Pacific Air Over Alaska

October 2011
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine
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A U.S. Air Force F-16 takes off from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska to participate in Red Flag 11-2, held this past July. The multiday exercise, which comprised air and land forces from four countries, generated air combat data that could be reviewed by all participants in real time.

A U.S. Air Force exercise gives regional allies a realistic taste of coalition air combat.

Modern computer software, airborne combat simulation systems and a plethora of advanced Russian surface-to-air radar and missile hardware are melding air forces and ground-based air defense systems into a seamless air combat exercise that simulates ground and air combat. Friends are able to know immediately how their simulated fight against various foes is progressing, and after-action reviews can examine tactics and weapon performance in a multilevel security environment.

Data that otherwise would take days or weeks to consolidate—if even possible—now contributes to a common picture that provides a multifaceted view of simulated air warfare over tens of thousands of square miles. Different nations are able to fly in coalition operations against the actual anti-aircraft hardware that they likely would face in a future conflict.

Nations customize the airborne simulation systems for their types of aircraft. The key computer software that links their data into a single system is a commercial solution built around a military-developed training architecture. And much of ground-based anti-air technology is advanced Russian gear purchased openly from a former Soviet republic.

The synergy among these elements is behind Red Flag-Alaska, the Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) exercise held in the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) several times throughout the year. U.S. Air Force personnel and their aircraft are joined by their counterparts from Pacific allies as well as by U.S. Army ground forces in an exercise that encompasses 67,000 square miles of airspace and 1.6 million acres of training land.

All told, about 100 aircraft and up to 2,000 personnel take part in the endeavor over JPARC at Eielson Air Force Base near Fairbanks. Red Flag 11-2, held in July 2011, featured aircraft and support personnel from the United States, Australia, Japan and Singapore. They participated in coalition air operations over several days, and real-time data from all ground and air assets was consolidated to generate a single picture of the simulated combat.

At the heart of this effort is a cross-domain solution that allows different platforms to exchange data at three levels of security. Complementing the secure links is an unclassified level that allows full exploitation by all coalition partners. This unclassified data can be seen and used by all participating nations during and after the exercise.

That cross-domain solution is SimShield, developed by Raytheon Trusted Computer Solutions Incorporated, Herndon, Virginia. SimShield incorporates a Test and Training Enabling Architecture, or TENA, to enable a classified network and an unclassified enclave to be linked. TENA was developed by the U.S. Joint Forces Command as part of the Joint National Training Capability to be a defensewide protocol that could reach back across generations of software.

Billy D. Smith, the chief of electronic combat training requirements for Red Flag at JPARC, emphasizes the importance of SimShield and its TENA protocol. “SimShield is a good solution, and TENA allows the cross-domain solution with [unclassified U.S.] Army data,” he says. “TENA is the greatest thing that ever happened to us. We couldn’t be doing [what we are] today with all these systems—and we couldn’t have all the participants that we do—if it weren’t for TENA.

“And, the [SimShield] cross-domain solution became the enabler for that,” Smith continues. “If I didn’t have that cross-domain solution, I couldn’t have taken my classified tracking source and combined it with my unclassified tracking source.”

TENA largely is agnostic when it comes to other data systems. Even proprietary systems can work with TENA, which produces data in a common format. This way, classified air combat data from a U.S. Air Force fighter aircraft, data from a Japanese Air Self Defense Force anti-aircraft team and unclassified data from U.S. Army ground forces can be consolidated immediately.

“We take everything from advanced threats that are real to systems that are basically low-fidelity emitters, but we have to tie them all in and do the training for all the participants at that level,” Smith says.

What puts Red Flag at the forefront of air combat simulations is that all of its assets generate data that influences the exercise in real time. The information generated by the various airborne and ground platforms creates an active picture of the battlespace. Aircraft “destroyed” during air combat are ordered out of the active exercise, so they do not have any effect on the remaining participants.

Observers viewing the unclassified display can see the red and blue aircraft as they move throughout the battlespace. “Killed” aircraft are identified on the display, and some mission status and functions also are color-coded. The classified version provides much more detail than its unclassified root. It includes information on weapons engaged as well as on weapons effects.

Red Flag features three different air combat maneuvering instrumentation (ACMI) systems operating simultaneously. The P4BE provides aircraft weapon data via an encrypted link to ground data systems in real time. The Misawa-Osan-Kunsan-Kadena Instrumentation Training System, or MOKKITS, supports bilateral, joint and combined forces missions. And, many aircraft use newer P5 pods, which attach to AIM-9 or AMRAAM launch rails and provide continuous data flow for tracking and simulated weapons use.

