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The blue force pilot’s eyes widened as he saw the “King Kong” of Red Flag converging quickly on his F-16 Fighting Falcon at 30,000 feet. The ominous sight of one of the air-to-air combat exercise’s bad guys made an impression on Capt. Paul Anderson eight years before he became an aggressor himself.

“It seemed like (the aggressor pilot was) King Kong on the block,” Anderson said. “I see this F-16 come burning in the contrails from 50,000 feet above me converging on my six, and I couldn’t do anything about it. My first memory of the aggressors was they were taking complete advantage of the airspace and everything they had at their disposal. They knew their ranges by heart. They knew all their landmarks, anywhere they could hide and anything they could take advantage of, and they were there to punish you every step of the way.”

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A pilot in the cockpit turns to reveal a star on his helmet
An F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron wears a red star, the unit's symbol, on the back of his helmet. The unit's star and yellow hammer-and-sickle symbolizes the Soviet Union, the United States' enemy during the Cold War. Today, the 64th AS replicates threats faced by combat air forces rather than a specific adversary.

Photo // Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen

Anderson and his fellow 64th Aggressor Squadron tested pilots during Red Flag 15-2, which included aircraft from 13 Air Force squadrons, along with units from the Royal Norwegian Air Force and NATO, at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. The second exercise of Red Flag’s 40th year marked the last time the aggressors flew the F-15 Eagle after the 64th AGRS absorbed the aircraft when the 65th Aggressor Squadron closed in September. But whether the squadron flies both airframes or just the F-16, there is a clear message waiting for any pilot who may land at Red Flag with the mindset that he has nothing to learn.

“I’d say, get ready because we’re coming for you,” said Capt. Danielle Esler, an air battle manager. “We are going to maintain that mindset, and we are going to find that weakness. We will. You may think you have it all figured out, but we will find an opportunity to exploit you, we are going to come after you, and we are going to make sure you get those lessons learned so hopefully that mindset will change.”

The 64th AGRS, part of the 57th Adversary Tactics Group, supports Red Flag, as well as the U.S. Air Force Weapons School and test and evaluation squadrons, and trains combat Air Force units on adversary tactics. But the aggressors particularly take pride in their roles as adversaries at Red Flag. They are proud subject matter experts of the capabilities of would-be enemies. The hammer and sickle flag of the former Soviet Union flies from a truck on the flightline. A giant red star, outlined in yellow, greets visitors to the squadron, and that same star is visible on the sleeves of the aggressors’ flight suits.

“It definitely is a symbol of respect in all of the combat air forces,” Esler said. “The star, for me, is knowing that I’m the best threat replication that the U.S. has to offer. I have all of the information that you need to employ to the best of your ability as a good guy. I think the star invokes a level of, ‘you should bring your best game forward because we are intelligent, and we do this every day.’ I’m proud to be an aggressor, and I think everybody who puts that star on their uniform knows what we’re here for, and are proud to serve in the greatest aggressor fleet there is.”

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A pilot holds a patch with a skull on it
Capt. Danielle Esler, 64th Aggressor Squadron, holds the unit's patch which is adorned with their symbolic red star. The unit's star and yellow hammer-and-sickle symbolizes the Soviet Union, the United States' enemy during the Cold War. Today, the 64th AS replicates threats faced by combat air forces rather than a specific adversary. “The star, for me, is knowing that I’m the best threat replication that the U.S. has to offer," Esler says.

Photo // Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen

Red Flag has helped train more than 145,000 aircrew members for combat in the past 40 years. Between 1965 and 1973, during the Vietnam War, the Air Force lost a fighter for every two enemy planes it shot down in Southeast Asia, compared to a 10:1 ratio, and as high as 25:1, during the Korean War, said retired Maj. Joel McKee. McKee, a contracted senior graphics analyst in the 414th Combat Training Squadron at Nellis AFB, was a former F-4 Phantom electronic warfare officer and part of the original Red Flag staff in 1975. A group of officers who some called the “Iron Majors,” but most referred to as the “Fighter Mafia,” built what became known as the Red Baron Reports. The reports, presented by Maj. Richard “Moody” Suter, found a trend of inexperience that led to the loss of aircraft and crewmembers, particularly in the pilots’ first 10 sorties, McKee said.

“They sort of computed, based on the Red Baron Reports, that fighter pilots who survived the first 10 missions could usually be counted on to survive the rest of it,” McKee said. “So they said, maybe we need to provide training to give those guys the first 10 sorties.

“Their target for the main thrust of the training was what we call Blue 4. That’s the most inexperienced fighter pilot who normally flies in aircraft No. 4. His responsibility is pretty much to try to stay on the wing of No. 3 without hurting himself or anybody else and to learn as much as he can in the process. That was the basic premise behind Red Flag.”

The group came up with the concept of Red Flag, which would pit training pilots in blue forces against red forces, piloted by aggressors, in a series of combat scenarios over the Nevada Test and Training Range’s 15,000 square miles of air space. Previously, pilots flew the same aircraft against each other, with the top of the class playing the role of aggressors. Although most generals were enthusiastic about the idea, there was concern over the cost until an Army officer at the Pentagon took the Fighter Mafia’s concepts and applied them to the Army National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif. Eventually, Suter and Col. David Burney sold Lt. Gen. Robert Dixon, the Air Tactical Command commander, on the program. The first Red Flag exercise finally began on July 15, 1975, with a squadron of F-4 Phantoms from Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico.

