Hill F-35s, Airmen wrap-up Red Flag deployment

  • Published
  • By Micah Garbarino
  • 388th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

HILL AIR FORCE BASE, Utah – After a successful three weeks of simulated combat-operations at Red Flag, Airmen from the active duty 388th Fighter Wing and Reserve 419th Fighter Wing returned home over the past week.

The 421st Fighter Squadron and Fighter Generation Squadron deployed 12 F-35A Lightning IIs and approximately 200 Airmen as part of the exercise.

Red Flag takes place at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, where a friendly “Blue Force” (a variety of fighter, bomber, command-and-control aircraft, cyber and space operations) takes on an equally integrated enemy “Red Force” in combat scenarios that grow progressively more complex.

“It was extremely valuable for the young wingmen to get exposure to the speed and the pacing of missions here, the threat complexity, and building confidence with joint partners,” said Lt. Col. Stephen Redmond, 421st Fighter Squadron commander.

Red Flag was designed after the Vietnam War for young pilots who have no combat experience, but who may be called upon at a moment’s notice to deploy. The exercise has morphed into one that emphasizes integration and mission planning among allies, services, aircraft platforms, as well as the space and cyber domains.

“Each flag pushes ‘state-of-the-art’ to a new level by building on the efforts of previous Red Flags, said Col. Jared Hutchinson, 414th Combat Training Squadron commander at Nellis. “There are many new and emerging real-world tactical problems that will be presented for the first time to the allied force.”

The F-35A is a multi-role fighter platform with low-observability, advanced sensors and the ability to detect threats and share that information with friendly forces.  Depending on the scenarios presented, the squadron was asked to provide offensive and defensive counter-air support, suppression of enemy air defenses, or escorting other aircraft, allowing them to reach their targets.

“The F-35 has capabilities that allow us to protect our brothers and sisters in the air and on the ground,” Redmond said. “When we paired the F-35 with joint-partner capabilities to create an effect, we saw a lot of success in a variety of difficult scenarios.”

These scenarios are carried out over a series of 12-14 hour mission-planning days and 12-14 hour “execution” days. It can become exhausting, especially for younger pilots who have not have the opportunity to operate under the intense tempo that Red Flag provides.

“For the first timers, the start of the exercise and the end are very different for them. They are happy right now, and I think proud of what they’ve done, and they should be,” Redmond said. “It builds confidence in themselves and in each other and they are going to need that.”

Young maintainers and support personnel also benefit from the Red Flag experience. The maintainers generated nearly 250 F-35 sorties without losing a single one to a maintenance issue.

“We were all on the ramp to watch our last sortie – excited, maybe a little superstitious,” said Maj. Justin Shetter, 421st Fighter Generation Squadron commander. “It was incredible work from our maintainers and they pitched a perfect game.”

Working in the simulated deployed environment gives young maintainers the experience of working under pressure, knowing the sorties they provide directly contribute to the mission. There is added stress in that, but also a great sense of accomplishment.

“The scope and magnitude of Red Flag is eye-opening for our younger maintainers,” Shetter said. “Prior to launch, when they’re walking around the jet with the pilot, they’re learning about the mission objectives and it changes each launch from a normal, daily task to something more mission-oriented. For many of them, that’s a first.”

The 421st FGS also used Red Flag to stress test their multi-capable Airmen programs, one of which is the Lightning Technician Program, which allowed them to have a much smaller maintenance footprint than they have had at previous Red Flags.

“Agile and dedicated Airmen proved what they can bring to the fight, supporting a dozen aircraft for three weeks without a lost sortie,” Shetter said. “We brought roughly two-thirds the size of or normal force. At the end, we had fuels maintainers launching jets, crew chiefs performing low-observable coating repairs, and lieutenants walking the birds out of the chocks.”

The 388th Operations Support Squadron also successfully provided the first all-military team of deployed Autonomic Logistics System Administrators as well as Combat Intelligence Cell capabilities for the entire joint force at Red Flag.