USAF and USMC Combine F-35 Capabilities at Red Flag 17-3


The USMC came last year with their F-35Bs; and then this year the USAF came with their F-35s to a Red Flag exercise.

Now the two are working together in training for fifth generation enabled air operations. 

The USAF perspective was provided in an article published on July 10, 2017.

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev.— The U.S. Air Force began Red Flag 17-3, its three-week air-to-air combat training exercise, today and will conclude July 28.

Base leadership wants to remind southern Nevada residents that they may notice increased military aircraft activity.

Aircraft will depart from Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., twice daily to participate in combat training missions on the Nevada Test and Training Range north of Las Vegas in one of the Air Force’s largest joint exercises.

“For Red Flag, we bring in our joint warfighters with their capabilities and their equipment,” said Lt. Col. Mark Sadler, 414th Combat Training Squadron commander.

“We come together, fight as a team, and we get to learn from each other as we do that.”

Each Red Flag exercise is unique and Red Flag 17-3 is no different.

For the first time, there will be two F-35 Lightning II squadrons participating.

The Marine Corps’ F-35Bs will participate alongside the Air Force’s F-35As for the first time in Red Flag history.

As the F-35 mission continues to grow, so will the operators, maintainers and the system as a whole. 

We get to learn in a realistic training environment as we continue to progress down the road with this platform and other fifth-generation or fourth-generation aircraft, said Sadler.

Sadler said, having two F-35 units at Red Flag will allow us to learn about the capabilities of both the F-35A and the F-35B models from each other.

“We’re not going to go to war alone,” said Sadler.

“The more we can do joint exercises like Red Flag where we get everybody together and learn from each other, the more we can better use each other’s tactics, techniques and procedures to successfully go after whatever the problem set is.”

Red Flag consists of a variety of attack, fighter and bomber aircraft, reconnaissance aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft, airlift support, search and rescue aircraft, aerial refueling aircraft and ground based command and control, space and cyber forces.

More than 2,500 joint warfighters will participate in the multi-domain integration, Red Flag 17-3, where they will operate together and successfully defeat the threat.

“Red Flag gives our joint warfighters the opportunity to promote their readiness through innovation,” said Sadler.

“They may have to go outside their comfort zone and take risks with their innovation, but at the end of the day if they see positive, successful outcomes towards the objectives, then that’s immediate positive feedback on readiness we’re looking for at Red Flag.”

And in an article by Sgt. Lillian Stephens, 3rd Marine Air Wing and published on July 11, 2017, the USMC perspective was highlighted.


Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “Wake Island Avengers,” 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, began participating in Red Flag 17-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 10.

During the exercise, which will continue until July 28, VMFA-211 will conduct a variety of mission sets alongside the other services: defensive counter air (DCA); offensive counter air (OCA); suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD); destruction of enemy air defense; dynamic taskings, which involve finding a time-sensitive target or series of targets and eliminating them; electronic warfare (EW); preplanned strikes; and combat search and rescue (CSAR).

“Red Flag 17-3 is designed to be a venue for U.S. forces to integrate on a scale that’s not possible anywhere else — so Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army assets come from all over the United States and participate in advanced mission sets together,” said Maj. Paul Holst, VMFA-211’s executive officer.

“It’s … important to practice integrating assets from all across the [Armed Forces’] inventory because if we go to conflict, we don’t want that to be the first time we all integrate with each other.”

Red Flag is the U.S. Air Force’s premier realistic combat training exercise involving the air, ground, space and cyber forces of the United States — sometimes including assets from allied nations. This iteration includes only the U.S. Armed Forces and will focus on improving individual performance as well as interoperability between the services.

According to Holst, this is the first time the F-35A Lightning II, used by the Air Force, and F-35B Lightning II, the short-takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant used by the Marine Corps, will participate in the same exercise as well as the Avenger’s first time attending Red Flag.

“This is the first time we’ve deployed on this scale … we brought 10 F-35s here with all of our maintenance equipment, all of our support equipment and personnel,” said Holst.

“For the pilots, the opportunity to participate in these exercises prepares us for combat … and the opportunity to integrate and plan with the rest of the force is something you just don’t get anywhere else.”

Maj. Chris Brandt, a pilot and administration and logistics officer in charge with VMFA-211, said Red Flag’s large-scale missions, which often involve upwards of 50 aircraft working in concert, prepare pilots for combat operations and prepare maintenance personnel for a deployed operational tempo.

