UK Lightning Force has achieved the latest in a long line of milestones with the successful conclusion of Exercise Red Flag. 617 Squadron deployed five of the state-of-the-art stealth jets to spend three weeks at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas to do battle in the best air combat exercise available anywhere.
“Our experience on Red Flag has been amazing. Lightning has performed really well in this exercise and I have also been really pleasantly surprised as to how everyone has performed in this environment, our team has done fantastically well,” said Officer Commanding 617 Squadron, Wing Commander John Butcher.
For the junior pilots on the squadron, most of whom have come to the Lightning direct from training, the sheer scale and complexity of Red Flag was potentially a daunting prospect. “There’s a natural tendency to be concerned about what that may entail when you’ve not had that exposure before” explained Wing Commander Butcher.
Some of the junior pilots had only rehearsed some of the events they’d be flying out on the Nellis Range in the simulator. “They’ve been getting airborne and going into a 40 versus 40 aircraft fight with Russian surface to air missiles looking at them and the whole thing has been incredibly exciting” said Group Captain Jim Beck, the RAF Marham Station Commander.
“But most importantly they will know whether they can crack it for real. What they’re finding is that the jet is performing at the top of its game with a set of sensors we’ve just never had access to before in UK Defence. These are fusing together and really proving why we’ve invested in this awesome capability,” said Group Captain Jim Beck, RAF Marham Station Commander.
Air Vice-Marshal Ian Duguid, Air Officer Commanding 11 Group said: “This is definitely a key milestone for Lightning. And it’s not just about the high-end aspect of what we’re doing in the air on the exercise, but also the ability to deploy virtually half way around the world with the capability to have all the right spares and support mechanisms in place to keep the aircraft and the crews going.
“That is a really important milestone and particularly so ahead of the future embarkations onto HMS Queen Elizabeth, the first of which starts in only a few months’ time.”
For one of the more experienced Lightning pilots the significance of the exercise was clear. “Taking Lightning to Red Flag for the first time is a major milestone. This is a brilliant opportunity for us. The size of the airspace, the numbers of aircraft and the simulated enemy air defence systems on the ground, you really get the opportunity to stretch the capability of this jet to the maximum possible extent.
He added, “The situational awareness you get with this aircraft and the ability you have to understand and control all the battlespace is amazing and light years ahead of anything I’ve ever flown and any capability we’ve had in the Air Force.
“The way information is presented to you through the helmet which gives you this 360-degree view of the battlespace is unparalleled, incredible, a massive leap from the Tornado GR4 I flew previously.”