During two weeks of intense action, a large combined force composed of 119 participating aircraft and 2,700 personnel from five nations practised complex combat operations during exercise "Red Flag 13-2".
Conducted from 21 January to 1 February, involving assets from the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden, the United Arab Emirates and the USA, the manoeuvres took place above the Nevada Test and Training Range, to the north-west of Las Vegas. The exercise was one in a series of advanced training programmes administered by the US Air Force Warfare Center and Nellis AFB.
"Our focus is to provide realistic and relevant combat training through integrated war fighting," says Col Tod Fingal, commander of the USAF's 414th Combat Training Squadron. "We do so in what we call a contested and degraded, operationally limited environment. We bring all kinds of forces here, both the joint force within the US Army, navy, air force and Marine Corps, but also our coalition partners. Because when we bring all of us together and train in that contested environment, what we are seeing is that it gives us the opportunity, if called upon, to achieve war fighting at excellence across all domains: air, space and cyberspace."
EARNED ITS SEAT
Sweden is one of about 30 non-US countries to have participated in a Red Flag exercise since the programme was created in 1975 and, to date, is the only NATO Partnership for Peace member to have sent an operational fighter squadron to such an event.
"The Swedish air force was not invited to Red Flag as a casual courtesy. Instead, the Swedish air force and its pilots earned their seat at the Red Flag table," US Ambassador to Sweden Mark Brzezinski said during the recent exercise. "By performing ably in operations like Unified Protector over Libya, where the Swedish air force performed their reconnaissance role brilliantly, the Swedes have shown their capacity and ability to produce results."
Assets participating for the friendly "Blue Force" during Red Flag 13-2 included USAF Boeing F-15s and Lockheed Martin F-16s, as well as Lockheed F-22 Raptors from 199th Fighter Sqn, based at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. Additional F-16s from Spangdahlem AFB in Germany were also deployed, along with Boeing B-1 and B-52 bombers, E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, and KC-135 tankers.
Lockheed HC-130J Hercules and Sikorsky HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters from the 23rd Wing's 71st Rescue Sqn at Moody AFB, Georgia conducted combat search-and-rescue operations, while the US Navy provided Boeing F/A-18E Super Hornet combat aircraft and EA-18G Growler electronic attack assets. The activity also involved remotely-piloted aircraft, used to deliver intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Foreign participation included Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16C/Ds, normally based at Luke AFB in Arizona, Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16AM/BMs, Dassault Mirage 2000s from the UAE, and a Swedish JAS 39C Gripen unit.
The hostile "Red Force" included F-15Cs and F-16Cs from the Nellis-based 57th Wing's 64th and 65th Aggressor squadrons, while a large array of ground, space and cyber threats sought to jam the Blue Force's radar and communications, and protect ground targets.
Sweden's contribution marked the third time in seven years the nation has sent a Gripen unit to a Red Flag exercise. The type debuted in Red Flag Alaska in 2006 and took part in one of the Nellis events in 2008, returning this year with eight single-seat Gripen C fighters assigned to the air force's 172nd Fighter Sqn. Totalling 112 personnel, drawn mainly from the F17 Wing in Kallinge, Ronneby in the southeast of Sweden, the contingent was led by Lt Col Anders Segerby.
The main objectives for the Swedish unit in Red Flag 13-2 were composite force training using large-force employment tactics, techniques and procedures, dropping live munitions and operating as mission commander: the full spectrum of its tactical capabilities.
Different missions included close air support, air interdiction and defensive counter-air. Gripen pilots also had the opportunity to drop 17 226kg (500lb) GBU-12 laser-guided Paveway and GBU-49 dual-mode Enhanced Paveway II bombs, and perform strafing runs using the fighter's 27mm Mauser cannon. Training was performed both day and night.
"The Swedish air force has gained further experience in combined air operations, we are now more confident in using precision-guided munitions and have further developed our capability to fight during darkness," Segerby says.
Since its previous participation in Red Flag 08-3, the service has qualified its pilots and fighters to receive fuel from hose-and-drogue-equipped KC-135s, McDonnell Douglas KC-10s and Lockheed KC-130 tankers, using the Gripen's in-flight refuelling probe. This capability was used during the 2011 Libya operation, while one modified Swedish C-130H supports air-to-air refuelling training, certification and currency campaigns for its fighter units.
This year's exercise provided the first opportunity for Gripens to use tankers during Red Flag, and was also the first time the Swedish aircraft had deployed to and from the USA with air-to-air refuelling support, in the form of two USAF KC-10s. This meant the number of required and planned stops could be reduced from six or seven landings used on earlier deployments, to only three.
However, following an incident over the west coast of the UK, where a Gripen broke its refuelling probe in the basket of a KC-10A, the entire detachment was forced to divert to RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk. After replacement of the Gripen involved, the unit continued its journey to the USA the following day, via Lajes Field in the Azores.
