By Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey
EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska (AFNS) — As Red Flag-Alaska 22-2 draws to a close after two weeks of non-stop operations, the visiting squadrons at Eielson Air Force Base have racked up thousands of combined flying hours for pilots and kept maintainers working around the clock to keep more than 40 fighter aircraft ready to fly day after day with limited facilities and supplies.
Red Flag exercises are designed to simulate a deployment to a contested environment, where the battlefield strategy demands a high operations tempo and necessitates innovation, determination, and teamwork to stay ahead of ever-changing mission needs.
“Pilots, maintainers and support staff are standing a little taller knowing that they came here to play and are going home winners,” said Col. Matthew Gaetke, 51st Operations Group commander and Red Flag-Alaska 22-2 flight commander. “Day one was rough. We pressed these people hard to deal with conditions they weren’t used to, but with every sortie, they learned a little more and worked together a bit better, and now in the final days here, this joint-force team is a well-oiled machine that keeps making the mission happen no matter what is thrown at them.”
Held at the Joint Pacific Alaskan Range Complex, the landscape is the ideal environment to train aviators and ground personnel deployed combat tactics, with over 77,000 square miles of airspace and terrain to test individual and complex joint-engagement skills, practice weapons usage over three bomb ranges and ground training areas.
While pilots flying fighter aircraft may be the tip of the spear for a joint-force team, its maintainers that hold that spear up high, as the continuous high stress of flying aircraft day after day will show wear and tear as parts break or safety concerns develop that would ground an aircraft without maintenance.
“For each pilot and aircraft, there are dozens of maintainers behind the scenes keeping that bird flying reliably,” said Lt. Col. Scott Kubalek, 51st Munitions Squadron and Red Flag-Alaska 22-2 maintenance commander. “These pilots do amazing work, but the maintainer Airmen working through the night to fix a broken aircraft so it can fly the next day are real heroes.”
Eielson AFB has its own mission of maintaining fifth generation, strategic airpower that is separate from the exercise and the visiting squadrons. Sharing limited facilities and resources necessary to keep dozens of aircraft flying maneuvers each day creates a realistic deployed situation that necessitates innovation.
“This is the Agile Combat Employment in action, right here at Red Flag,” Kubalek said. “All the maintenance teams bring tools and parts with them, but you can’t prepare for everything that might go wrong. I’ve watched Air Force, Navy and Singapore crews all putting their heads together for a fix, learn new techniques from other branches, and offer specialist skills to support each other as one team, one mission and find that interoperability to solve problems.”
The goal of Red Flag is learning as a team, and while individuals may improve from their exercise experience, the aspiration is to forge ever greater ability and efficiency in coalition fighting forces.
“This is a first-time experience for most people,” Gaetke said. “Yet leaving here, they will be Red Flag veterans, and that will set them apart for having the critical experience this exercise provides.”
The fighting forces of the U.S. military and its joint-force partners have and continue to place a high priority on the safety and security of the Indo-Pacific region. Red Flag has trained bilateral forces for more than 40 years to ensure the skill and deployable capability of its forces stand ready to face any challenge, anytime, anywhere.