Nellis AFB Is The Epicenter Of The USAF’s Future

Inside Nellis Week: Aggressors, testers, Weapons School, cyber warfare, and advanced communications makes Nellis the ultimate future air combat melting pot.

byJamie Hunter|
F-22 Raptors are prepared for a night mission during Exercise Red Flag. Jamie Hunter
F-22 Raptors are prepared for a night mission during Exercise Red Flag. Jamie Hunter.


“Nellis Air Force Base is the center point of professionalism and excellence across the U.S. Air Force,” says Col. Scott “Manual” Mills, the Operations Group commander at the 57th Wing. Famously, Nellis sits at the northern tip of Las Vegas, Nevada, and for over half a century it has forged a reputation as being the “Home of the fighter pilot.” Out at the front gate, a large sign proudly makes this claim, which if you delve deeper, is totally justified when it comes to the USAF, if not the world.

“We hold ourselves to such a high standard,” says Mills. “We don’t accept anything short of outstanding.”

Editor's Note: Welcome to Inside Nellis Week at The War Zone! Each day this week we will have a major feature on the aircraft, tactics, munitions, and people that are leading the world in air combat training and development.

Nellis is unique. The base’s host unit is the 99th Air Base Wing, which provides base operations support for Nellis and the 2.9-million-acre Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). The primary operations and test residents fall under the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center and the 57th Wing, which includes an Adversary Tactics Group, the USAF Weapons School, the USAF "Thunderbirds" air demonstration team, and the 414th Combat Training Squadron, which conducts exercise Red Flag. Then there’s the operational test element, which comes under the 53rd Wing, which is headquartered at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, but has broad operations at Nellis as it is at the center of testing all the latest air combat tactics and equipment for the USAF.

Nellis AFB is the home of Exercise Red Flag. Jamie Hunter

Official literature says the 57th Wing “provides advanced, realistic, and multi-domain training focused on ensuring dominance through air, space, and cyberspace.” So, people come here to be the best at many different things. “With respect to our influence across the Air Force, when someone has to deploy, where do they go to train? They come here to train against our adversaries, to train in the Nevada Test and Training Range [NTTR], which is unlike any other range space in the world,” Mills adds.

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“The intent of the Weapons School is to create the best instructors in the Air Force, the most critically-minded thinkers, so that no matter what the problem set, not only can they accomplish that, but they can teach someone how to do it. The only way to get through Weapons School and the capstone WSINT [Weapons School Integration phase] is to use every bit of capability at their disposal. If you’d asked me 17 years ago what it took to get through this, I’d have said I’ve got to fly a great jet, and do perfect planning to make sure I avoid the threats. Ask me today, and the only way to make it through the first VULs [vulnerability periods, missions] to those final missions is to understand and use every single capability out there from every domain — they have to work together. That creates an incredible environment of learning and of teaching."

The F-16 flight line during a Red Flag, with the Las Vegas Strip in the distance. Jamie Hunter

Mills calls Nellis a “melting pot of many subject matter experts.” Few are considered to be more important than the aggressors. These specialists are all about replicating enemy air force tactics — a mission that has endured for 50 years. Having flown T-38s in the early days, and used actual captured MiGs and Sukhois in the days of the “Red Eagles,” up until recently, they only officially flew F-16s. However, conscious of the advancing technologies fielded by China, a new squadron of aggressor F-35As has now been activated.

Read all about the past, the present, and the future of the aggressors, as well as what it is like to be one, in this past War Zone feature.

“Nellis has reached a turning point; we are focusing on that high-end training, that high-end fight,” says Mills of the 65th Aggressor Squadron. The aggressors represent a huge conglomeration of SMEs [Subject Matter Experts] that focus mainly on Russia and China — the 65th will focus on China — and we are talking about doctrine, training, and capabilities so that when they are flying, they are modeling the pacing challenge out there.”

The traditional high volume of U.S. and coalition assets at Red Flag. Jamie Hunter

Exercise Red Flag is probably what Nellis is most renowned for — one of the world’s most famous military air exercises. "Red Flag allows us and our allies to perform in scenarios to prepare us should we ever be called on to engage a peer-level adversary in combat. They will be able to lean on the experience they have built in this exercise and avoid making the mistakes during real-world situations,” says Col Jared "Jabba" Hutchinson, the 414th Combat Training Squadron commander.

