Described by many commentators as the most realistic peace time combat exercise available to US, NATO and Allied air forces, the 32nd Red Flag took place at Nellis AFB, Nevada, during early 2007. The first period took place during 15th-26th January and following a one week gap to ease logistics, the second period ran from 5th-16th February.

The Home of the Fighter Pilot

Nellis is called the "Home of the Fighter Pilot" and for good reason. As home of the USAF Warfare Centre with five Wings and over 150 aircraft, the Warfare Centre is responsible for advanced combat training, tactics development and operational testing.

Good year round flying weather and location make Nellis ideal for advanced combat aviation training. The base itself boasts some impressive statistics; covering more than 14,000 acres with ramp space for 300 aircraft, employing nearly 12,000 military and civilian personnel and its associated ranges provide 14,800 square miles of airspace for flying operations. Because of its size and breadth of mission, the base is home to more squadrons than any other base in the USAF Air Force with A-10, F-15, F-16, F-22, Predator UAV and HH-60G helicopters. The F-35 will also be a future resident at Nellis.

The Red Flag exercises are currently conducted four times per fiscal year and are hosted by the 414th Combat Training Squadron of the 57th Fighter Wing.

The mission of the 414th Combat Training Squadron is to maximize the combat readiness and survivability of participants by providing a realistic training environment, this includes the use of "enemy" hardware and live ammunition for bombing exercises within the Nellis Air Force Range.

Combat units engage in realistic combat training scenarios carefully conducted within the Nellis Range Complex.

The Nellis Range complex is located northwest of Las Vegas and covers an area of 60 nautical miles by 100 nautical miles, approximately half the area of Switzerland. This space allows the exercises to be on a very large scale.

Nellis map

During a typical Red Flag exercise, Blue Forces (friendly) engage Red Forces (hostile) in realistic combat situations. Blue Forces can consist of units from Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, United States Air Forces Europe, Pacific Air Forces, the Air National Guard, U.S. Air Force Reserve, U.S. Army, US Navy, US Marine Corps as well as allied air forces such as the RAF, RAAF, Canadian AF, Republic of Singapore AF, Israeli Air & Space Force & French AF. These units are led by a Blue Forces commander, who coordinates the units in an "employment plan". Red Forces (adversary) are composed of the 57th Fighter Wing's 57th Adversary Tactics Group, flying F-16s (64th Aggressor Squadron) and F-15s (65th Aggressor Squadron) to provide realistic air threats through the emulation of opposition tactics. The Red Forces are also augmented by USAF, Navy and Marine Corps units flying in concert with electronic ground defences, communications and radar jamming equipment. Additionally, the Red Force command and control organization simulates a realistic manual integrated air defence system using E-3 AWACS, RC-135V and E-8 JSTARS aircraft.

A key element of Red Flag operations is the Red Flag Measurement and Debriefing System (RFMDS). RFMDS is a computer hardware and software network which provides real-time monitoring, post-mission reconstruction of manoeuvres and tactics, participant pairings and integration of range targets and simulated threats. Blue Force commanders objectively assess mission effectiveness and validate lessons learned from data provided by the RFMDS.

In a 12-month period, more than 500 aircraft fly over 20,000 sortie, whilst training more than 5,000 aircrews and 14,000 support & maintenance personnel.

Red Flag 07-02
On Target visited Nellis AFB during the second period of February’s Red Flag (07-02)

The second period of the first Red Flag of 2007 was noteworthy for various reasons, marking the first visit of the peerless F-22A with 14 Raptors from the 94th FS at Langley. Participating alongside were four B-2A Spirits from Whiteman and eight F-117A Nighthawks from Holloman; the latter type possibly participating in its last ever Red Flag.

The F-22 Raptor is a fifth generation stealth fighter aircraft, originally conceived as an F-15 replacement in the air dominance role, but has subsequently also taken on a secondary ground attack role.

