Shaping a Way Ahead for Training for the High-End Fight: The Perspective of the Former Commander of the 57th Wing, Nellis AFB


I first met Brigadier General, retired, Robert Novotny at RAF Lakenheath in 2016.

There we focused on the coming of the F-35 to the base after the Brits would deploy the aircraft onboard their new class of carriers. We discussed the broader implications of being able to integrated F-35s throughout the region as well.

After that assignment he went to Air Combat Command at Langley AFB and then on to his last assignment which was the command the 57th Wing, Nellis AFB.

As the Wing’s website described their focus: “The 57th Wing, as the most diverse wing in the Air Force, provides advanced, realistic, and multi-domain training focused on ensuring dominance through air, space, and cyberspace. The 57th Wing builds innovative leaders in tactics, training and high-end warfighting to ensure world-wide combat air forces are prepared for tomorrow’s victories, while overseeing dynamic and challenging flight operations at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada.

“The 57th Wing is comprised of the United States Air Force Weapons School, 57th Maintenance Group, 57th Operations Group, USAF Aerial Demonstration Squadron (The Thunderbirds), and the USAF Advanced Maintenance and Munitions Operations School (AMMOS).”

In building out a series on multi-mission training, it obviously made good sense to get the perspectives of the recently retired commander of the key training wing in the USAF, notably after having visited PACAF and discussing their focus on reshaping USAF and joint force capabilities in the Pacific.

It is clear that in dealing with the post-land wars focus of the USAF, that advanced training is a key weapon system. 

Here is how BG (retired) Novotny put it:

“I think the good news is that the Air Force does find significant value in training. We find it not only significant in the virtual world, the war gaming world, but in particular, in the live fly scenario. There we put all of the relevant assets together in a formation, and we stress the human being component within the combat force. How does the air combat force integrate and operate and communicate in that kind of environment where there’s so many platforms and so many weapons systems?

C2 is clearly a key weapon system when working complex multi-mission combat integration.

Novotny put it this way: “How do we ensure that the communication architecture can do what we need it to do? How survivable is it when we stress it? Nellis and the 57th Wing are the crown jewel of the USAF for all testing and training. And I think you’ve seen in the last year, even the last two years, the explosion of the colored flags scenarios to broaden how we train as well.”

He then discussed the expansion of the training envelope as seen from the evolution of the training flag exercises. “Red Flag is a large force training exercises built upon some of our failures in Vietnam and is designed to get that young airman into those stressful situations, communicating mission planning, exercising, communicating debriefing in package formations that we think we might use against a conventional threat.

“Then we’ve created Green Flag, which is more focused on air-to-ground integration with our partners at the National Training Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center, both at Fort Irwin and in Fort Polk.

“But now you see the Orange Flag series of exercises, which is really an operational test integration scenario. We’ve been doing those for a long time. We’ve just finally put a name to them and where we bring yet to be released capabilities and systems and software and data links.

“And we put those systems into what we like to call deep end testing. It is a philosophy of throwing the child into the deep end of the pool and seeing if they swim. Instead of doing an iterative software release where we fly it for 12 months and we get it to near perfection, but never really stress it. And then we wind up fielding it to the combat air forces and find out it’s really insufficient for what we needed it to be.

“With the Orange Flag approach, we do deep end Orange Flag scenarios. And then I think most recently you’ve seen the announcement of Black Flag and Emerald Flag, which again are integrated test and training events really focused on getting after the highly contested environment with new and emerging technologies. Do these technologies work the way we want them to?

“From a training perspective, it helps us look over the glare shield into the future. How are we training today? And with these new tools that are coming to a new toolkit, are retraining properly for future warfare for future weapon systems, or do we need to change that?

“Nellis has the right mindset and the right vision. The USAF has the right vision. What we lack is consistent funding and an ability rapidly to upgrade those infrastructures. It is also the case that our weapons systems have out outpaced our current infrastructure.

“For example, I grew up on the Nellis Test and Training Range in the mid-nineties.

“And the threat we trained to was a North Korean MiG-29, who could only shoot me at about 12 nautical miles.

“Now we’re trying to train against what could be a J-20 Bravo low to almost zero RCS threat with an advanced electronic attack with surface air missiles that can shoot you at 400 miles. And we don’t have enough space. We don’t have enough geography to set up those kinds of scenarios.

“As a result, we’ve moved a lot of stuff to Alaska and even Alaska has significant restrictions while it has more room to try to exercise the systems. And you can only really fly up there predictably for about four to six months. Otherwise, the weather becomes problematic, both on the ground and in the air.

“This means that we are migrating a lot more work into the virtual world, which it is really good for exercising systems and the data links and the communication portfolio, but unfortunately alleviates all of the stress and pressure and that combat tempo of live training that we tried to create when we started Red Flag. The challenge is to find the best ways to combine the two as we train for the evolving challenges of the high-end fight.”

