My First Red Flag in the Last Frontier

All the military aviation enthusiasts have heard of Red Flag exercises that are held at Nellis AFB, in Las Vegas. A few might not have heard of similar exercises being held in Alaska, at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) near Anchorage, and Eielson AFB near the city of Fairbanks. Fairbanks is the largest city in Alaska and is roughly 120 miles from the Arctic Circle. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been participating in international exercises with several countries recently. They have held joint exercises with UK, France, UAE, Singapore, and even South Africa. All the exercise participation in the past has been with a single-model fighters – like the Sukhoi Su-30MKI and even Jaguars as far back as 2004 at Eielson AFB. Ironically, I was in Alaska in the last week of July 2004 taking a vacation and I had no contact with the IAF then for me to cover that event. I remember distinctly driving by Eielson AFB knowing that the IAF was there :( This time though, it would be the first time for the IAF to have a multi-model fighter force being ferried all the way to Alaska and back – Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters from No.15 ‘Flying Lances’ from Air Force Station Sirsa, and No. 14 ‘Bulls’ Squadron from AFS Ambala had landed at Eielson AFB to participate in Red Flag Alaska 16-01.

Before we jump in, lets try to understand what is Red Flag and what are the lessons that the participating units take away from it. For the Americans, air combat over North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973 resulted in an overall kill ratio (ratio of enemy aircraft shot down to the number of friendly aircraft lost to enemy action) of 2.2:1 and was even less than 1:1 during some of the major operations in that war. The disappointing performance of the American fighter pilots and weapon systems officers (WSOs) in air combat maneuvering (ACM) during the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars, resulted in a study being commissioned by the US Air Force and US Navy that came up with several similar reasons but opposite solutions. One of them was a lack of realistic ACM training for the pilots and WSOs of the time. There was too much faith vested in the Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missiles, and hence close ACM training was deemed not worth spending the time on. The USAF went for technological solutions like fitting the F-4 Phantom with an integral cannon and improving the radar capabilities; while the US Navy decided that they needed to re-introduce ACM training for the fighter crews. One of the other results from the analysis was also the fact that showed that a pilot’s chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had experienced at least 10 combat missions. As a result, the US Navy instituted the Navy Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) in NAS Miramar, California in 1969. The mission focus was on Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) where aircraft of different capabilities – trying to simulate performances of the MiG-17 and MiG-21 – were stacked up against the regular frontline aircraft of the time. As a result, the US Navy kill ratio rose to almost 13:1 after 1970 when Top Gun graduates went back to the Fleet operational squadrons and further disseminated what they had learnt when flying with Top Gun instructors. On the other hand, the US Air Force came up with Red Flag in 1975 – after the Vietnam war – to offer the fighter crew the opportunity to fly realistic mock combat missions in a safe training environment with an instant debrief capability. Many air crews had also fallen victim to SAMs during the Vietnam War and Red Flag exercises provide the threat simulation experience as well.

The Cope Thunder exercises was a similar set of multi-units, multi-function exercise that started at Clark AFB in the Philippines, in 1976. After the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo that forced the closure of the base, it was moved to Eielson AFB in 1992. It was redesignated as Red Flag Alaska in 2006. Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex – JPARC in short – is around 65,000 square miles of airspace, roughly the size of the state of Missouri and sports the ‘amenities’ of one conventional bombing range, and two tactical bombing ranges containing 510 different types of targets with 45 different threat simulators. That along with telemetry data provides the air warrior a different set of challenges to overcome – altitude, terrain, and speed considerations for planning large force exercises (LFEs). One can go almost Mach 2 and as low as 100-200 feet in the JPARC.
Complementing the JPARC, is the presence of 18th Aggressor Squadron ‘The Blue Foxes’ with their camouflage-schemed F-16 Vipers and the crew – who fly ‘Red Air’ missions – the bad guys – against the ‘Blue Air’ or friendly forces. The Aggressor pilots are the ‘Best of the Best’. Having flown in Blue Air jets, they already have at least 1000 hours of flying experience in Vipers, or Eagles and many hours of studying before they enter the highly sought after club of Aggressors. Having the right aptitude as well is absolutely essential towards being an Aggressor pilot. The Aggressor pilots are a more mature, and experienced lot. They also spend lots of time studying intelligence reports and classified information on enemy engineering and tactics and then formulate that into realistic training they provide to Blue Air during the Red Flag exercises.