The stealth aspect of the F-22 is due to a combination of factors, including the overall shape of the aircraft, the use of radar absorbent material (RAM) and attention to detail such as hinges and pilot helmets that could provide a radar return. The airframe relies less on maintenance intensive radar absorbent material and coatings than previous stealth designs such as the 30 year old F-117. The RAM caused deployment problems due to their susceptibility to adverse weather conditions and unlike the B-2, which requires climate-controlled hangars, the F-22 can undergo repairs on the flight line or in a normal hangar.

The Raptor is designed to carry air-to-air missiles in internal bays to avoid disrupting its stealth capability. Launching missiles requires opening the weapons bay doors for less than a second, as the missiles are pushed clear of the airframe by hydraulic arms. The plane can also carry bombs such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and the new Small-Diameter Bomb (SDB). It can carry weapons on four external hardpoints, but this vastly decreases the plane’s stealthiness, manoeuvrability, speed and range. The Raptor carries an M61A2 Vulcan 20mm rotary cannon, also with a trap door, in the right wing root. The M61A2 is a last ditch weapon, and carries only 480 rounds, enough ammunition for approximately five seconds of sustained fire. Despite this, the F-22 has been able to use its gun in dogfighting without being detected, which can be necessary when missiles are depleted.

In early 2006, after an exercise involving just eight F-22s in Nevada the previous November, Lt Col Jim Hecker, commander of the 27th Fighter Squadron (FS) at Langley AFB, Virginia, commented "We killed 33 F-15Cs and didn't suffer a single loss. They didn't see us at all".

The appearance of six RAAF F-111Cs from 1 Sqn at Amberley were a very welcome sight, made even more poignant given the recent announcement of the type’s possible retirement in 2010.

The F-111 is a twin-engine swing-wing aircraft with the ability to take off and land at relatively low speeds with the wings swept forward, then fly at more than twice the speed of sound with its wings swept back. By the use of terrain following radar it can fly close to the ground to avoid detection at supersonic speeds.

Mounted under the fuselage is the Pave Tack targeting system which can locate targets and designate for LGB's at night and in bad weather. As a result of this capability, the F-111 is affectionately known as the 'Pig' in RAAF service for its ability to hunt at night with its nose in the weeds!

The aircraft was a highly controversial purchase for the RAAF. Technical difficulties during its development in the late sixties resulted in the RAAF having to buy the F-4E Phantom II as an interim Canberra replacement. RAAF squadrons were finally able to convert onto the F-111C from 1973 and subsequently took on the low-level strike role against land and maritime targets.

Three versions of the F-111 are in service with two RAAF squadrons at Amberley:
• the F-111C strike fighter
• the unique RF-111C, modified for photo-reconnaissance work
• ex-US Air Force F-111G

The two Squadrons have slightly different roles:
• 1 Sqn flies strike and reconnaissance missions using F-111C's and RF-111C's
• 6 Sqn trains aircrews on F-111C's and conducts air and sea strikes using F-111G's.

The RAAF will replace the F-111s of 1 and 6 Sqns with 24 Boeing F-18F Super Hornets by 2010, to ensure Australia's air combat capability edge is maintained until the full introduction into service of the F-35 Lightning II (Joint Strike Fighter).

Nine RAF Tornado GR.4s from RAF Lossiemouth crossed the Atlantic to fly in Red Flag. 12(B) Sqn crews flew during period one and 617 Sqn crews took over for period two, marking its first appearance there in three years.

During the exercise aircrews were validated on tactics, night time operations and employment of heavy weapons. Six Tornadoes were provided for each day and night time mission. Flying as part of a strike package of up to 90 aircraft and helicopters, four GR.4s flew interdiction missions with US and RAAF aircraft whilst the remaining pair undertook Close Air Support sorties. Some of the junior RAF Tornado crews dropped live Paveway III LGB to gain experience of live weapons prior to operational deployment.

