Responsible countries train for war. Responsible countries also have the good sense not to state outright which other countries they’re preparing to fight. Which is why officers and airmen from the U.S., South Korea and Japan waging a mock aerial battle over Alaska right now will probably never publicly utter the words, “North Korea.”

But make no mistake. The Red Flag Alaska air exercise, involving some of the world’s best Boeing F-15 fighters, is specifically meant to prepare America and its Asian allies for a potentially apocalyptic confrontation on the Korean peninsula.

To understand the gravity of the threat, bear in mind that South Korea and Japan, despite both being close allies with the U.S., are not exactly the best of friends. Lately, there has been the issue of Liancourt Rocks/ Dokdo/Takeshima, a group of islands between the two countries whose ownership is disputed by both.

Historical baggage dating back centuries, due in no small part to Japan’s occupation of Korea between 1910 and 1945, have also always clouded the relationship between the two North East Asian economic powerhouses.

Despite China’s military and economic rise and nuclear-armed North Korea’s bellicosity, this mutual suspicion has always complicated America’s desire to see both states forge closer military ties. So when Seoul and Tokyo each sent six F-15 Eagle fighter jets from their respective air forces across the Pacific for Exercise Red Flag Alaska 13-3 in late July, regional military watchers raised an eyebrow.

Both the Republic of Korea Air Force and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force have participated in Red Flag exercises before, but this is the first time both have taken part in the same Red Flag war game together.

South Korean F-15Ks. U.S. Air Force photo

Warplanes, ho!

Red Flag Alaska 13-3 takes place from Aug. 8 to 23 and includes around 60 aircraft and 2,600 personnel. The F-15s of the RoKAF and JASDF are the most notable international participants. The Korean aircraft, a variant of the multi-role Strike Eagle known as the F-15K Slam Eagle, are among the most capable F-15 variants in the world today and hailed from the RoKAF’s 11th Fighter Wing based at Daegu.

In contrast, the JASDF jets are much older Mitsubishi-built F-15Js from the JASDF’s 306th Hikotai based at Komatsu on the west coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu and are primarily tasked with air defense and interception — with little multi-role capability.

As both countries have no serious mid-air refueling capability, U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers supported both F-15 detachments on their trans-Pacific flights. The other participants at Red Flag Alaska include a Royal Australian Air Force Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning aircraft, Alaska-based U.S. F-22 Raptor stealth fighters, F-16s from the Alabama Air National Guard, A-10 Warthog tank busters from the Indiana Air National Guard, Navy F/A-18C Hornets from the California-based Strike Fighter Squadron 113 and C-130 transports from the U.S. Marines and JASDF.

A Japanese F-15J takes off during a previous Red Flag Alaska exercise. U.S. Air Force photo

What is Red Flag Alaska?

Red Flag-Alaska is a Pacific Air Forces-sponsored air combat exercise centered on Eielson Air Force Base and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. Originally named Cope Thunder, it was moved to Eielson from Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1992 after the devastating eruption of nearby Mount Pinatubo. Cope Thunder was re-designated Red Flag Alaska in 2006.

The Red Flag series of exercises — they also take place in Nevada — were created in the 1970s after heavy U.S. aircraft losses over Vietnam. Analysis of past wars indicated that most warplane shoot-downs occur during an aircrew’s first 10 combat missions. Therefore the goal of the exercise is to provide each participating aircrew with these vital first combat missions in a training environment as close to actual combat as possible.

A fighter pilot this writer has spoken to — and who has also taken part in multinational air combat exercises throughout the region — said that Red Flag Alaska is really on another level in terms of realism and intensity when compared to other exercises.

Red Flag Alaska participants are organized into “Red” aggressor forces and “Blue” coalition forces. “White” forces represent the neutral controlling agency. The Red force includes air-to-air fighters led by the strikingly-camouflaged F-16s of the USAF’s Eielson-based 18th Aggressor Squadron.

These forces generally employ defensive counter-air tactics directed by ground-control intercept sites. Range threat emitters — electronic devices which send out signals simulating anti-aircraft artillery and surface-to-air missile launches — provide valuable surface-to-air training.

The Blue force includes the full spectrum of U.S. and allied tactical and support units. Because the Red and Blue forces meet in a simulated hostile, non-cooperative training environment, the job of controlling the mock war and ensuring safety falls to the neutral White force.

Japanese F-15Js and their crews. U.S. Air Force photo

North Korea scenario

There is little doubt that Red Flag Alaska 13-3 is training for a possible coalition action against North Korea should the cold war in the Korean peninsula turn hot.

In the event of such a conflict, the RoKAF will have to hold the line in the air alongside the three USAF F-16 and single A-10 squadrons currently based in South Korea while allied reinforcements pour in, possibly including the Japanese F-15s. Air strikes with standoff and other precision-guided munitions will target the North’s numerically superior (but mainly obsolete) army storming south across the 38th parallel.

Most importantly, the North Korean ballistic missile and nuclear-weapons infrastructure, well-concealed and heavily defended in the rugged mountainous regions of North Korea, will almost certainly be targeted for destruction. The allies will also have to beat North Korea’s huge albeit aging air force — no easy task, as we learned when we gamed out Korean War II recently.

For America, Japan and South Korea, winning the next Korean War will be tough. The more training they get together with their F-15s and other warplanes, the better prepared they will be.

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