The advanced aerial combat training exercise Red Flag 18 came to an end August 3rd, at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The exercise—held periodically since 1975—aims to provide pilots from partner nations the opportunity to practice and improve skills in real combat situations. Colombia participated for the second time as a guest nation.
“The U.S. Air Force extended its invitation [for Red Flag] under strict mandatory compliance parameters,” Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish) Brigadier General Pablo Enrique García Valencia, commander of the Colombian delegation, told Diálogo. “The guest nation must have superior experience in aviation, high performance in the battlefield and, preferably, real experience in military air operations.”
Prior to joining Red Flag 18-3, FAC aircraft made way to David-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona, from the Third Air Combat Command in Atlántico department, Colombia, July 2nd. FAC filed two flight plans, each with three Kfir aircraft and a KC-767 Tanker, which refueled the Kfirs in-flight five times.
Colombian units stayed for five days at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to carry out exercise Relámpago 3. Combat pilots from FAC, the Arizona Air National Guard, and Air Forces Southern, the air component of U.S. Southern Command, took part in the preliminary training, according to FAC’s strategic communications.
Aircraft conducted high-precision air exercises, allowing Colombian pilots to get familiar with English communication and other standard procedures. Units from the air forces of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Peru also met at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to learn about crew work, aircraft, logistics, and services required to carry out Relámpago 3.
Integration and interoperability
Colombian pilots carried out their first Red Flag 18-3 mission July 23rd, with air refueling operations for U.S. fighter aircraft. The exercise, under parameters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), called for the use of necessary procedures to operate with military forces of partner nations.
“This year we have a great opportunity to work with FAC,” said U.S. Air Force Colonel Michael Mathes, 414th Combat Training Squadron commander, responsible for executing Red Flag. “We have a better understanding of how international threads are interconnected to criminal networks. This enables us to have a shared defense against a common enemy,” he told Diálogo.
Two weeks of operations with F-18, MQ-9 Reaper, V-22 Osprey, Kfir, KC-767, and other aircraft followed, with missions carried out day and night. “Among [Colombia’s] achievements at Red Flag was sharing the airspace with more than 70 aircraft simultaneously,” Brig. Gen. García said. “It also marks a couple of milestones [for Colombia]: conducting an in-flight refueling mission to EA-18 aircraft from the U.S. Navy, and the opportunity for the commander of FAC’s 111th Kfir Squadron to command a fleet of U.S. bomber aircraft during a mission.”
“An exercise such as Red Flag speeds up the development of our operators, maintenance, and the entire support team,” Col. Mathes said. “We are better prepared, faster to reach a place such as Red Flag, where we practice combat actions. So, we are better suited for faster combat.”
Colombia previously took part in Red Flag in 2012. Since then, FAC has trained continuously with routine air operations. “We’ve conducted high-scale exercises at the First Air Combat Command since 2017 with all combat squadrons of FAC,” Brig. Gen. García said.
During Red Flag, pilots conducted air-to-air and air-to-ground missions under NATO parameters to participate as hemispheric defense partners. “Colombia just recently joined NATO,” Brig. Gen. García said. “This allows us to conduct military operations with other countries in the near future, with aircraft, pilots, and crews, following standard procedures that enable interoperability anywhere in the world.”
“It’s our second participation, with far more satisfactory results than the first,” Brig. Gen. García said. “It’s good for Colombians to get serious about the [exercise] training. Red Flag is relatively easy if the training is demanding,” Col. Mathes concluded.