Complex problems, demanding schedule push F-35 pilots night and day at Red Flag

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. –  It’s 1 a.m. They are hunched over maps and charts and data points like college students over an impossible equation. Tomorrow is coming fast. Hours of planning, briefing, revising, clarifying. Sleep. Eat. Brief again. Finally, time to fly. In the air, despite the gameplan, it’s “controlled chaos” again. This night is a win, but by how much? What went wrong? Time to reconstruct everything and debrief. Tomorrow is coming fast and another problem set awaits.  

For pilots at Red Flag, the Air Force’s premier combat exercise, cycles of mission planning, briefing and flying sorties roll by in 12-hour chunks. Three weeks go by in a blur for “night train” riders and “day-walkers.” As demanding as it is, there is no other environment that yields lessons as valuable for both experienced and inexperienced pilots.

Red Flag, which started after the Vietnam War to provide pilots combat seasoning, has grown into an integrated ultra-modern fight, testing various units’ capabilities in the air, space and cyber domains. A friendly “Blue” force takes on an enemy “Red” force in scenarios created by a host “White” cell, the 414th Combat Training Squadron.

Each morning and evening new scenarios are presented to the Blue Force, which stands up a “Mission Planning Cell” made up of functional team leaders. The entire picture is laid out by an intelligence team – from air and ground targets and threats to political and diplomatic implications. Generally, the F-35 pilots are tasked with the role of Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses. Let the problem solving begin.

“Red Flag comes up with some really creative scenarios that, combined with the skill and capabilities of the Red Force, push the limits of what our capabilities are,” said Capt. Benn Hawkins, an F-35 pilot with the 421st Fighter Squadron. “It takes each of our teams getting creative, working together to come back with what we think the best tactical solution is, and it may not be perfect.”

Over this 12-hour period, there are up to six different meetings or briefings that take place – some as an entire team, some just for individual role players – breaking down the upcoming three-hour mission in painstaking, minute-by-minute detail.

It can be tedious, but for younger pilots, this is an opportunity to learn how the entirety of the Blue and Red Forces are integrated, providing a macro view of the battlespace.

“We get good at being wingmen and doing what we’re told, but at Red Flag you can see a lot of the ‘why’ and the bigger picture,” said Capt. Kody Owens, an F-35 pilot in the 421st FS at Red Flag for the first time. “Having awareness of the other platforms capabilities and how certain threats affect them and where we fit into that. You can start to grow and build your own palate of techniques.”

Owens isn’t the lone newbie in the 421st. This is the first Red Flag for nearly three-quarters of the squadron. They are getting used to the pace. After a 12-hour shift of mission planning it may be 6 p.m. or 6 a.m. Either way, it’s time to rest. Might be tough.

“It’s busy. You hear stories of how busy it is, but you don’t really know until you’re in it. It’s definitely hard to keep healthy habits,” Owens said. “But getting enough sleep, getting a 20-30 minute workout in and eating right really helps.”

When their next shift starts it’s “go time.” Mission execution day kicks off with a mass brief – typically an hour where the mission commander presents the finalized plan for the entire force. Each team breaks and runs through their individual roles one last time.

The mission takes place in a roughly three-hour window. There may be more than 100 Blue and Red aircraft in each scenario, flying in airspace that bridges training ranges in California, Nevada and Utah.

“I’ve heard it called ‘controlled chaos’ and it really is,” Owens said. “There are a lot of moving parts, and as a young wingman you’re making sure you’re staying safe and flying clean, learning how to make the right call on comms and then you can start applying tactics.”

Over the course of the exercise, these scenarios build on each other, growing in complexity. Like war, success or failure today impacts success or failure tomorrow.

“It’s constantly evolving, constantly presenting new problems,” Hawkins said. “The systems and tactics they are employing against us are eye-opening. It’s a very realistic picture.”

The day isn’t over at Red Flag when pilots land. In fact, it’s what comes next that many say is of most value. After each mission, both Blue and Red participants individually take their mission data and reconstruct it in preparation of a mass, joint debrief.

“It may take me 90 minutes, but I need to be able to speak intelligently on how me and my formation positively or negatively impacted the fight,” Hawkins said. “We all have a real-time picture in our heads of how things went during the mission, but you don’t really know if that’s true until you do the reconstruction. It could have gone way better or way worse. Maybe you won, but you didn’t win as hard as you thought you did.”

Once the data is compiled, players join a mass debrief, working through the data and the mission timeline for hours. Asking tough questions, sometimes not having the right answers. It takes thick skin, but it leads to every participant learning and growing.

“The last hour of that is really where the money is made. Each team lead comes to the group with two or three points based on all the planning, prepping, training, executing, reconstructed data. ‘These are the things I want us to take away from this mission that we can put in our playbooks for the next fight,’” Hawkins said.

“Iron sharpens iron” and “pressure makes diamonds” those clichés are true at Red Flag, Hawkins said. Maybe especially so for the first timers like Owens.

“It comes at the end of a long day, but (the debrief) is super energizing for me because it’s such a new environment,” Owens said. “I am listening a lot, learning a lot.”

Another day down. Tomorrow is coming fast, and another problem set awaits.