Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, are home to RED FLAG-Alaska, a realistic, 10-day air combat training exercise held up to four times a year. Each RED FLAG-Alaska exercise is a multi-service, multi-platform coordinated, combat operations exercise and corresponds to the designed operational capability of participating units. In other words, exercises often involve several units whose military mission may differ significantly from that of other participating units. RED FLAG-Alaska planners take those factors into consideration when designing exercises so participants get the maximum training possible without being placed at an unfair advantage during simulated combat scenarios.
RED FLAG-Alaska is a Pacific Air Forces-sponsored exercise. Originally named COPE THUNDER, it was moved to Eielson AFB from Clark Air Base, Philippines, in 1992 after the eruption of Mount Pinatubo on June 15, 1991, forced the curtailment of operations. COPE THUNDER was re-designated RED FLAG-Alaska in 2006.
When the decision was made to relocate COPE THUNDER, Air Force officials viewed Eielson as the most logical choice. That decision was based partly on the fact that Eielson's 353rd Combat Training Squadron already controlled and maintained three major military flight training ranges in Alaska.
Initiated in 1976, COPE THUNDER was devised as a way to give aircrews their first taste of warfare and quickly grew into PACAF's "premier simulated combat airpower employment exercise."
Prior to Operation Desert Storm, less than one-fifth of the U.S. Air Force's primary fighter pilots had seen actual combat. While the percentage of combat-experienced pilots has increased in recent years, a high percentage of pilots hadn't been thrust into combat. Analysis indicates most combat losses occurred during an aircrew's first eight to 10 missions. Therefore, the goal of RED FLAG-Alaska is to provide each aircrew with these first vital missions, increasing their chances of survival in combat environments.
RED FLAG-Alaska participants are organized into "Red" defensive forces and "Blue" offensive forces. "White" forces represent the neutral controlling agency. The defensive force includes ground-control intercept and surface air defense forces to simulate threats posed by potentially hostile nations. These forces generally employ defensive counter-air tactics directed by ground-control intercept sites. Range threat emitters -- electronic devices which send out signals simulating anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile launches -- provide valuable surface-to-air training and are operated by a civilian contractor as directed by 353rd Combat Training Squadron technicians. The offensive force includes the full spectrum of U.S. and allied tactical and support units. Because the defensive and offensive forces meet in a simulated hostile, non-cooperative training environment, the job of controlling the mock war and ensuring safety falls to the White neutral force.
On an average, more than 1,000 people and up to 60 aircraft deploy to Eielson and an additional 500 people and 40 aircraft deploy to JBER for each RED FLAG-Alaska exercise.
During the two-week employment phase of the exercise, aircrews are subjected to every conceivable combat threat. Scenarios are shaped to meet each exercise's specific training objectives. All units are involved in the development of exercise training objectives. At the height of the exercise, up to 70 jet fighters can be operating in the same airspace at one time. Typically, RED FLAG-Alaska conducts two combat missions each day.
All RED FLAG-Alaska exercises take place in the Joint Pacific Range Complex over Alaska, as well as a portion of Western Canadian airspace. The entire airspace is made up of extensive Military Operations Areas, Special Use Airspace and ranges for a total airspace of more than 67,000 square miles.
Since its inception, thousands of people from all four branches of the US military, as well as the armed services of the of multiple countries from around the world, have taken part in RED FLAG-Alaska and Cooperative COPE THUNDER exercises.