Red Air: Aggressors’ experience provides life-saving training

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel
  • 354th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Uttered proudly in unison after a briefing before an air-to-air fight, “Have at you!” inspired by the 1975 film “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” signifies being the enemy squadron who will defend its battlefield, regardless of the cost.

Pilots from the 18th Aggressor Squadron take the role of “Red Air” during large scale exercises and train “Blue Air” pilots during RED FLAG-Alaska. Using a red star, overlaid by a target on the sleeves of their green flight suits and red flags with a hammer and sickle, they’re marked throughout the mission as experts in enemy tactics.

“Our call in life is to know, teach and replicate the enemy and be the best bad guys in the business so joint and coalition forces can learn to survive,” said Lt. Col. Julio Rodriguez, the new 18th AGRS commander. “Our job is to know the enemy, how they fight and how they think, bringing that into the air, teaching blue forces to stay alive and win the fight.”

During RF-A and other exercises around the U.S. Pacific Air Forces area of operations, these seasoned pilots use their expertise to train thousands of U.S Air Force, joint and coalition partners each year.

“From the youngest lieutenant, the captain flight lead or the mission planner coming into the combat air forces we want them to know, even though they are highly trained, they still have to look out for the unknown — we provide that unknown,” he said.

The training the Aggressors provide during RF-A integrates various forces into joint, coalition and multilateral units, training from simulated forward operating bases. The Republic of Singapore Air Force and Japan Air Self-Defense Force participated in RF-A 16-2.

An ‘outside’ perspective

“It’s a great experience to participate in such a large-scale exercise,” said RSAF Lt. Cedric Goh, a 425th Fighter Squadron F-16 Viper pilot, who has flown as a fighter pilot for two years.

Goh emphasized the unique training opportunities placed him in a near-real combat situation and that learning to fight in and out while staying alive and covering his wingman was the number one goal.

“Planning how to deconflict the threat means less work in the air to get the job done.” Goh said. “When things happen differently than what was planned, we work as a team to adjust and bring the dynamic scenario back in our favor.”

When he sees the 18th AGRS logo, Goh said he thinks of one thing, “That red star means threat; time to bring the fight to them and kill that enemy.”

Participation in RF-A and working with the 18th AGRS signifies continued commitment to peace, stability and alignment within the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

“Although we are currently at peace as a country, we are learning to work with coalition countries to blend tactics together in case there is a threat that needs to be addressed in the future,” Goh said.

Valuable training space

RF-A keeps fighters in the air through 10 simulated combat sorties flying within the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex that includes one conventional bombing range and two tactical bombing ranges containing 510 different types of targets and 45 threat simulators in a more than 67,000 square mile airspace; training space roughly the size of Missouri.

“That large space forces pilots to figure out the logistical problem of working in such a large scale similar to an entire theater of operations,” Rodriguez said. “The multiple uses the JPARC provides is imperative to the success of our training.”

Speed, altitude and terrain are some of the unfamiliar characteristics pilots may not encounter while training in other airspace.

“We can go faster here than any blue force is ever trained, up into almost Mach 2.0 to show them what its like if the enemy were to do that, which is one of their tactics,” Rodriguez added.

Sustaining a history

RED FLAG-Alaska has helped train more than 150,000 aircrew members for combat in the past 40 years. Between 1965 and 1973, during the Vietnam War, the Air Force lost a fighter pilot for every two enemy aircraft shot down in Southeast Asia, compared to a 10:1 ratio, up to 25:1 at times, during the Korean War.

A group of officers who some called the “Iron Majors,” but most referred to as the “Fighter Mafia,” built what became known as the Red Baron Reports. The reports, presented by Maj. Richard “Moody” Suter, found a trend of inexperience that led to the loss of aircraft and crew members, particularly in the pilots’ first 10 sorties.

“Our goal is to dominate the skies,” said Rodriguez. “Statistics prove that if you can survive those first 10 sorties, you will most likely [survive] in the long term. If you can do that in a training environment it is much more beneficial. Yes they might ‘die’ in the exercise, but we would rather have them die in simulation where we can debrief later rather than explode into chunks of metal. After a RED FLAG these pilots have those 10 sorties under their belt and they are no doubt the ones who will be able to go out and accomplish a mission.”

He said RF-A exercises are very conventionally minded, but the opportunity gives pilots the ability to think outside the box.

“They get to think creatively, be the problem solvers and carry the training over into not just large force scenarios but today’s fight where it’s very dynamic and things are constantly changing.”

Rodriguez related it to his experience flying combat sorties over Iraq in the surge of 2007 and 2008.

“There were a lot of moving parts where we had to think on the fly to best support the ground forces utilizing skills I had learned in large-scale exercise like RED FLAG,” he said. “Those lessons transferred seamlessly into the asymmetric war.”

The ‘Best of the Best’

Aggressors come from multiple fighter pilot roles in the U.S. Air Force and have had the experience sitting in the Blue Air ejection seat. The average Aggressor pilot has at least 1,000 fighter hours “behind the stick” and hundreds of hours of study to culminate that experience into becoming one thing…

“You have to be bad; being an Aggressor is a different mindset,” he said. “You have to leave the blue we have flown for years. You have be an Aggressor first and an F-16 pilot second. We have to be professional with our knowledge and honest with our capabilities,” Rodriguez said. “There is a large amount of studying mixed with knowledge from intelligence professionals from across the United States, who provide us with the data on enemy engineering and tactics. We as the operators have to formulate that into what the enemy actually does and work that into realistic training.”

The most challenging part of living the Aggressor life is the high demand for their capabilities. Rather than Blue Air using internal assets to train, they call on the Aggressors from Eielson and Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to travel around the world to support exercises other than their home flags.

They divide their limited assets into the most valuable training, like RF-A, without burning out personnel who fly and maintain the jets. However, along with the tempo, there is a reward that comes with the constant hard work.

“I love being part of the advisory air with the big red star on the back of my helmet, flying a sortie and being able to walk up to the Blue Air after and tell them, ‘You did a great job today. You survived. You knew the threat, understood the threat and accomplished the mission,’” said Rodriguez. “That success, being the best support possible and seeing the outcome, is the my reward. If you know the enemy and know yourself, you are going to win.”