The desert floor was dotted with targets: concrete structures in the shape of aircraft; makeshift urban complexes to simulate populated areas; and terrorist training camps. There were also offensive missile batteries — some stationary, others mounted on mobile trailers — like they would find in the real world.
The simulation is a shock to pilots who have been bombing lightly armed Taliban guerillas or terrorist safe houses with virtually no resistance.
“The learning curve is actually really steep,” Snider said of some of the forces he faces high over the craggy mountains of southern Nevada. “It doesn’t matter how good the units are when they show up. It’s kind of like a shock to them.”
Captain Geoff Cohan, 27, of Buffalo, experienced that difficulty firsthand on the opening day of the two-week exercise last month. He was flying aboard a command center known as the Airborne Warning and Control System, a modified jumbo jet with a large radar dome on top that manages the blue forces in battle.
“The first mission that we flew last Monday was really rough,” he said. “We did not fare very well. We died.”
Cohan has twice served in the skies supporting operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but said this has been a whole new experience.
“We’ve never seen as many aircraft airborne at the same time fighting in the same scenario,” he said.
The prospect of having to employ what many pilots are learning here may not be as remote as it once seemed, given the ongoing tensions in places such as Iran or Syria, which have well-armed air forces.
Both have “a very robust air defense system and for the most part [are] comprised of former Soviet- and Russian-produced” weapons, said Sam Clemens, of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, who helps plan the strategy of the so-called aggressor forces here. “We hope we will never get in a big shooting war again but we can’t bury our heads in the sand and say that’s not going to happen.”