Air Force Combines Wargames To Make The Mother Of All Airpower Testing Events

The Air Force has melded its Orange and Black Flag test events, and their exotic participants, to bring new capabilities to the fight even faster.

byJamie Hunter|
U.S. Homeland photo


The U.S. Air Force ran a complex large force test event from March 2nd through the 4th, 2021, that incorporated some of its most advanced platforms, and likely included exotic technology that still remains in the shadows. The first combined Orange and Black Flag event ran over three days in the R-2508 range complex in California and Nevada Test and Training Range, or NTTR, focusing on “kill-web” integration and survivability for stealthy platforms against high-tech adversaries as its core elements.

The War Zone previously detailed how Black Flag has emerged as “the Super Bowl” of large force employment testing, and is now being used by the 53rd Wing to provide a high-end trial for new technology and tactics that are under operational evaluation. It is also designed to go after Tactics Improvement Proposals, known as TIPs, that are dreamed-up up at Air Combat Command’s annual Weapons and Tactics Conference, known as WEPTAC.

F-22 high over Edwards AFB., USAF

Now, Black Flag has been run in parallel with Orange Flag, which is led by the Air Force Test Center’s 412th Test Wing out of Edwards Air Force Base, California. Orange Flag is focused on the developmental test activities that are conducted there, while Black Flag is geared towards operational tests. The move is designed to align objectives, resources, and participants between the two in order to provide better test data in a robust, operationally-relevant, environment. It also more closely conjoins development and operational testing.

“Orange Flag started three years ago with the intent to assess integration of warfighting systems in a dense threat, operationally representative environment,” said Major General Christopher Azzano, AFTC commander. These so-called “Test Flags” are the premier large force test events, which support testing of Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) and the Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), and to validate new tactics and technologies for warfighting forces.

“By combining resources and some objectives with the Orange Flag enterprise, we were able to achieve desired test objectives at minimal cost to the government,” said Captain Clifford “Champ” Peterson, an F-16 pilot with the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron (TES), and mission commander of Black Flag 21-1. “Due to the combined nature of the events, we were able to get both highly data driven developmental test objectives and more operationally-focused and accurate objectives completed for similar tests.”

F-22 Raptors from the test fleet at Edwards AFB were involved in the latest exercise., USAF/Kyle Larson

“Orange Flag focuses on technical integration across a breadth of Technology Readiness Levels [TRLs], while Black Flag focuses on the tactical integration of more mature technologies,” explained Major Brandon “Siphon” Burfeind, an F-22 Raptor pilot and the director for this latest Orange Flag event. “We worked together on a previous iteration in 2020, and shared resources, but this was the first time we shared the mission planning process under Orange Flag as a filter for participants flowing into Black Flag.” 

The March event included three Vulnerability Periods, known as VULs, which are the main live phases of the proceedings. Major Burfeind explained: “We had three total events — two Orange Flag VULs — a four-hour daytime one and then a 2.5-hour night VUL in the R-2508 range complex north of Edwards, and then one daytime Black Flag VUL in the NTTR. Because of our goal of being operationally representative against modern threats, Orange Flag requires highly capable range complexes, so we generally execute in both the NTTR and R-2508, or the Sea Test Range off the coast of California if we need an over-water capability.”

“The past three Orange Flags have used the NTTR and R-2508 combined, and for this event that was also the plan, until about two-weeks prior when some administrative issues, plus a lack of need, meant we ended just using R-2508. We did have a couple of participants operating in the NTTR for the Orange Flag portion, but we didn’t use the whole thing like we normally would.”

An F-22A photographed during the combined test event in March., USAF/Kyle Larson

“This was the first time that we had aligned core elements [of Orange and Black Flag],” Burfeind exclusively told The War Zone. This centered upon kill-web integration across the USAF, U.S. Navy, Army, the Marine Corps, and U.S. Space Force and included a wide array of platforms, systems, sensors and tactical networks, as well as legacy and emerging JADC2 nodes. “[We used] a very complex environment to find a very specific target set and take it through the find, fix, track, target, engage, assess [F2T2EA] process — essentially cradle to grave prosecution of a target — using a whole bunch of sensors, shooter, and nodes.”

“We also looked at how various capabilities are survivable in certain environments with a lot of high tech adversaries,” Burfeind continued. Explaining how the VULs typically play out, he added: “In Orange Flag, in a four-hour event, we will do 7 or 8 test runs — some have relatively simple scenarios, but they are complex from a technical perspective. Others just focus on the scenario and will be very focused on the materiel solutions — getting the correct geometry, tactically representative formations, and force packaging to gather our data.” As well as the core objectives, rallying so many participating agencies is facilitated by offering the chance to bolt-on other specific needs for individual participants.

The combined Orange and Black flag event included tactics improvement evaluation for the HH-60G Pave Hawk., USAF/1st Lt Savanah Bray

“We have top-down objectives imposed by the Orange Flag on behalf of a warfighting entity,” explained Burfeind. “We also — and this is really important — incorporate all of the participants' objectives from the bottom up. This allows us to garner a large participant list and get them to work together in this environment, which ends up creating the environment we need. We have to include participant-based objectives in order to encourage them to show up.”

Some of these added elements of the event included some of the TIPs that emerged from January’s WEPTAC, which was held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. TIPs tested at Black Flag 21-1 included HH-60G helicopter air-to-air survivability, F-35 emissions control (EmCon) tactics development, and continued tactics development and evaluation of the F-16 Viper’s new AN/APG-83 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.

