In the skies over Las Vegas, a high-stakes game is unfolding, but instead of gamblers, the players are fighter pilots and nothing is left to chance.
Just a short drive north from the flashy casinos and Elvis impersonators of Vegas, the US military stages elaborate mock air battles in the Nevada desert, where US airmen play the role of “aggressors,” forcing less experienced pilots to hone their combat skills.
At the US Air Force’s “red flag” exercises, fictional “aggressor” units fly F-15 and F-16 fighter jets painted in Russian-style camouflage and the pilots employ tactics used by potential adversaries in Iran, China and elsewhere.
Serving as an aggressor is a full-time job, a coveted assignment for specialists who try to prepare fellow airmen for the intensity of combat.
The aggressors are “a hand-selected crew,” said US Brigadier General Terence O’Shaughnessy, who led the 57th Adversary Tactics Group at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas and is also the deputy director for politico-military affairs in Asia on the joint staff at the Pentagon.
In the first few days of a red flag exercise, young pilots are often stunned by the intensity of the war games, with their seasoned adversaries running circles around them.
The aggressors hack into their rival’s computer networks, sift through dumpsters for mission documents and even extract information from unsuspecting pilots who sometimes spill secrets at bars.
The enemy force used to be comprised only of fighter jocks, flying warplanes for the “red team” in dog-fights against a “blue” force. However, since 2005, specialists in air defense, satellite and cyberwarfare now take part, underscoring growing concern at the Pentagon over fresh threats to US’ air power.
The US Air Force prides itself on the realism of the war games, but commanders worry the simulated missile, satellite and radar threats are outdated, resembling what aircraft faced in the 1991 Gulf War.
The aggressors sometimes display a mischievous flair. At this month’s exercise, Colombian pilots — taking part in the drill for the first time — were startled during a flight when a Britney Spears song suddenly blasted out of their radio.
“It was a surprise for them,” said Colombian Brigadier General Carlos Bueno, whose airmen promptly realized the pop music was the work of the “enemy.”