Red Flag, Realistic Training, and the U.S. Air Force’s Way of War after Vietnam

Forty years ago this November, the United States Air Force began an exercise designed to prepare its pilots to face the realities of combat in a simulated, and yet very realistic, training exercise. Since that first exercise in November 1975, the USAF has continued to train its pilots for air combat under the Red Flag banner. This is an advantage in training the Air Force cannot afford to lose. But how did Red Flag get started? Perhaps more importantly, why is the exercise, probably the single most important military training event for USAF aircrews, sister service air components, and allied Air Forces, still around today?

No matter what statistical, empirical, or subjective measurement you use, the American experience in Vietnam was not a good one. This was no less true for the United States Air Force than the other branches of the U.S. military. Pilots and senior leaders were less than impressed with their results during combat. Perhaps the biggest critique came from the line pilots who felt they went into combat ill-prepared to face the enemy. How to attack surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, what an incoming MiG might look like, how to fight that MiG once it was identified, the proper altitude to get through AAA…none of these were priorities for pilot preparation before the war. In short, American pilots were not properly trained for combat. After the war ended, the USAF set about righting these problems through a massive overhaul to existing training paradigms. The changes made in the wake of the Vietnam conflict fundamentally altered the Air Force’s way of war.

The Red Baron reports captured the problems in painful detail. Fighter aircraft had to contest with densely-packed SAM sites, enemy MiGs, and a very potent AAA threat. Although AAA was by far the most common, dealing with the SAMs and MiGs was perhaps more stressful. MiGs would seemingly come out of nowhere. One of the major findings from the reports was that American pilots often did not know enemy MiG aircraft were present until they fired. According to a later RAND study, MiGs were 100 times more likely to close to dogfighting proximity than initially anticipated.   To deal with this MiG threat, U.S. fighter pilots had only two options: engage or attempt to escape. If the American pilot did enter into a dogfight, odds were this was the first time he had ever fought against a dissimilar aircraft. An F-4 pilot, for example, might have trained against other F-4s, but he had never practiced combat against anything resembling an enemy aircraft.

Since North Vietnamese pilots were known to fly using Soviet tactics, the Air Force was forced to reconsider its approach. If USAF pilots fared so poorly against Soviet-trained pilots, how would they fare against the Soviets themselves? In 1972, the Air Force took a step towards crafting a better answer to that question by creating dedicated Aggressor Squadrons, pilots trained specifically to emulate the Soviet Style of aerial warfare. The mission of the newly created 64th and 65th Aggressor squadrons was to be a “professional adversary force conducting a program of intense dissimilar air combat training” to teach Air Force pilots how to engage and destroy Soviet fighters. One fighter pilot said:


F-15 & F-16 Aggressors
(USAF Photo, MSgt Kevin J. Gruenwald)

“In 1972, when the Aggressors were formed and DACT [Dissimilar Air Combat Training] became a word you could say openly the biggest deficiency we had in air-to-air capability was human performance. Our tactical BFM [Basic Fighter Maneuvers] skills were weak…by 1975 DACT and four Aggressor squadrons equipped with new F-5Es were the hottest game in town. And what did those Aggressors do? They taught BFM…Even as Soviet tactics simulation quickly grew as an Aggressor mission, BFM was still the heart of every debriefing.”

The Aggressor squadrons traveled from base to base and introduced fighter squadrons to combat with the Soviet Air Force. Aggressor pilots were often hand-picked for a specific skill set. After arriving at Nellis, they underwent an indoctrination process into the history, culture, and training of the Soviet fighter pilot. They also had the opportunity to get hands-on with Soviet equipment. When flying, Aggressors used Soviet tactics to an extent, typically to “the merge” or the point where the fighters became locked in a visual, turning dogfight. At that point, the “gloves came off.” The creation of the Aggressor squadrons was a major step forward for American pilots, but it still wasn’t enough. Since an Air Force pilot in Vietnam had an exponentially better survival rate after completing ten combat missions, Pentagon planners needed a way to expose junior pilots to those first ten missions under safer conditions. Red Flag was the answer.

Red Flag Building

Red Flag Building at Nellis AFB

Red Flag was the creation of Lieutenant Colonel Richard “Moody” Suter. Although the “iron majors” provided Red Flag with its intellectual underpinnings and conducted the brunt of the leg-work necessary to get the exercise started, Suter and the other action officers enjoyed great support from Tactical Air Command (TAC) and senior Air Force leaders in the Pentagon. When Suter pitched Red Flag to to TAC Commander General Dixon, the General loved the idea immediately and set about making it a reality. General George Brown, the USAF Chief of Staff, enthusiastically supported the exercise as well and told Dixon to get it going. The Air Staff’s intelligence directorate created a new intelligence unit solely to support Red Flag and began work to move Soviet equipment, including MiG fighters, to Nellis to provide a “hands on” approach to fighting Soviet machinery. On the whole, this lightning-quick response led to the first Red Flag taking place only four months after Suter’s initial pitch to TAC.

Red Flag was designed to combine “good basic fighter skills” with “realistic threat employment” to enhance pilot proficiency and readiness for future combat operations. Red Flag I began in November of 1975. The primary unit was the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing flying F-4s. Support elements included OV-10s, F-105s, and CH-53s. Red Flag II in early 1976 had increased support elements, and Red Flag III was larger still, seeing the first participation of the new F-15 and the first night operations as participants flew nearly 1,000 sorties. These early Red Flags drew tremendous praise from participants and requests for more aggressors and more threats, so subsequent exercises increased in size and scope. By the late 1970s, units from PACAF and USAFE were traveling to Nellis to participate.