Other weapons dropped included 1000lb concrete bombs and simulated releases of ALARM missiles against enemy air defences.

Eight Harriers flown by IV(AC) Sqn crews were also present at Nellis; however these were taking part in Green Flag, a pre-deployment exercise for flying units who perform close-air support and precision-guided munitions delivery. They are now known as Green Flag West (Nellis AFB) and Green Flag East (Barksdale AFB) and replace an earlier incarnation of Green Flag which was focused on electronic warfare. The Harriers returned to RAF Cottesmore on the 9th February.

47 Sqn from RAF Lyneham deployed Hercules C.3 XV214 to operate around the Nellis ranges, often flying into remote landing strips.

The origins of Red Flag are well known, dating back to the USAF’s difficult experience during the Vietnam War. Between 1965-1973 the overall ratio of enemy aircraft shot down to the number of US aircraft lost to enemy aircraft was 2.2:1, in fact during Operation Linebacker of June & July 1972 the ratio fell to below 1:1 – as a comparison the figure for the Korean War was 6:1 and the conflicts of the 90’s 48:0.

Post war studies suggested a pilot’s survival rate greatly increased after ten combat missions and the result was the creation of a training environment so realistic that his first ten "combat" missions would be logged in a controlled but realistic environment with measurable results. Combat training at the time had failed to involve realistic ACM training and USAF pilots were not versed in the core values and basics of ACM due to the belief that BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements and equipment made manoeuvring combats obsolete. Many aircrews had also fallen victim to Surface to Air Missiles (SAM's) and Red Flag would provide valuable experience in defensive manoeuvres.

The first Red Flag exercise took place at in 1975 at Nellis AFB and in its current format is also planned to run four time per fiscal year along with four proposed "Red Flag Alaska" exercises operating from Eielson AFB and the long established "Maple Flag" at CFB Cold Lake, Canada; the exercise has never been in more demand, with a long list of US and Allied units expressing a interest in taking part. Red Flag can now be regarded as the final "graduation" test before a unit deploys to undertake operations in areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Aggressor squadrons fly adversary sorties against the visiting aircrews, providing realistic training using tactics and capabilities that might be faced during a real combat situation.

Originally flying according to the tactical doctrines of the Soviet Union and now other other perceived enemies, to better simulate what NATO & Allied pilots would encounter in real combat, the Aggressors were originally equipped with the then readily available T-38 Talon aircraft to simulate the MiG-21 Fishbed. F-5 Tiger II fighters, painted in colour schemes commonly found on Soviet aircraft, were added shortly thereafter and became the mainstay until the F-16 was introduced.

The 64th AGRS is equipped with the F-16C and the recently formed 65th AGRS is equipped with the F-15C to emulate the MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-27 Flanker respectively.


Nellis units

Nellis History

Looking at the huge expanse of the current Nellis AFB, located eight miles to the north east of the bright lights and gambling metropolis of Las Vegas, you’d find it hard to believe the airfield was originally just a dirt runway with a small operations shack used by Western Air Express.

In October 1940, Major David Schlatter, of the U.S. Army Air Corps, surveyed several areas in Utah, Arizona and Nevada looking for a site to locate the "first" American flexible aerial gunnery school. Major Schlatter was particularly interested in the Nevada site since about 90 percent of the area north, northwest and northeast of Las Vegas was desert wasteland. On 25th January 1941, Las Vegas Mayor John L. Russell signed over the property to the U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps for the development of the flexible gunnery school. The mission of the new school, the Las Vegas Army Air Corps Gunnery School (located on the new Las Vegas Army Air Field), was defined as “training of aerial gunners to the degree of proficiency that will qualify them for combat duty.”

