“Darkstar, Raptor 1, picture.” With a few simple words the F-22 flight lead asked the controllers onboard the E-3 AWACS – call sign ‘Darkstar’ – to provide a verbal description of the location and number of enemy fighters airborne. The large, dome radar on the AWACS turned slowly, painting an electronic picture of the battlespace that would be passed over the radio to the fighter escort package.
“Raptor 1, Darkstar, picture: eight-group wall…” the controllers proceeded to provide the escort fighters with their flight lead’s request. Each pilot compared the radio communication to what they were seeing on their own displays. Once Darkstar was done providing the picture, the flight lead would call the tactic, and each pilot would go to work targeting and shooting his or her assigned group.
Raptor 4, a young 1st Lieutenant wingman fresh out of MQT (mission qualification training), was wide-eyed as he frantically moved his cursor slew/designate switch to dig through the mess of airborne targets on his displays. In order to appropriately target and shoot the three contacts in his group, he had to break them out on his displays or he would likely miss one. He glanced at his range to the targets – the distance had collapsed much quicker than he expected.
“Raptor 1, Fox 3 two-ship, north group, out right.”
The “Fox 3” radio call indicated the lieutenant’s flight lead had expertly shot his targeted contacts and executed a launch-and-leave. The new wingman was behind the power curve. Sweat dripped from his helmet into his eyes as his breathing rate picked up. The HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) buttons were still not quite second nature to him and he had to concentrate on the appropriate switch actuation to put the enemy aircraft into his shoot list. Things were moving a lot faster than they seemed to move in the simulator.
“Raptor 4, Raptor 1, abort right…go out now!” The radio chatter was intense, and the rookie never processed the order from his flight lead. He continued trying to target and shoot his assigned group.
Finally, after what seemed like ages, he had two contacts in his shoot list. The squadron’s newest wingman looked up through his HUD (heads up display) to ensure he had achieved the appropriate firing solution. To his astonishment he saw only a large “X” – indicating the target was too close for valid missile employment. The next radio call was unmistakable:
“Raptor 4, Showtime, you’re dead! Raptor 4 you’re dead!” It was the Range Training Officer telling him the enemy had detected and shot him.
“Raptor 4 copies,” came his choked up reply, “kill removing east.”
Thankfully, the young pilot’s death was only a virtual one. He was participating in a Large Force Exercise (LFE) and was but one of several similar air-to-air victims that day. In these big aerial battles, combat pilots practice the skills they will desperately rely upon if and when they find themselves engaged in air combat. LFEs play a critical role in helping combat aircrews establish and maintain combat mission readiness.
It was determined during the Vietnam War that if a fighter pilot could survive his first ten missions, his survivability on subsequent missions increased significantly. The Air Force needed a way to get its young pilots those first ten missions in a controlled, relatively safe environment where they did not run the risk of being shot down by actual enemy aircraft or surface-to-air missiles. It was under this premise the Red Flag Exercise was born.
Red Flag – an LFE based at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada – was designed to stress the combat operator in ways similar to actual wartime. A professional adversary force (red air) takes to the skies to replicate enemy fighter tactics and capabilities, giving the good guys (blue air) the chance to employ against a realistic threat. In a way, the LFE acts as a sort of inoculation against the stress and strain of real air combat.
From a pilot’s perspective, this can be some of the most challenging flying they do in their career. During the exercise, there are more departures and arrivals in a two-hour window at Nellis AFB than Chicago O’hare. Once airborne, the pilots must navigate a complex airspace structure consisting of no-fly zones, tanker tracks, fighter holds, and ingress/egress lanes. As the fight kicks off, the intrepid aviators must deal with radio communication jamming (think stuck mic and you will have a vague idea of the affects of comm jamming), overwhelming numbers of red air, fuel and weapons limitations, and keeping situational awareness on over one hundred other aircraft in the airspace. It can be a daunting task, but that’s the point.
The amazing training available in LFEs has fallen victim to recent defense budget cuts. An operation as big as Red Flag, or any one of the myriad other LFEs the Air Force sponsors for that matter, carries a large price tag. Due to their immense cost, pilots are being exposed to this type of flying less and less. But the Air Force isn’t letting cost determine pilot capabilities.
A new round of software for flight simulators across the Air Force is allowing pilots from all weapons systems to link up and fly the LFEs from their home stations. These “Virtual Red Flags” can provide pilots even more challenging scenarios with more adversary aircraft than possible with actual aircraft. Safety isn’t a concern in the simulators, although pilots still train to basic deconfliction principles. These virtual LFEs have provided a great opportunity for combat training in a fiscally constrained environment.
As good as the simulators are, nothing can truly replace being in the cockpit, feeling the g-forces, and dealing with the stresses that can come only in the jet. As budgets are continually refined and flying hours meted out, we hope to see more LFE opportunities in the future. Hopefully the lessons that need to be learned in order to survive combat are happening in the jet (or the simulator) during an LFE and not on Day 1 of the war.