Israeli F-16 Over Nevada

Israeli F-16 Refueling Over Nevada
(USAF Photo, MSgt Kevin J. Gruenwald)

Throughout the 1980s Red Flags became increasingly realistic and, by extension, more difficult for the participating aircrews. As technology advanced, so did the exercise. Gone were the days of tape-recording a mission, and in were the days of the Red Flag Mission Debriefing System, Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation, and Nellis Air Combat Training System. Allied nations began participating as well, and by the end of the 1980s, more than 30 countries had flown in or observed a Red Flag, meaning foreign aircraft were just as likely to be seen in the skies over southern Nevada as American ones.

Even today, a typical Red Flag runs for two weeks with two “goes” each day. A mass brief is followed by individual squadron briefs before aircrew step to their aircraft. As the exercise goes on, the missions get progressively harder, forcing pilots and mission planners to work together to accomplish their objectives. Each Red Flag has a mix of fighter and bomber aircraft along with supporting electronic attack, aerial refueling, AWACS, and cargo aircraft. Sister service and foreign participation also occurs on a regular basis, letting all experience the realities of air-to-air and air-to-ground combat across the joint and combined force. They learn the “golden rules” of Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM) lost prior to Vietnam: “lose sight, lose fight,” maneuvering in relation to the adversary, and nose position of their aircraft versus energy. They learn “BFM is used by the pilot to place himself in a piece of sky from which he can launch lethal ordnance, or to keep from becoming a star on the side of somebody else’s jet.”    From start to finish, Red Flag prepares pilots to conduct air operations as part of a larger force.

Red Flag expanded during the 1980s. The April 86 Tactical Analysis Bulletin focused on improvement to existing training methods: “Acknowledging and defining the increased capabilities and advances in Soviet technology is the first step in improving our own training programs.”

Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait offered the perfect opportunity for USAF operators to employ the tactics and doctrine they had been perfecting for the previous decade and a half. Red Flag, Prized Eagle, and numerous other large force employment exercises had prepared American airmen well for the enemy they were going to face in combat, primarily on night one, of Operation Desert Storm. While technological marvels such as the F-117 had a direct impact on combat operations and an even larger one on the American media and public, it was the pilots in the multi-role fighters, bombers, and special operations aircraft who ensured air superiority and thus an unhindered freedom of maneuver for the land component forces.

With an estimated 44 kills during Desert Storm, American pilots demonstrated they were unmatched when it came to aerial combat. The training changes employed by the U.S. Air Force after Vietnam went a long way in allowing American pilots to engage and destroy the enemy even when their technology came up short or rules of engagement prohibited them from employing their weapons beyond visual range. As one American fighter pilot said of his time in Desert Storm, “The Red Flag experience prepared me for combat operations.”

Two dogfights, one from Vietnam and one from Desert Storm, capture the impact of Red Flag. In April of 1965, a two-ship of F-4s engaged 4 MiG-17s in a protracted dogfight that ended in a “probable kill” of one MiG-17. In total the F-4s attempted to fire six missiles: two did not guide, three motors did not fire, one hung on the rails, and a MiG successfully evaded the one missile that both fired and tracked. In a similar case, on January 19, 1991 two F-15s engaged two MiG-25s. One F-15 fired two AIM-7s and two AIM-9s, the other fired one AIM-9 and one AIM-7 for a total of six missiles, but, in this case, two confirmed kills. These two air engagements indicate that if technology and weapons were similar, then there must be another explanatory factor in success during Deseret Storm. That factor was the training revolution. The link between training exercises and real world events can be somewhat subjective, but numerous pilots interviewed said their participation at Red Flag was of fundamental importance as they entered combat. One MiG-killer of Desert Storm went so far as to say that the primary difference between himself and his opponent was that he had been in hundreds of dogfights at Red Flag.


USAF F-15C Flying Combat Air Patrol During Operation ALLIED FORCE
(USAF Photo)

USAF success continued throughout the 1990s in the skies over the Balkans where American pilots continued to show just how well their training prepared them to face the enemy. Even as this paper is written, Red Flag 15-2 has concluded and participants are gearing up for the third iteration later this summer. Beyond that, those trained at numerous Red Flag exercises are, even now, plying their trade in the skies over Syria and Iraq, performing close air support, combat air patrols, and interdiction missions. These men and women have a distinct training advantage not only over their current enemy, but against any aerial or ground opponent they might face. Red Flag changed the Air Force’s way of war.

Although created forty years ago this year, Red Flag remains enormously important in training aircrews for combat. Red Flag and the Aggressors still provide a realistic threat environment and the exercise continues to expand with the inclusion of non-kinetic, cyber, and other threat replications. The most recent Red Flag went “virtual” to increase the size and complexity of the threats faced by the flyers. Red Flag remains the single most complex and comprehensive training exercise in the world, and it provides a combat edge to participants that other countries simply cannot or do not replicate. Their loss. Our advantage.

Dr. Brian D. Laslie is an Air Force historian currently serving as the Deputy Command Historian, North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). He previously served as the Historian, 1st Fighter Wing. A historian of air power studies, Dr. Laslie received his Bachelor’s degree in history from The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina in 2001 and his Doctorate from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War: U.S. Tactics and Training after Vietnam (Kentucky, 2015) will be published in June of 2015.


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