Exercise 'Red Flag Alaska 16-1'
Red Flag Alaska (RF-A) is a series of PACAF (Pacific Air Forces) directed training exercises for U.S. and partner nations. Held at Eielson AFB, with aircraft also operating from Elmendorf AFB, the exercise enables the exchange of tactics and procedures with joint offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support and large force employment training to improve interoperability in a simulated combat environment. Taking place at the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC), encompassing more than 67,000 square miles of airspace and military ranges, the exercise typically involves two combat training missions flown each day. Hosted by the 354th Fighter Wing at Eielson AFB, the Wings units are heavily involved in the exercises, including the 18th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) flying Block 30 F-16C's, while the 168th Air Refuelling Squadron of the Alaska ANG operates the tanker mission with KC-135R's.
Held between 28th April and 13th May, RF-A 16-1 featured more than 75 aircraft including regular PACAF F-15 and F-16 units, with the 67th Fighter Squadron from Kadena, Japan bringing F-15C's, while the 80th Fighter Squadron from Kunsan, South Korea brought their F-16CM's. The tanker support was supplemented during the exercise by the 909th ARS with KC-135R's also from Kadena, while the US Navy brought EA-18G Growler from NAS Whidbey Island in Washington State for the Electronic Warfare (EW) mission. However, the major news this year was the return of the Indian Air Force, making the exercise very significant in terms of seldom seen participation by the foreign air arm.
Not since 2004 had the IAF participated in the exercise, then known as 'Cope Thunder', with this years planning again including an extremely rare and welcome international deployment of the Jaguar strike aircraft. Now the world's last operator of the iconic 'cat', the four Jaguar IS from 14 'Bulls' Squadron based at Ambala were amongst the last Jaguars manufactured, from the Phase 6 production by HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) in 2009. Part of a batch of 20 DARIN II (Display Attack and Ranging Inertial Navigation) standard aircraft, these can be identified by the Tarang RWR on the fin as well as the laser rangefinder fitted in the nose.
The Jags were joined by four Su-30MKI Flanker air superiority fighters from the 15 'Fighting Fifteen' Squadron based at Sirsa, along with two IL-78MKI support tankers from Agra, with a pair of C-17A's providing additional deployment support for the team of over 170 Indian Air Force personnel involved in the exercise. The first time that two different IAF combat types had been deployed across the Atlantic at the same time, the epic 18,800km journey involved stops at Sheikh Isa Airbase in Bahrain, Hurghada in Egypt, Istres in France, then Beja and Lajes in Portugal before across the Atlantic and several stops across Canada. This inter-continental deployment was in itself used as a good test and proving for the logistics and challenges involved in such an operation. During the exercise, the Jaguars flew as part of the friendly 'Blue forces', carrying out intergrated strike missions dropping practice bombs over the JPARC air-ground range. The Flankers meanwhile flew offensive counter air ops, providing cover for the strike elements, with missions flown with radars switched off, so as not to reveal their electronic signatures. Certainly a great challange and training opportunity for the two nations to work together so closely, with valuable experience gained on both sides, including for the US to further evaluate a Russian designed 4+ generation 'adversary'.
Report by Kevin Perry for Combat Air Journal, with many thanks to 1Lt Zani and the staff from the 354 FW Public Affairs Office at Eielson AFB for their assistance and cooperation in facilitating the media visit. Thanks also to Wg Cdr D'Silva, spokesperson from the Indian Air Force Public Relations Office.