A detachment of five officers took up residence in a small basement post office in the Las Vegas federal building in May 1941. They were staff officers of the 79th Air Base Group, commanded by Lt. Col. Martinus Stenseth. A month later, the military population of LVAAF more than doubled with the arrival of five administrative non commissioned officers and other support personnel. During those first few months, there were no services or facilities at the new base. Enlisted men were quartered in the Work Project Administration barracks in town. Its initial motor pool consisted of six vintage trucks and a semi-trailer often found parked by the barracks. Supply and logistics had not yet been organized, and mechanics had to borrow nuts, bolts and old parts from service stations in Las Vegas. Gasoline and oil were borrowed from the Civilian Conservation Corps.

There were many reasons for locating the school near the town of Las Vegas, which then had a population of 9000: flying weather was ideal year-round; more than 90 percent of the area to the north was unpopulated public domain and available at $1 per acre; the inland strategic location was excellent; rocky hills, approximately six miles from the base afforded a natural backdrop for cannon and machine-gun firing; and dry lake beds were available for emergency landings.

Construction of permanent base facilities began in earnest in mid-1941 for barracks to house 3,000 people. By December 1941, there were 10 AT-6 Texan trainers and 17 B-10 Martin bombers.

From this humble beginning, LVAAF grew rapidly. The first B-17s, B-24s and B-26s arrived in 1942, giving students their first chance to train in the gun turret of an actual combat plane and providing aircraft to train co-pilots in ground and transition school. At the height of World War II, 600 gunnery students and 215 co-pilots graduated from LVAAF every five weeks.

In March 1945, the base converted from B-17s to the B-29 Gunnery School. An innovation was the use of a specially-designed target aircraft, the RP-63, which was sufficiently armoured to be shot at with frangible bullets. At war's end, the school had trained over 45,000 B-17 gunners, and over 3000 for the B-29.

The base population peaked in early 1945 with nearly 11,000 officers and enlisted people logged on unit morning reports. Of these, more than 4,700 were students.

As World War II ended, the base converted to the role of separating military men and women from the service. During 1945 and 1946, thousands of soldiers received their separation physicals and final pay at LVAAF on their return to civilian life.

Activities at LVAAF continued to wind down until 31st January 1947 when it was inactivated. In 1948, the base was reactivated as Las Vegas Air Force Base and hosted a pilot training wing. With the onset of the Korean War, the mission of LVAFB changed from an advanced single-engine school to one of training jet fighter pilots for the then Far East Air Forces.

In April 1950, LVAFB was renamed in honour of 1st Lt. William Harrell Nellis, a young P-47 pilot from southern Nevada who was killed in action during the "Battle of the Bulge" in Luxembourg on 27th December 1944.

Shortly afterwards the base was again needed for war; this time it was Korea and P-51s pilots trained here followed by the first jet fighters, the F-80 and superior F-86. The base also became a part of testing programme's for new aircraft, a role still carried out into the 21st Century.

The USAF Air Demonstration Team, the Thunderbirds moved from Luke AFB to Nellis on 1st June 1956.

Aircraft previously used by the team include:

Republic F-84G Thunderjet 1953-1954

Republic F-84F Thunderstreak 1954-1956

North American F-100C Super Sabre 1956-1963

The USAF's first operational supersonic aircraft. With the move from the F-84F to the F-100 Super Sabre in 1956, the Thunderbirds became the world’s first supersonic aerial demonstration team.

Republic F-105B Thunderchief 1964
(only six shows flown in type)

North American F-100D Super Sabre 1964-1968

McDonnell F-4E Phantom II 1969-1973

The F-4’s conversion was the most extensive in the team’s history. Among other modifications, paints that had worked on the F-100 made the F-4 look patchy because of multicolored alloys used in the F-4 to resist heat and friction at Mach 2 speeds. As a result, a polyurethane paint base was developed and used to cover the problem. The white paint base remains a part of today’s Thunderbird aircraft.

Compared with its predecessors, the F-4 was immense. It was big. It was heavy. It was powerful. With the earth-shaking roar of eight J79 engines from the four diamond aircraft, no demonstration aircraft accomplished the mission of representing American airpower more impressively than the Phantom.

