Hurtling through the air high above Nevada at speeds over 2,000kph, the Emirati fighter pilot locks on to his target, grips the flight controls, and gets set for the kill. With that, the game is on. UAE fighter pilots are taking part in two weeks of aerial combat games at Nellis Air Force Base, just north of Las Vegas.
The Red Flag exercises are designed to train pilots from the US and its allies in realistic war scenarios, including dogfights and bombing exercises. The programme is similar to the US navy's aerial combat training school known as Top Gun, made famous by the film starring Tom Cruise. Red Flag is designed to stretch pilots to the limit, and train them to work in co-operation with other air forces.
The UAE's participation is an indication of the expertise its air force has reached, said Dr Theodore Karasik, the director of research for the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, based in Dubai. "It's very significant because Red Flag is a very critical exercise in air power," he said. "It indicates that the UAE air force is becoming more sophisticated, and needs to be included in what is termed inter-operability the ability to function with other air forces in joint exercises."
A Red Flag combat exercise, conducted on a 40,000-square-kilometre training range, involves a Blue Team - training pilots playing the role of the allies - and a Red Team of top US pilots who play the aggressors. The Blue Team fly in their own aircraft in the case of the UAE these are F-16 Desert Falcons, among the most advanced F-16s ever built, which are kept in Arizona and make up the 148th Fighter Squadron.
"It's typically called a generation 4.5 fighter, not quite at the level of the 5th generation F-22 or F-35, but its avionics, thrust and fuel capacity make it a very formidable fighter," said Col Mick McGuire, 148th Fighter Squadron commander. "They should do very well at Red Flag and return to the UAE having learnt many good lessons from the experience." Red Flag was introduced by the US in 1975, after the Vietnam war exposed weaknesses in the air force's aerial combat manoeuvring. The US Air Force normally runs about four Red Flag training exercises a year. Among other countries to have taken part in them are Saudi Arabia, the UK, Italy, India, Germany, Japan, Jordan, Argentina and Brazil.
The UAE pilots spent two weeks preparing for the Red Flag games at the fighter wing at Tucson International Airport in Arizona. There, the pilots reunited with former instructors from the Arizona National Guard, with whom they UAE air force has trained for nearly a decade. Nine other Emirati pilots currently training in Tucson may also take part in Red Flag in the future. "It has been great to welcome back our friends from the UAE, some of whom we haven't seen for a while," said Col Greg Stroud, the wing commander. "It's really rewarding for us to see how they've developed as pilots, and we're proud to see them participate in their first Red Flag."
The UAE's participation, along with pilots from several other countries, is a historic step, and the Government commissioned a team of documentary filmmakers to follow the pilots and their support team through the experience. "Of course, it's historic for the Emiratis to go to Red Flag for the first time," Col Stroud said, "and our wing gets to share the importance of this milestone since we've been training them from the beginning. They're ready."
"This shows the strong ties between the US and the UAE on strategic issues, although that doesn't necessarily mean they always agree politically," Dr Karasik said. "For the UAE to take part in this sort of contingency training, it's a big step." The games will end on September 5. firstname.lastname@example.org