Black Flag is the U.S. Air Force’s newest flag-level exercise. Flag-level exercises bring together airframes and skillsets from around the military, and sometimes from around the world.


Red Flag

Arguably the most well-known U.S. Air Force exercise is Red Flag. This is a two-week aerial combat, Large Force Exercise (LFE) that is based out of Nellis AFB, NV.

Born from lessons learned during Vietnam, Red Flags give pilots from all services the opportunity to hone aerial combat skills against “aggressors” piloting fighters that mimic adversary aircraft. Anywhere from four to six Red Flags take place in Nevada each year. Up to four more exercises, dubbed Red Flag – Alaska, take place in Eielson AFB.

Essentially, Red Flag (as well as Green Flag) tests aircrew capabilities.


The Origins of Black Flag

Many lessons are learned at Red Flag exercises, specifically about real-world combat situations and aircrew members’ reactions.

However, learning how systems will interact is another matter.

The middle of a large-scale exercise is not the best time to learn if and how a communications system induces interference into a navigation system in another aircraft. Or to find out the satellite link can only handle a certain number of links before it becomes too degraded to use.

F-22s, F-15Es, F-16s, KC-46
F-22s, F-15Es, and F-16s fly alongside a KC-46 over the Nevada Test and Training Range on November 17, 2020, for Large Force Test Event 20.03. LFTE 20.03 was the beta version of “Black Flag,” a premier joint operational test event hosted by the 53rd Wing that validates tactics in a combat-relevant environment. (Photo by 1st Lt Savanah Bray/USAF)

Black Flag is how the Air Force plans to identify those problems and wring out solutions.

Whenever new systems are developed for military aircraft, they go through a rigorous testing process. First, they are tested in a laboratory environment, then in a ground simulator before moving to an aircraft. Once installed, a series of ground-based tests occurs, with external power, internal power, and finally with engines running. Only after all these tests is a new system allowed to fly. And then only under the experience of a developmental test crew.


Black Flag Testing

Once a new system is proven air-worthy it goes to operational testing, where its complete functionality is tested in normal training scenarios. After all that, the system is released to the “big” Air Force, and operators are trained on its uses. Black Flag aims to go one step further, operationally testing these systems in Large Force Test Events, or LFTEs.

LFTEs, in the form of Orange, Emerald, and Black Flags, are designed for developmental testing, DARPA-level testing, and integration testing, respectively.

Integration testing is the newest, and arguably most exciting, addition to the Flag community. Rather than acquiring new systems with rigidly set requirements, then testing to meet those requirements, Black Flag aims to “create and discover capabilities utilizing existing and emerging materiel,” according to the 53rd Wing Director of Staff Lt Col Mike “Pako” Benitez.

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Every year, warfighters from around the U.S. come together for the Combat Air Forces Weapons and Tactics Conference (WEPTAC). This two-week conference is geared toward Tactics Improvement Proposals (TIPs), where lessons learned from previous exercises and real-world flying are dissected. They are studied for strengths and weaknesses, and solidified into new tactics and procedures. TIPs are, in essence, what Black Flag is all about.


An Integrated Test

53rd Wing Commander Col Ryan “Schmitt” Messer explains Black Flag thus,

“We wanted to create a venue by which we could create an integrated method and event where we could actually test the way that we plan to fight. Testing a specific weapons system or integrating just fighter aircraft together but not including all the other entities, although good, falls well short of what is required on night one.”

By taking known and emerging systems, placing them in a large-scale combat environment, and then exploring new ideas on employment, Black Flag is a path to better and integrated warfighting capabilities.

Black Flag takes advantage of the plethora of resources available at Nellis AFB and the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR).

As the host of Red Flag since the late ’70s, NTTR has many assets not available anywhere else in the world. There are a number of flying squadrons based out of Nellis, operating aircraft from fighter jets to rescue helicopters. The base also boasts a Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) that has the capability of coordinating, tracking, and providing command and control of aerial and ground assets in and around the NTTR. The Combined designation means allied and coalition forces can work in tandem with U.S. forces.

Combined Air Operations Center Al Udeid Air Base
Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, provides command and control of airpower throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations. The CAOC is comprised of a joint and coalition team that executes day-to-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and de-confliction of weapon systems. (Photo by Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang/USAF)


‘Test Like We Fight’

Black Flag is a way for the Air Force to test new systems and tactics in as close to real-world combat situations as possible. Putting tested systems into combat-training scenarios to wring them out has traditionally been a very lengthy process.

Black Flag gives the Air Force more options for test and integration. More options equal more training and more quality training results in better-equipped aircrews.

Train like you fight is a maxim heard throughout all branches of the military. Black Flag is the Air Force’s way of testing like we fight.

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