Northrop T-38 Talon 1974-1981

1974 brought with it a fuel crisis and as a result a new aircraft for the team, the sleek, swift and highly manoeuvrable Northrop T-38A Talon, the Air Force’s first supersonic trainer. Economically, the T-38 was unmatched. Five T-38s used the same amount of fuel needed for one F-4 Phantom, and fewer people and less equipment were required to maintain the aircraft.

Although the Talon did not fulfil the Thunderbird tradition of flying front-line jet fighters, it did meet the criteria of demonstrating the capabilities of a prominent Air Force aircraft.

General Dynamics F-16A/B Fighting Falcon 1983-1991

During the switch to the F-16A the Thunderbirds acquired new block 15 aircraft which they operated for about 10 years making the team one of the last USAF units flying the older F-16A's before transitioning into new C's. They also operated the two-seat F-16B during this time for training new pilots and for VIP flights, these being replaced by the F-16D when the rest of the squadron transitioned to the F-16C.

Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon 1992-Current

The block 32H/J aircraft currently assigned to the Thunderbirds were built in 1986 & 1987 and are some of the oldest operational F-16s in the Air Force.

In 1966 the Tactical Fighter Weapons Center was established to unify the research and training functions of the base, and in 1969 the last F-100s were retired.

In 1969 the 57th Fighter Wing was activated to start the USAF Weapons school. It provides, to this day, graduate level training on all fighter weapons that a USAF officer would be expected to utilize. This includes air to air combat with both gun and missiles; and air to ground combat. The graduates are also given basic courses in fighter system maintenance in particular how to tell if a system is installed wrong during the preflight walk around. As previously discussed, The first Red Flag exercise took place at in 1975 at Nellis AFB (see above).

Gun smoke 1981 was held at Nellis, the first gunnery meet to be held since 1962, and featured teams from all over the world. The event would continue to be held every two years. The 1980s were a busy time for Nellis, with a dozen types of aircraft being supported, as well as visiting aircraft from the Army, Navy, and foreign nations. In 1988 the F-117 Nighthawk was unveiled here; it had been developed and tested at the Tonopah Test Range, a smaller secretive facility in the northern part of the nearby Nellis Air Force Range in the desert northwest of Las Vegas.

The Indian Springs Air Force Auxiliary Airstrip was a part of Nellis. While little known, it was home to the 11th, 15th, and 17th Reconnaissance Squadrons which operate the Predator RQ-1, MQ-1 and MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). On 20th June 2005 the field was renamed Creech Air Force Base. Unmanned air vehicles such as the Predator are growing in importance to the RAF and as a result 1115 Flt formed at Creech two years ago to operate US owned Predator aircraft alongside the based USAF squadrons. The RAF intends to purchase a number of Predator B aircraft to support UK ground forces in operational theatres, with 39 Sqn expected to take delivery of their first pair of Predators in the near future at RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire.

On 14th January 2003, the first of eight F-22s were delivered to Nellis having been selected as the F-22 Force Development Evaluation program base and Weapons School. An additional nine are planned for delivery over the next five to six years. The Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35, will arrive during 2009 with an eventual total of around 36 aircraft to train instructor pilots and support the Air Force Weapons School's mission of testing and evaluating current weapons and future combat capabilities.


The staff at On Target would like to offer their gratitude to the following for their outstanding assistance during their time at Nellis AFB:

Justin MacVay & Michael Estrada of the 99th ABW Public Affairs Office; Tony Joiner PAO AMC HQ; Michael Chillstrom & Randi Norton of the 319th ARW PAO and finally the crew of 62-3573 (KC-135R 92nd ARW) for their hospitality during our photo flight, in particular the boom operator, Lindsay Moon.

A huge thank you also to Flt Lt Lauretta Webster, PAO HQACG RAAF for the excellent access provided to the F-111Cs.

Back to the top


© On Target Aviation 2008