Close air support attacks, precision-guided air-dropped bombing, air-to-air dogfighting, surveillance operations, and the suppression of enemy air defenses are all well-established practices at the Air Force's regular Red Flag wargame combat exercise.
In recent years, Red Flag has expanded to more fully incorporate emerging warfare domains such as cyber, EW, space, air-ground interoperability, and key modern challenges such as operating in a GPS-denied environment. This year’s Red Flag likely involved most if not all of this, while also incorporating new methods of data sharing, combat networking, and sensor-to-shooter optimization. While many of the specifics unique to Red Flag operations are probably not available, thinking that networking weapons and combat platforms to one another was heavily emphasized is likely to be a very safe assumption.
An Air Force report said Red Flag 21-1 included 2,400 participants from 20 states and three nations, along with a wide assortment of air attack platforms to include the F-22, F-16, F-15E, A-10, and KC-135 tanker. The exercise also included B-1 and B-2 bombers, the service reported. During the wargame, high-tech great power combat is closely replicated with “red-team” forces acting as enemy forces against an integrated assortment of U.S. Air Force platforms and technologies. Sure enough, service reports on Red Flag specifically cite the importance of multi-domain, “networked” warfare.
“For Red Flag 21-1, we’ve employed space electronic warfare capabilities that support full-spectrum national security objectives, along with offensive cyber capabilities across adversary data networks affecting that network’s ability to pass data or function properly,” Capt. Kaylee Taylor, chief of Non-Kinetic Integration at the 414th Combat Training Squadron, said in an Air Force essay on the exercise.
In recent years, the Air Force has made much progress with upgrades to its platforms, many of which have been focusing upon improvements to networking, communications, and command and control among otherwise disparate “nodes” such as planes, ground command centers, drones, and space-guided weapons systems. The service has in recent months been conducting a series of Advanced Battle Management Systems “on ramps” to include connecting bombers to drones, fighter jets, and ground intelligence systems all at once. In one recent experiment, advanced surveillance networking, expediting sensor to shooter time, enabled a ground-based howitzer cannon to fire a hypervelocity interceptor to destroy an approaching cruise missile, signifying a substantial air defense breakthrough.
By extension, F-15s, B-2s, and 5th-Gen stealth fighters’ networking technologies are all in the process of being refined, creating a series of connectivity enhancements likely to change warfare tactics. If otherwise too dispersed, or disconnected platforms or nodes, potentially operating in different domains, instantly share targeting and intelligence details across massive distances, it massively changes warfare tactics for the better. Recent technical advances with the application of LINK 16 and other radio networking now increasingly enable two-way communication between F-22s and F-35s, for example, enabling F-35 sensors to find targets for high speed, maneuvering F-22s to destroy in an air-to-air engagement. The F-15 and B-2, among other platforms, are in the process of being operated with much faster, more powerful computer processing speeds. The B-2 is now being configured with a computer processor that is literally 1,000-fold faster than the current system, and the aircraft is being configured with new air-defense-detecting sensor technologies.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.