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Eye in the sky, RPA Airmen in the Red Flag fight

CREECH AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. (AFNS) -- The sun beats down on the dry Nevada desert, bringing a smell of fuel that fills the air. Engines begin roaring to life as the Airmen of the 432nd Wing prepare to support Red Flag 15-3 from July 13-31.

Located approximately an hour from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, where participants eat, sleep and breathe Red Flag operations, the Airmen of Creech AFB didn't let the distance hinder their opportunity to show the rest of the Air Force community and the world what remotely piloted aircraft can bring to the fight.

"I feel this type of training is important because of the immense integration that occurs with other Air Force assets," said Capt. Benjamin, an 18th Reconnaissance Squadron MQ-1B Predator pilot. "We can go out on one of the greatest ranges in the world and play against ourselves. Having the ability to train with other assets is good; it's the key to what makes Red Flag so great."

The main mission of Red Flag is to provide a realistic combat training exercise involving the air forces of the U.S. and its allies. It is coordinated at Nellis AFB and conducted on the vast bombing and gunnery ranges of the Nevada Test and Training Range. The exercise is part of a series of advanced training programs administered by the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center and Nellis AFB, and executed through the 414th Combat Training Squadron.

"There was definitely a learning curve in the beginning, but we really added value to the scenarios as the exercise progressed," said Maj. Johnny, the 18th RS Red Flag Detachment commander. "During the first week, we had to spend a lot of time carving out a role for ourselves, as the majority of the players were unfamiliar with what we could do and how we employ. As the exercise progressed, you could see the mission commanders start to utilize us in a larger role. "

This isn't the first time the RPAs have participated in the Red Flag exercise. However, Airmen noticed a change in how they met their goal of fully integrating RPAs into large force exercises, which is to educate and familiarize other major weapon systems communities on the RPA capabilities.

The Predator was among other elite aircraft participating in the Red Flag exercise, which included B-52 Stratofortresses, KC-135 Stratotankers, F-22 Raptors, F-16 Fighting Falcons, F-15 Eagles and F-15E Strike Eagles.

The exercise also gave Airmen the opportunity to join forces with sister service assets such as the Navy's EA-18G Growlers, F/A-18 Hornets, MH-60 Sikorsky and the Marine Corp's EA-6B Prowlers to accomplish Red Flag exercise mission objectives.

The Predator carries the Multi-Spectral Targeting System, which integrates an infrared sensor, color/monochrome daylight TV camera, image-intensified TV camera, laser designator and laser illuminator. The full-motion video from each of the imaging sensors can be viewed as separate video streams or fused. The aircraft can employ two laser-guided missiles, Air-to-Ground Missile-114 Hellfire, that possess highly accurate, low-collateral damage, and anti-armor, anti-personnel engagement capabilities.

"We participated in this Red Flag to give our aircrew the training experience of being integrated with other players and showcase what we bring to the fight and learn what they bring all while integrating to accomplish a specific mission set," Benjamin said.

Daily missions vary in complexity and severity but focus on building skills in dynamic targeting, global strike missions, counter-air missions, and combat search and rescue scenarios.

In addition to the integration with manned assets, RPA Airmen were able to gather more insight on operations from a ground point of view.

"Flying the aircraft remotely from the ground gave us access to a variety of communication mediums that manned assets don't have access to while in flight," Johnny said. "By the last week of the exercise, we were instrumental in many scenarios and especially during Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) scenarios."

To enhance working familiarity between joint and allied partners, Creech sensor operators contributed to end-of-day aircrew out briefs to discuss lessons learned.

"Most of the other players don't know about what RPAs do," said Staff Sgt. Llyod, 18th RS MQ-1 Predator sensor operator. "They don't know what we can bring to the fight but seeing them face to face allows us to educate the other participants of Red Flag and learn more than we could of from Creech."

During debriefs, aircrews are evaluated on how effective they performed against targets, how effective the threat picture was at defeating their team as well as how they performed individually.

For training purposes, Red Flag RPA aircrews were also observed by instructors to allow maximum information exchange between aircrew and Combined Air Operations Center.

"We observe over the shoulder for safety. Just like a spotter does in the gym, we make sure you are doing things correctly but the pilot and sensor are running the show," Benjamin said.

The Red Flag exercise is a training tool used to build confidence, familiarity and relationships among Defense Department warfighters to include those with little to no experience partnering with other aircraft or ground personnel.

"Our ultimate goal when selecting crews for the exercise was to get younger pilots and sensor operators involved so that we could get them that experience level of working with joint assets before they are required to perform these operations real world," Benjamin said.

Overall, more than 27 aircrew members from Creech AFB participated in addition to numerous maintenance personnel, intelligence analysts, security forces members and aircraft communication maintenance squadron personnel.

(Full names were not provided for the safety and security of those involved.)