• Participants in Red Flag 24-1 stand in front of an RAAF F-35A Lightning II and an RAF Typhoon FGR4.
Credit: Defence
    Participants in Red Flag 24-1 stand in front of an RAAF F-35A Lightning II and an RAF Typhoon FGR4. Credit: Defence

The Australian contingent at Exercise Red Flag Nellis 24-1 made an outsized contribution to the success of the high-end air-combat exercise according to the Commanding Officer of No. 114 Mobile Control and Reporting Unit (MCRU), Wing Commander Peter Mole.

Throughout 14 days of training, WGCDR Mole said Australian personnel earned recognition from their international colleagues for their capability and capacity, notwithstanding the relatively modest nature of the Australian contribution.

Six Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) F-35As made their debut at the first iteration of Exercise Red Nellis for 2024, enabled by around 150 RAAF personnel from multiple units around Australia, including No. 114 MCRU and No. 3 Sqn. A Royal Air Force (RAF) contingent, comprising six Typhoons FGR.4s, a Voyager Multi-Role Tanker Transport, and air combat controllers of No. 19 Sqn RAF also took part in the exercise, alongside more than 30 units drawn from across the United States Department of Defense. 

WGCDR Adrian Kiely, Commanding Officer of 3 Sqn RAAF, said that while this was the first time that RAAF F-35shad taken part in Red Flag Nellis, it was not the type's first Red Flag. In the early years of the RAAF F-35A capability, he explained, the Air Force had prioritised sending F-35As to Exercise Red Flag Alaska which is organised by the United States Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), a command for which he said is strategically and operationally important for the RAAF to be highly interoperable with.

Deploying the F-35A to Red Flag Nellis, WGCDR Kiely said, was an opportunity for the RAAF to practise important technical and tactical integration with elements of the US Air Force that fall under Air Combat Command (ACC), which in turn convenes Red Flag Nellis.

While the exercise helped deepen cooperation and interoperability in the air, it also made major strides on the ground.

“More and more, there is a focus on improving interoperability not just between airborne aircraft, but among the technical workforce that enables them to operate,” WGCDR Kiely said.

Traditionally, he explained, the RAAF and USAF - which are very tactically and technically interoperable - maintain stovepipes on the ground, wherein only the RAAF works on RAAF aircraft and vice-versa for the USAF.

These stovepipes, he said, would limit the flexibility of coalition forces during any hypothetical contingency operations, hampering their ability to operate aircraft in an agile setting. Practising interoperability on the ground among technical workforce is, therefore, an important aspect of deepening overall interoperability according to WGCDR Kiely. This ensures that, if needed during a crisis, operations wouldn’t be constrained by policy, nation, or service

During Red Flag Nellis 24-1 the USAF and RAAF put this to the test by forming a combined-munitions building unit which, over the course of a day, delivered eight inert GBU-31 2,000lb (910 kg) Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) to various F-35A aircraft taking part in the exercise.

Corporal Matthew Parsell, a RAAF weapons technician, said that participating in the combined munitions unit gave his team the confidence to integrate with any USAF weapon preparation teams abroad and build weapons quickly and effectively, utilising a range of different team compositions from either nation.

USAF Chief Master Sgt. Jesse Garcia, of the 57th Munitions Squadron, noted the real-world importance of this kind of training working together in a joint training environment becomes a force multiplier as in theory U.S personnel could support Australian aircraft with munitions even if no RAAF personnel were present and vice-versa.

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