The Colombian Air Force (FAC, in Spanish) took part in international exercise Red Flag 19-2, March 6-23, at U.S. Air Force Nellis Air Base in Las Vegas, Nevada. Conducted several times a year, Red Flag is the most important air combat training in the world. During the exercise, participants conducted in flight refueling training for aircraft of the U.S. Navy’s EA-18 Growler Squadron.
The Colombian delegation focused on the Jupiter, an FAC Boeing KC-767 tanker that carried out three daytime and four nighttime exercises. The mission was to conduct in flight refueling for U.S. aircraft. “We know that if we encounter the Jupiter, it will be a reliable and professional partner to interoperate with if necessary,” U.S. Navy Commander Chris Nesset, commander of Electronic Attack Squadron 134, told the press.
“It’s not common for a country to participate two years in a row. This is very significant,” FAC Colonel Kerly Sánchez, commander of the FAC delegation for Red Flag 19-2, who also took part in the 2018 exercise, told Diálogo. “The air forces of many other nations are on the waiting list to participate in the exercise. Our presence this year showed U.S. interest in making us part of this activity.”
Capable of interoperating
Red Flag demands intense training to carry out all assignments safely in an enclosed space, where several aircraft interact at high speeds, with air combat maneuvers in different roles. Participants fulfill different missions in a fifth-generation war simulation, based on strategies and technology aimed at suppressing the enemy’s electromagnetic spectrum.
Twenty-one squadrons from 10 countries took part in the exercise: Belgium, Colombia, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States. FAC’s 811th Tanker Squadron was invited to participate and lead the refueling component for the Blue Air Force, which represents the coalition of partner countries in Red Flag. This is the first time Colombia holds that position.
A 25-unit squadron represented FAC, including officers and noncommissioned officers specialized in hydraulic, electric, structure, pneumatic, avionics, and in flight refueling systems. The Colombians demonstrated knowledge about procedures and standards of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for interoperability.
“We received our invitation for Red Flag 19-2 three months in advance. We barely trained, which shows that our interoperability capability with coalition countries is real, sustainable, and permanent,” said Col. Sánchez. “We’ve got it integrated and processed in our procedures.”
During the training, the Jupiter tanker crew had to do a 5,000-liter refueling for three U.S. EA-18 Growler aircraft, in good weather conditions, FAC told the press. “[It’s] an operation that we frequently conduct in real operations with Cessna A-37 aircraft,” said Col. Sánchez. “We have many aircraft, and we conduct missions to guarantee fuel supply. Our tanker has 10 hours of autonomy.”
The squadrons were able to conduct in flight refueling under strict security and efficiency standards, in a simulated theater of operations in Europe, where the objective was to undermine the rival forces’ anti-air system capabilities. The exercise was conducted in different stages, including planning, a task FAC deems just as important, if not more, than the flight itself. Three or four hours of flight require many days devoted to mission planning.
Red Flag used two combat wings: red and blue, which joined more than 62 aircraft that flew over Nellis Base’s airspace at the same time. Participants conducted intelligence and command and control missions, in flight refueling, and combat and attack on land and air targets.
The Colombian tanker crew analyzed different variables that might come up and defined time, altitude, and speed of aircraft to be refueled, and guarantee interoperability in 10 aircraft groups of different countries. They also considered hypothetical situations and alternatives, as in the event of changes during the mission, the operation would still have to be carried out, even if pilots and squadrons had not worked together before.
“The capability to operate with NATO and coalition partners in the same training environment enables us to overcome border, cultural, and language barriers,” said Col. Nesset. “In Red Flag, we were able to overcome these obstacles and get positive results, which will facilitate communications when we do real operations.”
According to Col. Sánchez, Red Flag is a great opportunity to learn techniques and practices of participant air forces. “In this scenario, participants test their capabilities and strengthen interoperability among the most advanced and powerful air forces in the world. It’s an exchange of experiences that will produce better results in real international cooperation operations,” he concluded.