Look out Xi: F-35 fighters and British Typhoon warplanes dogfight over Nevada as the US, Britain and Australia send a message to China with Red Flag exercise showing how they would hunt and destroy missiles and anti-satellite weapons
- The US and allies joined forces for Exercise Red Flag in a huge show of air power
- For almost three weeks they simulated war against China in the Indo-Pacific
- DailyMail.com rode in an RAF Voyager refueling tanker to see the action up close
This is what a mission to hunt down and destroy Chinese tactical ballistic missiles and anti-satellite weapons looks like.
Two U.S. Marine Corps F-35 fighters start as dots of light far off the wing of the Royal Air Force tanker.
In a complex aerial ballet they slide into position, dropping their speed to 280 knots to stay level with the twin hoses trailing from the British jet.
A series of minute adjustments sees the first pilot push his plane’s probe into the receiving basket of the hose, triggering the flow of aviation fuel at up to 1500 lb per minute.
The second follows suit on the other side of the tanker, all part of Exercise Red Flag, bringing American, British and Australian flyers together over thousands of square miles in the west United States.
The exercise has been run for decades. But in recent years it has taken on a specific focus. If the U.S. and its allies went to war with China it would mean deploying refueling tankers to help fighter planes and ground-attack aircraft overcome vast distances to reach targets across the Indo-Pacific.
A U.S. Marine Corps F-35b Joint Strike Fighter refuels from a Royal Air Force tanker at 17,000 feet over Nevada during exercise Red Flag on Wednesday
R.A.F. flight crew monitor refueling from aboard the Voyager tanker, using a red-amber-green system to guide crews into hose and start aviation fuel flowing
‘We talk about the tyranny of range,’ said Air Commodore John Lyle of the R.A.F., in the cockpit of a KC-2 Voyager air-to-air refueling tanker.
‘The joy with this aircraft is that we can get airborne, travel vasts distances and be ready to enter the fight. That’s what we are practicing.’
As well as training aircrews in warfighting, he said the massive exercise — three weeks, 100 aircraft, 3,000 personnel — sent a clear message that the US, Britain and Australia were united in protecting global stability from foes.
The two F-35s peel off to the right. They wait on the tanker’s wing for a minute. Then they are gone, off to resume their role as air escorts, facing down enemy aircraft and opening the skies for the rest of the coalition attack.
They are quickly replaced by another two thirsty F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.
Red Flag, billed as the USAF’s pre-eminent annual air training exercise, has been running since 1975.
In previous years it was conducted over some 12,000 square miles of Nevada. But now it has been extended to include parts of Utah and California, as well as the Pacific Coast, to better recreate the vast ranges of that Indo-Pacific theater.
No one is in any doubt that the region is now the greatest worry, as China spreads its influence and intensifies its bellicose rhetoric.
Air Commodore John Lyle of the R.A.F. said the exercise was about extending the range of US, British and Australian air power. ‘We talk about the tyranny of range,’ he said
Four RAF Typhoons line up waiting their turn as a US Marine Corps F-35 takes on fuel. The warplanes are engaged in an aerial ballet, sliding into position at 17,000 feet
The RAF sent about 300 personnel and seven Typhoons from RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. Their role on Wednesday was as both air-to-air fighters and ground attack
The R.A.F.’s KC-2 Voyager is a modified Airbus A330. The inside is kitted out with regular airline seats, but it can trail two hoses for refueling and carries more than 100 metric tons of fuel. Passengers are barred from using the bathroom basins when planes are refueling, so that pilots don’t get a windshield full of dirty water as they fly
The US, UK and Australia come together in Red Flag exercise over Nevada
Red Flag is a contested combat training exercise involving the air forces of the United States and its allies.
It is coordinated at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and conducted on the vast bombing and gunnery ranges of the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR).
It was established in 1975 as the brain child of Lt. Col. Richard ‘Moody’ Suter and one of the initiatives directed by General Robert J. Dixon, then commander of Tactical Air Command, to better prepare US forces for combat.
