Intel

The military's best air combat exercise is getting a new twist

(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Trevor T. McBride)

Red Flag is legendary among fighter pilots. This exercise, held several times a year at Nellis Air Force Base, located near Las Vegas, is where American combat pilots have gone to hone their skills since the end of the Vietnam War.

"Red Flag-Nellis was originally created to give fighter pilots their first 10 combat missions in a large force exercise before deployment to contingency operations," Lt. Col. Christopher Cunningham said in an Air Force release. "Vietnam War analysis had proven that pilot survivability increased dramatically after surviving 10 combat missions."


The success of the original Red Flag has left Air Force pararescue personnel, like those taking part in a 2016 demonstration, little to do.

(U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Christopher S. Muncy)

In terms of military exercises, Red Flag has been a blockbuster hit. The first major conflict since Vietnam, Desert Storm, saw very few pilot losses. While new technology certainly contributed, Red Flag played a vital part as well, giving pilots their first taste of "combat" over the course of two weeks. Other countries, like Israel and the Netherlands, have come up with their versions of this exercise. One of the unintended consequences of this improved readiness, however, is that it has made combat search-and-rescue missions less frequent. Less real-world experience means an increased need for specific training exercises.

To address that need, a spin-off of Red Flag was created. Red Flag Rescue took place last month at Davis Monthan Air Force Base. This exercise replaced Angel Thunder, a program for Air Force pararescue personnel (along with foreign air forces) who are responsible for carrying out the combat search and rescue mission.

Red Flag Rescue was not just for the Air Force. Army personnel, like this soldier taking part in a 2017 demonstration, also took part, as did the Marines and Navy.

(U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Brian Calhoun)

Red Flag Rescue brings together Air Force pararescuemen and the other armed services for fifteen days to practice combat search and rescue in contested, degraded, and operationally-limited environments. While Air Force pararescue personnel — and others who handle combat search-and-rescue — have gained much from this, the ultimate beneficiaries will be the pilots saved from dire circumstances in the real world.