The first thing I notice are the posters. They portray heroic workers toiling for the Motherland, their brawny figures drawn in the uncompromising lines of socialist realism. Others depict the stern dictators of the proletariat -- Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev -- with glowering eyes fixed on a future where Capitalism has been cast forever onto the ash-heap of history. More than anything, they show pilots. All around me, steely-eyed Soviet fighter pilots hurl their sleek, beautiful war machines into the air to defend the oppressed peoples of the world from the threat of imperialist tyranny.

The podium in the briefing room is flanked by a pair of Soviet Atoll air-to-air missles, taller than I am. In one corner stands a red flag. In the other is the flag of the United States of America.

This is Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. It's 1978, and I am visiting my dad at work.

During the Vietnam War, the United States Air Force realized that it had a problem. During the Korean War, its kill ratio was ten to one. Now it had plummeted to a shocking two to one, so a study called Red Baron was launched to determine why. From this study it was learned that pilots were not being adequately trained in Soviet fighter tactics, that they only flew combat training missions against people who flew just like they did, and that most pilots who got shot down or had an accident did so within their first ten sorties.

The Aggressor squadrons were activated to meet this challenge, starting with the 64th Fighter Weapons Squadron at Nellis in 1972. The selection process for the Aggressors required that a candidate be combat qualified in fighter aircraft, with a minimum of a thousand hours flying time; a primary mission of air combat was considered highly desirable.

Aggressor pilots were rigorously trained in Soviet doctrine and tactics. While the rest of the Air Force labored under budget constraints that limited training time, they flew at least one and sometimes two or three sorties a day against pilots from other fighter bases. These intense air combat training exercises were held at the Nellis Bombing And Gunnery Range and at other bases in the U.S. and around the world. Flying modified fighter aircraft, they went up against opposing "Blue" forces to simulate those crucial first ten missions. The Blue team would attempt to attack a target -- dummy bunkers, convoys, airfields, tanks, and missle sites -- and the Aggressors would try to keep them from ever getting there. In 1975 the operation became known as Red Flag.

I'm alone in the locker room, where olive-drab flight suits hang on hooks beneath red and white helmets. On one side of each helmet is the pilot's name, and on the other is his tactical call sign. I walk down the row of helmets, reading off the names of the men I know from Sunday night barbecues at our house, till I come to the helmet labeled ROCKETT. What is my dad's call sign, I wonder? What do they call him here? I look on the other side, where I see printed: HAWK.

Those of you who were once small boys will understand how much this means to me, that an elite group of men who ride jet fighter planes laden with explosives through the sky at velocities beyond the speed of sound call my father "Hawk". Life, at that moment, could not be any better.

The Aggressors were always on the lookout for good pilots, and closely watched the men they flew against to see if any likely candidates lay among them. My father's test came unexpectedly, when a Major with the Aggressor squadron at Clark Air Base in the Phillippines ordered an impromptu air combat engagement with him and another Air Force pilot on one side and two Marine A-4s on the other. They were all airborne at the time so he was forced to come up with a plan of attack on the spot, execute it, and get everyone home safely.

Because of their training and skills, the Aggressors' kill ratio in combat exercises ran to at least fifty or sixty to one. Anyone familiar with the dangers of combat training knows the potential for real loss of life, and one would think the number of sorties they flew would make the fatality rate among Aggressors inordinately high, but the opposite was true; the real challenge was to the average fighter pilot who only trained this way once every two years. Still: planes were lost, and men died.

Over the years the exercises became more complex; Army helicopters and Marine forces were included, and the Aggressors flew against the air forces of allied countries as well as U.S. pilots. Fighters, bombers, reconnaissance craft, and many other types of aircraft played a part, and the Blue team was further bedeviled by simulated anti-aircraft forces on the ground.

Today, of course, the Soviet Union no longer exists; and likewise the Aggressor squadrons do not exist as such. Red Flag exercises are still held at Nellis with an Adversary Tactics unit under the 414 CTS flying F-16s with foreign paint schemes and using tactics developed by potential adversaries around the world.

More than twenty years later, I'm reading my dad's answer to my email asking him about his days with the Aggressors. At one point he responds to a question about the "bombs" I remember being in the briefing room:

"The podium was flanked by Soviet Atoll air-to-air missiles that we had built from captured parts. (In fact, I was the project officer for that, and we suspicioned that the warheads were live, though labeled inert. Reason? they weighed the same as live ones. If one of those had ever started to fall over, I would have been first out the door...)"

I laugh. Clearly, my childhood admiration of my father was not misplaced. I really did have the coolest dad in the world.

Exercise RED FLAG is still run around the Nellis Range, and is one of the biggest military flying events in the world. Many NATO and Commonwealth nations participate, the largest contingents being the USAF, Royal Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force and Royal Australian Air Force.

Canada runs a similar event with the RCAF, RAF and USAF, called MAPLE FLAG. Australia and the UK run another called BLUE FLAG. The UK runs Exercises JMC (Joint Maritime Course), AIMING FIST, NEWTP (NATO Early Warning Training Programme), CLEAN HUNTER, and other exercises, usually participating with the US and European NATO Air Forces.

The aim of these exercises is to train military air- and ground-crew in preparation for war. Some of the specialisations from the Royal Air Force usually involved in RED FLAG are:

    Pilot (flying Tornado F3, E3D Sentry AWACS, Jaguar, Canberra, Hercules, C17 Galaxy and various helicopters
    Navigator (aka Weapons Systems Operator (WSO))
    Fighter Controller (weapons and surveillance)
    Engineer (aerosystems and computers)
    Air Traffic Controller
    RAF Regiment (provides point Air Defence)
    Flight Operations Officers
    RAF Police

....and so on. RED FLAG is widely considered to be the most effective exercise of its kind in the world, comprising tactical training and testing, radar jamming, live firing, air defence, and all of the different operational Air Power roles. The UK and US "rule the roost" as far as fighting is concerned, these two nations training together more than any other two air forces in the world.

RED FLAG requires huge logistical support and is planned for months. Fighting squadrons will often double their flying time in the month prior to deploying to RED FLAG in order to practice, and to develop an "edge" over their opponents. Pilots of other aircraft types, such as Hercules and C17 (Air Transport), E3D Sentry (Airborne Weapons and Control Systems (AWACS)) and Jaguar (low-level attack/reconnaissance) are also given a rare opportunity to pracice flying in "hostile" airspace. At the end of the exercise all participants undergo a rigorous set of debriefs in order to establish best practice, new tactics, and so on. Then all British personnel are free to pile into Las Vegas to spend their hard-earned Local Overseas Allowance!

And how do I know so much.... being a Fighter Controller (an Air Battle Manager to other nations), RED FLAG is viewed as the only exercise where we can truly work, under fire, in the field without actually going to war.

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