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Highlights of the Red Flag 07-2 Military Exercise

Although the United States air force achieved a roughly 10-to-1 kill ratio over communist forces during the Korean war, by the time of the Vietnam war the ratio had fallen to about 2-to-1, and for a period during 1972 it fell to 1-to-1.   An air force analysis determined that pilots who survived their first ten combat sorties would likely survive the remainder of their tour, so the air force set up the Red Flag military exercise to provide a very realistic simulation of combat conditions.

These well-appointed F-16 Fighting Falcons belong to the 27th fighter wing based at Cannon air force base in New Mexico, nicknamed the "Fireballs".   The Fireballs started transitioning to F-16s from the F-111 Aardvark in 1995.

Aircraft at Red Flag use a mixture of live ordnance and dummies for ground strike missions, but of course for simulated air-to-air combat live missiles can't be used, instead missile locks are used to confirm kills.

Red Flag pits a "blue team" representing forces allied to the United States against a "red team" which represents enemy forces.   The F-16s in these colorful paint schemes belong to the 64th aggressor squadron, they either attack the blue team aircraft defending a target, or defend their own target against the blue team.

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The 64th aggressor squadron provides a more powerful red team capability, flying F-15 Eagles to simulate Russian aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-27 "Flanker".   The air force puts its best pilots into the aggressor aircraft, teaching them to fly using Soviet military tactics.  Aircrews who want to have close contact with Soviet aircraft can also drop into the Nellis air force base Threat Training Facility, sometimes referred to as the "petting zoo", to see the real thing at close range.

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Eagles fly both on the blue and on the red teams, and the blue teams now include two-seat F-15 Strike Eagles like this one, shown during landing with the large speed brake on its back extended.

The F-15s used to be top of the heap in the air force, but that position now belongs to this aircraft, the F-22 Raptor.   Although they've been around for some time, this is the first Red Flag exercise where they've been deployed.   Since they represent such a leap in capability beyond existing aircraft, it's been difficult to know how to integrate them into Red Flag, since any aircraft it's deployed against will likely be shot down before it's even aware of the Raptor's presence, which doesn't provide very good training for its opponents!   You can see more of this aircraft type by looking at the 2005 Edwards airshow F-22 demonstration.

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The Raptor wasn't the only stealth aircraft at Nellis air force base near Las Vegas, which is where Red Flag is held.   Here's the first true stealth aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk which, in spite of its fighter designation and "stealth fighter" moniker, is really a ground attack aircraft.   The curved lines of the Raptor show how far the technology has developed, and it's certainly obvious from these two head-on views of the aircraft how much poorer the Nighthawk pilot's forward view is!

The Nighthawk will soon be retired, replaced by the Raptor, so this is one of its last outings at Red Flag.   The F-22 can only carry two 1000 pound bombs internally, against the two 2000 pound bombs of the F-117, but the air force feels that the change is justified by the huge cost of keeping even a small fleet of the single-purpose Nighthawk, compared to keeping a fleet of dual-purpose Raptors.

The third member of the stealth trio was here too, in the form of four B-2 Spirit stealth bombers.   Although it's also a very expensive aircraft, the B-2 is somewhat easier to maintain than the first-generation Nighthawk, and its large payload and long range ensure that it's not going to be replaced anytime soon.

Although there were four B-2s present, only one at a time flew during the media days.   And since there are so many excellent aircraft to put on this page, you'll have to go to look at the 2005 Edwards airshow B-2 demonstration if you want another fix of this amazing aircraft.

Another type which isn't in any danger of being replaced is the A-10 Thunderbolt II, which has been so successful in the close air support role that it has survived in spite of receiving a considerable amount of disdain from the air force during its early career.

Although all of these previous aircraft are interesting, I was especially pleased to see this EA-6B Prowler in action.   I've seen all of the other aircraft types flying during airshow many times, but the Prowler belongs to that group of "unsexy" military aircraft which is virtually never seen in the air at shows, and it doesn't even appear in the static display very often.   Although it's a navy aircraft, the Prowler is an indispensable part of air force exercises like Red Flag, since it's the only dedicated radar jamming and radar attack aircraft in the arsenal, now that the air force has retired the F-4 Wild Weasel and EF-111 Raven.

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The four-seat EA-6 Prowler was derived from the two-seat A-6 Intruder ground attack aircraft.   The pilot is accompanied by three electronic counter-measure officers who attend to the radar detection and counter-measure units housed in the pods under the aircraft and at the top of the tail.

The Prowler is another aircraft type which is due to be retired in the not too distant future, to be replaced by the EA-18 Growler, a derivative of the F-18 Hornet.

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This E-3 Sentry AWACS plane is another part of the electronic umbrella which supports and protects the fighter, ground attack and bomber assets.   Use of all of these aircraft types adds significantly to the realism of the exercises, which is vital if they are to achieve their goal of preparing aircrews for real-world combat.   The AWACS planes also monitor the blue and red teams to determine their location and who is downing who.

