What Happens in Vegas...May Save Lives: Realistic Training Reduces Combat Aviator Losses

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Beth Holliker
  • 180th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
July 13, 2009 marked the beginning of another Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nev., the first in over five years for the 180th Fighter Wing. 

The 180th Fighter Wing participated in this exercise specifically to keep pilots proficient in air combat maneuvers in-between real world combat deployments. 

Known as the world's most realistic combat training environment, Red Flag was developed in 1975 to maximize the combat readiness and survivability of those who participate in this intense training exercise. Red Flag was created in response to the increased number of combat aviator losses during the Vietnam War. 

"Data indicated that most of the losses occurred during a pilot's first 10 combat missions," said Lt. Col. Scott Reed, 112th Squadron Commander, "Red Flag provides realistic combat training and enables young pilots to gain the experience of their first 10 'combat' missions." 

To make this exercise as realistic as possible, units from all branches of the service in the United States and allied countries traveled to the Nellis Range Complex to take part in this mock war, which covers 15 thousand square miles of airspace and over three million acres of restricted land. This large area allows for these units, considered "Blue" or friendly forces, to engage the "Red" or hostile forces in carefully conducted large scale combat training scenarios. 

Red Forces are made up of the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons located at Nellis AFB and are trained specifically to provide realistic air threats and opposition tactics. These pilots, flying F-15 Eagles and F-16 Falcons, are among the best in the Air Force and have been trained to emulate tactics of past enemies, such as the former Soviet Union. 

Maj. John Silance, an F-16 pilot here at the 180th, spent two and a half years as an aggressor at Red Flag before transferring to the 180th. "In order to be an aggressor, you were required to be an instructor pilot in your fighter aircraft," said Silance. "Once accepted to the aggressors, you went through a training program much like every major weapons system in order to be qualified as a flight lead, MiG 01, which is the equivalent to mission commander, and then finally an aggressor instructor." 

A typical day at Red Flag consisted of one afternoon and one night-time mission. Preparing for each mission involved about eight hours of planning and briefings the day prior with other units included in the aviation package for that mission. The day of the mission often lasted 12 hours from pre mission briefing, flying and debriefing. 

"Our 'night' crews usually saw the sun rise on their way home from work," commented Reed. 

For this exercise, the 180th typically flew in a four ship formation performing air interdiction missions targeting simulated air defense systems totaling 84 combat sorties and 133.8 flying hours. These four ship formations were part of a larger aviation package consisting of 12 F-15 Eagles, eight block-50 F-16 Falcons, and 10 Israeli F-16's. 

"Our pilots trained in the most intense, realistic combat training exercise in the world," said Reed. "The experience of integrating many different aircraft with a variety of capabilities gave us invaluable insight into fighting in a high threat environment." 

Throughout this two week war, several of the 180th's senior pilots had the experience of acting as mission commanders. As mission commanders, these pilots were responsible for the overall execution of the mission and up to 50 aircraft from different service and nationalities. 

At Red Flag, 180th pilots had the chance to be exposed to a variety of mission types from interdiction, attack and air superiority to defense suppression, airlift, air refueling and reconnaissance in an environment that is more intense than current combat operations around the world. 

"As part of the Red Flag package, you get to experience the multiple different aspects a strike large force employment exercise that you don't necessarily get to see from the Red Air side," said Silance. "Red Flag allows for training that cannot be gained anywhere else; professional adversaries, surface to air missile replicators, and the capability to truly understand how to employ inside a 50 plus aircraft package. 

When asked if the 180th would participate in other Red Flag exercises in the future, Lt. Col. Reed responded by saying, "We schedule Red Flag every few years to provide large force training to our pilots and specifically to our younger pilots in order to give them their first 10 'combat' missions before the real bullets start flying. The value of learning to operate and survive in this hostile environment is priceless and cannot be duplicated anywhere else in the world."
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