TopGun for real: war training at Nellis Air Force Base


What can simultaneously burst your eardrums, create stomach churning sensations and cause everything around you to reverberate violently? The answer is simple. Being in close proximity to a series of state-of-the-art military jets taking off from Nellis Air Force Base, USA, feeling the heat from the engines and admiring the glow of their afterburners as they shoot off into the heart of the Nevada desert to take part in the most famous and exacting training exercise in the world.  Welcome to Red Flag.

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Red Flag was created in 1975 to provide realistic and relevant combat training through integrated war fighting. As Colonel Tod Fingal, Commander of Red Flag explains ‘We bring all types of forces here both from within US forces, so army, navy and marine corps, but also our coalition partners, because when you bring all of us together and train in that contested environment it gives us the opportunity, if called upon, to achieve war-fighting excellence.’

Red Flag was created because the United States military felt they needed to dramatically improve the unacceptable kill to loss ratio of aircraft in the Vietnam War where 1 US aircraft was being lost for every 2 enemy aircraft - a sharp contrast to the Korean War fifteen years previously where a kill to loss ratio of 10 to 1 was the norm. As Colonel Fingal explains, these results were ‘predominantly because we lost combat experience.’  A study was undertaken at Nellis AFB to work out what could be done to improve performance.  The results showed that if they could provide advanced combat training for the pilots before they went into actual combat, their chance of survival would increase dramatically – and it worked.

As Colonel Fingal goes on to say, ‘In 1975 we started flying Red Flag exercises with the goal of getting that experience to our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines and then we saw that it would increase their combat effectiveness and decrease the loss rate.’

During what is regarded as the most technologically advanced combat training exercise in the world, two teams made up of the “Blue Forces” (the good guys) vs. the “Red Forces” (the bad guys) simulate real life air to air and air to ground warfare over a 30,000 square mile training range north of Las Vegas. The range is equipped with sensors and simulated threats with the results of the twice daily exercises later being analysed using high powered computers and 3D technology.

In the current Red Flag exercise (13-2), Colonel Fingal says ‘we’ve got coalition partners from Sweden, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands’ who have brought their own aircraft to train with the United States forces. This integration is mutually beneficial as each air force learns what other countries capabilities are and how to effectively work with them in war conditions. Since 1975, the United States forces have trained with 29 different coalition partners with the RAF planning to take part in the next Red Flag exercise later this year with their Typhoons and Tornadoes. As RAF Squadron Leader Andy Chisholm says, ‘The US Raptor (pictured) is a fifth-generation low observable aircraft and we need to operate with them to enhance our joint capability. You have to practise, and practice makes perfect.’