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The E-3 is only one of many Boeing Dash 80 derivatives, better known to many people in its incarnation as the Boeing 707 airliner.   As well as the E-3, this Red Flag included several KC-135 aerial refuelling planes, an E-8 JSTARS ground target surveillance plane and this RC-135 Rivet Joint electronic surveillance aircraft, which took off late in the day for one of Red Flag's many night training sessions.

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Participation in Red Flag and Green Flag exercises isn't limited to American forces.   There were Belgian air force planes in the Green Flag exercises last November, and both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force came to this Red Flag exercise.   The Australians brought support equipment here in their brand-new, one and only C-17 Globemaster III, but it returned home straight away.   However the British and Australians both had C-130 Hercules transport aircraft flying during the exercise, and in the case of the British it was one of their very rarely seen special forces planes, which is distinguished by the large refuelling probe above the nose, and various lumps and bumps scattered around the fuselage.

As in previous years, the main component of the British team consisted of the Tornado fighter-bomber.   In British service, the Tornado comes in two flavors, the Air Defence Variant (ADV) and the Interdictor/Strike (IDS) type which came to this Red Flag.   Here you can see a Tornado taking off with the blue afterburner flame which is typical of this aircraft type.   The British bring along their own concrete-filled practice bombs for use on the test range, you can see a couple of them hanging under the fuselage.

A Tornado takes off with the RAF special forces Hercules in the background, parked next to its American equivalent, the MC-130E Combat Talon I.   Although it's primarily a strike aircraft, the Tornado IDS retains air-to-air capability with the same sidewinder air-to-air missiles as its ADV brother, and the same 27mm cannon located just behind the nose.   The Tornado IDS is broadly equivalent to the Strike Eagle, though it entered service much earlier.

The Tornado is a swing-wing design, and the outer wing pylons cleverly swivel in order to keep their load pointing straight ahead.   In this case a "Sky Shadow" ECM pod is on the port pylon, and a dispenser for chaff and flares on the starboard outer pylon.   The thin, sharply pointed unit inboard of the starboard fuel tank is a transponder used to track the various aircraft participating in the exercise, which is why you'll see it fitted to several of the aircraft types.

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The Tornado was an international project jointly developed by companies in the UK, Germany and Italy, and it has been very successful, with around 1000 aircraft manufactured.   The only export customer has been Saudi Arabia, which operated its aircraft alongside British and Italian Tornados during operation Desert Storm.   Although it has a smaller weapons load and shorter range than the Strike Eagle, the Tornado has low-level capabilities which made it the only aircraft in the coalition capable of performing the tasks it was assigned.

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The Tornado and the Prowler made the trip to Red Flag worthwhile, but there's no doubt what the real drawcard was, bringing aviation enthusiasts from Canada, the UK and even Japan.   This is the F-111C Aardvark strike aircraft, operated by the Royal Australian Air Force.

Like the Tornado, the Aardvark is a swing-wing design, in fact it was the first operational aircraft with this so-called "variable geometry" wing.  This arrangement improves low-speed performance, allowing the plane to fly into and out of shorter runways than would otherwise be possible.

Originally intended as a pure strike aircraft replacement for the F-100 Super Sabre and the F-105 Thunderchief, the air force then decided to add on fighter capability, specifying a top speed of Mach 2.5 at high altitude.   These difficult engineering requirements were then complicated even further by the politicians when the secretary of defense Robert McNamara insisted that the plane be suitable for both the air force and the navy.

The Tornado suffered from a similarly broad set of requirements, the German press labelled it the "egg-laying wool milk pig", but it ended up as a success, whereas the TFX program to develop the F-111 largely failed.   Eventually the navy F-111B version was cancelled completely, the F-14 Tomcat being developed instead.   The air force never used the Aardvark as a fighter, early versions operating entirely in a strike role, while later FB-111s flew as strategic nuclear strike aircraft, and EF-111A Ravens operated as an electronic warfare and suppression type.

The naval F-111B wasn't the only aircraft killed by the program.   The British cancelled their extremely innovative TSR.2, which had a low-level, high-speed strike role which was very similar to the Aardvark, and even included the same short takeoff and landing requirement, though the TSR-2 achieved that with blown flaps rather than the F-111's more complex swing-wing.

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In 1965 the British cancelled the TSR.2 in favor of the F-111, and the Australians also transferred their support from the TSR.2 to the American plane, however the Aardvark ran far over the promised schedules and costs, so the British cancelled their order.   The Australians eventually received theirs in 1973, six years late and at twice the forecast price.

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The only place you'll see a TSR.2 nowadays is in a museum.   The last USAF F-111s were withdrawn in 1998, but the Australian F-111s are still going strong; the current plan is to retire them in 2010, when they'll be replaced by yet more F-18 Hornets, just like the Prowler.

The F-111 certainly had a troubled development and the early years of operational use were also plagued by serious avionics and mechanical problems, but it ultimately matured into a very worthwhile aircraft, performing well at low altitude and in all weather conditions.   Despite limitations caused by the non-swivelling wing pylons, the Aardvark could carry four times the bomb load of the F-4 Phantom II.

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