The Indian Air Force deployment consisted of around 200 personnel, four Su-30MKI multi-role fighters (above left), four deep-penetration strike Jaguar IS (above center), two Il-78 tankers from No.78 ‘Valorous MARS’ (above right), and C-17 Globemaster III from No.81 ‘Skylords’ Squadron from AFS Hindon (left). The C-17s did not hang around the for the duration of the exercise – they dropped the spares, cargo and other logistics and returned to their base in India. The highlight of the deployment was the Jaguar IS strike aircraft – India is the only nation that operates the Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguar. Though the airframe and design is old, all the Jaguars were brand new built at the HAL factory in India. They were sporting the Display Attack Ranging Inertial Navigation (DARIN) II upgrades of avionics and ECM suite apart from an airframe overhaul. It was a logistical challenge with this participation since there were two different types of aircraft taking part – and arranging their spares itself is a nightmare. Some of the maintenance folks came first during the initial weeks of April and organized the hangar space for spares that would be dropped in the subsequent days. One of the major complaints of people at the time was food – we Indians are used to some spicy food from back home – and what was available in Eielson was not exactly to the taste of the maintainers that came with in the initial group ;) Things got better as additional supplies were dropped along with food packets :D

The IAF landed at Eielson AFB after following a long route over Europe, instead of the Pacific. Primary reason of choosing the Atlantic vs the Pacific is the weather during the days – the Atlantic one being more favorable than the Pacific one. Pretty much following the same old route they are used to taking, the stops were as follows – the first stop was in Bahrain, followed by Egypt, Istres in France, onto Beja, Portugal, Lajes in the Azores Islands, and then onto Canada where Gander was the first stop, followed by Trenton, Cold Lake and finally landing at Eielson AFB on April 16th 2016. Initial time was devoted to what are called ‘fam flights’ – familiarization flights. These help the crew members to get settled in local orientation flights, local procedures, flight restrictions, weather, safety and survival briefings, ingress/egress the JPARC ranges, and most essentially get over the jet lag ;)

The media day started with a cold, damp, rainy front staying put over Eielson AFB pretty much since the morning. I arrived a day earlier flying directing into Fairbanks from Seattle. I met Ivan V (usual suspect) and made new friends John G, and Jeff S along with some Japanese and Dutch photographers. We met our LO, around 0700hrs and off we went into a bus along with our camera bags, first stop to the BX (Business Exchange) and the restrooms – none of us wanted to be the reason for everyone to be forced to come back since the guy wanted to take a dump or go for a pee ;) And then onto the flight line near the runway. It was steady rain – so if you were outside for around 10 seconds, your gear would be drenched in the rain and the water droplets. Who said photographing military aviation was easy, right? ;) As we got settled by the runway inside the bus, we heard the familiar whine of jet engines – and sure enough it was one of the Il-78MKI tankers taxing for the active runway. Some of us brave enough ventured outside the bus, for taking pot shots and the ‘sissies’ :D remained inside the bus lowering the glass windows to make holes to shoot out of, staying in the sheltered safety of the bus. You can get an idea of how bad the weather was by taking a look at below pictures. Below right is the KC-135 tanker taking off.

As is usual, the heavies take off first – so the AWACS bird which was interestingly a NATO E-3A Sentry took off first, followed by the tankers supplying essential fuel to the turning-and-burning fighters. Slowly the fighters started taxing to the active runway for the Red Flag mission of the day. We learnt that the Jaguars wont be flying that day since visibility was really bad, and there was some State official visit going on with the Indian Ambassador so the top brass was busy with them. Only the Sukhois from the IAF would take part in the first launch of the day. Apart from the IAF at Eielson AFB, there were the Kunsan AB based Vipers from the Wolfpack Wing 80th Fighter Squadron ‘Headhunters’ that are primarily strike Vipers; F-15C Eagles from the 44th FS ‘Vampires’ and 67th FS ‘Fighting Cocks’ from Kadena AB providing the top fighter cover, US Navy EA-18G Growlers of VAQ-137 ‘Rooks’ with one VAQ-209 ‘Star Warriors’ jet from NAS Whidbey Island providing electronic suppression and a lone E-3A Sentry AWACS from Geilenkirchen.

And then it happened – we just could not believe it – we were all hauled on to the bus because one of the photographers wanted to take a dump – We all felt a bit angry and sorry for the guy – and we decided to best get over with it since the fighters were just taxiing to the active – In that process, we lost the Eagles taking off in the grey weather. Well after that no one wanted to be ‘That guy’ you know :D The heavies took off Runway 32 heading North, while the fighters were taking off in the opposite direction Runway 14 to the South. We re-positioned ourselves close to the rotation point to get some takeoff action shots in the rain.