“A lot of times at home station, we’re basically working just with each other or we’re doing things that are [smaller in] scale and only focusing on our specific mission sets that we do,” said Brandt.

“When we actually deploy, we’re most likely going to be part of a joint force so coming here you get that experience.

It’s not until you come to exercises like these that you get to train across services and [train] with platforms that you typically would not work with at your home station.”

Throughout the exercise, more than 50 units and more than 80 aircraft will participate in Red Flag, conducting missions in the Nevada Test and Training Range — the U.S. Air Force’s premier military training area.

It has more than 12,000 square miles of airspace, 2.9 million acres of land and has 1,900 possible targets, realistic threat systems and an opposing enemy force, a training environment that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

According to Holst, Red Flag allows each service and subordinate unit to demonstrate their capabilities as well as understand the capabilities of other services, units and their equipment.

“For example, the E-18G exists in the Navy and the Air Force doesn’t really have a comparable asset to that.

“There may be situations where the only F-35s in theater are Marine Corps F-35s … and you have to integrate the F-35s into the entire package,” said Holst.

“It’s always going to be necessary to bring everyone’s assets together and practicing that is really important.”

From the different services to subordinate units and even to individual service members, Red Flag is an opportunity for them to experience advanced, relevant and realistic combat situations in a controlled environment, increasing their ability to complete missions and safely return home.

“I think we’ll gain a lot. We learn from them, they learn from us and at the end we come out with better tactics, better knowledge of the airplane and how to employ it,” said Brandt.

“The missions that we’ll fly here are things that many of us haven’t done in this aircraft before, especially with the number of airplanes that are out there. That will be good from a tactical and aviation perspective. It’s going to be interesting to see how everybody from all of the services work together.”

Editor’s Note: The photos highlighting aircraft in Red Flag 2017-3 are credited to the USMC and the USAF. 

The impact of the F-35 was described in an interview with a senior RAF squadron leader earlier this year, based on his participation in Red Flag 17-1.

It is clear that the F-35 has already had a major impact on the thinking of operators and, in effect, Red Flag 17-1 saw the operators evaluating how the aircraft would work together in reshaping their operational rhythm in the combat space.

And as they did so, a way ahead in terms of Weaponization, C2 and related issues would emerge .

The F-35 has arrived and is reshaping concepts of operations as well as influencing the operational restructuring of roles and mission responsibilities of other air combat assets.

This came through very clearly in the discussion with the Wing Commander.

The RAF is in an interesting place in the reshaping of airpower.

Notably, they are carrying out an upgrade program for their Typhoons in preparation for the arrival of the F-35s, and are adding longer range strike weapons, both in terms of air to air and air to ground. 

They assume, correctly, that having longer range strike assets makes sense as simply operating aircraft like Super Hornets with short-range weapons makes little sense as the F-35 shapes the strike space for the combat fleet…..

When we discussed Red Flag 17-1, without going into any details, which might seem too specific, he described was how the F-35s operated close to the most stringent targets and organized information for others in the battlespace.

The Typhoon because of the performance of its defensive aids could operate in key areas to support F-35 operations along with the F-22.

The specialized capabilities of the two aircraft in turn determined how they were used and the F-15 and Growlers were positioned appropriate to their missions and capabilities in the battlespace.

A key question has been raised about how to handle C2 and weapons decisions across the battlespace.

The Sentinel and the Wedgetail both operated to provide a quarterbacking role, but given the fidelity with which the F-35 can see the battlespace sorting out relationships among the various C2 element is part of shaping the way ahead.

“It was great to have guys sit back in the Wedgetail and able to process quite a lot of information and actually operating as mission commanders for dynamic targeting missions with a range of strike or jamming aircraft.”

“The Wedgetail both in terms of the systems and the operators was really first rate, indeed cutting edge.

“It is the next generation of C2 and a step beyond the capabilities of AWACS.”

A key challenge as we integrate various assets is how to ensure we know who can see what.

“As we introduce the F-35, the pilots have to adjust to the fact that their machines will see and convey data that they themselves are not looking at.

“And different airplanes will have different levels of SA in the battlespace.

“How to adjust the operation of the force to meet this challenge?”


Red Flag 2017-1: The Perspective of the 6 Squadron Officer Commanding