USAF personnel watch an F-22A Raptor take off from Nellis Air Force Base, prior to their boarding a RAAF C-130J Hercules during Exercise Red Flag 17-1. Credit: Defence

Red Flag gives insight into near capabilities

After three weeks of high-intensity missions, Exercise Red Flag 17-1 has concluded.

A 200-strong contingent of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel deployed to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada with US and UK colleagues. This year's exercise also witnessed the US Air Force (USAF) debut its F-35A Lightning II in the exercise, giving the RAAF personnel present an insight into the service's future capabilities.

RAAF deployed a range of capabilities during Exercise Red Flag 17-1, from a combat control team that parachuted in freezing conditions to a dry lake bed for an airfield survey; to air battlespace managers who controlled movements and datalinks for more than 70 friendly and ‘enemy’ aircraft.

Commander of the Australian contingent, Group Captain Stuart Bellingham, said RAAF C-130J Hercules transport and E-7A Wedgetail aircraft flew on missions in Exercise Red Flag 17-1.

“By coming here, we’re preparing for high-end war fighting, so we can deploy at short-notice on operations, and have confidence that we are going to be successful,” Group Captain Bellingham said.

This iteration of the exercise saw an increase in the capability of ‘enemy’ surface-to-air missiles and aggressor fighter aircraft in the training range, providing greater training challenges for the increased number of advanced fifth generation fighter aircraft participating in the exercise, such as USAF’s F-22A Raptor and F-35A Lightning II.

“It is gruelling and rigorous, but all of our personnel have a fantastic time and get great value out of the exercise,” GPCAPT Bellingham said.

“We’ll take information and training back and feed it into our force preparation, and will translate into our current operations.”

The presence of the F-35s, as well as the United States Navy’s E/A-18G Growler electronic attack jet, provided exposure to capabilities that will soon enter RAAF service.

“We are integrated with these capabilities from start to finish, from planning missions, through to debriefing the missions,” GPCAPT Bellingham said.

“Australia has Air Battlespace Managers from No. 2 Squadron and No. 41 Wing who are controlling the Red Flag airspace, and getting firsthand experience how these capabilities can be employed.

“We’re getting real insight into understanding the capabilities and what Australia’s future is going to look like.”

GPCAPT Bellingham also became the first non-US participant to be Director of the Combined Air and Space Operations Centre (CAOC) at Nellis, leading 250 US, UK, and Australian personnel.

The CAOC is responsible for planning the Red Flag missions and ensuring they’re coordinated with space and cyber-based efforts, which can be contested by an aggressing force.

“Our coalition allies have been extremely engaging and supportive of our involvement in the exercise.

“In my 30 years of the Air Force, this is one of the highlights, being at the exercise is as realistic as it gets.”

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