This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Royal Air Force's participation at Exercise RED FLAG, hosted since 1975 by the US Air Force at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Since that first deployment, RAF crews have been regular players in "the Ultimate Game".
By the early 1970s, many of the widely-held tenets of post-War air power had been rewritten, over the skies of Vietnam and the Middle East. The Israeli Air Force’s destruction of the Egyptian Air Force on the ground during the Six Day war, underlined the vulnerability of inadequately protected aircraft and NATO’s European planners were hastily investing in the real estate of hardened aircraft shelters. Over the Atlantic, the United States Air Force was grappling with the dramatic drop in air superiority which saw its pilots struggling to attain a 2:1 kill ratio against the North Vietnamese Air Force when their predecessors had enjoyed a 10:1 ratio over the skies of Korea barely 2 decades before.
Genesis of RED FLAG
The US Navy had commissioned the Ault Report in 1968, which looked at the employment of air-to-air missiles during engagements over Vietnam and, after its publication the following year, would lead ultimately to the creation of the Navy Fighter Weapons School: Top Gun.
Across the corridors of power in the Pentagon, “Project Red Baron” was a series of studies being conducted by the USAF to examine its air-to-air experiences during the Vietnam War. In 1972, the project highlighted 3 significant trends: firstly, that training was generally based around flying hours and not specialised mission scenarios (a problem in particular for multi-role crew); that pilots were not versed in dissimilar air combat training (DACT), generally used to training against the larger aircraft flown by their own units as opposed to the smaller, more agile aircraft flown in abundance by North Vietnamese – and Warsaw Pact – pilots; and, finally, that USAF crews were unfamiliar with enemy tactics, weapons and aircraft capabilities. In short, training was unrealistic and in many ways irrelevant to the new threats being encountered. Studies also showed that a crew’s first 10 missions were critical in any conflict, thereafter the survival odds lengthening considerably. If USAF crews were expected to survive the first 10, things would need to change and from these studies and realisations, RED FLAG was born. With its purpose to provide realistic combat training in a high-threat-but-safe environment (“Readiness through Realism”) the first RED FLAG commenced at Nellis AFB in November 1975. The rest, as they say, is history.
The British are Coming!
The Royal Air Force was invited to take part in RED FLAG 77-9 from 6 August to 3 September 1977 and would be the first foreign air arm to do so. The official work-up would take place at Goose Bay in May, but in many respects the groundwork already begun in late 1976 with 208 Sqn crews participating in the NATO Tactical Fighter Meet at Leuchars. As the Project Officer for the deployment, David Wilby, notes in Buccaneer Boys, the ultra-low level environment afforded to TFM participants which cleared aircraft down to 100 feet (instead of the usual 250 feet) was an invaluable prelude to the official work-up at Goose.
Each RED FLAG consists of 2 separate 2-week exercises with crews rotating after the first fortnight and for 77-9, 10 Buccaneers from RAF Honington and 2 Vulcans from RAF Scampton were deployed. The deployment in itself was no mean feat with freight and weapons being deployed across the Pond during June and July. Perhaps most notable aspect of this logistical conundrum was the Vulcans hauling the live 1,000lb HE and BL755 cluster bombs that would be dropped on the Nellis ranges by Buccaneer crews! The Vulcans would have their own role to play in RED FLAG but that is one for another day...
With each RED FLAG exercise comprising 2 discreet 2-week exercises, it was down to 11 crews from 208 Sqn and 4 from no 6 Qualified Weapons Instructor (QWI) course from 237 OCU to debut the Buccaneer, tasked with no fewer than 8 sorties over the fortnight. As well as the obligatory familiarisation exercise, these also included single-ship lay down or toss bombing and 6 attack sorties flown in tactical pairs or larger formations. Co-ordinated attacks against simulated airfields and industrial complexes as well as armed reconnaissance sorties were the orders of the day.
Stories of Buccaneer crews flying ultra-low over the Nellis ranges have almost become RAF folklore but the tactics honed over years would prove to be highly effective. With USAF crews generally patrolling at high level to conserve fuel, visual acquisition of the 'Banana Bomber' proved problematic. Furthermore, fighter crews were unwilling to take the chase to low level giving the RAF crews a significant advantage against the air-to-air threat. Aggressor F-5 Tiger pilots would resort to patrolling the target area and awaiting the explosion of ordnance to aid their visual acquisition! And, with Ground Controllers simulating Soviet tactics of that era, Buccaneers were able to enter and exit the target areas largely unmolested.
When acquisition was made, Aggressor crews were initially cautious about pursing the Buccaneers at low-level. Uncertainty over the position of the remainder of the formation meant that an F5 pilot dropping in behind a seemingly lone Buccaneer could be presenting himself as an easy target to any bomber crew in the trail. Indeed, at least one RAF crew were spared as a chasing F5 pilot lost contact as he sought to clear his own 'six'! Only once it was realised that the Buccaneer carried no defensive armament did the USAF crews pursue with more confidence, albeit with not a lot more success with only sporadic claims being verified against the RAF crews.
