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Red Flag-Alaska keeps training relevant to flyers, maintainers

By Air Force Staff Sgt. Blake Mize | JBER Public Affairs | Aug. 14, 2014

JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska — Although the way wars are fought has changed dramatically over the years, and fighter aircraft are not always used as much as they once were, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh has stressed that training opportunities such as Red Flag-Alaska will be integral to the development of the force moving forward.

RF-A is meant to put pilots in combat situations and ensure their ability to thrive in such situations. Red Flag officials say Alaska's vast airspace provides the perfect
training area to refine those capabilities.

"The Joint Pacific-Alaska Range Complex airspace allows aircraft to practice tasks that cannot be accomplished in other areas," said Air Force Lt. Col. Dylan Baumgartner, commander of the 353rd Combat Training Squadron, Detachment 1, out of Eielson Air Force Base. "The large volume of sky and lack of population throughout most of the range space allows for full use of aircraft capabilities, such as extended supersonic flight, which isn't available in most training areas.

"Red Flag-Alaska has a focus on the Pacific theater and many allies and partner nations come here to train with their U.S. counterparts," Baumgartner continued.
"This will support the U.S. pivot to the Pacific theater and allow the U.S. and its allies to operate more effectively together."

RF-A is a joint/coalition, tactical air combat employment exercise, which often involves several units whose military mission may differ significantly from those of other participating units.

Originally named COPE THUNDER, it moved to Alaska from Clark Air Base, Philippines in 1992 after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo forced the curtailment of operations there. COPE THUNDER was re-designated Red Flag-Alaska in 2006.

"Red Flag [then COPE THUNDER] was developed after the Vietnam war to increase the lethality and survivability of crews in combat," Baumgartner said.

"Historically, aircrews are most vulnerable to being shot down during their first 10 combat missions - a truism which dates to World War I and the beginning of air combat. Red Flag is designed to provide crews with their first 10 simulated combat sorties in a challenging yet controlled environment, which allows them to make mistakes in training which would have killed them in combat."

This training is a beneficial experience for newer pilots and maintainers who are seeing their first "combat," Baumgartner said, but that is also true for those who will lead them into battle.

"It trains not only the newest aircrew, as originally designed, but also provides a challenging environment for training mission commanders, who are certified to lead large formations of aircraft into combat," he said. "RF-A provides a venue for planning, executing and debriefing large-force exercises to train new mission commanders."

Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson and Eielson Air Force Base team to host RF-A four times a year and each installation brings unique capabilities that contribute to the training.
"The 18th Aggressor Squadron [from Eielson] provides realistic enemy replication using specially trained pilots and controllers," Baumgartner said. "They simulate a variety of enemy aircraft using uniquely painted F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft. The 353rd Combat Training Squadron and Detachment 1, 354th Operations Group (JBER) provide exercise planning and execution support as well as operate the land-based threat systems and maintain the targets on the respective bombing ranges."

In addition to the Alaska units, Air Force units from all over the world participate. All four U.S. military branches are represented and a varying number of international allies take part in the quarterly training.

"In this RF-A [14-3], the U.S. and Australia are the participating nations, but typically we see approximately 16 nations during four exercises throughout the year," Baumgartner said. "All four U.S. services are participating. U.S. Navy and Marine Corps aircraft are flying along with U.S. Air Force aircraft. U.S. Army personnel are involved in operations in and around Eielson and Fort Greeley, Alaska in the landing zones and bombing ranges contained in the JPARC."