Red Flag Wargame Puts America's F-35 Fighter to the Test

Red Flag Wargame Puts America's F-35 Fighter to the Test

Past Red Flag war exercises have generated some highly impactful results.

Here's What You Need to Know: The F-35 is, by design, intended to draw upon its stealth configuration to “Suppress Enemy Air Defenses” while monitoring air-to-air and air-to-ground threats.

(This article first appeared last year.)

U.S. Air Force F-35s and F-22s are getting ready to attack enemy aircraft, dogfight, strike air defenses and conduct surveillance exercises in a massive annual service wargame called Red Flag. 

During the combat simulation, friendly “blue” will engage mock-enemy “red” teams in all-out combat, intended to closely replicate the kinds of serious advanced, high-tech threats the Air Force might face in a major power confrontation. 

Due to coronavirus, this year’s Red Flag will only include U.S. forces and no allies, but it will explore some interesting cold-weather combat conditions at the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, including Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson-Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska.

In prior years, the Red Flag war exercise has generated some highly impactful results, developments that not only shape combat readiness but also help refine tactical war strategies moving forward. 

During last year’s Red Flag exercise at Nellis AFB, Nevada, for example, Air Force 5th Generation aircraft attacked Red Flag “aggressors” including advanced integrated air defenses enemy aircraft and withstood cyber-attacks.

The F-35, for example, demonstrated a large advantage at last year’s Red Flag. As sixty enemy fighters closed in on a U.S. Air Force 4th Generation fighter aircraft, blinding the jet with electronic warfare attacks, an experienced pilot faced unseen life-threatening attackers closing in.

Yet, in a life-saving flash, the endangered 4th pilot was told to “turn around” by an F-35 operating in the vicinity who radioed an instant warning. The 5th-Gen, multi-role stealth fighter then used its long-range sensors and weapons to “kill” the enemy aircraft, according to an Air Force news report following the 2019 exercise.

Developers explain that the F-35 is, by design, intended to draw upon its stealth configuration to “Suppress Enemy Air Defenses” while monitoring air-to-air and air-to-ground threats.

An engineer familiar with F-35 technology explained it this way—“There is a FLIR (Forward-Looking Infrared) built into the airplane. The DAS (Distributed Aperture System with 360-degree cameras) and the EOTS (Electro-Optical Targeting System to track and attack long range targets) can see things in mid-wave IR at pretty significant ranges, tracking them from a long way.”

During 2018’s Red Flag, the Air Force and Navy explored a range of similar threats, including efforts to refine F-22 dogfighting skills. 

Confronting simulated “Red” force ground and air threats, F-22s attacked targets such as mock airfields, vehicle convoys, tanks, parked aircraft, bunkered defensive positions and missile sites.

Kris Osborn is the new 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.

This article first appeared in 2020.

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jensen Stidham