We saw the IAF guys get ready – the maintainers along with the flight crew do the walk around for the pre-flight checks. Slowly one by one, all four Su-30MKIs taxied out to the Runway 14 end. It was a credit to the planners and the maintainers of the IAF – that all the aircraft – both Jaguars, Sukhois and the Il-78MKI tanker – flew the missions every day providing 100% serviceability and no missions were scrubbed due to non-availability of aircraft.

After that there was a lull in the action since all the fighters had gone out and we were back at the BX for getting some chow and eager to head back to catch the recoveries. A decision was made to catch them as they landed back and catch the landing roll since we were restricted from going to the touchdown spot. So off back to the area near Thunderdome. The recoveries started soon later and we were in position to get the landing roll out. Since the weather was shot to hell with no light anywhere, I decided to go experimental and went for slow shutter speed panning. The Eagles were the first to come in followed by the Strike Vipers from Kunsan AB, then the Growlers, and the Sukhois with the Tanker heavies ending the recovery.

As you can see the Strike Vipers returned back with the GBU-24 precision-guided munitions, as the visibility was shot and they could not deliver their weapons on the simulated targets. The other Vipers wit conventional bombs did make a drop using the Constantly Computed Impact Point (CCIP) – a solution provided by the weapons’ sighting and guidance systems. As additional aircraft were recovering straight in because of low cloud ceilings, I started walking back towards the bus in a hurried manner – I intended to get some tissue paper to wipe the camera down of all the water on it. John and Jeff were shooting a few feet behind – and as they saw me walking back, John actually gave me that idea – he looked at my face and said ‘Are we going back?’ – and in a flash, I said ‘yeah, hop in – someone needs to take a dump again’. Jeff was already cursing and asked me ‘you serious?’ – and I said ‘yeah, hop in quick’ – and I saw the emotions on Jeff’s face as if he was going to do something really drastic and dropped my act and calmed everyone down with ‘guys, I was just messing with you’ – :D :D :D : D Oh what a hearty laugh we had at the time.

We got some time after the recovery to take some shots of the aircraft and some of the maintainers working on them. It is really a backstage job, but its hard and someone’s gotta do it – As soon as the birds were back, the maintainers were on them, making sure that they are ready to go for the next hop.

The USAF and USN had spare birds – a luxury not afforded to the IAF. The IAF flew in one launch each day – either the Sukhois went in along with the Jaguars, or they were in different launches. By now the rain had lightened enough for us to go in between the flight ramp and take some static shots. The afternoon launch was supposed to go out around 1500hrs and as it happens we were supposed to get escorted out at that same time – AND – the Sun came out brightly lighting everything up – HA! The next day the plan was to meet up at around 0745 and head out to the flight line again to get the first launch of the day – praying that the weather would be sunny ;) And all of us did some hard praying since it paid off and we had gorgeous weather the next day :)

What more could anyone ask for? ;)

We had an interview with the IAF folks later on in the day. Group Capt Kukreti CO of the Jaguar squadron, Wing Commander C.U.V Rao CO of the Sukhoi squadron and the PRO Wing Commander D’Silva participated in the interview. We asked them about different aspects of the exercise. Participating in the Red Flag exercises is no joke – it prescribes unit-level, joint multi-unit level prep work that needs to be done by the participating units to get the maximum value out of the exercises – so everyone is ready to ‘kick the tires, and light the fires’ from the moment the exercises kick-off. There were initial conferences taking place between the IAF and USAF members for co-ordination and understanding of basic procedures.

At the unit level, it came down to selection of pilots, and training for the procedures and scenarios in the Flag itself. Crew selection was done to get the right balance of young guns, and more experienced seniors. Selection of pilots is done on proficiency levels, ability to fly instrument procedures, and the best crew are selected. The ability to fly instrument procedures helps when the ferry flight runs into bad weather – the pilot flying at the time should be able to handle those procedures safely and reliably.

The textbooks and course books were shared and training at the unit level began in December 2015. Graduating from the unit level to the joint level training was next one. In this case, members from the Jaguar, Sukhois and Il-78MKI came together and trained together as a team to make the ferry across to Eielson AFB. Double the number of flight crew were taken along – so 8 pilots from the single-seat Jaguar and 16 flight crew from the dual-seat Sukhoi Su-30MKI were chosen to take part.

