:

  • B-1B, serial number 86-0127
  • E-3, serial number 75-0558
  • KC-135R, serial number 58-0016
  • KC-135R, serial number 58-0085
  • KC-135R, serial number 61-0267
  • KC-135R, serial number 61-0308
  • KC-10A, serial number 84-0185
  • KC-46A, serial number 18-46045
  • Omega Air Refueling KC-707, N707MQ

Based on the available flight tracking data, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that was also spotted heading toward the area was an Air Force A variant flying out of Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.

The Air Force F-35A's involvement, as well as other fighter aircraft flying from Nellis that were likely untrackable, would make sense. Two of the four KC-135Rs, the KC-46A, the B-1B, and the E-3 all flew their sorties from that base, as well.

Another KC-135R, along with Omega's KC-707, operated from March Air Reserve Base in California. This particular KC-135R was tracked conducting a separate sortie yesterday that saw it fly a racetrack orbit to the west of Lake Havasu, before it then returned to base and then departed again to join the other aircraft over the Pacific. It's unclear whether the earlier flight, which could have involved supporting fighter jets out of Luke Air Force Base in neighboring Arizona, which often fly over the Lake Havasu area, was related in any way to the activity off Baja.

Online flight tracking data showing KC-135R, serial number 58-0085, flying an orbit west of Lake Havasu on a separate mission on June 6 prior to its flight over the eastern Pacific.

The remaining KC-135R flew all the way in from Washington State's Fairchild Air Force Base. The available tracking data for the KC-10A is more limited, but it almost certainly came from Travis Air Force Base in California, the Air Force's hub for this type of tanker on the West Coast.

A zoomed-out view showing the full tracks of all of the aircraft in question on the night of May 6-7. ADS-B Exchange

We can't say with absolute certainty why these aircraft were all in this area at once, but this particular area is where the Navy regularly conducts various aircraft carrier-focused training, including Composite Unit Training Exercises (COMPTUEX) for strike groups that are about to deploy. COMPTUEX's are centered on demonstrating the ability of the entire strike group to work as an integrated team and are particularly focused on stress-testing defenses against various threats. They can involve Air Force planes, as well as contractor-operated jets acting as surrogates for enemy aircraft and cruise missiles, as you can read more about here.

These highly complex training events have rapidly grown in complexity in recent months and years as the threat from China continues to evolve. They now include incorporating non-traditional capabilities, such as USAF F-117s, as well as more assets of varying abilities, into their training evolutions. As we mentioned earlier, COMPTUEX is a capstone event for carrier groups about to deploy, but there are many other exercises that lead up to it or are part of other drills altogether.

A carrier was certainly in the area, one packed with aircraft. The supercarrier USS Nimitz was spotted leaving San Diego on June 6, with what appeared to be a full carrier air wing visible on its deck, after having arrived there on May 31.

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs also showed a carrier sailing off the coast of Baja later that day. Evergreen Intel told The War Zone that the only military vessels in the area at the same time as the flurry of aerial activity that were visible through online ship tracking software were the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Frank Petersen and the Bob Hope class logistics vessel USNS Pililaau. It is normal for U.S. carriers, as well as other Navy warships, to not broadcast their location during training in the range areas off Southern California.

Nimitz, which is homeported in Washington State, is expected to head out for its latest routine cruise in December, according to a USNI News update in May that stated:

The Nimitz Carrier Strike Group is underway in the Southern California Operating areas. USS Nimitz (CVN-68) is conducting a Tailored Ship’s Training Availability and Final Evaluation Problems (TSTA/FEP). TSTA prepares the ship and crew for full integration into a carrier strike group through a wide range of mission-critical operations. The Nimitz CSG is expected to deploy in December, USNI News understands.

Neither of USNI News' two subsequent fleet tracking updates, which focus heavily on where Navy carriers are and what they are doing, that have been published in June so far include any information about Nimitz.

The War Zone has reached out to the U.S. Navy for more information.

It's very possible that the Air Force aircraft tracked flying in this area overnight, and many more that were not tracked and would require that level of tanker support — significantly more than what is commonly used during Red Flag aerial wargames — were conducting sorties that were in some way related to the Air Force Weapons School's latest integration exercise, or WSINT. The Weapon School is located at Nellis, and WSINT 22A began in late May and was still going on at least as of late last week.

WSINTs, which take place twice a year, are advanced large-scale exercises that serve as capstones for various classes at the Weapons School and that also often involve forces from other services. They primarily take place within the confines of the sprawling Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR) that sits adjacent to Nellis. Interestingly, the two KC-135Rs that were part of the gathering over the Pacific subsequently took up stations to the east and west of the NTTR yesterday.

Online flight tracking data showing two of the four KC-135Rs that had been flying out over the eastern Pacific on the night of June 6-7 subsequently on station to the west and the east of the NTTR. The B-1B bomber and the KC-46A tanker that were tracked off of Baja are also visible here to east of the NTTR, but the data is incomplete and we cannot tell exactly where they were flying at the time.

Like COMPTUEXs, WSINTs have become increasingly complex with the integration of new assets and capabilities in recent years. Combining a major WSINT training evolution with Nimitz's training in the vast range complex off Southern California would be an incredible opportunity for all involved and is highly representative of future combat environments.

The threat from China is largely arrayed around maritime combat environments. The Air Force is spinning up its own training and capability set to better fight over the vast expanse of the Pacific and the littoral environments that are very much a part of it. The landlocked Nevada Test and Training Range has its limitations, especially in regards to simulating maritime combat training, so executing a longer-range and highly complex mission working with or even against a carrier strike group would be massively valuable. China is about to launch its third carrier which will be far more capable than the two that preceded it. So, having an integrated force actually training against a carrier group that is simulating Chinese tactics would be a huge leap in combat training fidelity.

Regardless of whether this was training with or against the Nimitz and her air wing and escorts, it seems we got a glimpse of what's to come in terms of high-end integrated air combat training. It's also worth noting that the SOCAL range complex is a large and desolate area where capabilities and tactics can be put to use that overland ranges, such as those in southern Nevada, can not support.

A map of the SOCAL complex and the other ranges that sit off the west coast.

We have also seen the expansion and blending of major air combat exercises separated by long distances before. This is a major trend that is suited for better simulating the complex kill chains and long distances that will be staples of a conflict in the Pacific. So this makes sense, as well.

Finally, it is of course possible that these flights were tied to other U.S. military training or test activities, which are regular occurrences off the coast of southern California and the Baja Peninsula. But the scope of the event and the clear involvement of Nellis points strongly to a larger objective.

The War Zone has also reached out to the U.S. Air Force for more information on its involvement in this unique event.

Whatever the case, just from what was visible through online flight tracking software, which represents just a small portion of the total aircraft involved, the skies over the Pacific just off the coast of Baja appear to have been packed with U.S. military aircraft on the night of June 6-7, maybe even to an unprecedented degree.

UPDATE: 6:15 PM EST —

Nellis Air Force Base's public affairs office has now confirmed that The War Zone's analysis of the most likely explanation for the recent flurry of aerial activity over the SOCAL range complex was entirely correct. The full statement we received from Nellis is as follows:

The aircraft were participating in a U.S. Air Force Weapons School Integration vul [evolution] with our Navy partners, simulating high-end threat scenarios the USAFWS [U.S. Air Force Weapons School] and 57th Wing build to replicate challenges and prepare joint warfighters to prevail in conflict with pacing competitors.

Contact the author: Joe@thedrive.com and Tyler@thedrive.com

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