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The Air Force is preparing for a war without satellites

Exercise Red Flag is the much-less famous, Air Force version of TOPGUN. It had the same impetus as TOPGUN – the Vietnam War highlighted some very serious shortcomings in how the service prepared to fight a war. Red Flag, however, doesn't just feature the air-to-air stuff. Red Flag takes it a step further and trains pilots in air-to-ground combat as well.


Sometimes, Red Flag is a very international affair, with participants from all over the world. The current Red Flag, though, is going to be a much more… private affair. According to Popular Mechanics, the United States is only bringing in some of its closest allies, including the United Kingdom and Australia. This is because this Red Flag is being run without the use of the Global Positioning System, or GPS.

A four-ship formation of F-22 Raptors from the 94th Fighter Squadron and 1st Fighter Wing fly in formation over the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. The four aircraft were in transit back to Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. after participating in Red Flag 17-4 Aug. 26, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Why? Just take a look at the news: Both Communist China and Russia are working on deploying systems that can destroy American satellites. Among the satellites at potential risk are those of the GPS system. This would put a serious crimp in not just navigation, but also in munitions guidance. Weapons like the Joint Direct Attack Munition and the Joint Stand-Off Weapon use GPS to get within about 30 feet of a target.

The good news is that GPS is not the only tool that American pilots have. There are inertial navigation systems and radios that don't rely on the satellites. GPS, however, has become the preferred tool. As such, if an enemy were to knock some or all of the constellation out, American forces would be greatly disadvantaged.

A B-1B Lancer taking part in Green Flag, an exercise similar to Red Flag, over Nellis Air Force Base. (USAF photo)

This year's Red Flag is recreating that scenario to prepare pilots for the worst. The United States will be getting a good idea of how to fight without GPS. Participants will be getting plenty of practice doing so when the stakes are little more than a bunch of bruised egos.

How did they shut off GPS over the deserts of Nevada? They aren't saying — after all, no need to give the enemy ideas.