The virtual side of training is becoming important as well to train to the evolving threat envelope as well, as both the Blue and Red side add new capabilities.  

By modeling a new capability and inserting into the virtual side of live virtual constructive training, the approach is to anticipate how a new red side technological capability changes the combat equation.

We closed by discussing a crucial near to midterm opportunity to ramp up U.S. combat capability. 

Whether in the North Atlantic fight involving the Russians or the Pacific fight involving the Chinse, Russians or North Koreans, finding ways to ramp up air-maritime integration is crucial. The U.S. Navy is focusing on ways to fight more effectively as a fleet; the USAF is working on ways to shape a more effective integrated distributed combat force built around fight generation capability.

But why do the US Navy and USAF not train as an integrated force?  As Novotny put it, each force faces significant challenges to adapting to the new realities.

“We’re consumed by the tyranny of the present. I have to create this many pilots, I have to create this many wingman and flight leads etc. One problem is the constant threat of pilot retention. The never-ending demand signal from Central Command of deploying forces.  Reconstituting forces needing our own internal training requirements and more.  This is why training jointly, which is the way we’re going to fight today and in the future, seems to be the first thing that falls off the plate, which is maddening.

“I can’t tell you how many times that when we do those training exercises, for example, a Valiant Shield or a Northern Edge exercise, we find out how great those training experiences are because of what we learn.

“But then we immediately fall back into our comfort level, which is to train internally because my fleet is so inexperienced. My airplane fleet health is challenged right now. And I have many internal pressures from our own service to meet certain training requirements and checkpoints and due dates, coupled with deployments that I just can’t get to a point where I can go do those large joint or coalition training exercise. And that’s troubling.”

I suggested that one way around the chokepoint of the present is to leverage the coming of the B-21 to the Pacific. Clearly, the B-21 as a weapon system will have its major impact as an air-maritime combat capability. Why not build a training system into the B—21 program now that would shape joint maritime-air operations in the Pacific?

This would not solve all the challenges facing force integration, but would be a powerful building block which would drive change immediately when out of the box. And if the new bomber were to operate from Alaska and or Australia then working the Navy’s distributed maritime approach with the USAF’s approach to agile combat employment would drive significant change from its first appearance in the Pacific.

Brig Gen (ret) Robert Novotny founded Skyracer Consulting LLC in 2021 with the goal of helping small and emerging technology companies find success in the Federal market.  Focused on aviation, space, 5G, IoT, advanced EW and networks, or other technologies designed to enhance our US military mission,

Skyracer Consulting’s vast network of DoD and IC partners are ready to help companies succeed in developing their products and gain traction with the war fighting agencies.  Visit them at or on LinkedIn.

Vice President Mike Pence is greeted by Brig. Gen. Robert Novotny, 57th Wing commander, upon arriving at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Sept. 7, 2018. Upon landing, Novotny and other base leaders escorted Pence to the flightline to converse with the Airmen. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Andrew D. Sarver)

Black Flag

The future of test: ACC establishes ‘Black Flag’

By 1st Lt. Savanah Bray, 53rd Wing / Published December 28, 2020


Gen. Mark D. Kelly signed COMACC Plan 21 Dec. 15, effectively formalizing the 53rd Wing’s Large Force Test Events into “Black Flag” – an event solely focused on test and tactics development in a realistic, massed force, fully integrated, high threat density environment.

Established as the test counterpart to Red Flag, an event designed to train like we fight, Black Flag allows the Air Force to test like we fight. While Red Flag builds readiness, Black Flag builds capability.

“As a venue for innovation through integration, Black Flag is ultimately a deep-end testing arena to create and discover capabilities utilizing existing and emerging materiel,” said Lt. Col. Mike Benitez, 53rd Wing director of staff and Black Flag lead project officer. “Black Flag’s largest benefit is that it’s a tactical initiative with strategic impact. Warfighters know that innovation happens at the intersection of weapons and tactics – where integration occurs.”

Black Flag allows for multiple areas of test and tactics development to be executed in a singular event, while also creating an environment to adequately test and validate Tactics Improvement Proposals put forth by senior leaders at the annual Weapons and Tactics Conference, or WEPTAC, ultimately ensuring the warfighter has the most advanced and lethal tactics when they need them.

“Black Flag is essential to national defense,” said Col. Ryan Messer, 53rd Wing commander. “Instituting a flag-level exercise is the result of both the dedication of professionals in the 53rd Wing and also the support of senior leaders who acknowledge the importance of, and are investing in, testing like we fight.”

As the only wing responsible for operational test and tactics development for the Air Force’s fighter, bomber and remotely piloted aircraft fleet, the 53rd Wing is both uniquely tasked and poised to execute Black Flag, Messer explained.

“Black Flag accelerates months of work and combines it into a high-end, large force testing event. Because combat is large force employment, test must also include large force employment,” said Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command.

