Aussie F-35s, UK tanker join massive wargame over western US

by Braxton Taylor

ABOARD A ROYAL AIR FORCE TANKER—High in the skies above Nevada, an F-35 jet carefully flies beside a tanker, trying to latch onto the plane to refuel. Three more U.S. Marine Corps F-35s follow, taking on gas on both sides of the Royal Air Force Voyager tanker, followed by six British Typhoons. Then the topped-off jets zoom off to their targets, some 150 miles away.

It’s part of the giant Red Flag 24-1 exercise, a two-week wargame that stretches over Nevada, Utah, and California. But half a world away and just a day earlier, Voyagers refueled other Typhoons before the U.S. and UK bombed Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen. The tanking exercise mirrors current coalition operations—and reflects how allies will have to coordinate refueling needs if war breaks out with China.

After refueling, the 10 fighters join up with other aircraft on the “blue team”—a cohort of 30 to 40 aircraft, including more F-35s and F-15s, F-16s, B-2s, and B-52s—to fight the “red team” and win control of the air space. The enemy is an “advanced nation” with an integrated air defense system, officials say—like Russia or China.

“Here, effectively, we’re introducing them to the chaos of combat,” said Col. Eric Winterbottom, commander of the 414th Combat Training Squadron at Nellis. 

The threat landscape has evolved since the first Red Flag in 1975. But this year’s exercise is happening at a particularly significant time, as allies are flying joint operations in the Middle East, and the Pentagon continues to prepare for a potential fight in the Pacific.

The feedback loop isn’t quite fast enough for current operations in the Middle East to have much influence on this year’s Red Flag, Winterbottom said, but the exercise teaches pilots the skills needed for a range of combat scenarios.  

“Our skill sets that we’re practicing, although we may put them against a certain scenario or storyline, if you will, they’re really the basic air power applications: defensive counter air, offensive counter air…air interdiction, suppression of enemy air defenses,” Winterbottom said. 

This iteration of Red Flag marked the first time Australia brought its F-35s to the exercise, giving pilots the chance to operate with other F-35s and aircraft they wouldn’t work with at home, like the B-2 and B-52 bombers. 

The Royal Australian Air Force has a smaller fleet of fighter jets than the U.S., so “if it ever came to war, we’d really need to operate with our partner nations, being America and UK,” said Flt. Lt. Daniel Armstrong, an F-35 pilot in the RAAF.

Though readiness rates are low in the U.S. F-35 fleet, Armstrong said he has a “great” mission-capable rate in his squadron. 

Armstrong praised the F-35’s stealth and lethality, which he said gives pilots the ability to get in “close to the enemy and really give them an uppercut without them knowing they’re getting punched in the face.” 

Australia flies the F-35A, which can only take off from runways and can’t land on an aircraft carrier like the F-35C or land vertically on smaller ships like the F-35B. But operating the F-35A in a runway-constrained environment like the Pacific is a difficult task, Armstrong said, which is why it’s important to practice working as an “integrated package” with other allies’ F-35s. 

“It is a challenge, but it’s something that’s being looked at by people with a lot more rank than me. I’m just having a good time flying it [and] being prepared for whatever may come,” he said. 

Tanking needs 

Aboard the UK’s Voyager tanker, officials told reporters that all allies are going to need more tanking capability to support global refueling operations. 

Figuring out how to plan tanking across the coalition is “probably the biggest training effect we’re getting out of Red Flag,” said Cmdr. Paul Summers, the wing commander of 101 Squadron, one of the RAF’s two Voyager squadrons, which operate a total of 14 tankers. 

The Voyager, despite its commercial-airliner appearance with comfortable seats, bathrooms, and even a beverage and snack cart, flies right up to the conflict. Just one day before the Jan. 23 exercise at Nellis, the tankers were supporting attacks in Yemen. 

“Without the tanker, the fast jets don’t have the reach to conduct those long-range strikes,” Summers said. “It’s the same deal in Yemen. If you want to project air power at range, then you need a tanker, and it’s exactly the same in Iraq and Syria.” 

The tanker served as the blue team’s only aerial refueler in this scenario, Summers said. U.S. KC-135s and KC-46s were operating out of Travis Air Force Base in California for this part of the exercise.

The RAF was in charge of planning air refueling for the blue team, tasked with figuring out which aircraft needed gas and where and when—and adjusting when forces can’t deconflict fuel needs, Summers said. 

Practicing around Nellis is a bit “artificial,” Summers said, because air space is constrained and the jets aren’t flying very far. But as the exercise moves to the Pacific and jets are flying hundreds of miles, the tanker will become more critical to the simulated fight, he said. 

The Voyager offloaded about 30 tons of fuel to 10 aircraft in this exercise, Summers said, but it can hold about 110 tons if needed. The British tanker can give fuel to a variety of coalition jets, including F-35Bs and Cs, F/A-18s, and EA-18Gs—any aircraft capable of refueling with the “probe and drogue” method. To refuel a jet, the tanker unrolls a long hose with a basket—or drogue—at the end of it. The receiver pilot then needs to land a retractable probe into the drogue and latch on to receive fuel. 

This is different from how KC-46 and KC-135 tankers operate. Those planes have a boom that a remote operator flies into the receiver aircraft. The operation is more complex but the fuel is pumped quicker, which is better for the USAF’s large strategic jet bombers. 

Refueling coalition aircraft has been crucial in previous conflicts, and will be for future ones in the Pacific, Summers said. And with Russia in the UK’s backyard, “we’ve got to be focused on fighting, wherever.”

Replicating the threat

Nellis is home to three aggressor squadrons that play the “red team” in these exercises, preparing pilots to go up against a thinking enemy, and giving the red pilots the chance to get into the head of the enemy. 

These pilots are “full-time” aggressors, Winterbottom said, and “spend time thinking about what are the tactics and how would I use the organic information in the cockpit with the typical blue weapons and then adjust what I’m seeing or use what I’m seeing to replicate the capabilities of a red.”

But how exactly does a U.S. fighter jet become an “aggressor”? A large part of it is the formation the aggressor flies, but there are certain pieces of equipment they put on aircraft to make them show up as a red aircraft, said Tech. Sgt. Stephen Jervis, a 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons expeditor working with the 64th Aggressor Squadron, which flies the F-16. Nellis also has the 65th Aggressor Squadron, which flies the F-35, and the 706th Fighter Squadron, a reserve component.

“The threat is always changing, but there’s always consistent ones as well, so our pilots do adapt to that while sticking to what we’ve always done,” Jervis said.

The Air Force loads the same weapons onto the aircraft for blue and red teams, but the squadron uses electronic warfare and other technology to make an aircraft look like an enemy, Jervis said. 

“Our F-16 would tend to replicate a 4th-generation threat, and then our F-35s and F-22s will tend to replicate something that’s more like a 5th-generation red threat, that could be a Russian or a Chinese aircraft, so they won’t necessarily be facing exactly the same capabilities 1-v-1,” Winterbottom said. 

In addition to the flying aggressor units, Nellis also has an air defense aggressor squadron and an information aggressor squadron, to recreate an enemy’s surface-to-air missile and cyber threats, Winterbottom said. The U.S. Space Force in Colorado provides the “space aggressor” piece of Red Flag, he said.  

After this iteration, Winterbottom said they’ll conduct a Red Flag with the Dutch in the spring, followed by a U.S.-only scenario in the summer.

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