Largest Checkered Flag exercise wraps up at Tyndall AFB

The largest Checkered Flag exercise held to date wrapped up at Tyndall Air Force Base, May 21.

Checkered Flag, one of the Department of Defense’s largest air-to-air exercises, is a two-week long, large-scale aerial exercise designed to integrate fourth and fifth-generation airframes to enhance mobility, deployment, and employment capabilities of aviators and maintainers.

“Checkered Flag is focused on air dominance execution,” said Lt Col. Orsua, Air Combat Command Exercise Branch, Checkered Flag director. “We train on defensive counter air (DCA) conflicts, which (simulate) our forces getting attacked, so (we practice) how we would posture our forces to defend those assets.”

The exercise, which started May 10, focused on integration of Air Force and U.S. Navy fleets, to include fighter, tanker, electronic warfare and command and control aircraft. More than 115 aircraft and 15 joint squadrons from across the country participated in the exercise, with 71 of those aircraft and 2,000 personnel operating out of Tyndall AFB.

“These units are integrating different levels of aircraft,” Orsua said. “We have multiple F-22s (and) Strike Eagles and those aircraft would be expected to fight together in real world DCA conflicts, but they don’t train together frequently. Checkered Flag allows these units to (perfect) fighter integration across these platforms.”

The location of Tyndall AFB provides a premier site for the exercise. With unhindered access to more than 180,000 square miles of airspace over the Gulf of Mexico, participants can take off and get into the fight quickly.

“What makes Checkered Flag so unique and special is Tyndall,” Orsua said. “We don’t have any civilian traffic, we have two runways, and the airspace to the south is unencumbered. The location of all the surrounding units, such as F-15Cs in New Orleans and the tankers in Jacksonville, (is also ideal). Tyndall sits in the middle and other units that play wrap around us.”

While Tyndall AFB housed the majority of the exercise aircraft and personnel, there are no facilities large enough for all the players to gather for mission planning. With units operating out of Cecil Field in Jacksonville and Eglin AFB, players divided into different locations allowing for participants to plan missions via video teleconference before meeting in the air. The added challenge further hones mission readiness because it is more representative of combat, Orsua added.

Additionally, the exercise leveraged the current rebuild of Tyndall AFB to afford on-station members the opportunity to learn from logistical challenges they may face downrange.

“These units are working in a deployed environment, just by default of Hurricane Michael,” said Master Sgt. Scottie Mitchell, ACC Exercise Branch Checkered Flag maintenance director. “Facility space was a challenge as Tyndall is in full rebuild mode. The question was, ‘How do they operate at a high-level with minimum facilities and minimum equipment?’ It was about finding solutions to problems without letting it affect the mission. It is good for them to see that they can operate with minimal support and capabilities at a base.”

Aircraft playing roles in Checkered Flag 21-2 are also involved with the 53rd Wing‘s Weapons System Evaluation Program (WSEP) East 21-8, also known as Combat Archer, the Air Force’s joint program to test air-to-air and air-to-ground live-fire weapons employment for combat aviators. Holding the training simultaneously saves resources and provides additional training for the units.

Over the course of 14 days, players in Checkered Flag flew a combined 882 sorties, 692 originating out of Tyndall AFB. Additionally, 54 missiles were fired under WSEP with more than 100 first-time shooters participating. The resulting 25 aerial events directly supported the Air Combat Command commander’s plan to train the Immediate Response Force – a dedicated force ready for worldwide, rapid response to unforeseen or unplanned operations.

The 325th Fighter Wing hosted and cultivated a joint integration environment and training exercise.

F-15 aerial refueling

An F-15E Strike Eagle assigned to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over the Gulf of Mexico during Checkered Flag 21-2, May 12, 2021. The large-scale aerial exercise designed to integrate fourth and fifth-generation airframes to enhance mobility, deployment, and employment capabilities of aviators and maintainers. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Stefan Alvarez)

Two men sit at a computer

Airmen 1st Class William Cunningham, 81st Air Control Squadron weapons director, and Drew Buckingham, 81st ACS live technician, monitor the airspace during a simulation during exercise Checkered Flag 21-2 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., May 7, 2021. The 81st ACS simulated having a large number of aircraft in the Gulf Range Complex at once in order to prepare for the more than 70 joint aircraft that participated in the exercise. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Cheyenne Lewis)

Men hold a missile over their heads

U.S. Navy Sailors assigned to the Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 103, Naval Air Station Oceana, Va., prepare to load an AIM-9 missile during Weapons System Evaluation Program 21-8 at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., May 11, 2021. Checkered Flag 21-2 was held in coordination with the 53rd Wing’s WSEP East 21-8, run by the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group located at Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla. Holding these exercises together allowed participating units to test both air-to-ground and air-to-air capability. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Tiffany Price)

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