The Swedish aircraft sent to Alaska in 2006 and Nevada in 2008 were the first operational versions of the Gripen C/D, and were accompanied by a mix of personnel from all operational squadrons and an operational test and evaluation unit. Since then, the nation's squadrons and Gripens have developed many new capabilities, through regular planned software and hardware upgrades.
Stockholm's plan to develop the Gripen's capabilities is based on a system of annual block upgrades within each materiel system (MS) standard, followed by a larger upgrade each third year to introduce a new MS. Previous US exercise deployments were made with fighters in the respective MS18 Block 6 and MS18 Block 8 versions, with the main differences between the two being software changes.
By contrast, the MSN19 Block 2-standard aircraft sent to Nellis in 2013 featured air-to-air refuelling, night-vision goggles and a new arsenal of weapons for air-to-ground and air-to-air engagements. Introducing the GPS-guided Enhanced Paveway II has given the Gripen an all-weather precision engagement capability against ground targets, while its Diehl BGT Defence IRIS-T infrared-guided air-to-air missile improves its self-protection capability during close-in engagement.
Other major improvements brought with the MS19 model are a NATO-standard Link 16 data link and Have Quick II secure radio. These were introduced to Sweden's operational squadrons during the Libyan campaign, and give Gripen pilots a largely improved situational awareness picture and communications function during missions with coalition forces, plus the ability to share information over secure and jamming-protected networks.
"During all Red Flag exercises the Swedish air force has successfully conducted all types of mission, including offensive and defensive counter-air operations, air-to-ground missions such as air interdiction and close air support," says Maj Mikael Olsson, commander of the service's Gripen operational test and evaluation unit. "The tactics that are used during a Red Flag exercise are mainly decided based upon the threat situation in the area. This means one sortie you can fly at high altitude to avoid unknown threats and the next sortie you are forced down to extremely low-level flight to be able to get below radar and surface-to-air missile coverage. This forces the pilots and each mission commander to adapt their own tactics to ensure mission success."
Olsson believes Sweden's operational participation in the NATO-led mission over Libya and using advanced training scenarios at Red Flag 13-2 proves the air force's use of Gripens "can deliver a capability that is required in a modern combat situation".
However, he notes: "In the coming years, the Swedish air force faces a new challenge; to transform its fleet from 100 Gripen C/Ds to 60 Gripen Es. This development has already started and the major challenge is to take the lessons learned from the Gripen C/D and develop the Gripen E capabilities to better face the future requirements of a next-generation fighter aircraft."
"Gamer", a 172nd Fighter Sqn pilot who has participated in all three of Sweden's Red Flag exercises with the Gripen, is clear about some of the developments made since the first visit to Nellis five years ago: "In 2008, the Gripens were not Link 16-capable and we had to rely on our Swedish-made fighter-to-fighter link, but this year we had the ability to use the Link 16. This gave us much-improved situational awareness of the entire combined air operation, and the enhanced ability for easier information-sharing and targeting."
The availability of Have Quick II radios throughout the friendly force also allowed the formation to increase the difficulty level of different scenarios, versus the previous use of communications over "open" frequencies. "If everybody managed to get the Have Quick II working then the mission would go without communications jamming," Gamer says. "But if some formation didn't manage to come up on frequency all players were forced over to an open frequency and the Red Force could - and did - jam the frequency like crazy."
In 2008, Red Flag was also essentially a visual meteorological conditions (VMC)-only exercise, regardless of unit status. This has changed so that squadrons with instrument meteorological conditions approvals can fly in blocks, while VMC-only "players" are restricted to fly above or below the weather. This is an improvement for the mission commander, Gamer says, while they are working to make a safe deconfliction plan when more than 60 aircraft are involved in the Blue Force formation.
Speaking after his service's latest involvement in Red Flag, Swedish air force chief of staff Maj Gen Micael Bydén summed up his first impression of the exercise: "Red Flag is the most complex and challenging, but the most rewarding exercise a fighter unit could participate in. The exercise itself offers a unique opportunity to train in contested environments, with degraded systems and with operational limitations - all of this being conducted in large formations with all available air power assets.
"The Swedish air force has put in a lot of effort over the last 10 years to reach a high level of interoperability, in order to become a relevant partner in the international community. Taking part in Red Flag means that we have been given the opportunity to measure our progress."
Bydén says feedback from colleagues in the USAF confirms the success of Sweden's efforts: "Our systems and platforms fulfil the technical level required and our people have all the skills needed to meet the standards of any air force in the world.
"The way we had prepared ourselves prior to the Red Flag exercise was mentioned as the good example. We also learned a lot from the deployment phase, where we used air-to-air refuelling for the first time."