Alaska’s strategic value to the United States lies not only in its location and natural resources. The largest and most sparsely populated state plays a vital role in providing warfighter training for the United States and its allies, under the banner of a large force exercise known as Red Flag-Alaska (RF-A).
Occurring three to four times each year, the first iteration of FY17 was held from October 7-21. Conducted under the auspices of the Commander, Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), the exercise included assets and personnel from the United States, Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF).
Red Flag-Alaska Roots
Initially known as Cope Thunder, Red Flag-Alaska traces its roots to the now-closed Clark Air Base in the Philippines, where the large force exercise attracted participants from within PACAF and other partner nations. With the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, a nearby volcano, Clark was suddenly evacuated and abandoned and Cope Thunder was moved to Eielson AFB in Alaska.
In 2006, the exercise was renamed Red Flag-Alaska, and still caters largely to PACAF units and Pacific partner nations as a closer alternative to Red Flags at Nellis AFB in Nevada. Additionally, numerous other allies have participated in RF-A exercises, including a notable appearance by the Indian Air Force earlier in 2016.
Where is Red Flag-Alaska?
RF-A participants are normally split between Eielson AFB outside of Fairbanks in the Alaskan interior, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) adjacent to Anchorage in south-central Alaska.
Though geographically separated by approximately 250 miles, assets from the two bases converge in the airspace, and personnel connect through secure teleconferencing for mass briefing and debriefing. For 17-1, the Command and Control and the Mobility Air Forces (MAF) assets staged from JBER, while Eielson Air Force Base hosted air refueling as well as fighter units.
Period 17-1 featured the largest airlift contingent of any RF-A this year, with no less than 10 tactical airlifters from the US, ROKAF, and RNZAF. The airlifters were flying from JBER and conducting a wide variety of paratrooper and cargo drops throughout the exercise.
The C-17s and C-130s were escorted by 44th Fighter Squadron (FS) F-15Cs and ROKAF F-15Ks from the 11th Fighter Wing (FW) at Daegu, flying from Eielson. Also at Eielson were 36th FS F-16CMs and 25th FS A-10Cs from Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. F/A-18 Hornets from VMFA-232 were the lone fighter unit from the lower 48 states.
The twice-daily vulnerability periods (VULs) played out on the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, or JPARC, which offers an astonishing 67,000 square miles of airspace. Compare this to the Nellis Test and Training Range, which comprises 12,000 square miles. The JPARC is easily considered a national strategic asset, offering an unparalleled training environment, especially for units such as the 36th FS.
The “Flying Fiends” deployed 12 jets to Eielson, and enjoyed the extra airspace of the JPARC to employ their block 40 Vipers in a more realistic environment, compared to their home station operations.
“While the airspace back home in Korea is pretty good, the airspace here in Alaska is freeing,” says Lieutenant Colonel Mike McCarthy, 36th Fighter Squadron commander.
For the 36FS at home on the Korean peninsula, the airspace is much more restrictive in both size and capability, so training on the JPARC allows the Fiends to “Focus on things in the planning process and execution that are more important, such as being in a particular position in relation to the threat – be it enemy airfields, SAMs, etc., as opposed to having to work to tailor the scenarios based on airspace constraints.”
“The constraining factor should be the enemy force and the environment, not artificialities of airspace. For this training deployment, we got to spend time on things that we think are important, like getting in the books, mission planning, and executing to a very high level and thorough debriefing. It’s the same with the airspace: we get to choose where we fly, at what altitudes, and positions in relation to the threats that are important for tactical execution.”
What Do the Pilots Think of Red Flag-Alaska?
Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Hicock, 51st Operations Support Squadron commander adds, “Sometimes in Korea, you’ll get only 36 minutes in the airspace, so you’re leaving sooner than you normally would. But here you’re planning more to your mission limitations as far as air refueling assets, on station time, or weapons states. We touch on that a little bit at home in Korea, but not to the full development like we do here during Red Flag.”
“For example, say you get to the end of your mission here, and while egressing one of the aggressors just came off the tanker and is supersonic trying to chase you down, and the question you’re asking yourself is, ‘Do I have the gas to go supersonic on the egress and void them or do I have to turn around and fight, or get them to turn around?’”
“Those are the planning considerations you can’t necessarily get in constrained airspaces like what we’re used to back home in Korea, but allows us to train for more realistic scenarios.”
The vast expanse of the JPARC allows aircrews to employ their aircraft ostensibly without restriction. But the size of the airspace alone also presents a considerable challenge.
“There is a substantial time and distance problem,” says Captain Ravi Surdhar of the 36th FS. “In some scenarios, we have the airlift guys from JBER doing 200 knots and they have to go 100 miles to get to the drop zone, then egress 40 miles to the north out of the ‘hostile’ airspace.”
“So the problem becomes, how do you get eight F-15Cs, four F-15Ks, and eight F-16s to hold down the fort during a one hour 20 minutes VUL to ensure the Mobility Air Forces [MAF] assets get to the target, do their drop, and safely egress?”
