Red Flag: A lieutenant's perspective

  • Published
  • By Nathan Simmons
  • 388th Fighter Wing
Large scale exercises like Red Flag hone the skills of even the most experienced flyers and maintenance professionals in the United States Air Force, but from a young lieutenant's perspective, there's more to it than skill sharpening. 

This is the first time 1st Lt. Nathan Stroupe, officer in charge of the 421st Fighter Squadron's Aircraft Maintenance Unit, has attended Red Flag. He said aside from the lessons learned, camaraderie is one of the biggest takeaways for the unit.

"This exercise definitely brings everyone together," Stroupe said. "We get to act more as an expeditionary fighter squadron instead of the traditional construct where we are divided."

More than two hundred 388th Fighter Wing pilots and maintainers and a few 75th Air Base Wing personnel participated in Red Flag 15-2, which began March 2 and concluded March 13. Since 1975, Red Flag has been one of the world's largest and most realistic combat training exercises involving U.S. forces and its allies. Red Flag 15-2 featured several U.S. coalition partners, including Norway and NATO.

Stroupe and his AMU team launched, recovered, and fixed aircraft while 421st Fighter Squadron pilots flew 18 sorties per day. Stroupe's main focus was preparing safe, reliable, air-worthy jets for the aircrew. Red Flag incorporates the packaging of air assets into the planning of specific missions, and that makes the experience invaluable.

"The experience is pretty surreal. We practice surges back home, but during a surge we have everything we need at our disposal and it's 100 percent focused on our flying mission. At Red Flag, we have coalition partners that also need the same resources, and it's a balancing act to prioritize your flying with everyone else," said Stroupe. "That's the piece we never get to exercise - introducing third parties into our flying schedule, and that puts a strain on getting shared access to shared resources."

Stroupe explained that support equipment is limited at Red Flag - equipment to maintain the aircraft are pooled for all the units. One example is liquid oxygen. Maintainers have to service the jet's liquid oxygen supply roughly every other time it flies, which in this combat exercise environment is nearly every day.

"We can bring our own cart, but you can only fill the liquid oxygen so many times with your own cart. We then rely on Nellis to refill them, which is what every other unit is trying to do as well. At that point, Red Flag has to start prioritizing the units. If you're the third one in line, it can impact your ability to generate sorties," he said.

Aside from this, Red Flag officials provided "injects," or scenarios were treated as real-world occurrences. These ranged from support equipment malfunctioning to simulated improvised explosive implanting. This provides a valuable test for Airmen to react, and Red Flag identifies best practices so they can be shared with other AMUs around the Air Force.

"We take a lot of what we experience here so we can apply it in real world situations. It's intangible, but the teamwork and camaraderie of an Expeditionary Fighter Squadron is really what we're trying to build here," Stroupe said. "The closer maintainers get to the operators and understand their mission, and the better they can understand what we go through on a daily basis, the more it sets us up for success when we deploy."

"It can be intimidating if you've never done Red Flag, because there are a lot of things you don't know that you don't know," Stroupe said. "I'm thankful for everyone in the AMU; they give me the illusion that I make decisions around here - they definitely set me up for success."