The U.S. Air Force needs a lot of space to train, especially when it wants fighters, refuelers, and other aircraft to work together in a way that realistically simulates combat conditions where jets chase each other at twice the speed of sound and refuelers run race tracks near the edges of the battlefield.
That's why it conducts the Red Flag - Alaska training exercise. While the Red Flag exercises in Nevada are more famous, Red Flag - Alaska lets the Air Force conduct missions using approximately five times the space available in Nevada. The total area is roughly equivalent to the state of Florida.
A U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagle assigned to the 44th Fighter Squadron out of Kadena Air Base, Japan, connects with a KC-135 Stratotanker out of McConnell Air Force Base, Kan., Oct. 10, 2016, during a RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 17-1 mission. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Karen J. Tomasik)
"The large amount of space forces pilots to figure out the logistical problem of working in such a large scale, similar to an entire theater of operations," Lt. Col. Julio Rodriguez, the 18th Aggressor Squadron commander, told a military journalist. "The multiple uses the [Joint Pacific Alaska Range complex] provides is imperative to the success of our training. We can go faster here than any blue force has ever trained, almost to Mach 2 to show the pilots what it's like if the enemy were to do use that as one of its tactics"
The JPARC contains 65,000 square miles of airspace, 2,490 square miles of land, and 42,000 nautical miles of sea and airspace in the Gulf of Alaska.
International partners are invited to the exercise which usually lasts 10 days. While most of the participating aircraft are American, Korean, Canadian, and New Zealand crews have participated in recent years.
The Red Flag exercise attempts to simulate combat conditions across a broad range of missions. Obviously, this includes air combat, but it also includes refueling, resupply, and even the air insertion of paratroopers.
"I've got a lot of young aviators that have never seen something at this level with this many aircraft going against a very good and proficient threat, both on the air-to-air side and the surface-to-air side," said Marine Lt. Col. Gregory A. McGuire, commanding officer of a Marine Corps fighter unit. "For me, I'm happy about giving my guys the opportunity to see this kind of real-world kinetic, large-force exercise so they can see how we would employ should we be called upon to do so."
Paratroopers with the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, U.S. Army Alaska, board a Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules during Red Flag Alaska 17-1 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, Oct. 12, 2016. During Red Flag-Alaska 17-1, approximately 2,095 U.S. service members will participate in the exercise – approximately 1,295 personnel from outside Alaska and 203 international visitors. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Valerie Monroy)
Thousands of people from around the world take part in the exercise. Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson takes in an additional 1,000 personnel on its own when the exercise comes to town.
Of course, with so many pilots coming from so many places, the support staff on JBER have to increase their activity and precision, meaning that they get good training as well.
Three U.S. Navy EA-18G Growlers assigned to Electronic Attack Squadron 137, Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Wa., take off from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 2, 2016, during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner)
For instance, pilots from Kadena Air Force Base in Japan took part in the exercise in 2016, and weather squadron personnel took extra care to make sure that their weather predictions were as accurate as possible. This ensures that air crews unfamiliar with Alaska weather will at least know what to expect.
The exercise takes place multiple times per year. See more photos from recent years below:
A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson flies behind several C-130J Hercules during a training sortie, Oct. 19, 2016. Training sorties are imperative to pilot development and overall mission effectiveness. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. James Richardson)
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft is prepared for a training sortie Dec. 14, 2016, at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The F-16 is assigned to the 354th Fighter Wing and flown by pilots from the 18th Aggressor Squadron and 353rd Combat Training Squadron during routine training, RED FLAG-Alaska and other exercises around the world. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Shawn Nickel)
From left, U.S. Air Force Senior Airmen Robert Wallace, Anthony Marshall, and Eric Smith, all 354th Operations Support Squadron air traffic controllers, manage the air space around Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, May 5, 2016, during RED-FLAG Alaska (RF-A) 16-1. Eielson air traffic controllers must know how to operate radio equipment to relay flight and landing instructions, weather reports and safety information to pilots. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Joshua Turner)
A U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon with the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, receives fuel May 10, 2016, during a RED FLAG-Alaska 16-1 exercise. The KC-135 Stratotanker, part of the Tanker Task Force, provides mid-air refueling to sustain fighter aircraft during a RED FLAG-Alaska exercise. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Cassandra Whitman)
An E-3 Sentry lifts off the ground at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson June 8 during RED FLAG-Alaska 16-2. RF-Alaska is a Pacific Air Forces commander-directed field training exercise for U.S. and international forces, which provides joint offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support, and large-force employment training in a simulated combat environment. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Andrew Kleiser)
A U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft assigned to the 25th Fighter Squadron out of Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, takes off from Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Oct. 10, 2016, during the first combat training mission of RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 17-1. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Karen J. Tomasik)
A U.S. Air Force MC-130J Commando II, assigned to the 17th Special Operations Squadron out of Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, Japan, prepares to drops a heavy pallet over Malemute drop zone during Red Flag Alaska 16-1 at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, May 11, 2016. Red Flag Alaska 16-1 provides joint offensive, counter-air, interdiction, close air support, and large force employment training in a simulated combat environment. The Commando II flies clandestine, low visibility, single or multi-ship, low-level air refueling missions for special operations helicopters and tiltrotor aircraft, as well as infiltration, exfiltration, and resupply of special operations forces in politically sensitive or hostile territories. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Alejandro Pena)
A U.S. Air Force F-15 Eagle from Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., takes off from Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, as part of Red Flag-Alaska, May 3, 2016. The F-15 is deployed to JBER for Red Flag-Alaska, a Pacific Air Forces commander-directed field training exercises for U.S. and international forces, providing combined offensive counter-air, interdiction, close air support and large force employment training in a simulated combat environment. (Photo: U.S. Air Force Airman 1st Class Javier Alvarez)