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RF-A provides realistic, effective combat training

Lt. Col. Gregory Church, 353rd Combat Training Squadron commander.

Lt. Col. Gregory Church, 353rd Combat Training Squadron commander.

EIELSON AIR FORCE BASE, Alaska -- As the 354th Fighter Wing jumps into the 2008 Spring / Summer RED FLAG-Alaska exercise season, it is important to reflect on the roots of realistic aircrew training for combat.

During the Korean War, the U.S. Air Force enjoyed great success in the air. In fact, the final results showed that American pilots destroyed 10 enemy aircraft for every one we lost.

Some 20-odd years later during the Vietnam Conflict, U.S. performance in the air had declined dramatically. The statistics from Vietnam showed that our kill-to-loss ratio during air combat fell to as low as one to one at one point. Although some argued the reason for losing more airplanes was a more technologically advanced enemy air defense system, numerous studies conducted following the war indicated that something else was going on.

Not surprisingly, the specifics revealed that loss rates were the highest for inexperienced pilots. However, further investigation showed that the real discriminator was how much combat experience aircrew had.

Pilots who returned unscathed from their first 10 war missions had a far greater chance of never being shot down. There was a clear link between learning to handle the unique stresses of air combat and survival.

In 1975, a group of young staff officers in the Pentagon came to the conclusion that proper preparation was the key to getting pilots through those first 10 critical combat missions. Specifically, they came up with the idea of conducting a two-week flying training exercise that closely replicated actual combat, and placed aircrew up against the best enemy air defenses possible. Their concept became what we know now as RED FLAG, and the exercise began in 1975 at Nellis AFB.

Over the last 33 years since RED FLAG began, we have seen radical increases in combat capability, but one thing has remained constant. Aviation forces trained in the most stressful simulated combat environment permissible, within the bounds of common sense and solid risk assessment, are more prepared and less likely to become casualties during war. Our overwhelming success employing air power from the skies over Iraq, Bosnia, Yugoslavia and Afghanistan has not been by accident. Rather, it is by design of a handful of great Americans who followed through on a commitment to learn from the mistake of going into combat unprepared, and by the dedication of three generations of those of us who followed to "train like we fight."

This is an exciting time at Eielson AFB. As we welcome over 1,100 combat forces from Australia, Great Britain, Canada and the United States to Eielson this week, it is important to keep in the forefront the vital role the men and women of the 354th FW play in preparing these warriors for combat.

I am proud to be a part of this great team that has successfully transformed the wing into the USAF's premier combat training organization. Ultimately, all of our efforts enable realistic combat training, ensure that our men and women survive air combat with the enemy, and guarantee that future generations enjoy the freedoms we do today.