Royal Australian Air Force Flight Officer Angus Robertson, assigned to No. 37 Squadron based at RAAF Base Richmond, near Sydney, poses under the wing of his C-130 J Hercules aircraft on the tarmac at Joint Baser Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Wednesday, June 25, 2014. Robertson and his crew are at the base participating in Red Flag, a joint multi-national military exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo/Justin Connaher)
A C-130 Hercules from the Nevada Air National Guard’s 152d Airlift Wing takes off into the Alaskan sky as part of Red Flag-Alaska 14-2. The guard, along with active duty U.S. units, the Royal Australian Air Force and the Japan Air Self Defense Force, are just a few of the units participating in Red Flag, a joint/coalition tactical air combat employment exercise that started June 12 and runs until June 27. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Wes Wright)
JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
"Throw another shrimp on the barbie, mate," is a phrase often associated with Australians, or sometimes Americans trying to imitate an Australian accent; and while Hugh Jackman isn't available to participate in Red Flag-Alaska 14-2, perhaps two C-130J Hercules and a contingent of nearly 70 Royal Australian Air Force personnel can stand in for him.
The Australians, along with the Japan Air Self Defense Force, and U.S. Air National Guard and active duty units, are just a few of the organizations participating in Red Flag-Alaska 14-2, a joint/coalition, tactical air combat employment exercise that started June 12 and runs until June 27.
During Red Flag, aircrews are subjected to every conceivable combat threat, and scenarios are shaped to meet each exercise's specific training objectives. At the height of the exercise, up to 70 aircraft could be operating in the same airspace at one time.
"This isn't war. This is as close as we can come to simulating how we would be fighting in a war," said Air Force Maj. David Balmer, 302d Fighter Squadron F-22 Raptor pilot. "So, hopefully, the first time I'm under that type of stress is not when I'm actually in combat."
Commanding officer for the RAAF's No. 37 Squadron, Wing Commander Darren Goldie, said exercises like Red Flag-Alaska are an important training opportunity for his personnel.
"We'll be flying Hercules on tactical airlift missions as part of a wider group of aircraft that includes strike jets, fighters and surveillance aircraft," Goldie said.
As is often the case, foreign and Lower 48 military organizations are confronted with unique airspace challenges in Alaska, such as its rugged terrain and vast expanses.
"The training environment at Red Flag-Alaska is one of the world's most complicated recreations of a modern battle space, with simulated missiles, enemy radar systems, and 'aggressor' fighter jets," Goldie said.
Flight Lieutenant Dan Johnson, RAAF C-130 captain, is one of the pilots experiencing those challenges.
"The terrain here is unlike anything we have in Australia," Johnson said. "To come into a contested environment that has enemy aircraft and ground threats is a challenge. Red Flag is really the first opportunity we've had as a squadron to test our training."
Air Force Lt. Col Dylan Baumgartner, Detachment 1, 353d Combat Training Squadron commander, said learning how to integrate with coalition partners is a primary objective for the exercise.
"Sometimes even our own services have challenges integrating and communicating with each other," Baumgartner said. "Red Flag gives them an opportunity to learn how we plan and for us to learn how they plan. It's important to get our aircraft systems working together: radios, data links, etc."
One aircraft system the Aussies are integrating and counting on to assist in prevention of an enemy attack is a recently upgraded electronic warfare self-protection system, which makes its debut at Red Flag.
"The aircrew have been developing techniques to use these systems, but Exercise Red Flag Alaska will provide a suitably complex training environment before we ever have to employ it in the real world," Goldie said. "Everyone who comes to Red Flag Alaska gets something from this, including our maintenance personnel, logistics and supply workforce, and personnel capability specialists."
While Aussie maintenance personnel are tackling their Alaska challenges, Airmen from Nevada's Air National Guard, are also hard at work. Tech. Sgt. Tom Maples, Nevada Air National Guard, 152d Airlift Wing C-130 maintainer, is one of those Airmen.
"I believe these exercises are very important," Maples said. "As a maintainer it is my training that helps maintain mission readiness. The environment in Alaska is very challenging for flying and it's challenging as a maintainer. We have to be flexible to adapt to ever-changing conditions."
Maples said interaction with coalition partners has enhanced his unit's effectiveness.
"There is excellent collaboration with our partners, the Australian and Japanese," Maples said. "During engine changes, they have helped us with tools and knowledge. It's a great team effort to keep the mission going."
Baumgartner explained that trial and error are what provide valuable lessons for aircrews to take forward.
"I think the best thing about Red Flag Alaska is seeing the lessons come out of the fights," Baumgartner said. "When we finish the flying portion of the day, we spend a good three to four hours dissecting what went well and what went wrong. We consistently get very good feedback from our guests here."
Goldie said he agreed.
"Coming to Alaska to work alongside foreign militaries is also critical to our success on real-world operations," the Australian native said. "It is extremely fulfilling for us to have this opportunity."
While the Aussies were not able to bring a "wolverine" with them to launch at the enemy, one RAF squadron does return with its claws sharpened; the Nevada Air National Guard returns home hoping to have raised the stakes on mission effectiveness; and the Japanese fly off into the rising sunset having increased good fortune for their Air Self Defense Force.