“How do you protect someone that is going much lower and slower than us when we don’t really know where they are, they can’t defend themselves, and they don’t know what’s happening above them? Most of us initially thought MAF escort would not be as much fun as doing a dedicated SEAD mission, but it’s a hard problem and has been a real challenge.”
An added consideration is the varying terrain throughout the JPARC, from mountain peaks in the 14,000-foot range to featureless, low-lying flatlands. For the 44th Fighter Squadron, the Alaskan landscape contrasts starkly with the routine overwater flying during home station operations out of Kadena Air Base, Japan.
“The fight we would likely face in the Pacific theater is going to be in the mountains, and back home when flying on a daily basis we’re always over water,” says Captain Jillian Morris.
“It’s a huge deal to have to think about the terrain, not only in mission planning but also in the air, how you’re going to work your radar to overcome that obstacle. So coming out here to Red Flag is a fantastic opportunity to see threats being presented, the landscape, and how we’re going to work around that and fight.”
First Lieutenant Robert Oehmke, a new wingman at the 44th FS, echoes the importance of capitalizing on the variety of training opportunities offered in Alaska.
“One of the things we Bats have been lacking is low altitude training using terrain masking. Getting over here to Alaska was a unique way for us to actually get the experience of flying very low, and it’s a bit of training we need since virtually all our pilots have not seen that environment recently. It’s hard to get a good sense of speed up at altitude when you and your flight lead are both doing Mach 1.2, but that changes when you’re in a valley with mountains on either side of you.”
The JPARC also features over 500 targets and 45 threat simulators, but the adversarial picture during Red Flag-Alaska is not limited to the ground. An essential piece of the red force is the 18th Aggressor Squadron.
The “Blue Foxes” are based at Eielson and fly camouflaged block 30 F-16C/D+s. They are charged with providing realistic aerial threat replication, and when combined with the ground-based threats, the 18th AGRS offers a robust, challenging opposition force to the visiting “blue” side.
Major Clinton Garrett of the 18th AGRS explains the role of the red force:
“We intentionally make the scenarios very tough. They are manageable, based on the resources and assets they have. However, they are meant to be a challenge and force the blue side to think through and process problems, and come to a conclusion that will result in mission success…”
“We’ll change the threat replication based on the Desired Learning Objectives [DLOs] and the direction they want us to go. The 353d Combat Training Squadron (CTS) acts as the white force and manages the scenario, whereas the 18th is the red force.”
“As an airboss right now, I am working primarily for the CTS, so I coordinate between the lead Aggressor, MIG 1, who does the air planning, and SAM 1, who typically works with the CTS and is tasked with ground threat replication. Together we try to make sure all the DLOs are met to ensure quality training.”
Colonel Larry Card, 51st Operations Group commander, served as the deployed forces commander for 17-1 and took on administrative responsibility for all the deployed airmen as well as an active role in both the planning and real-time execution of the mission.
Card, or his deputy, approve the blue plan in advance of the VUL, and his role during the mission is a conduit between white and blue. He maintains the ability to have an active hand during the mission execution, such as dialing back the red air re-generations if needed to ensure that objectives are met.
Finding that balance is no easy feat, however, as Col Card explains. “The last time we were here, what we were finding is that F-16s were going out with a plan to drop bombs, but they were getting caught up in the air-to-air plan and coming home without dropping or simulating the drop of any of their ordnance.”
“If all we did was go up and fight red air and come back with a bomb on the jet and no targets getting hit, then there was no real reason to go out in the first place.”
Due to commitments and the required readiness posture on the Korean peninsula, deploying assets and personnel from Osan to Alaska for Red Flag assumes some risk, but, “This training is immeasurable,” says Col Card.
Compared to other fighter wings in the CAF, the 51st FW does not conduct regular combat deployments. Therefore, exercising the logistics and the system of deploying is also important, he offers, especially since, “We don’t train to deploy to the same level that we train to fight.”
Although the 51st FW regularly conducts “Buddy Wing” exercises with its ROKAF partners, Red Flag-Alaska offers a wholly new level of integration that is vital to ensuring both PACAF and ROKAF units maintain a combat ready posture at home in Korea.
“We have to get here,” says Lt Col McCarthy. “We are supposed to maintain the ‘fight tonight’ readiness, and it’s important to get the warfighters to the place where we can get that training. That’s also important for our Korean partners and our alliance. Bringing them along with us is vital for our combined training so that we can work together in this environment.”
Red Flag-Alaska For the Wingman
The Red Flag and Cope Thunder exercises were spurred on from lessons learned during the Vietnam War, and the original goal was to simulate the first 10 combat missions to prevent losses.
Though the scope and capability of Red Flag has changed dramatically since the original exercise over 40 years ago, the overall goal of delivering the first ‘combat’ experience remains. This is especially important for new wingmen arriving to their first operational squadron, as the experience gained from Red Flag is invaluable to their development and, in all likelihood, their chances of survivability in the tactical realm.
