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Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “Wake Island Avengers,” 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, stand by as a pilot conducts preflight checks in an F-35B Lightning II on the first day of Red Flag 17-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., July 10. Red Flag 17-3 is a realistic combat training exercise involving the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps and this iteration is the first to have both the Air Force’s F-35A Lightning II and the Marine Corps’ F-35B Lightning II, which is capable of short takeoff vertical landing (STOVL). (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Lillian Stephens/Released)

Photo by Sgt. Lillian Stephens

Avengers assemble: Marine Corps, Air Force F-35s come together for ground-breaking exercise

12 Jul 2017 | Sgt. Lillian Stephens 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 “Wake Island Avengers,” 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, began participating in Red Flag 17-3 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, July 10.

During the exercise, which will continue until July 28, VMFA-211 will conduct a variety of mission sets alongside the other services: defensive counter air (DCA); offensive counter air (OCA); suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD); destruction of enemy air defense; dynamic taskings, which involve finding a time-sensitive target or series of targets and eliminating them; electronic warfare (EW); preplanned strikes; and combat search and rescue (CSAR).

“Red Flag 17-3 is designed to be a venue for U.S. forces to integrate on a scale that’s not possible anywhere else -- so Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army assets come from all over the United States and participate in advanced mission sets together,” said Maj. Paul Holst, VMFA-211’s executive officer. “It’s ... important to practice integrating assets from all across the [Armed Forces’] inventory because if we go to conflict, we don’t want that to be the first time we all integrate with each other.”

Red Flag is the U.S. Air Force’s premier realistic combat training exercise involving the air, ground, space and cyber forces of the United States -- sometimes including assets from allied nations. This iteration includes only the U.S. Armed Forces and will focus on improving individual performance as well as interoperability between the services.

According to Holst, this is the first time the F-35A Lightning II, used by the Air Force,  and F-35B Lightning II, the short-takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) variant used by the Marine Corps, will participate in the same exercise as well as the Avenger’s first time attending Red Flag.

“This is the first time we’ve deployed on this scale ... we brought 10 F-35s here with all of our maintenance equipment, all of our support equipment and personnel,” said Holst. “For the pilots, the opportunity to participate in these exercises prepares us for combat … and the opportunity to integrate and plan with the rest of the force is something you just don’t get anywhere else.”

Maj. Chris Brandt, a pilot and administration and logistics officer in charge with VMFA-211, said Red Flag’s  large-scale missions, which often involve upwards of 50 aircraft working in concert, prepare pilots for combat operations and prepare maintenance personnel for a deployed operational tempo.

“A lot of times at home station, we’re basically working just with each other or we’re doing things that are [smaller in] scale and only focusing on our specific mission sets that we do,” said Brandt. “When we actually deploy, we’re most likely going to be part of a joint force so coming here you get that experience. It’s not until you come to exercises like these that you get to train across services and [train] with platforms that you typically would not work with at your home station.”

Throughout the exercise, more than 50 units and more than 80 aircraft will participate in Red Flag, conducting missions in the Nevada Test and Training Range -- the U.S. Air Force's premier military training area. It has more than 12,000 square miles of airspace, 2.9 million acres of land and has 1,900 possible targets, realistic threat systems and an opposing enemy force, a training environment that is unmatched anywhere else in the world.

According to Holst, Red Flag allows each service and subordinate unit to demonstrate their capabilities as well as understand the capabilities of other services, units and their equipment.

“For example, the E-18G exists in the Navy and the Air Force doesn’t really have a comparable asset to that. There may be situations where the only F-35s in theater are Marine Corps F-35s ... and you have to integrate the F-35s into the entire package,” said Holst. “It’s always going to be necessary to bring everyone’s assets together and practicing that is really important.”

From the different services to subordinate units and even to individual service members, Red Flag is an opportunity for them to experience advanced, relevant and realistic combat situations in a controlled environment, increasing their ability to complete missions and safely return home.

“I think we’ll gain a lot. We learn from them, they learn from us and at the end we come out with better tactics, better knowledge of the airplane and how to employ it,” said Brandt. “The missions that we’ll fly here are things that many of us haven’t done in this aircraft before, especially with the number of airplanes that are out there. That will be good from a tactical and aviation perspective. It’s going to be interesting to see how everybody from all of the services work together.”

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