"We'll continue to lead and learn in America's premier air combat exercise," Hutchinson continues. "Take good notes, pass your feedback, and build a winning team with confidence under fire, integrated leadership, and warfighter culture. Fly safe with sound aircraft-specific tactics, fight as core function teams, and win with mutual support as integrated teams."

It’s not just live-flying operations that make Nellis stand out. The 805th Combat Training Squadron, also known as the Shadow Operations Center–Nellis (ShOC-N), was rebranded in 2021 as the USAF’s Battle Lab, identifying emerging technologies that enable faster data and information transfer to operators. “The ShOC-N is critical to the Air Force’s drive to link information to sensors and shooters in real-time,” said USAF chief Gen Charles Brown at the time. “As our service continues to accelerate change, the revelations coming out of this battle lab will help our warfighters more quickly understand, share, decide and act, which will provide them a greater advantage on the battlefield.”

F-22 Raptors at Nellis during a Red Flag exercise. Jamie Hunter

“Our facility is designed to experimentally work out how to get everything to work together,” says L. Col. John “Sox” Ohlund of ShOC-N. “Primarily we use live data from the NTTR, we add experimental battle-management aids from government partners. Ultimately, we experiment [with] how to use data and turn it into information that people can make decisions with. We shadow exercises and run experiments behind the scenes. We know that if we can interoperate with data we can make a decision faster."

"For example, we have found that we can take a current recognized air picture, and teach a computer to understand where the aircraft are, and then what to expect. We are maturing artificial intelligence to mean a machine can learn.”

This work is linked to the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System, or ABMS. While the approach to this kind of battle management is planned as being inter-service, a truly joint architecture is still a long way off. The U.S. Army has its own version, known as Project Convergence, while the Navy has Project Overmatch. “These are all trying to harness joint operations, individually,” says Ohlund.

Operators at work inside ShOC-N, the battle lab supporting the development of key technologies designed to compress the kill chain. USAF/Keith Keel

Further explaining the ABMS principle is Lt. Col. Meera Daroy Noe, the Deputy Director for Cyber Warfare Operations and Senior Cyber Operations Officer for the Air Warfare Center at Nellis.

“The Air Warfare center is chartered to serve Air Combat Command and combatant commanders to solve problems. Right now our main focus is to serve and help PACAF [Pacific Air Forces] with the problem set in the Pacific. Specifically the pacing challenge of China.”

The ABMS umbrella includes all kinds of important USAF capabilities, from mundane IT to communications to cyber warfare, and it is designed to synchronize these efforts. “I focus on advanced data sharing, advanced communications, and advanced sensing — this is all very digital-centric,” explains Noe. “Air Force commanders are slowly realizing that they need data-driven debriefs and decision making. So we are laying the foundation of the digital environment of how the future air force will operate.”

Referring directly to cyber, Noe calls it a “man-made domain in which we operate to affect the physical world.” She adds: “If I am planning a trip, I want to pick the best time to buy a flight at the cheapest rate. I can use a data-driven application on my smartphone that tries to predict a good time to buy. It’s the same when it comes to the military. Based on data-driven analysis you can present similar types of options. This means that to the left of a conflict we can prepare the digital environment. ABMS today is much about how the Air Force is organizing itself, more of a concept of how we will solve battle management problems.”

A USAF F-16CM pilot taxiing at Nellis. Jamie Hunter

It’s clear that the many different entities based at Nellis have important relationships and important interactions, and they help inform each other by acting as a mini-high tech air force. Indeed, the assets at Nellis represent a coherent and highly advanced fighting force in their own right, one that is constantly fighting the next war, whether it comes or not. It's a remarkably centralized training and development ecosystem that is the envy of the world's air forces. 

Nellis is the heartbeat of the modern U.S. Air Force. The subsequent features in this series will reveal more details of why this base in Nevada is one of the USAF’s most critical assets.

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