The US Air Force’s Red Flag Large Force Employment Exercises (LFE) are world renowned for their scale and scope, and always involve a large number of different types of aircraft flying together. The final Red Flag event of fiscal year 2022, called Red Flag 22-3, appears to have had some particularly notable attendees last week. These came in the form of aircraft operating from the highly secure Groom Lake test facility, better known as Area 51, using ‘MiG’ call signs.
Joerg Arnu, an Area 51 researcher and webmaster of Dreamland Resort, a website dedicated to the history and events of Area 51, first posted a collection of audio recordings he made of radio conversations between these unusual Red Flag attendees and air traffic controllers. July 13. This included communications from pilots using call signs MiG 5 and MiG 6, as well as MiG 1 and MiG 2. However, only MiG 5 and MiG 6 could be heard specifically when launching and retrieving Groom as part of the largest Red Flag Missions day and night. Arnu then said The war zone that he has now also heard a third pilot, using the call sign MiG 7, on flights to and from Area 51.
“In over 20 years of surveillance of Area 51 and Red Flag, I have never heard of Area 51 planes participating in Red Flag. During this flag sorties (22-3), I repeatedly heard at least three aggressors (call signs MIG 5, 6 and 7) launch from Area 51 and RTB [returned to base] there after the release,” Arnu said. “They checked in with Area 51 control and later Tower on the unpublished UHF frequencies normally used by test or mission aircraft out of Area 51.”
Red Flag 22-3 is already notable for being a relatively rare iteration of this US military-only exercise, which indicates the inclusion of particularly sensitive capabilities. Red flags typically include aircraft and personnel from at least some allied and partner nations, which may preclude the use of any highly classified assets.
The exercise, which is run from Nellis AFB in Las Vegas, and conducted in airspace above the sprawling adjacent Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR), began July 9 and is scheduled to end July 29. July. inside a heavily restricted area called “The Box” in the middle of the NTTR.
“It cannot be overstated how unusual it is for aircraft from Area 51 to participate in Red Flag,” Arnu said. “Normally, Area 51 airspace is strictly off limits to Red Flag players and during Red Flag phases, mission flights out of Area 51 are scheduled to not conflict with Red Flag sorties. .”
Area 51 airspace is so sensitive that it is well known that even Red Flag aircrew will be grounded and/or sent home if they violate “The Box” during Red Flag sorties. , also called “vuls”.
There is no clear indication one way or another which aircraft these “MiG” pilots actually flew. However, the Air Force has already publicly stated that Red Flag 22-3 features a different aggressor force than has been employed in any of these exercises in the past. The recently activated 65th Aggressor Squadron, equipped with stealth F-35A Joint Strike Fighters, which is currently focused on emulating Chinese threats, is a key part of their brand new enemy air equation.
Nellis’ 57th Operations Group’s “dedicated multi-domain aggressor force,” which includes units that provide simulations of “fighter, space, info ops and [ground-based] air defense adversaries”, is another essential element. The 64th Aggressor Squadron, which flies F-16 Vipers and whose pilots often use “MiG” call signs, is part of this aggressor contingent, sometimes referred to as the “Aggressor Nation”.
“The Aggressive Nation will unleash as it refines threat replication, applies advanced threats and jamming capabilities, and augments threat capabilities to maximize training in non-permissive environments,” said the Air Force Col. Jared Hutchinson, commanding officer of the 414th Combat Training Squadron, the unit that runs the Red Flag exercise program, said in a statement earlier this month. “The airspace is also very different with almost twice as much combat airspace and the inclusion of opportunities in nearby airspace to optimize blue and red force tactics.”
Being able to launch aggressors from remote airfields, like Area 51, only enhances the overall training experience by recreating the dynamic nature of a cunning adversary’s fighter operations. The slightly less secret Tonopah Test Range (TTR) airport, also located in the NTTR, has been used for this purpose in the past. Groom Lake, with its more central location in the NTTR, would be even better suited for this purpose.