Air-to-air and ground-to-air combat are only two parts of a Red Flag. The exercise also includes air-to-ground warfighting, with friendly pilots rated on their ability to strike various ground targets as well as against ground-based anti-air threats. The range features dozens of targets ranging from airfields, submarine pens, bridges, mock aircraft and anti-aircraft sites. Physical plants such as buildings are subdivided into high-effect strike areas for precision targeting.

Red Flag now has its own in-house aggressor force, which Smith notes provides an advantage over previous exercises. Prior to the establishment of this resident red force, pilots who arrived for the exercise had to split their time between red and blue force activities. This lessened the amount of effective training they would receive as blue force pilots. Now, visiting pilots have twice as much time training the way they would fight in coalition operations.


This SA-11 is equipped with nonfiring missiles for appearance on the range, but its radar actively tracks multiple targets and can simulate missile attacks on three aircraft simultaneously up to an altitude of 82,000 feet.

Smith estimates that 80 percent of the exercise’s electronic warfare assets are government-developed. The battlefield commanders’ simulation system employs commercial off-the-shelf equipment. In some cases, commercial gear is adapted for unique uses on the range.

One case involves the use of Stinger missile systems. Ground forces equipped with Stingers are an integral part of exercises involving air-to-ground attack. These forces do not actually fire the heat-seeking missiles, of course, but instead transmit data about targeting and firing into the Red Flag computer system. For Red Flag 11-2, ground-based Japanese Air Self Defense Force personnel used Stingers equipped with Droid cell phones atop the Stinger launch tubes. These smart phones provided the physical position of the man-portable air defense missile (MANPAD) at launch along with video of the nonkinetic engagement.

To let pilots know that they have been fired upon by a MANPAD, exercise personnel fire a conventional smoke missile into the sky in the general direction of the aircraft under attack. The aircraft pilot then must engage countermeasures or evasive maneuvers to avoid being categorized as a casualty.

The greatest ground threat that friendly pilots likely will face in future air combat will be equipment from the former Soviet Union. The range has a menu of up-to-date former Soviet and Russian radar and anti-aircraft systems, and many of these are designed to be linked during actual combat. Whether networked or operating stand-alone, these systems provide data to the Red Flag simulation center. The Russian gear ranges from the upgraded SA-6 to the newest SA-15b, as well as various detection and targeting radars (see box, page 20).

Smith allows that the biggest challenge in pulling together Red Flag has involved security issues. Transitioning from a U.S.-only mission to a multinational operation entails meeting a host of security requirements. The information assurance process also has been difficult, he offers, because it prevented the range from conducting the total training originally envisioned. Now, everyone can see all of the information that they are supposed to see, so that problem largely has been overcome.

Red Flag established a classified laboratory offsite so that every piece of hardware brought to the range is tested before it is added to the active menu. In some cases, this might entail testing several systems simultaneously, even mixing classified and unclassified data. Smith notes that problems can arise when different radar and data systems track the same targets—or perhaps not all the same targets—and generate data that must be consolidated into a single picture.

The Federal Aviation Administration solves this challenge by instituting the same data format among its many types of radars. Red Flag does not have that luxury, as it consolidates data from platforms as varied as Link 16, Mode 3 identification friend or foe (IFF) and ACMI pod systems, Smith notes.

Other conflicts have arisen. Smith relates that when GPS jamming began, some code receivers would drop out while others did not. This was a problem largely with older electronics pods, and engineers still are working that problem.

Data generated during Red Flag is transmitted by encrypted microwave or over optical fiber to the computers that consolidate and produce exercise information. Red Flag is able to run advanced threats against advanced aircraft because of encryption that protects the data and makes it supportable, Smith reports. This is a relatively new development, and it is built around the Russian systems, he adds.

“We want to make sure that, when we have real Russian assets, that we are protecting the capabilities that might be on the plane,” he allows.

Those Russian assets have presented logistical challenges. Many of the Soviet-designed radars conflict with U.S. commercial bandwidth. Cell telephony in particular can be affected during certain conditions when the Russian radars are operating. Smith explains that engineers have digitized some of these systems to serve range needs, but as a result they can interrupt cellular communications when the radar points at a cell tower.

To use the Russian radars in conflicted spectrum, the range has obtained permanent/intermittent or temporary permits from the Federal Communications Commission. Operators also endeavor to avoid situations that might cause interference with public airwaves, such as preventing the radars from beaming at cell towers.

Some issues arise simply because of the different modes of operation native to each country. For example, during air combat simulations, U.S. Air Force pilots are permitted a minimum altitude that is higher than that of their Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) counterparts. This presented an unexpected complication during Red Flag 11-2 for the Japanese Stinger crews perched on a hillside overlooking a valley that serves as a key air combat route. When the Australian pilots flew their aircraft in the valley, they flew lower than expected—but still above their minimum. However, the Japanese Stinger crews were unable to engage the RAAF aircraft because the missiles were safed to prevent firing when pointed downward, and the RAAF aircraft were flying at an altitude that placed them below the Japanese ground personnel. However, when U.S. Air Force F-15s flew into the valley at their slightly higher altitude, the Japanese Stinger crews were able to engage them successfully.