The Jaguar is a deep-penetration low-level strike aircraft whereas the Sukhois are multi-role primarily tasked with providing top fighter cover for the strike package. The Jaguars were part of the Blue Air forces, while the Sukhois switched sides, flying for sometimes for the Red Air forces along with the Aggressors, and mainly flying as Blue Air top cover mixed in with the F-22 Raptors and F-15C Eagles from the US Air Force. The Raptors form the BVR (Beyond Visual Range) component of the Blue Air. The Jaguars mixed it up with the Strike Vipers out of Kunsan AB for the strike package.

The EA-18Gs provided SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) to take out simulated radar sites and carve a way for the strike package to get to their targets unscathed at least by the ground based anti-air defenses – much like clearing a minefield for the forces to get through. To top if off, exchange sorties were flown by the IAF and USAF pilots – flying their members in the other’s jets. Some of the junior IAF pilots also got to fly the F-16 dual seat of the Aggressors on some missions. I had the chance to speak to one of them and he mentioned that it was a different feel flying the F-16 – with the sloped seats and sidestick controller rather than the traditional joystick in the center. It was like going from driving a car with manual stick with the gear knob by the right hand, to driving a Ferrari where the paddle shifter is by the steering wheel controlled by the hands.

The main intention in participating in international exercises is there is scope for massive learning opportunities in almost every aspect of day-to-day operations. Not just flying, but maintainers exchanged information and took a tour of the facilities at Eielson AFB. All aspects of war time are tested during a Red Flag – things as mundane as calling up the maintenance section and telling them to move certain heavy piece of gear from place A to place B without providing proper authorization – the intent being to disrupt the important things they are working on and cause a distraction impeding the mission effort.

The Jaguar guys loved flying in the JPARC since they are used to flying on the deck at low level – and JPARC offers them just that – a massive, desolate environment where they have no fear of low-level obstructions suddenly popping up. More importantly, today, war fighting for most of the times is not fought at unit level planning their own missions trying to be effective – rather its different offensive pieces working in concert to make every blow against the enemy count. Data sharing is effective for providing situational awareness (SA) for adapting to highly dynamic changes occurring in the war zone – and not just for the individual fighter pilot flying in his jet; but also back to command centers where the action is planned. For the IAF, the value is realized by operating in the vast ranges and airspace; operating in conjunction with 60 other aircraft as part of a package; the vast amount of information exchange that happens for not only the routine procedures, but also the comprehensive briefing and debriefing tools and facilities available to get feedback on a mission; and the threat and target simulation in JPARC.

It is a very costly affair for a country like India to participate in exercises of the nature of Red Flag though the general consensus is that we should participate more and more in these exercises – for the value that is realized at the end of it. The sheer logistics requirement are humongous to start with – but doing it every now and then is proof enough for even the IAF itself, that it is capable of deploying overseas safely, and prove an effective fighting force along side friendly forces in the event of outbreak of hostilities that require an international response.

I am very much thankful to the folks in the Indian Air Force and also the Public Affairs Office folks who facilitated my visit to Eielson AFB and let me spend time to be able to capture the above pictures. Especially would like to call out the Eielson PAO folks – they were all flexible in accommodating my requests even when plans changed and given the manpower they have and which was committed to other things going about in the Red Flag Alaska – without their continuous and fantastic support I would not have been able to bring all of you the above pictures and content.

I would like to leave all of you with one thought – no matter which country they belong to, or even on opposing sides – there is one bond that bonds all fighter jocks as ¬†is evident in the following picture. On my last day at Eielson AFB, I came upon a group of fighter jocks from the Sukhoi squadron and one Aggressor Major talking to them. I requested them if I can have a group shot and as I was marshaling them to where they should be standing by the aircraft I got a thought – I told them I wanted a formal pose shot, and when I would flash a ‘two’ sign with my fingers, I want a more candid pose and that they can pose anyhow they liked and do whatever they want. I took couple of the formal pose shots and then I happened to flash the ‘two’ sign at which immediately the USAF Major and some of the junior pilots got into a pose which ‘Goose’ from Top Gun would describe as ‘doing some of that pilot shit’. I happened to like this one so much that I hardly even processed the formal shot. This shot was hugely popular on my Facebook photography page¬†having a reach out to 18,500 people at last count and shared by many others.

Thanks much folks for your feedback and support – that keeps up my motivation for writing my blog – that I am helplessly lagging behind right now. All the best for the road ahead, be safe and be well. Until next time – take care :)