March 2, 2014 Updated: March 3, 2014 at 4:02 pm
A high-tech battle in the desert drew 140 Colorado National Guard airmen to Nevada last month to fight their way through the Red Flag exercise at Nellis Air Force Base.
Red Flag is renowned as the toughest test for fighter pilots outside combat. The Guard's 140th Fighter Wing at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora sent the airmen and six F-16 fighters to join in the battle with crews from around the nation.
"This was the full enchilada as they say," said Lt. Col. Mitchell Neff who commanded the wing's 120th fighter squadron during the monthlong training exercise.
The Colorado airmen are familiar with combat. The 140th has flown ground support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But in the wars America has fought for the past 12 years, pilots haven't faced enemies in jets.
"This was a few steps above and beyond what we have been doing for the past 10 years," Neff said.
At Red Flag, "blue forces" from the Colorado Guard and other units took on "red force" enemies from the 57th Adversary Tactics Group at Nellis - airmen trained in how to shoot down their fellow Americans.
The "Red" part of Red Flag goes back to the Cold War, when American pilots drilled to face their Soviet foes, sometimes called "Reds."
Neff's airmen worked to plan and carry out missions, including bombing runs against enemy targets, while conquering the red force threat.
"I learned that the teamwork was definitely there with our people," said Neff.
It took serious team effort to keep the Guard's 20-year-old F-16 single-engine fighters in the fight.
Neff said long nights were common for maintenance crews.
"They did an outstanding job," he said. "We did not miss a single sortie."
The aging F-16s, though had other troubles.
The 1970s design has been frequently updated with modern electronics and targeting systems, but won't hold a candle to the nation's newest fighters - the stealthy F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II.
Neff said the so-called "fifth generation" fighters have a big edge in electronic warfare that can jam enemy radar and spoof other systems.
"You can tell there's a big stepping stone between the 5th generation and our jets," Neff said.
The 140th is pushing to be the second National Guard unit to field the new F-35 fighter.
But their old birds did some things well.
The F-16, first envisioned as an air-to-air fighter, has been modified in recent years to become the nation's premiere ground-support bomber.
At Red Flag, the wing's pilots took to the air with bombs and bomb simulators to hit enemy targets. "We're definitely viable," Neff said.
It took a lot of work to get the Guard airmen to Red Flag. Unlike their active-duty counterparts, Guard pilots have civilian jobs that had to be put on hold for the training exercise.
"We have had this planned since a year ago," Neff said.
It proved worth the effort, he said. "We have to challenge ourselves," Neff said.