The QWI has been described as 'the beating heart of a combat ready squadron' and he, or she, must be thoroughly proficient with the myriad complexities of employing the full inventory of an aircraft's cleared munitions, as well as able to provide sound advice in the optimum tactics to employ them in any given scenario.
The full course lasts around six months and is widely recognised as the most demanding single course in the RAF; crews must be selected from among their high-performing peers even to be considered as candidates and must thereafter constantly demonstrate that they measure up to the rigorous standards demanded of a cadre that, in the final analysis, set the bar for RAF combat capability.
The course commences with an intensive groundschool phase which is common to the prospective QWIs from every RAF fleet but they then go their separate ways to learn the intricacies of each platform's weapon systems and the instructional techniques relevant to each. Towards the end of the course the QWI students assemble once again for the final, and most demanding, element of the course.
The Operational Phase, or Op Phase, aims to stretch each student's ability to think and act as a warfighting aviator, presenting a training environment that replicates at least some of the pressures of conflict. The pressure comes from many quarters: from the staff who assess them, from their peers with whom they must earn credibility and from within themselves with the knowledge that this is the final hurdle with so much effort already invested.
Involving around 50 aircraft and over 100 aircrew, the Op Phase also represents high fidelity training for many more crews that the 20 QWI students. Indeed, it is the preeminent RAF tactical flying training exercise in the UK and, in common with the RED FLAG series of USAF exercises, it aims to provide representative exposure to combat missions, with realistic threats that must be overcome. CQWI is run once every year and the 2009 exercise marked the culmination of a two-year long overhaul of the course.
CQWI has always been organised and overseen by a small team of officers from the Training and Tactics Wing within the RAF Air Warfare Centre. However, this unit attended CQWI 09 showcasing its new colours as 92 (Tactics and Training) Squadron.
The Officer Commanding, Wg Cdr John 'JS' Sullivan, made a case to the senior RAF leadership in 2008 that "the 'Wing' nomenclature was incongruous and that, with around 20 officers, most of whom were aircrew, the unit was squadron-sized and that this was the recognised unit for any air cadre". His proposal also presented a rare opportunity to resurrect a number plate that was otherwise unlikely to ever see the light of day again and, with the argument accepted, No.92 Sqn reformed at RAF Cranwell on the 30th of June, only the week before coming to Scotland for CQWI.
Prior to his posting to the AWC, JS commanded 6 Sqn, flying the Sepecat Jaguar from RAF Coningsby and had the bitter-sweet experience of leading his Squadron and the operational Jaguar Force into retirement. As OC 92 Sqn he is now in the unique position, in today's RAF at least, of having commanded two RAF squadrons!
Now two years into his tour, CQWI 09 stood to bring together everything that JS had sought to implement during his tenure, such as improved training for the Mission Commanders for CQWI (with the introduction, for the first time, of a dedicated week of instruction in advance of the Op Phase), a much improved syllabus of ground school subjects to enhance the foundation of the QWI course, as well as the incorporation of far more realistic air and surface-based threats during the Op Phase. Procedures have also been introduced to permit, for the first time, real-time Kill Removal, which, as JS puts it, 'fundamentally changes the mental approach of the participants. No-one wants to be killed out first in such a highly charged and competitive environment. You might as well be wearing a dunce hat!'
The primary role of the officers of 92 Sqn is to provide tactical advice, guidance and support to Front Line units, especially where they are committed to operations. Somewhat remarkably, just two officers are directly responsible for all of the organisation and preparation for the exercise in the weeks and months that precede the actual deployment although in practice it becomes a team effort as the time draws nearer. The whole Sqn then deploys to act as umpires, known as the WHITE Force, to ensure that the exercise aims and objectives are met.
The flying phase of CQWI is hosted by RAF Kinloss in Morayshire in the north of Scotland although the participants also operate out of nearby RAF Lossiemouth. Other assets, usually the enemy, RED Forces, also fly out of RAF Leuchars in Fife and even RAF Leeming in Yorkshire. Generally, the airspace in the far north of Scotland is favoured as the fighting area as it is relatively uncluttered by airways and the terrain below sparsely populated.
Each day starts with the White Force providing the Blue Force (the good guys) with an Air Tasking Order (ATO) detailing the objectives of the afternoon mission. The Mission Commander (MC), assisted by a Deputy Mission Commander (DMC), must then come up with a plan of action for how they will best use the assets available to them as they seek to achieve their goals. The MC and DMC are invariably QWI students and this is their turn under the spotlight - they need to demonstrate leadership, professional competence and determination while under considerable pressure, with a complex tactical problem to solve and only limited time to determine, plan and brief their course of action.
