Well, the Red Flag exercise slated for August 15-26, Red Flag 16-4, is going to be very… well, take your pick. Interesting in that a number of foreign air forces are going to be at Nellis Air Force Base to participate. But it could also be awkward given some of those air forces who are among the visitors.
First, a quick rundown on what Red Flag is. During the Vietnam War, the Air Force had learned that most of the losses had been pilots who were in their first ten missions. After ten missions, a pilot’s chance of survival increased. Held at Nellis Air Force Base since 1975, the purpose of Red Flag is very simple: To provide Air Force, Navy, Marine, Army, and allied pilots an experience as close to combat as possible – without using live ordnance.
Of particular interest is that Israel is taking part in this upcoming Red Flag. To say that Israel and Islamic-majority countries are not friendly in general is pretty much an understatement. Israel has fought major wars against Arab nations that were Islamic in 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982, and 2006. Pakistan has not been Arab, but the country has been known to house a number of Islamic extremists. The United Arab Emirates is relatively moderate when compared to other Arab countries, but the Arab-Israeli issues are still present. There may be awkward moments at the O-Club and the debriefs.
However, it may also be interesting to see those three countries at the upcoming Red Flag. All three use the F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter – but their Falcons are very different. In fact, this Red Flag provides a rough guide to the evolution of the F-16.
Pakistan’s F-16s mostly come in the F-16A variety. The F-16A/Bs were the first versions to really see service. The original design for the F-16 was to be a low-cost lightweight fighter for daytime operations. It was exactly that at first. The plane, though, has now become a deadly all-weather fighter, starting with the F-16A/B Air Defense Fighter. Mid-Life Upgrades and Operational Capability Upgrades have made these early Falcons capable all-weather fighters. Some of the earliest F-16A/B models are now becoming target drones.
Israel’s F-16s are mostly the F-16C/D versions. These were designed from the outset to be all-weather fighters capable of using missiles like the AIM-120 AMRAAM in beyond-visual-range engagements. The F-16C/Ds are arguably the backbone of the United States Air Force’s inventory of combat aircraft – and the latest versions include the capability to fire the AGM-88 High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM). These planes have served in a number of other air forces, too. Israel also has an enhanced F-16 known as the F-16I, which is a custom version that operates with a two-man crew.
The United Arab Emirates has the only F-16Es in existence. Perhaps the ultimate F-16 in service today, the F-16Es add conformal fuel tanks for longer range, and it also comes with more modern electronics, including an active electronically scanned array radar. These birds probably give the F-16I a close run for their money.
Japan will be missing this Red Flag – meaning its version of the F-16, the Mitsubishi F-2, will not be present. The F-2 can best be described as an F-16 that went to BALCO or Biogenesis and received steroids or Viper Growth Hormone. It has top of the line electronics and can carry a larger bomb load than most F-16s.
In short, Red Flag 16-4 will be very interesting. Not only for the many countries there but also to see how the F-16 has evolved since it entered service in 1978.