An F-16 Fighting Falcon assigned to the 120th Fighter Squadron at Buckley Air Force Base, Colo., takes off for a sortie training mission Jan. 30 during Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., where combat units come together from the U.S. and its allied countries to engage in realistic combat training scenarios. (Tech. Sgt. Wolfram M. Stumpf/Air Force)
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Three F-16 Fighting Falcons assigned to the 64th Aggressor Squadron hold short of the runway as a B-2 Spirit, assigned to the 13th Bomb Squadron from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., takes off Feb. 6 during Red Flag 14-1 at Nellis AFB, Nev. (Lorenz Crespo/Air Force)
Airman 1st Class Jonathon Sitsis, 57th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron Viper Aircraft Maintenance Unit dedicated crew chief, and Maj. Scott Jewell, 64th Aggressor Squadron pilot, perform a pre-flight inspection on the F-16 Fighting Falcon during Red Flag 14-1 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. (Lawrence Crespo/Air Force)
The return of the Air Force’s largest training exercise after being grounded in 2013 by sequestration introduced a new cyber challenge for maintenance crews on the ground.
Red Flag 14-1, which drew fighters, bombers, surveillance aircraft and tankers from the U.S. Air Force and around the world, simulated a “contested, degraded or operationally limited” environment, in which computers were compromised or shut down to test the maintainers’ ability to respond.
“Not only do they have to keep planes flying, they also have to make sure the environment is operationally secure,” said Maj. Teresa Sullivan, a spokeswoman for Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., which hosts the training. “They have to respond in an environment that is not as functional as their home station.”
Pilots have been tested in degraded environments at previous Red Flag exercises, but this was a first for maintainers, Sullivan said.
During the exercise, the maintainers’ digital tools were either shut off, or under a cyber threat from a simulated adversary. In the air, pilots flew without a regular tool, such as GPS, to simulate the degraded environment. The training is designed to force airmen to work around their regular procedures to prepare them for a possible real-life digital threat.
Throughout the 19-day exercise, set to wrap up Friday, more than 125 aircraft flew twice a day.
Last year, sequestration-forced budget cuts caused the Air Force to ground the two Red Flag exercises, one at Nellis and another at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, along with four Green Flag air-to-ground combat training exercises. All flight hours for one-third of the Air Force’s combat forces and a weapons school class at Nellis were also canceled.
“This is the first one since the stand down, so we tried to get everybody here going again and back in the direction of practicing for major combat operations,” Sullivan said.
Air Force leaders lamented last year’s Red Flag cancellation because, they said, it dealt a major setback to pilots and aircrews for short-term budget savings.
“Red Flag is integral to [training]. It’s what creates our PhD-level war fighters for the Air Force. The weapons school creates our actual PhDs, who then train the rest of the force,” Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said after Congress passed short-term budget relief in December. “Last year, we had to cancel Red Flag-exercises. We canceled weapons school classes. That cannot continue.”