Red Flag at 40: ISR, coalition integration at its best

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO – LACKLAND, Texas — This year marks the 40th anniversary of Red Flag — the United States Air Force’s premier air-to-air combat training exercise.

For the last four decades, it’s evolved and today it continues to hone the skills of its participants to meet current and future real-world adversarial challenges.

That evolution ramped up in 2013 when the Air Force introduced real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance for the first time, making the scenario environment at the Nevada Test and Training Range the most realistic to date.

That success set the stage for Red Flag in 2014 and another first for the then Air Force ISR Agency headquarters and 526th Intelligence Squadron team of professionals.

For the first time, coalition partners worked closely with the U.S. to plan and execute ISR. Together they exploited raw intelligence.

Fast forward to this year’s Red Flag 15-1, Jan. 26 to Feb. 13, and the newly designated 25th Air Force teamed up with the 526th IS to raise the real-world bar yet again.

“Big picture, this third iteration of ISR integration and support to Red Flag showcased how the 526th IS continues to drive ‘first-ever’ events to improve the overall exercise,” said Lt. Col. Byron Birotte, the 526th IS commander.

Among the coalition firsts were the Royal Australian air force ISR, which developed a workaround through the network operations center and ensured all players received the Australian P-3C aircraft chat tool.

In addition to the workaround, three Australian ISR Distributed Ground System mission operation commanders were newcomers to the exercise. Australian ISR geospatial intelligence analysts made their exercise debut and an Australian ISR imagery mission supervisor made an initial appearance.

Throughout the exercise, numerous RAF Crossbow elements were employed. Crossbow is a collaborative U.S. Air Force and United Kingdom Royal air force program, making it easier for the two services to share information collected via ISR systems.

“This year, we worked alongside our United Kingdom and Australian counterparts at an unprecedented level of ISR integration,” said Maj. Gen. John Shanahan, the 25th Air Force commander. “Learning from our allies and they from us is critical to the readiness of our ISR enterprise for any future crisis or contingency. As commander of (the) 25th Air Force, I will continue to advocate for Red Flag to be the venue that uniquely trains its units be combat ready in a contested, degraded and operationally-limited environment in a way they cannot do on their own.”

Other ISR-related advances at this year’s Red Flag featured improved datalink fusion, Tactical and Adversary Studies Element normalization and the first successful integration of advanced geospatial intelligence.

Additionally, ISR participants are now a full-fledged part of the training at Red Flag, as opposed to a Combat Air Forces-only target training audience.

“The importance of ISR integration and training at Red Flag, with respect to contested, degraded, and operationally imited environments cannot be overstated,” Birotte said. “We’re not where we want to be yet, but (this year’s) execution shows we’ve come a long way. The 526th IS is postured to support multiple Red Flag events each year now and we expect to see significant ISR integration growth going forward.”

The ISR professionals from the 526th IS, Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, shared the 40th anniversary Red Flag stage with fellow Silent Warriors from the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale AFB, California, and the 55th Wing, Offutt AFB, Nebraska, to name a few. Some showcased their skills piloting reconnaissance aircraft such as the Predator, Global Hawk, RC-135 and U-2.

“Whether flying ISR aircraft, operating sensors, exploiting collected information, or building targeting solutions, 25th Air Force Airmen are taking advantage of one of our Air Force’s best training opportunities,” Shanahan said. “It’s important to recognize that providing Airmen their ‘first 10 combat missions’ is as relevant today to an ISR operator as it is to a fighter or bomber pilot.”

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