Lessons from Vietnam showed that if a pilot survived his first 10 combat missions, his probability of survival for remaining missions increased substantially.
Red Flag was designed to expose each ‘Blue’ force pilot to their first 10 ‘combat missions at Nellis, allowing them to be more confident and effective in actual combat.
This year’s iteration is the biggest in history.
The Royal Air Force has taken part since 1978, denoting he close alliance with the U.S.
A recently leaked memo from a US four-star general revealed that his ‘gut’ told him the US would be at war with China in 2025.
Gen. Mike Minihan’s verdict was the latest voice to warn that Beijing was closing in on the autonomous island of Taiwan.
And that was even before the US watched the meandering progress of a Chinese spy balloon make its way from Montana to South Carolina, where it was shot down over the ocean.
President Joe Biden raised the issue in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday.
‘I’m committed to work with China where we can advance American interests and benefit the world,’ he said.
‘Make no mistake about it: As we made clear last week, if China threatens our sovereignty, we will act to protect our country. And we did.
U.S.A.F. Colonel Jared ‘Jabba’ Hutchinson, commander of 414th Combat Training Squadron who leads the Red Flag exercise, said Red Flag was geared towards the Pentagon’s national defense strategy and its warning to keep pace with China.
That meant that during the exercise US, British and Australian forces were up against American pilots trained to fight like Chinese pilots.
‘They fly the F-16s and the F-35s,’ he told DailyMail.com on the ground at Nellis Air Force Base. ‘And they replicate all of the Chinese fighters through their fourth generation and fifth generation aircraft.
Outside the window, the F-35s have gone. Their place has been taken by four R.A.F. Typhoons, the European-built fourth-generation multirole fighter.
Their role is air-to-air combat.
The space under each wing is now starting to resemble a gas station forecourt, albeit one that is floating at 17,000 feet over Nevada’s snow-capped mountains.
Two U.S.A.F. E18 Growlers refuel, before returning to their electronic warfare role, knocking out enemy ground defenses by neutralizing radar systems.
More Typhoons are expected next on the refueling conveyor belt.
Wednesday’s mission, said Fl. Lt. Mark Scott, the Voyager’s captain, was to hunt down and strike a convoy of ballistic missiles and a convoy of anti-satellite missiles.
Flt Lt Mark Scott said the exercise was as realistic as it was possible to be in a live environment
A U.S.M.C. F-35b can be seen refueling from aboard the R.A.F. Voyager tanker
The U.S.M.C. F-35b is equipped to take off and land on aircraft carriers. In Wednesday’s mission, its pilots were assigned an air escort role
U.S.A.F. Colonel Jared Hutchinson, commander of 414th Combat Training Squadron who leads the Red Flag exercise, said Red Flag was geared towards the Pentagon’s national defense strategy and its warning to keep pace with China
A U.S.A.F F-16 takes off from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, on Wednesday morning
The R.A.F. Voyager can refuel two planes at a time, from hoses trailing from either wing
‘All the aircraft carry a pod which simulates the missiles of bombs they carry, and that allows you to find that if one aircraft shoots at another whether it was a shot that would be successful … would it have killed them. That’s a capability we don’t have in the U.K.,’ he said.
‘This is as realistic as we can do it in a live environment.’
By the end of the day, with formations of fighters arriving every few minutes, he will have delivered about 80,000 lb of fuel to some of the world’s most advanced warplanes.
Two Typhoons linger longer than expected off the left wing. The tanker is paying a time penalty after enemy warplanes got too close.
In a combat zone it would have taken evasive action. But in the real world, constrained by commercial air lanes, the Typhoons stay on the right-hand-wing and serve a time penalty, as if the RAF Voyager had been forced out of position and they had flown further.
Lyle said the crew would not know until later whether they had emerged victorious from the exercise.
‘The main thing is the coalition, the strength of purpose and the message it sends that we are working with our Australian partners and the US … it makes clear we all have the same views on global stability, access, and making sure that we can deliver air power effectively,’ he said.
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