Air Force retrains pilots to confront high-tech enemy

Air Force Major Scott Snider prepared for a flying exercise.
Air Force Major Scott Snider prepared for a flying exercise. (Ronda Churchill for The Boston Globe)
Ronda Churchill for The Boston Globe

NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nev. — Air Force Major Scott Snider clambered into the cockpit of his F-15 fighter jet recently for a mission he could hardly have imagined when he graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2002.

At supersonic speed, the 32-year-old Plymouth native climbed high over the Nevada desert on a mission for the fictitious enemy nation of Coyote. Often on such occasions, Snider’s comrades fire up the Russian national anthem beforehand as a rallying cry against the United States.

But Snider is no enemy of America. Quite the opposite.

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His job is to train fellow pilots to prevail in mortal combat against Russian and Chinese-designed aircraft and missiles. To accomplish that, he gamely plays the enemy target, replicating what a future foe might do in real combat.

It is all part of a little-publicized overhaul of how the US Air Force prepares for war.

After a decade of dropping bombs on terrorists hiding in the mountains of Afghanistan and providing air cover for troops fighting in Iraq, hundreds of pilots are learning from specially trained “aggressors” like Snider how to confront a sophisticated enemy air force or network of anti-aircraft missiles. For many, the lesson is a first.

Plenty of units have experience in ground attack, but “skills atrophy when it comes to things like air-to-air” combat, explained Snider.

Air Force officials stress they are not preparing to confront Russia or China, but are readying for the types of weapons those countries have developed and sold to other countries. Russia has supplied high performance warplanes and missiles to potential US adversaries such as Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

Russia is also developing a new stealth fighter, while China recently tested a prototype for an indigenously manufactured stealth fighter.

The training regimen here — known as Red Flag — grew out of the Vietnam War when, studies show, heavy US air losses took place primarily within a pilot’s first 10 combat missions.

Today, “we can give them those first 10 combat missions prior to actually stepping into combat,” said Colonel Tod Fingal, commander of the 414th Combat Training Squadron that organizes the war games here.

But Fingal, an F-16 pilot, said that constant deployments since Sept. 11, 2001, have meant fewer opportunities to undertake large-scale training to prepare for major conflict. As a result, the fighter force has lost some of it proficiency.

“Now we are absolutely training against a potential adversary that has near-peer capabilities,” he said.

The rigor of the training was on display one day recently as scores of bombers and fighter planes streaked across more than 12,000 square miles of restricted air space and half a million acres of desert wasteland north of Las Vegas.

Snider, who joined the so-called 65th Aggressor Squadron after a tour in the Middle East in 2011, was part of the “red” force. Operating in the air and on the ground, the aggressors try to jam the “blue” forces’ communications systems and radars.

They launch attacks against its flight computers. They even used special equipment hidden in a backpack to temporarily block their global positioning systems.

The trainees are especially challenged by enemy fighter planes replicated by Snider and his fellow pilots. Snider’s modified and camouflaged F-15 is fitted with special radars, weapons control systems, and other characteristics of the Russian Su-30 fighter aircraft, drawn from evaluations by US intelligence agencies and firsthand reports from allies.

He works closely with the National Security Agency, the CIA, and other spy units before concluding, as he put it: “We think this is kind of how the Su-30 would perform.”

“We’re training them to fight and survive the top-of-the-line air threat out there,” he said.

And that training involved creating a dangerous fictitious world, with real-life similarities to global hot spots, as a backdrop. Snider fought for the belligerent nation of Coyote, with its five major cities stretched across the western half of the vast training range. Coyote’s military was threatening the neighboring nation of Caliente, a US ally.

Meanwhile, the smaller nation of Jackal, aligned with Caliente, was wedged between them. Jackal was rich in mineral wealth and Coyote wanted it — and was supporting a well-armed insurgency to help get it.

Real-life Air Force pilots, brought here from bases around the country and overseas to train, were confronted with challenges.

One day they had to set up a no-fly zone over Coyote to prevent it from launching an all-out assault on Caliente. On another they had to take out its communications facilities and sophisticated network of anti-aircraft missiles. In another exercise the threat was posed by Scud missiles set to be launched at Caliente’s population centers. On a different day they had to take out Coyote’s chemical weapons manufacturing capability, as well as the scientist in charge of the program.

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.”