Since this is a USA-only practice event, it’s even possible that Red Flag 22-3 will take place, at least in part, in “The Box.” This would also align with Colonel Hutchinson’s comments about using additional airspace for this iteration of the exercise. It also aligns with what we already know of initiatives within the Air Force to expand the space available for use during various large-force exercises, as well as its partnership with other services. in this regard, to find ways to better simulate large high-end exercises. conflict scenarios that will occur over large geographic areas.
It is, of course, possible that this is not the explanation, or the whole explanation, for the attackers flying from Area 51. The call signs had immediately caused some to wonder whether the pilots in question were flying Soviet, Russian or foreign aircraft. as part of Red Flag 22-3.
Area 51 is believed to house a covert unit dubbed the Red Hats that specializes in so-called Foreign Military Exploitation (FME) work—primarily the testing and evaluation of foreign military hardware acquired through various means—and steals Su- 27 Soviet-designed Flankers and MiG-29 Fulcrums, possibly among other non-US types.
For many years another separate FME unit nicknamed the Red Eagles based at Tonopah flew various Soviet and Chinese types to provide valuable dissimilar air-to-air training support to American and Allied pilots. It is understood that the Red Hats took over the mission from the Red Eagles in the 1990s after the latter unit was officially inactivated, and continued to offer these services, including selecting participants for weeks of Red Flag exercises. , but not during the wargames themselves, and for students of the prestigious US Air Force Weapons School.
At the same time, foreign aircraft based in Groom are particularly camera-shy because their very existence in US military inventory is officially undisclosed and they are treated as “sight-sensitive” assets. Thus, their direct participation in Red Flag 22-3 elsewhere in the NTTR seems less likely. The same could be said of the possibility that these “MiGs” are actually another type of advanced US military aircraft prototype. Although that’s probably not the case, flying directly from Groom would make sense.
Another possibility is that the pilots in question were flying some of the two-seat F-16D Viper fighter jets based at Area 51 in support of the work taking place there. One such plane was spotted in 2017 flying through Rainbow Canyon, also known as “Star Wars Canyon”, in neighboring California. The pilot and rear seat of this Viper wore Red Hats and Red Eagles badges and the plane notably carried a version of the Lockheed Martin Legion Pod equipped with an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor.
IRST systems have been around for years and are currently making a big comeback within the US military, including with the Air Force, which is now actively deploying Legion Pods on F-15C Eagles. These sensors offer fighter pilots, in particular, an additional valuable tool beyond radars to detect and track threats, including stealth platforms, and do so in a passive manner that does not alert adversaries. of the presence of the host aircraft, as you can read more about here.
Various Russian-made jets, including variants of the Su-27 and MiG-29, have built-in IRST systems, which may partly explain why the “MiG” call signs were chosen. Red Hat pilots, as a product of their labor, are connected to the aggressor community and well versed in Russian and foreign tactics, techniques, and procedures, making them very realistic adversaries to train against. F-16Ds fitted with Legion Pods and other systems capable of mimicking alien sensors or other capabilities, and with Red Hat pilots in their cockpits, would have been valuable additions to the “red air” force supporting Red Flag 22-3.
Arnu from Dreamland Resort mentioned another possibility of The war zone. “The two chrome F-22s seen in RF 22-1 testing new stealth skins come to mind. Perhaps this research has entered a phase where modifications need to be kept away from prying eyes. “, did he declare. You can read more about the F-22 Raptor stealth fighters in question, one of which is seen in the image below that has a metal-like coating that appears to be designed to further reduce their signatures, especially in the infrared spectrum, here . The Air Force also revealed earlier in the year that F-22ss were being used to test various components under development under the service’s Next Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) program, some of which may ultimately be integrated into operational Raptors.
At least one of the Air Force’s latest F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighter jets has been seen with a metal-like coating. The last F-117s were officially retired in 2008, but a number of them have conducted a variety of research and development, test and evaluation, and training since then, including acting as stealth aggressors in the air. support major exercises like Red Flag. They could fly out of Area 51 as part of Red Flag 22-3, but there would be little reason to do so outside of using the base to simulate a forward airfield, much like an F-Aggressor could. 16.
Either way, by all indications, the all-American Red Flag 22-3 appears to be a particularly significant iteration of the Air Force’s premier aerial warfare exercise.
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