Air-to-Air Combat Training

RAF F-35B aircraft cross the Atlantic for the US Air Force's air-to-air combat training exercise, Red Flag.

23 January 2020
F-35 aircraft at RAF Marham getting ready for their journey to the US for Exercise Red Flag (Photo:MoD/Crown Copyright / RAF)


F-35 Lightning aircraft and crew from the Royal Air Force's (RAF's) 617 Squadron are taking part in Exercise Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Aircraft and crew departed RAF Marham on Wednesday for their cross-Atlantic flight.

The UK's F-35B aircraft is making its debut at the exercise, which will see them flying alongside a variety of aircraft from other nations to maximise combat readiness, capability and interoperability. The 617 Squadron is one of the RAF's most iconic as it was responsible for carrying out the Dambusters Raid during the Second World War. Aircraft previously flown by the squadron include the Vulcan B2 and Lancaster bombers.

“This is another first for the Lightning Force and will give the opportunity for our pilots to really put the F-35s to the test in a combat representative environment,” said RAF Marham Station Commander Group Captain Beck.“This training is as near to high-end operational flying as our pilots can get in a controlled environment and will really test them and the teams that support the squadron."

The new F-35B aircraft first arrived in the UK in June 2018. Sixteen of the aircraft are based at RAF Marham, but the government has also ordered an additional 17 to be delivered sometime between 2020 and 2022. In total, the UK has committed to procuring 138 aircraft over the life of the F-35 programme, which has 12 participating countries. The UK is the largest opertator of F-35 aircraft outside the US. 

Red Flag is the US Air Force's premier air-to-air combat training exercise. It was established in 1975 by Lt. Col. Richard “Moody” Suter and General Robert J. Dixon, then commander of Tactical Air Command, to better prepare US forces for combat.

Lessons from Vietnam demonstrated that if a pilot survived their first 10 combat missions, their probability of survival for remaining missions increased substantially.

Red Flag was designed to expose each “Blue 4” pilot to their first 10 “combat missions” at Nellis. Air Force, Joint, and Coalition pilots, aircrew and operators fight against a peer-level adversary in any combat environment.

The Red force threats includr fighter, space, information operations and air defence units. The “aggressors” are specially trained to replicate the tactics and techniques of potential adversaries and provide a scalable threat presentation to Blue forces.

A typical RED FLAG exercise involves a variety of attack, fighter and bomber aircraft (F-15E, F-35, F-16, F/A-18, A-10C, B-1B, B-2A, B-52H, FGR4, MQ-9, etc.), reconnaissance aircraft (MQ-4B, RC-135, U-2S), electronic warfare aircraft (EC-130H, EA-18G and F-16CM), air superiority aircraft (F-22A, F-15C, etc), airlift support (C-130, C-17A), Search and Rescue aircraft (HH-60G, HC-130J, CH-47), aerial refueling aircraft (KC-130, KC-135R, KC-10A, etc), multi-domain Command and Control platforms (E-3, E-8C, E-2C, E-7, R1) as well as ground based Command and Control, Space, and Cyber Forces.


Photo credit on home page: USAF photo by Master Sgt. Ben Bloker