“We’re flying our wingmen aggressively during 17-1,” explains Lieutenant Colonel Alex Haddad, Chief of Standards and Evaluation at the 44th Fighter Squadron. “Most of our guys have had seven or eight, some even nine sorties out of this flag, so they’ve gotten great exposure to the Large Force Exercise construct so that hopefully we can increase their survivability out in a real-world scenario.”
“The younger guys in the squadron are already good, and we’re focusing especially on what they need to bring them up to the Eagle standard. This is high-end training for them, and it exposes them to things they haven’t thought about or seen in the past, such as surface to air threats like SAMs, heavy jamming, and denied environments, and an aggressor force that is extremely good at what they do.”
1st Lt Oehmke adds that, “Being a new wingman has provided me the opportunity to fly a lot up here and flex that muscle. We fly so much that you initially see a plan that seems complicated, but it starts to become clearer the more you see it.”
‘I’ve been flying so often that I’ve seen similar scenarios from differing mission commanders solving essentially the same problem, just in a different way. Facing the aggressors is especially impressive. They show us stuff that I’ve never seen before as a wingman, and that gets me thinking outside of my F-15C escort comfort bubble about what’s going on out there.”
Though it’s mostly a job for the mission commander and flight leads the day prior to flying, the newer wingmen still play a role in the mission planning process, with work days lasting up to 12 hours.
“I knew it was going to involve a lot of mission prep,” says 1st Lt Shannon Smith of the 25th FS, “but I didn’t realize just how much until we got here. It takes a lot of work, but it’s awesome to see the final product at execution time.”
“The communication is really intense and can’t be replicated anywhere else, along with people working in real time and seeing people integrate and execute in a timely manner… We come from various facets of the fighter community and bring something different to the table, and that has an affect on the primary focus of the mission that day.”
Planning, integrating and executing are ultimate goals of the Red Flag-Alaska exercises. But what happens when the mission doesn’t go according to plan?
An ultimate and lasting objective of Red Flag-Alaska is the ability to develop a resilient mission plan that affords flexibility. That takes a mindset shift, and breaking down paradigms is an integral part of the Red Flag experience, according to Lt Col McCarthy.
“We have the expectations of what will happen in the real world. and the truth is it will never happen like you expect it would. This is all about new situations you didn’t expect and working through them.”
“I’ve seen folks multi-task better, I’ve seen their threshold limit for the amount of stress and pressure that they can work through is higher. Our tactical execution is a significant step above where it was two weeks ago. They’ve only flown four to five times in those two weeks, which lends a lot of credibility to our training mantra that quality over quantity, in this case, is significantly more important.”
Lt Col McCarthy attributes the progression to the overall threat picture provided by the combination of the JPARC, and the threat picture provided by the red force.
“In each of these scenarios, there’s a lot more required of each individual than what we have in our normal day-to-day training in Korea. That feeds into the debrief process, and that’s where they learn these things and where we talk about: ‘Yeah you should’ve paid attention to this here, that there, and I need you to be able to execute X, Y, or Z, and this is how you do it.’ What has especially contributed to that is the extent of the threat scenario that we have here at Red Flag-Alaska.”
For Capt Morris, the lesson lies in coordinating different airframes with varying proficiencies and mission sets during Red Flag-Alaska.
“We learn everyones capabilities, and being able to utilize that to the best of our ability. And then coordinating and layering them on top of each other to make an organized strike, SEAD, and escort game plan. We don’t get that type of training back home.”
However, with great effort comes great reward. “The best reward is knowing that it’s probably going to be harder here than it is out there,” she continues, “and knowing that this is a solvable picture. If we can do it here with the minimal amount of forces, we can do it out there.”
“That’s why we have these exercises,” says Col Card. “Hopefully when we leave here, our airmen have been challenged more than any other theater, and that’s what we want. We want to come out of a VUL thinking ‘we need to do better’ and knowing if we had done a little bit more, we would’ve been successful.”
“We aren’t training to perfection, there’s no such thing. We only get a small percentage of the vote. The environment gets a lot, the enemy gets a lot, and our ability to deal with the environment and the enemy is more important than the ability of coming up with a plan that will work in our ideal world, because we’ll never get there.”
Red Flag-Alaska has established a training exercise that offers the best of both environment and enemy, as the Last Frontier continues to provide critical training to the US and its partner nations. Red Flag-Alaska will resume in June 2017 with period 17-2.
The author would like to thank the following for their support of this article: Colonel Larry Card 51OG, Lt Col Mike McCarthy 36FS/CC, Lt Col Kevin Hicock 51OSS/CC, Lt Col Alex Haddad 44FS, Maj Clinton Garrett 18AGRS, Capt Ravi Surdhar 36FS, Capt Wayne Mowery 36FS, Capt Jillian Morris 44FS, Capt Elias Zani 354FW/PA, 1LT Shannon Smith 25FS, 1LT Robert Oehmke 44FS, 1LT Alexandra Trobe 7Wg/PA, MSgt Karen Tomasik, SSgts Ashley Taylor and SSgt Shawn Nickel 354FW/PA, and SSgt Rachelle Coleman 51FW/PA.