What Is It Like To Fly at Red Flag Exercises?

 A pair of F-22 Raptors

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images for NASCAR

This question originally appeared on Quora. “Red Flag” excercises are advanced military training excercies that take place a few times a year.

Answer by Chris Kibble, former fighter pilot:

It’s probably one of the most exhilarating and challenging training activities you attend as a pilot. Very demanding, but it can also become slightly repetitive and contrived over time due to some inherent Nellis airspace limitations. It’s not really prestigious per se, because you attend as a squadron, not as an individual singled out to attend. It’s more like something that you get to participate in by being assigned to the right squadron at the right time. Units rotate through based upon many factors such as deployment schedules, etc. The atmosphere is one of high expectations, high performance, and peer-led public debriefing focusing on mistakes and lessons learned.

Details: I attended multiple Red Flags and similar exercises at Nellis as both Blue Air (friendly) and Red Air (enemy). These were all between 1997 and 2007, so some portions of Red Flag may have changed.

Since you asked about the atmosphere, I’ll focus on that. In general, it’s like you’re on a business trip with all your buddies (to Las Vegas!) in which the focus is learning a higher level of tactical execution. You are there to improve as a squadron, learn from your mistakes, and prove that you can perform at a higher level. Las Vegas provides a great backdrop for post-debrief shenanigans. But after being there for a week or two, most pilots are ready to get back to base. In all, it’s usually a pretty busy trip.

Most of the actual atmosphere of the week (aside from the standard Vegas fun and games) comes from the mission-planning and debrief portions. These are the times when Red Flag participants are actually all working alongside each other in the main building instead of at their individual unit buildings. So, I’ll focus on those areas.

During mission planning, there’s not really a sense of prestige as you walk around, but rather the standard “Don’t f— it up” attitude that fighter pilots live by. You want to make sure your squadron proves it has its sh– together. You’re there among many of your peers in your career field. And you want to demonstrate you know your stuff, that you can execute at a high level as a wingman, flight lead, mission commander etc. So, you talk to the other units, develop the overall game plan, and try to anticipate how many ways it is going to fall apart because of adversary actions or your own errors. Keep in mind that most of the CAF (combat air forces - fighter, bomber, air battle managers) and some of the MAF (mobility air forces - tanker/transport) also participate in Red Flag. There are bomber and tanker aircrew planning alongside everyone else, focusing on the overall objectives. So, it’s not just fighter pilots. Though it should be. (I kid, I kid!!!)

But the real atmosphere for any fighter exercise comes from the debrief. The best way I can describe the atmosphere during a Red Flag mass debrief is that of a scientific reconstruction of events set on a big, public stage. You are sitting in a fairly huge auditorium holding 300 or so fellow pilots with a large stage and projector screens in front. The mission commander (the pilot in charge of the whole Blue Air plan) is on stage leading the debrief, though at times it may be Red Air (enemy) leading the discussion. The mission commander attempts to reconstruct the overall events of the mission on stage with the help of an “instant replay” system that visually depicts individual aircraft locations in a god’s-eye view. The goal is to find out if Blue Air met their objectives. And if not, why. What actually happened compared with what should have happened. Emphasis is placed on getting the correct lessons learned out to all participants. Success is expected and mistakes are meticulously analyzed and deconstructed in minute detail for about an hour in the mass debrief. A longer, specialized debrief occurs afterwards at your own unit.

The mass debriefs are done in a very efficient way. Your job as a one-each Blue Air pilot sitting in the audience is to 1) learn, and 2) be ready to answer questions about any time you shot somebody (position, location relative to target, if you determined your shot killed the adversary, etc.). You do not speak unless spoken to. If you actually are spoken to, you answer in a clear, concise manner. Then you go back to shutting the f— up. The debrief is not done in a ruthless manner, though it can feel ruthless when you’re the dude who screwed up and it gets broadcast on a gigantic projection screen in front of more than 300 of your peers (been there!). Rather, it is intended to be an effective learning environment, and it mostly succeeds. If you ever get the chance to sit in on an (unclassified) fighter debrief, you should. It is an amazing model for learning where BS is chastised, you own up to your mistakes, performance trumps rank, and solving for root causes is both a science and an art. It really is something that separates Western-trained air forces from others around the world. And the Red Flag mass debrief follows that model for the most part, but at a larger and slightly less-detailed scale.

The actual flying during Red Flag is pretty amazing. I have some great memories from those sorties. I always thought that they should hook up brain-wave scanners to fighter pilots craniums during Red Flag sorties so we could visualize the insane amount of action going on. But that’s another topic …

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