Despite its advanced nature, Red Flag still has some unrealized potential. In the future, planners hope to fully integrate the F-22 Raptor to the exercise. Currently, the F-22 must switch on its IFF when it is participating in exercises. Smith notes that this brings up fidelity issues because the aircraft’s IFF is not switched on during actual air combat. Red Flag experts are looking at some commercial technology developed for tactical activities for use in the F-22. Similarly, Smith offers that commercial or Air Force engineers may be working to adapt a P5 pod for installation in the F-22’s internal weapons stores. This would involve the pod using existing external antennas aboard the F-22, so no fundamental changes would be made to the aircraft. An external pod would severely reduce the aircraft’s stealth effects.

A simpler fix is in store for kill notification. Currently, real-time kill removal of aircraft from the exercise is done by voice communication from the ground to the pilot. Engineers are working to enable that function to be performed through Link 16.

Changes also are under consideration for the range’s physical plant. Planners are looking at building simulated tunnel complexes to replicate new military challenges. This will require an intelligence solution as part of air combat activities.

“Warfighters are demanding, and they expect training ranges to be equipped with relevant threats to train against and reliable and flexible data recording and feedback systems in order to wring out every ounce of lessons learned in training before they are engaged in combat,” Smith declares. “Our aim is to meet their training needs now.”


Photography by Robert K. Ackerman. For more images go to

A Rich Market for Russian Hardware

Billy D. Smith, the chief of electronic combat training requirements for Red Flag at the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC), is more than a software integrator. He is responsible for acquiring most of the advanced Russian surface-to-air combat gear that dots the range. These JPARC radars and missile systems are not aging holdovers from the Cold War. While some of them have their roots in that period, they all represent the latest systems that might be employed by an adversary in a coalition operation.

Smith regularly journeys to Ukraine, where many of these systems still are manufactured. Under regular international export transactions, he buys them and ships them back to JPARC for installation and use. Lately, he has been purchasing them with service contracts so that he can add software or hardware upgrades when they become available without having to negotiate new sales agreements.

The list of Soviet- and Russian-designed systems used at JPARC reads like a directory of surface-to-air defense systems. They include the SA-10/Flap Lid, the 2S6, the SA-8, the SA-6, the SA-11b, the SA-13 and the new SA-15b. Red Flag participants also train against early warning radars such as the Clam Shell, Tin Shield, Spoon Rest, Flat Face, Long Track and Thin Skin.

Many of these systems work together to constitute complementary air defense. The SA-10 uses the Tin Shield radar, which can be a stand-alone system or an integrated one and serves as an early warning system. Data from this detection radar, which can track as many as 100 targets, is passed on to other radars such as the Flap Lid phased array radar. This is the SA-10’s fire control radar, and it can track six targets and launch 12 missiles. The Clam Shell radar, which concentrates on low-flying targets, also feeds data into this network via the same control van as the Flap Lid, from which it also is controlled.

The 2S6 is a tracked vehicle equipped with guns and missiles. Specializing in low-level combat, it can fire 5,000 rounds per minute at targets up to 2 miles away. Its missiles can engage aircraft 8 miles away at up to 8,000 feet above ground level. The SA-8 also is designed for low-altitude attacks. It carries four missiles and is an amphibious threat. While it can track aircraft while on the move, it must stop to fire its missiles. It can engage a target 6 miles away up to 16,500 feet above ground level.

The SA-6, which made its debut in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, features separate radar and missile vehicles. The newest version, which equips the JPARC range, can hit aircraft 13 miles away at an altitude of up to 50,000 feet.

The range has two SA-11 units that it can place in different locations. It can fire its missiles on the move, and it can hit aircraft as far away as 30 miles up to an altitude of 82,000 feet. Its advanced radar allows it to fire three missiles at one target.

The new short-range SA-15b is the latest addition to JPARC. Its advantage in air defense is its versatility: its operators can perform surveillance, command and control and target engagement. The system can track 48 aircraft, prioritize the 10 most important tracks, and then begin engagement—all within 8 seconds. Equipped with eight missiles, the SA-15b can fire at two different aircraft simultaneously. Its range is 7.5 miles up to 20,000 feet in altitude.

While the transactions that acquired these systems may have been smooth, their incorporation into the range provided some hurdles. Smith notes that, not only did the gear and its labels require translation from Russian into English, the more modern made-in-Ukraine systems and their manuals required translation from Ukrainian into English. Other language and format barriers popped up, but they have been overcome, he states.


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