(Editor’s note: Due to security concerns, some names have been changed to ensure the safety of involved service members and their families.)
As twilight set in, the base grew silent for a brief moment. A few hours from now, the sky would shake with the tremendous roar of jet engines, but for the time being, it was an abundance of empty black space, save for two tiny, shining lights. Royal Norwegian Air Force Capt. Bengt Erlandsen identified them as he walked – the brightest of the two, Venus, and to its left, Jupiter.
This view of the Las Vegas skyline gave Erlandsen the feeling that he was looking at a tilted world – the planets occupied a slightly different space back home, nearly 5,000 miles away.
As a specialist of avionics with the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s 338th Squadron, the maintenance he performs on Norway’s fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons often takes him on adventures to other nations, like Turkey, Germany, Spain and Portugal, but this is the fourth trip he’s made to the American southwest.
In Nevada, Erlandsen’s squadron participated in an intensive two-week, aerial combat exercise known as Red Flag 15-2. Entering its 40th year, the exercise brought together aircraft from 13 Air Force squadrons, including Norway and several other NATO countries, to experience realistic aerial combat training. Each group brought with them all essential personnel that keep the planes in the air, from maintainers to intelligence assets.
Exercises like Red Flag are important because they allow Airmen to train with allies they could be deployed with in the future. Norway and the U.S. have a history of joint efforts, fighting side by side most recently during conflicts in Libya and Afghanistan. Red Flag is a way to build upon that coalition between the two nations.
“Rarely, if ever, will we go to combat unilaterally – we will go as a coalition,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Aaron Piepkorn, a 414th Combat Training Squadron operations supervisor and special assistant to the commander. “To be effective in combat with our coalition partners, we need to participate in exercises with them so we can integrate our capabilities. We need to know their capabilities as well as their limitations, so when the bullets start flying, we know that we can rely on each other.”
Bringing with them 10 F-16s, two C-130J Hercules and 190 personnel, the Royal Norwegian Air Force came ready to train alongside their NATO allies in an exercise that closely imitated conflict based on what participants could potentially experience in the real world.
“For the pilots, this environment, it is the closest thing to … and maybe even sometimes tougher than the real thing,” Erlandsen said. “For us (maintainers), it’s like a break from the normal day, and we just get to focus on one thing – keeping the aircraft operational.”
Erlandsen said he enjoys the hands-on part of the job best. Participating in exercises like Red Flag gives Erlandsen the opportunity to do just that – grab his tools to help fix the F-16s he has lovingly worked on for the past 29 years. Erlandsen said Red Flag allowed the different squadrons present to come together as a group, try to help each other out and learn from those experiences.
Within the exercise, the F-16 maintainers weren’t the only assembly growing through the present diversity. At the Red Flag operations center, mission planners and intelligence operations personnel from each nation worked side by side – communicating and discovering ways to improve upon their joint efforts.
“It is crucial that we assist in training with our allies so we know we can operate at the same level,” Piepkorn said. “Just as a sports team must practice before any game to know each player’s abilities, we must do the same thing with our international partners. (They) are learning the same thing we Americans are learning in Red Flag – how to work together with different capabilities to achieve the same goal: defeat any potential adversary in combat.”
To that effect, Red Flag 15-2 allowed each nation to gain skills that would enable them to band together to win the fight. For one Royal Norwegian Air Force pilot, that necessary training was in learning how to deal with assaults of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). When the missiles are launched at the F-16s, the pilots have a short amount of time to aggressively maneuver while dispensing chaff in hopes of creating radar tracking problems for the incoming projectile.
“It’s been very challenging, but it’s been incredibly good – a lot of good learning points every night,” said Lt. Ant, a pilot with the 338th Squadron. “Coming here and seeing the (Nevada Test and Training Range) with all the SAM sites is a huge learning point, and very different from what we can simulate back home in Norway; so that’s definitely one of the big things to take back, how to actually treat the threats on the ground.”
Ant added that the experience gained on the range enabled pilots to build confidence in their systems and training before facing real conflict. Through Red Flag’s aggressor squadron’s accurate and aggressive replication of simulated enemy forces, pilots were tested on many levels with the use SAMS, jamming and a complex overall picture of the operation.
At Red Flag, each country brings a different grouping of strengths and weaknesses to the fight. Coming from places with different regulations and training, by exercising as a unit, each ally nation is able to create more cohesion of tactics, techniques and procedures with their partners in aerial warfare.
“It’s beneficial – I think we trade equally,” Ant said of the participating nations. “We probably practice some things that maybe not all Americans do, and I think we can trade some things, some learning points. Norway is quite a small nation, and exercises like this, we get to deal with NATO; we get to train with other nations and other systems. We get to see other airframes and other types of people and personnel, so the integration between the countries and systems is very rewarding.”
When the night ends and the planes are once again on the ground, each aircrew, pilot, maintainer and planner at Red Flag can feel a light burden lifted from their shoulders. Now they know they can trust themselves to act in moments of conflict – they have learned through experience. And in times of adversity, they now know their allies will also have their back.