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'Shooters' stay ready at Red Flag

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Destinee Sweeney
  • 20th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Tactical aircraft maintainers from around the globe marshal in various aircraft -- from the F-35 Lightning II to the B-2 Spirit -- onto a sunny flightline in the Mojave Desert.

An F-16CM Fighting Falcon with a blue and white checkered tail flash displaying the number “55” has flown from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, to play a part in a massive military exercise. The pilot inside the aircraft has a busy few weeks ahead of him as a Red Flag participant.

Since July 1984, the 55th Fighter Squadron, “Shooters,” have rolled onto the flightline of Nellis AFB, Nevada, to participate in the exercise. The squadron, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, is continuing to create history during Red Flag-Nellis 17-03, July 10 through 28.

“Red Flag is a large-force engagement where we have a lot of different types of aircraft coming together so we can integrate with each other, learn different platforms, the strengths and weaknesses of the different platforms, and apply that to an actual mission event,” said Capt. Brandon Dobbs, 55th FS pilot and Red Flag 17-03 project officer.

Lt. Col. Richard Suter created Red Flag after studies showed aircrew combat losses during the Vietnam War, Korean War and World War II occurred most often during an aircrew member’s first 10 missions. 

According to Dr. Brian Laslie, Air Force historian, Suter’s idea was implemented during Red Flag I in November 1975, combining “‘good basic fighter skills’ with ‘realistic threat employment’ to enhance pilot proficiency and readiness for future combat operations.”

That first exercise provided combat experience in a peacetime environment, so aircrew members could grow from mistakes and live to try again, and paved the way for decades of future Red Flags.

Red Flags prepare U.S. military branches and foreign services for air-to-air and air-to-ground combat in joint and combined forces. Red Flag also involves a diverse array of aircraft including fighters, bombers, cargo aircraft, aerial refueling aircraft, and airborne early warning and control aircraft.

The fast-paced exercise provides a diverse set of opportunities for participating pilots. Possible mission roles for the pilots include personnel recovery, offensive and defensive counter-air, suppression of enemy air defenses, and escorting aircraft in an airspace that may be occupied by more than 80 aircraft at any given time.

“It’s a very high-ops tempo, that’s the whole point,” Dobbs said. “You’re doing flying none of the units there normally do with that many aircraft. It’s only at events like this that you can do that. It’s really good training, but really busy as well.”

With so many aircraft in the air at once, Dobbs said mission planning can take a full 12 hours from start to finish to be able to use every aircraft in the most effective way possible.

The day following the planning, the mission is executed and then debriefed, said Dobbs.

While the pilots gain training hours, so do the individuals behind the scenes, such as the squadron’s intelligence Airmen who are able to experience mission planning, debriefing and creating mission reports in the large-scale war environment unique to Red Flag.

“You can’t replicate a room full of 30 pilots all saying, ‘Here’s what we want to do, here’s what you want to do, what’s the best way to do that? Intel, what can you provide for us?’” said 1st Lt. Jessica Rodriguez, 55th FS chief of intelligence.

At Red Flag, intelligence Airmen have a much larger team to work with. Following flight debriefs, intelligence Airmen write mission reports to send to their intelligence cell counterparts, who then review the reports and provide feedback on enemy tactics so the next mission can be approached with more insight. 

Dobbs said while at RF-N, the Shooters aim to be the best participating squadron there.

“The 55th is usually very accustomed and knows how Red Flag runs,” said Dobbs. “It’s always a challenge and a goal of ours to be the best squadron there: flying the cleanest, not having any issues with training rules or any special instructions -- we take a lot of pride in flying the SEAD mission -- so protecting the strikers and having minimal striker losses due to (simulated) surface-to-air missiles.”

As the 55th FS approaches its 100th anniversary, the Shooters are not slowing down for the milestone. By participating in this iteration of Red Flag, the Shooters prepare to soar into the future fight, gaining the experience needed to provide F-16 airpower when the moment arises.