Red Air

When I was a freshman in high school, my first order of business was to join the football team.  I remember it like it was yesterday.  I can almost smell the freshly cut grass of the practice field countered by the stench of my sweat-soaked shoulder pads.  I had visions of glory – me catching touchdown pass after touchdown pass and being carried off the field by my teammates.  In reality, I ended up being a tackling dummy for the varsity team that year.  The varsity defense had to practice against someone and they couldn’t practice against the opposing teams themselves.  Although it sucked for my fellow punching bags and I, it made the varsity team better.

So what does high school football have to do with flying?  Today’s combat pilots have training requirements similar to those of a football team, and we’re not able to “practice” against the adversaries we’ll meet in war.  How do we test tactics, gain and maintain tactical proficiency, and build combat confidence?  The answer has been and will continue to be: Red Air.

When conducting military training exercises, colors are used to simulate allegiances.  For uniformity, NATO has designated Blue as belonging to allied forces, Green as a neutral force, Yellow as an unknown allegiance (yet to be identified) and Red as a foe.  In the U.S. we use a similar system to maintain interoperability with our NATO partners.

All types of U.S. aircraft are used to simulate enemy threats. The Northrop F-5 pictured here has a dedicated Red Air mission.

Red Air (a.k.a. Aggressors or Opposition Forces – OPFOR for short) consists of pilots, aircraft, and controllers who replicate adversary tactics and provide tactical problems and challenges for Blue Air to solve.  The objectives of Red Air are typically 1) to replicate adversary threats in accordance with Special Instructions (SPINS) outlined by the Blue Air mission commander and 2) to punish Blue Air mistakes.

Tactics and simulated ordnance is based on intelligence assessments from the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC).  NASIC analysts compile data from several sources to provide the end user – in this case Blue Air – with a threat assessment so counter tactics can be developed and tested.

On the Fighter Squadron level, pilots are required to know everything there is about their own weapon system and domestically developed tactics, techniques, and procedures.  But because those same Blue Air pilots will take turns flying as Red Air they are also required to know everything there is about how the enemy operates.  We have daily intelligence briefs to refresh us on the various threat aircraft and missile systems (both air-to-air and air-to-ground), but it really is up to the individual pilots to study and stay sharp on the information.

On the day of the training mission, the Blue Air mission commander (known as “Blue 1”) will get all of the pilots on both sides of the fight together in the same room to brief the “mass” coordination.  The mission commander will go over the scenario, outline the SPINS, and talk about safety of flight and training rules.  After this initial brief (usually lasting about 15 minutes depending on the complexity of the scenario), Red Air and Blue Air will split up to brief their respective parts of the mission.

The Red Air commander, “Red 1”, will develop a tactic in accordance with Blue 1’s SPINS and then outline the game plan for the other Red Air “bandits” (a “bandit” is someone who has been positively identified as a foe.)  Although on different sides of the fight, Red 1 and Blue 1 work closely together to ensure maximum training is accomplished and desired learning objectives are met.

T-38A is being used extensively by the USAF as a Red Air platform.

Following the mission, both Blue Air and Red Air will meet up to evaluate all of the air-to-air shots and kills that took place during the fight.  Weapons employment will be validated and Blue 1 will develop the debrief focal points.  After the air-to-air shot evaluation, Red Air will be cleared off while Blue goes back over the recordings of the mission with a fine-toothed comb to glean whatever learning they can out of the training mission.

Red Air is an important aspect of any training mission.  Although flying Red Air provides little benefit in terms of increasing one’s own tactical proficiency, it greatly benefits the Blue Air players.  Many fighter pilots look at flying Red Air as being a tackling dummy and a necessary evil while others genuinely enjoy playing the bad guy.  No matter how you look at it, as long as we are fighting or preparing for wars there will always be a need for Red Air.