Red Flag: Integrating air, space, cyber domains

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  • Red Flag 16-3 Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs


This was the total number of aircraft lost during the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1973. It was a number too high that prompted the Air Force to conduct a study, where it found the first 10 combat sorties were the most dangerous events for aircrew personnel.

To prevent more losses, Gen. Robert Dixon, then-commander of Tactical Air Command, helped establish Red Flag as a way to prepare Airmen for combat. Since its inception in 1975, Red Flag has trained more than 440,000 military personnel, flew more than 385,000 sorties and logged more than 660,000 flight hours. More importantly, the numbers of aircraft lost dropped to 43 aircraft in combat.

As the service grew, technologies have evolved as well. New capabilities and advanced systems came into the Air Force’s arsenal. Aircraft became faster and more agile. Computers became a household item. Phones are no longer confined to buildings and attached to wires. The country has seen lots of updates, to say the least.

And so has America’s enemies.

Likewise, Red Flag continued to evolve to ensure Air Force’s dominance in air, space and cyberspace.

“Fifth generation warfare is not just about fifth generation aircraft, such as F-22s and F-35s,” said Capt. Neil Fournie, 414th Combat Training Squadron chief of Advanced Warfighting Division. “It’s about building fifth-generation Airmen who understand how to combine air, space and cyber together to enable holistic battlespace dominance.”

Fournie’s job is to combine all domains together in Red Flag, evaluate the non-kinetic portions and make sure they are all integrated into the exercise scenarios.

“Non-kinetic is when you are able to prevent the enemy from achieving their objectives without dropping a bomb or blowing up a system,” explained Lt. Col. Brian Capps, Space and Cyber Detachment commander. “You can do it through space and cyber.”

This new way of thinking has been the impetus on why, for the first time, a space officer--Col. DeAnna Burt--is leading the Air Expeditionary Wing as a commander. Burt provides a different perspective needed for the combat environment.

“How do you take things that are really hard to touch and feel, and actually integrate and synchronize them in timing and tempo with things you can feel--that’s important,” said Burt, who is also the installation commander at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. “Every target does not require a bomb. There may be other ways through cyber and space to negate, deny or disrupt that target if you will, and allow you to achieve the same effect.”

Integrating space and cyber has been a continuous process in Red Flag with technological advancements in those domains. According to Fournie, it started trickling into Red Flag exercises in the mid-2000s; however, it became more emphasized beginning in 2011. Cyber integration already began kicking off during the late 2000s.

“It was definitely a learning curve,” he said. “The scenarios had to catch up with the capabilities. As each of the units bring their capabilities, we had to look at our scenarios and evolve our scenarios accordingly.”

Bringing these capabilities to Red Flag means it is not just about air anymore but a multi-domain battle space, congruent with the Air Force’s mission--fly, fight and win in air, space and cyberspace.

“Bringing Non-Kinetics into Red Flag exercises really helped to illustrate how we integrate as a service, especially in terms of understanding the command and control relationships required to make sure effects are properly synchronized,” Fournie said.

Red Flag 15-1 became the watershed moment for space and cyber integration. Before then, the space and cyber footprint was described as decent but not organized to a level to effectively integrate it into the larger picture, according to Capps.

During this exercise, a core team of officers learned the Red Flag process of plan, execute and debrief. They studied different platforms and how space can provide support. They looked at collateral space effects, such as missile warning, overhead persistent infrared, persistent navigation and timing, defensive space control and satellite communications.

“These members built the space package, and began integrating with the fliers,” Capps said. “The greatest integration from the space perspective was when we started seeing pilots and fliers asking questions in the space room.”

In 15-3, Red Flag took it one step closer. Space personnel began observing operations as part of a space cell in the Combined Air Operations Center-Nellis. They showed they can plan and execute a space package for the warfighters.

Fournie said integration started several years ago with having an air plan and layering space and cyber on top.

“Now, the participants are planning and executing inclusive mission sets, where it’s all fused into a single plan,” he said.

And it all happens during mission planning, where representatives combine tactics and techniques together. Although, the challenge is communicating the message.

“We need to communicate on the same level with each other,” Fournie added. “That’s what we tell our space and cyber personnel. You need to explain the effects and capabilities that you can bring. If you just start talking about a capability without the context of what it provides to the battle space or to help the mission commander achieve the mission priorities, then we are failing.”

Burt echoed the sentiment and said it has been a growing experience for the space and cyber side of the house.

“Understanding that it’s not just a support function, that we are warfighters and how the effects we have can be brought to bear to help us defeat our potential adversaries is an important cultural shift,” she said.

(Some information courtesy of