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The origin of Red Flag was the unacceptable performance of U.S. Air Force pilots in air combat maneuvering (ACM) (air-to-air combat) during the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars. Air combat over North Vietnam between 1965 and 1973 led to an overall exchange ratio (ratio of enemy aircraft shot down to the number of own aircraft lost to enemy fighters) of 2.2:1 (for a period of time in June and July 1972 during Operation Linebacker the ratio was less than 1:1).
Among the several factors resulting in this disparity was a lack of realistic ACM training. USAF pilots were not versed in the core values and basics of ACM due to the belief that BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements and equipment made maneuvering combats obsolete, and nearly all pilots were unpracticed in maneuvering against dissimilar aircraft because of an Air Force emphasis on flying safety.
An Air Force analysis (Project Red Baron II) showed that a pilot's chances of survival in combat dramatically increased after he had completed 10 combat missions. Red Flag was created in 1975 to offer US pilots the opportunity to fly 10 realistically-simulated combat missions in a safe training environment with measurable results. Many aircrews had also fallen victim to SAMs and Red Flag exercises provided pilots experience in this regime as well.
The genesis of Red Flag traces back to the Vietnam era, when the air-combat effectiveness of the US Air Force dropped dramatically. Specifically, the Air Force enjoyed a 10-to-one kill ratio during the Korean War but only a two-to-one advantage during the latter part of the Vietnam War. Disturbed by this trend, the service set out to identify the root cause of its loss in proficiency, tasking its Tactical Fighter Weapons Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada, to conduct a series of studies called Project Red Baron to analyze all air-to-air engagements during the war in Southeast Asia. An interim report released in 1972 identified three significant trends. First, it found that multirole fighter units were expected to perform such a broad range of missions that pilots lacked proficiency across the board. Second, most pilots who were shot down never saw their attackers and did not even know that the enemy had engaged them. The report concluded that since pilots routinely trained against US aircraft from their own squadrons, they were unaccustomed to looking for the smaller, more agile aircraft flown by the North Vietnamese. Finally, Air Force pilots not only lacked familiarity with the enemy's fighter tactics and aircraft capabilities but also did not develop or train with tactics intended to exploit the adversary's weaknesses. As a result, they could not adapt to the fast maneuvering by North Vietnamese fighters during dogfights. (1)
Other studies at the time found that aircrew training and proficiency problems extended beyond the Vietnam War. The Litton Corporation, for example, studied air-combat trends in every conflict from World War I through the Vietnam War, concluding that a pilot's first 10 combat missions were the most critical.2 If aircrew members survived those missions, their chances for victory and survival increased dramatically.