This, of course, did not go unnoticed by senior figures in the USAF. A memo from HQ Tactical Air Command to the Nellis training wings stated dryly:
"Early reports indicate that RAF Buccaneers have been relatively successful in evading both surface and air threats in RED FLAG. Request... an analysis of RAF tactics from the 'enemy' point of view."
It is worth pointing out that this memo was dated 27 August - while RED FLAG 77-9 was in full swing!
More British are Coming!
With the first exercise concluded, it was the turn of crews from RAF Germany to fly the flag for the second fortnight with 15 crews from XV and 16 Sqns based at RAF Laarbruch. Suitably briefed by their Strike Command colleagues, the RAFG contingent further honed their fighter evasion tactics, avoiding ridges above which tracking F-5 and F-15 Eagle pilots would make their attacks as aircraft were "skylined" as they momentarily left the sanctuary afforded by the Nevada desert floor. Jinking became part of the package as simply outrunning an opponent at ultra-low level was not sufficient to thwart, in particular, a capable Eagle driver.
The Buccaneer's lack of defensive armanment would subsequently be highlighted in the official report on the deployment but in-theatre" at least two F-15s fell victim to the Dick Dastardly-esque BIF - bomb in face tactic. The RAFG after-exercise report wou,d subsequently recommend that all Buccaneers should in future carry a single retarded 1000lb HE bomb! Both Strike Command and RAFG did also suggest that a more conventional air-to-air weapon - the AIM9 Sidewinder - would have been a significant improvement and this would be put to good use in future RED FLAGS.
RED FLAG also gave crews an opportunity to use electronic countermeasures (ECM) in (almost) anger. The Buccaneer crews found that despite developing jamming tactics prior to deployment, the ALQ101 pod caused interference with the aircraft's own Radar Warning Receiver. These and other technical woes with some aspects of the RWR system highlighted the difficulties in supporting deployments out of area and a more robust support package would accompany future trips to Nellis. During some sorties, ECM assistance was provided by US Navy EA-6B Prowlers ensuring that the RAF crews were not completely vulnerable to electronic threats.
Perhaps the most “famous” participants were the 4 Buccaneers that received a special “desert” camouflage scheme to be evaluated during the deployment. While factors such as sun angle and terrain would on occasion favour the brown/sand variation, it was concluded that it was in itself of no significant benefit. However, the exercises did reinforce a view that all Buccaneers should receive the all-over (ie wrap-around) green/grey scheme as the single biggest visual giveaway was, in fact, the light grey underside sported by the 208 Sqn jets!
Beyond the lessons learned in the cockpit (and on the flightline), RED FLAG 77-9 had a significant impact on the training of the RAF's strike and attack crews. The initial Goose Bay work-up would be repeated in future, in the guise of dedicated deployments, hosted at RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland.
Work-ups also provided crews with a special 100 feet low-flying area in northern Scotland, which more closely replicated the type of flying (if not necessarily the weather!) that crews would face at RED FLAG. This would be of particular benefit to the strike crews flying in RAF Gemany, more used to flying under more contrained low-flying rules in more congested airspace, and whose routine training had been described as being “inadequate in some areas for preparing crews for operational flying”.
A former 16 Sqn liney subsequently speaks of seeing crews returning to Lossiemouth after a “Tartan Flag” trip “looking rather sweaty” as testament to the realism of the exercise being played out across the Scottish Highlands and the North Sea!
No fewer than 246 RED FLAG sorties were flown over the 2 exercises, with only 4 sorties being lost to mechanical issues: one hydraulic leak on take-off, a landing gear that failed to retract and 2 aircraft declared unserviceable on the ground. This is testament to the efforts of over 150 ground crew who supported the detachment and whose enthusiasm for the RED FLAG concept was highlighted in spite of the challenging Nevada climate.
Some 124 1000lb bombs were released over the Nevada weapons ranges (60 of those retarded), along with 30 BL755 cluster bomb units (CBU) and a further 126 28lb practice bombs. 70,000lbs of freight was also ferried across the Atlantic by the C-130 Hercules crews of 38 Group, Strike Command in support of the deployment.
Evaluating the success (or otherwise) of any military exercise is a complex thing and one for more scholarly minds that mine. Perhaps it is best left to the first recommendation made in the official Report on RAF Participation at Exercise Red Flag (the capitalisation is not mine):
“IN VIEW OF THE UNIQUE AND OUTSTANDING OPERATIONAL FACILITIES AVAILABLE, THE ROYAL AIR FORCE SHOULD TAKE FULL ADVANTAGE OF ANY FURTHER OPPORTUNITIES TO PARTICIPATE IN EXERCISE RED FLAG: IF NECESSARY, AT THE EXPENSE OF OTHER EXERCISES AND DEPLOYMENTS.”
Over the next 40 years, the Buccaneers and the Vulcans would return to Nellis and, following them would come Jaguars, Harriers, Tornado bombers and fighters, F-4 Phantoms, C-130 Hercules, Nimrods, E-3 Sentries, Sentinels and Voyagers. People in high places must have listened.
Eagles Over Nevada – The RAF at Red Flag 1977-2016 is a work in progress by Aircrew Interview Patron, Gary Fairley. You can follow the project on Facebook at www.facebook.com/redflagbook or drop him at line at firstname.lastname@example.org.