Red Flag-Alaska readies Airmen for deployment

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Red Flag-Alaska 06-2 participants have arrived and set up shop at this interior Alaska base to prepare for the annual exercise previously called Cope Thunder.

More than 1,500 active duty, Reserve and Air National Guard Airmen, 84 aircraft and an Army and Navy unit will train for two weeks in the Air Force’s composite force exercise on the Pacific Alaskan Range Complex.

“Overall planning with all the participants has come together flawlessly,” said Capt. Ron Strobach, Red Flag-Alaska project officer.

Participants are divided into opposing “hostile” and “friendly” forces flying against each other in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat and combat support missions using a variety of aircraft against a realistic set of threats. Fighting against a robust air-to-air and surface-to-air threat provides a real challenge for the pilots, Captain Strobach said.

Col. John Dobbins, the air expeditionary wing commander for the exercise, has held command positions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. From a planning standpoint, he said Red Flag-Alaska 06-2 will probably be more demanding than either experiences he had in the desert.

“The air-to-air threat is going to be significantly higher. The surface-to-air threat is probably, from a simulated point of view, going to be higher,” Colonel Dobbins said. “Obviously nothing’s actually trying to shoot us down here, but (the threats) are going to be a lot more dense than most of the things you see in Afghanistan or Iraq.”

Here planners can dial up the threats, which will include dedicated “red air” F-16 Fighting Falcons from the 64th Aggressor Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., and the 63rd Fighter Squadron from Luke AFB, Ariz., Colonel Dobbins said.

The aggressors' presence is a first for this exercise, Captain Strobach said.

“Integrating aggressors into opposing forces is going to be a benchmark for us. This is the volume and quality of professional 'red air' we’d like to see,” he said.

Red Flag-Alaska is designed to provide the finest training possible ensuring fighter pilots and aircrew receive at least 10 sorties in a realistic simulated combat environment. This is accomplished on the world’s largest range, complete with more than 29 air defense systems, unmanned (ground) threat emitters and fourth-generation air combat maneuvering instrumentation pods on aircraft, all of which tie into the Yukon mission debriefing system to provide feedback to the pilots.

Air operations will be flown out of here and Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, and will include daily close-air-support sorties for several thousand U.S. Army Soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division, Fort Richardson, Alaska, doing their version of spin-up training at the Fort Greeley/Donnelly Training Area.

The Navy will also participate in the exercise as part of the “blue air” with EA-6B Prowlers from the 142nd Electronic Attack Squadron at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wash.

The goal of the exercise, Colonel Dobbins said, “is bringing together, in at least two locations that are fairly-well connected, a way that (Airmen) can go plan against a problem, then execute that problem, and come back and talk about it.”

In a combat environment, he said, you don’t really have time to do that because you’re working on the next day’s missions. Here you can stop and talk about what went right, what went wrong and how to make it right next time.

The exercise allows several units, whose missions may differ significantly, the opportunity to work together in a training environment with units with which they may deploy in the future. The exercise will focus on joint offensive counter air, interdiction, close air support, and large force employment training.

The training does not stop with Airmen behind the flight controls. Aircraft maintainers and other combat support team Airmen are learning here, too.

Although the exercise is primarily focused towards the aircrew, everybody who deploys here ought to learn something about deploying, Colonel Dobbins said.

By working out of unfamiliar surroundings, the people on the ground are conducting business like they would if a unit were deployed for a wartime mission, said Capt. Shawnn Martin, 353rd Combat Training Squadron exercise support division chief at Eielson AFB.

“They bring everything with them to maintain and support their aircraft,” Captain Martin said. “All we provide them are the facilities. They’re operating just like they would if they were to deploy to a bare base.”

With initial briefings and familiarization flights out of the way, training missions will begin April 24.