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Close up of a jet with a large plane taking off in the background
An F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot from from the 64th Aggressor Squadron is ready to take off on a mission supporting Red Flag 15-2 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. The 64th AS uses F-16s to replicate potential threats U.S. combat air forces may face in real-world situations.

Photo // Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen

While there were problems with aircraft losses and safety concerns that first year, Red Flag’s legacy of giving pilots a taste of combat before they faced enemy fighters and bombs for real was already beginning to form, as expressed by the 64th AGRS’ first commander.

“I’d hate to see an epitaph on a fighter pilot’s tombstone that says, ‘I told you I needed training,’” Lt. Col. Lloyd “Boots” Boothby said. “When you don’t let a guy train because it’s dangerous, you’re saying, ‘Go fight those lions with your bare hands in that arena, because we can’t teach you to learn how to use a spear. If we do, you might cut your finger while you’re learning.’ And that’s just about the same as murder.”

While they relish the role as the adversary of Red Flag, the aggressors consider themselves a training aid for the blue forces pilots, especially since, like Anderson, they once flew on the blue side during Red Flag themselves. They are responsible for swiftly punishing any mistakes made by blue pilots, with the hopes that it will drive home an important lesson that could save lives during actual combat.

“I'd hate to see an epitaph on a fighter pilot's tombstone that says, ‘I told you I needed training.’”

“If the good guys are making mistakes, we’re absolutely going to take advantage of those mistakes, because we want to drive those lessons learned home,” Anderson said. “If a good guy makes a mistake, and you don’t take that shot, that lesson is gone. But if you take that shot, and he ‘dies’ in the training environment, you have something to come back to as a debrief focus point, something the good guys can learn from and figure out what breakdowns happened in their game plan to put that guy in that situation.”

Early in the exercise, aggressor pilots function much like sparring partners for their blue counterparts. They have limitations placed on what they can do until pilots show improvement, and as the threat levels increase, the handcuffs begin to come off the red forces pilots.

“A lot of times, the training they’ve been going through back at their home station hasn’t been at the level they’re going to see at Red Flag, so day one is pretty painful and ugly for blue, with aggressors achieving their objectives,” said Lt. Col. Kevin Gordon, the 64th AGRS commander. “By the end of week one, it’s much more difficult for us to achieve our objectives, because you’re starting to see the learning curve go up on the blue side. By the end of the second week, it’s nearly impossible for us to achieve our objectives.

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A F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot from the 64th Aggressor Squadron takes a moment to relax in the cockpit before launching on an exercise Red Flag mission. The 64th Aggressor Squadron trains combat Air Force's joint and allied aircrews by employing challenging, realistic threat replication, training, test support, academics, and feedback. (U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen)

“Initially, we punch them in the face and probably bruise their ego a little bit. But they take it with a grain of salt, learn from it, correct their mistakes and come back and show us how they can employ their platforms to the best of their ability.”

The Red Flag staff consistently hears feedback from pilots and commanders who have put lessons learned at Red Flag into practice when they faced real combat. The common refrain is that Red Flag was considerably tougher than the challenges actual adversaries gave them. One of the exercise’s biggest advantages is how it puts pilots together for planning, executing and de-briefing, said Col. Jeffrey Weed, the 414th CTS commander.

“Those three things are really what makes our Air Force different, and, over the course of time, has made us great,” Weed said. “It’s great that we get to go out and do these advanced tactics, but what really makes us strong is the plan, execute and debrief cycle that we go through. By the time they leave here, they are not only better planners, but they also better understand how to integrate with one another, and that all takes place in the debrief. My goal is to have them learn, so if they do well one week, it gets harder the next week, and they don’t have a sense at the end that they’ve won, but they do have a sense that they’ve learned.”

“The star, for me, is knowing that I’m the best threat replication that the U.S. has to offer”

For the first time this year, a virtual Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System is part of the live fly exercise, Weed said.

“This is the best example of how aspects of Red Flag now include live, virtual, and constructive elements,” Weed said. “This means that JSTARS aircrew in simulators at the Distributed Mission Operations Center at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, are participating by providing ground surveillance to support attack operations and targeting the red enemy forces who are actually driving vehicles across the ranges north of Las Vegas. To the aircrew in the simulators, and the aircrew flying live aircraft on the range, it will feel as if the JSTARS is actually there.”

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An F-16 Fighting Falcon lands at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada after completing an exercise Red Flag mission.

Photo // Master Sgt. Jeffrey Allen

Now that Johnson is playing the role of the “10-foot gorilla” of Red Flag, he has a different attitude toward the aggressors’ role. He may now be King Kong, but he’s not looking to embarrass blue pilots. He just wants to do his part to get them ready.

“On the flip side, as an aggressor, when you find yourself in that situation when you’re able to converge from 20,000 feet above and it’s your game, it’s a whole different feeling,” he said. “But I want blue to win because I am still a part of the Air Force. Now I am an aggressor, but I will go back to the combat Air Force one day, so I want the Air Force to be able to win as a whole. I’m not out there to watch our front-line fighters fail. I want them to be able to go, succeed and do well.”

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