“For this particular iteration of Black Flag we jumped on the survivability objectives and extended that to a number of other players — so the HH-60 Pave Hawk was an example of working a TIP that was based on how well they can survive in an air war,” detailed Capt Peterson. “We were sharing objectives on the Black Flag side with more of a missionized environment, but still bringing in all the test folks so we can take a look at the data and decide whether or not we got valid lessons from a tactics standpoint, or if we needed to go back and try something else.”

The tests also included U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets., Jamie Hunter

“We based the events around a Defensive Counter Air [DCA] gameplan to gather the data about air-to-air survivability objectives. We created a DCA fight to give that fog and friction of war and put the principal participants on one side or the other — not the traditional Red Flag type “Blue” Force versus “Red” — it was just to gather the data.” Speaking directly about the F-16 radar test element, Peterson said: “We are trying to create a baseline on capabilities, work out if there is anything we need to change or improve with regard to the pilot vehicle interface — so we needed a complicated air-to-air picture to really challenge the radar.”

The missions included “F-15s, F-16s, F/A-18s, EA-18s, F-22s, F-35s, a U-2, one B-2 Spirit, an EC-130, ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance], and other classified programs,” according to Major Burfeind. In addition, U.S. Army Patriot missile batteries, M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), and a Navy Aegis Combat System also took part. A media release added: “A major Orange Flag success is the testing of F-35 and F-22 integration with land-based long-range fires, naval fires, and space-based sensors without humans-in-the-loop. Other successes include tests of multinational F-35 and command and control integration, strategic intelligence surveillance, and reconnaissance integration through all domains.”

“We are testing the machine-to-machine connections of an integrated air picture — the targetable track qualities and latencies,” explained Burfeind. “In this case, we had F-35s and F-22s passing data to a U-2 [“Dragon Lady”] that had a specific payload.” That payload was likely a data-linked communications package, which you can read about here. “That U-2 is then passing data to a ground-based control center, and they are passing that information [all machine-to-machine] to the Army engagement operations center and to the naval ships. Those units can use that information for real-time targeting. We were evaluating the ability to do that effectively to complete the kill-chain.”

A U-2S at Exercise Northern Edge in 2017 when it flew with a new data linked communications package., USAF/Alejandro Pena

Burfeind added that the F-22 Raptor was a significant part of this particular test. “This was the first time we integrated Raptors with the overall kill-web. Generally, Raptors like to operate by themselves — we don't connect to other entities — however, we are now testing Link 16 transmit and some other kill-web connections that are available to the F-22. We have traditionally been teaching fighter integration tactics in the F-22 that make up for the lack of technical integration — now that’s starting to catch up.” 

In addition to the Raptors themselves that took part in the event, the Boeing 757-200 prototype turned F-22 Flying Test Bed (FTB) — better known as “Catfish” due to its unique and highly modified nose profile — was also involved. The aircraft serves as a flying avionics testbed for the F-22, and its presence was likely linked to the latest avionics developments for the Raptor.

Members of the F-22 Flying Test Bed (FTB) team pose for a photo in front of the highly modified Boeing 757 at Edwards AFB in 2017., USAF/Ethan Wagner

The Raptor’s Update 6 software upgrade effort likely played a part in the connectivity testing as described by Major Burfiend. This adds F-22 cryptographic architecture to accommodate multiple, simultaneous algorithms for Link 16 interoperability and secure ultra-high-frequency (UHF) radio communications. According to the 2019 Annual Report from the Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, the USAF planned to field Update 6 in 2020. 

F-22 Tactical Link 16 (TACLink) and Tactical Mandates (TACMAN) are intended to provide Link 16 transmit capability through the Multi-functional Information Distribution System/Joint Tactical Radio System being introduced under the Raptor Agile Capability Release (RACR) capability pipeline, which is planned to release capabilities to the field on an annual basis.

The next major event on the horizon for the Orange and Black Flag teams is Exercise Northern Edge 2021, which is scheduled to be held in Alaska in May. The next iteration of Orange Flag, planned for June 2021, anticipates testing the gatewayONE data link format and Skyborg systems, and “several emerging JADC2 capabilities.”

An F-22 and F-35A fly in formation with the XQ-58A Valkyrie in December 2020 as part of gatewayONE testing., USAF/TSgt James Cason

The AFTC test events are seen as an intrinsic part of the Skyborg roadmap, as well as other cutting-edge warfighting capabilities. Major Burfeind says that the June event will link Orange Flag at Edwards with Emerald Flag out of Eglin, Florida, to “look at some of the very long-range kill chain integration,” which is a critical element of the ambitious Skyborg project. Emerald Flag is the Air Force's premier multi-domain test exercise, the first iteration of which was held last year.

The Orange, Black, and Emerald Flag large force test enterprises all exist to bring some of the U.S. military’s most advanced capabilities to the front line in an efficient and expedited manner. Having them join forces and share resources will only turbocharge these efforts, and as a result, further disrupt the enemy's ability to stand toe-to-toe with the United States Air Force and the U.S. military overall. Collectively they will provide a huge stage to test new systems and tactics, crunch the data, push equipment to its limits, and rapidly develop innovative solutions for some of today’s most complex warfighting needs. 

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