By definition from COMACC Plan 21: “Black Flag, the world’s premier large force tactics and integration test event, will enable the CAF to 1) innovate through deep-end test integration to discover new capabilities and synergies of fighter, bomber, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and classified programs that create multiple dilemmas for the adversary, 2) satisfy AFI/AFMAN testing mandates, 3) add relevancy and accountability to ACC Weapons and Tactics Conference (WEPTAC), 4) foster a culture of ‘Test Like We Fight’ that compliments ‘Train Like We Fight’ and 5) produce strategic impacts for Joint All-Domain Operations (JADO) and the NDS (National Defense Strategy).”

Though COMACC Plan 21 formalizes Black Flag, the concept itself is not new. Operational testers have long been tasked with testing in a realistic, mass-forced environment. The 53rd Wing proved the effectiveness of the Black Flag concept through recent large force test events in August and November. As the operational test and tactics development-focused flag event, Black Flag completes a test triad alongside Orange and Emerald Flag.

“Black Flag is just one of the many examples of how the 53rd Wing is fulfilling the chief of staff’s vision of ‘Accelerate Change or Lose’,” Messer said.

The 53rd Wing provides tactical advantage to the warfighter at the speed of relevance. By testing new, operational capabilities, evaluating fielded capabilities and optimizing electronic warfare capabilities, the 53rd Wing is bringing the future faster while answering the warfighter’s demands for integrated, multi-domain capabilities.

Emerald Flag

Emerald Flag returns highlighting new technology

By 1st Lt. Karissa Rodriguez / Published April 12, 2021


Emerald Flag 21-1, Eglin’s second native multi-domain test exercise, began March 22-26 on the Eglin test and training range. 

Emerald Flag focuses on providing a playground for testing, offering an avenue for new complex weapons systems to be advanced. This effort directed the intersection of fielded technologies with advanced long-range kill chain-enabling programs. The quarterly event involved the participation of more than 20 agencies.

Multiple players from across the DoD and industry were involved in exploring new warfighting concepts and technologies, according to Lt. Col. Michael Culhane, the Emerald Flag director. 

“The last several days were a remarkable opportunity to expose many of our cutting-edge developmental and operational test programs to a complex, large force exercise environment,” said Col. Timothy Beers, 96th Test Wing vice commander. 

The event serves as a focal point to bring quality and relevant experimental technology to Emerald Flag and integrate them into multi-domain operation scenarios. The collaborative effort focused on creating a real-time dynamic training scenario while increasing the test effectiveness of Joint All-Domain Command and Control. 

One success story was pairing Team Eglin’s premier air platforms with a 2020 Spark Tank winner, the Low-Cost Threat Emitter. The device dynamically replicates a variety of advanced adversary surface-to-air missile systems. Aircraft detected the LCTE’s radar emissions and then located the simulated threat.

“We saw a gap in training capabilities, we wanted to increase the quality and quantity of the emitters by utilizing commercial equipment in order to increase the survivability of our pilots,” said 1st Lt. Adam Treece, 56th Operations Support Squadron.

Threat resources are limited in number and lack accuracy, that’s where the LCTE stepped in allowing pilots to execute primary training against near-peer adversaries in conventional warfare. 

“What a great venue we have here at Emerald Flag that allows us to build relationships within the test community, test our prototype, and get feedback on performance,” said Capt. David Coyle, Air Combat Command. “The event allows us to work with new aircraft, modify our equipment, and iteratively improve on the design.”

One of the unique capabilities of the LCTE is it can be rapidly reprogrammed with new, advanced threats, and be relocated in a matter of minutes. This brings a new element to training. The variation provides an improvement in future test and training scenarios aiming to increase the relevance of training scenarios.

Another test included the Air Force Research Laboratory’s XCub. The lightweight aircraft can take off and land in various types of terrain, not needing a conventional runway. The aircraft was originally created in the 1930’s, but now has a modern glass cockpit, GPS system, and thermal camera. The aircraft was involved in the exercise as a test aircraft for featherweight airlift missions and evading radar detection. 

“The XCub flies low and slow at varying speeds and we wanted to see what detection capabilities our airborne fighter aircraft radars have,” said Maj. Ryan Stec, Emerald Flag operations director. 

Even base leadership wanted to check out the unique capabilities on display during the exercise.

“It was invaluable to have a role in Emerald Flag and gain first-hand familiarity with our objectives and the outcomes,” said Beers. “It’s always rewarding to witness Airmen succeed in the most demanding multi-domain scenarios we can present.” 

Eglin’s participating agencies brought diverse skill sets integrating research, development, and operational tests. The expansion of testing continues to drive the execution of operationally relevant weapons system testing forward. 

The next iteration of Emerald Flag, planned for June 2021, anticipates testing of unmanned aerial vehicles, and the demonstration of the Low Altitude Sensing Helmet system, known as LASH for the XCub.