The QWI students are principally under the supervision of their respective Operational Conversion Units (OCU), namely XV(R) Sqn (Tornado GR.4, with both front-seaters and back-seaters seeking to qualify), 20(R) Sqn (Harrier GR.9) and 29(R) Sqn (Typhoon). For the other participant crews, the flying on offer provides an excellent opportunity to further their skills in working as part of a COMposite Air Operation (COMAO), and perhaps even demonstrate their suitability for consideration as future QWIs themselves. Each mission in CQWI 09 pitched around 40 Blue aircraft against 10-15 Red Air threats, augmented by Surface threats, GPS jammers and 'comm jammers', making it difficult to navigate and even communicate - even before the fighting begins!
With so many aircraft filling the skies at the same time, keeping everyone safe is paramount, and this is a primary concern of the White Force. Before the package is allowed to get airborne, the MC must present his plan of action to the Course Director (JS) to allow for deconfliction checks to be carried out. Through the use of computers each element of the package's proposed flight plan can be overlaid onto a map and played through in real-time to ensure there are no causes for concern. If there are, the White Force will intervene and changes will have to be made. All that said, JS knows that no plan survives contact with the enemy and he is as interested in the contingencies and the flexibility built into the plan as he is the artificiality of a sterile 'fly-through'.
Kinloss and Lossiemouth are separated by only a handful of miles and a combination of space issues at the former and the associated benefits of operating from two locations, thus adding to the realism factor (it's unlikely that in a time of war that all assets would operate from the same base), mean that both play host to some of the course participants. An additional consideration this time around was that the runway at Kinloss was closed for rectification work right up until the time the course was scheduled to get underway, and for many players, Lossiemouth became their initial airfield of operation.
Non-OCU squadrons present for the duration of the flying phase were the Typhoons of XI(F) Sqn, 17(R) Sqn and 29(R) Sqn (nine airframes in total), the Tornado GR.4s of 617(B) Sqn, as well as a package from the Marham Wing and headed by II(AC) Sqn (all of whom operated from Lossiemouth for the whole period and typically comprised sixteen aircraft), an E-3D Sentry from 8/23 Sqn based at RAF Waddington, plus the usual RED Air threats provided by the Hawks of 100 Sqn from RAF Leeming and the newly rebranded Falcon 20s of Cobham Plc (formerly FRA). Additionally 111(F) Sqn provided a number of Tornado F.3s who operated from their home base of RAF Leuchars, again in the Red Air role.
Due to the massive strain that much of today's Royal Air Force is under, certain assets were only available for a specific part of the two-week flying phase. RAF Lossiemouth played host to one of the few remaining C-130Ks during week one, along with one of the Service's newest types, the Sentinel. Two Pumas from 230 Sqn, RAF Aldergrove, NI, provided a rotary presence during the same period at RAF Kinloss, while week two saw the arrival of a VC-10 K.3 from 101 Sqn at RAF Brize Norton. This allowed some of the Blue Air assets extended playtime through its air-to-air refuelling capability.
Working these slow movers into the package gives the MC additional problems to solve and provides realistic challenges as well as more of a 'real-world feel'.
A typical day would see the Hawks ship out late-morning to another location, with the Blue force launch commencing around 1230, starting with the departure of the heavies. The main wave of Fast Jet launches would then get underway somewhere around 30 minutes later and be completed within a further 45 minutes, with pretty much everything back on the ground by 1600, ready for the various debriefs that follow.
It's often when mistakes are made, and the enemy succeeds in getting 'kills' that the most valuable lessons are learned - it's better to make the mistakes in training when the incoming missiles are simulated, leaving the participating crews with valuable knowledge that could save their lives during actual hostilities. Debriefing ensures that such lessons are identified and shared for the benefit of all players. They are classified so I was unable to attend but it was clear from just talking with the crews that the debriefs are meticulous and ruthlessly impersonal; it's about what's right, not who's right!
With the first briefs of the day taking place at 0700 and the mass debrief often running on to somewhere near 2000, these are long old days for those taking part, but it is vital to ensure that full value is derived from such, increasingly rare, high fidelity training opportunities. Over the course of the two weeks, the long days and mental as well as physical strain takes its toll on the participants, especially the QWI students, but they must be capable of remaining cheerful and professional under the stress of conflict so there is value and benefit to be derived even here.
So how did it all pan out? Wg Cdr Sullivan reflects on the two weeks:
"CQWI 09 proved to be an outstanding success. It was certainly the best course that I have witnessed in two years and while I think that the QWI students, indeed all of the participants, undoubtedly deserve credit for their performance, I am quite certain too that the QWI students were far better prepared, especially in light of the dedicated Mission Commander training that we gave them. I am very pleased to see that our initiatives have borne fruit.
"We make no secret of our aim to stretch all of the participants. We present them with tactical challenges that will need the crews to think carefully, plan thoroughly and then execute the missions precisely if they are to succeed. The missions do not always run on rails and that's actually pretty realistic. It just simply isn't possible to anticipate every development in a fast moving, 3-d conflict - and of course, the enemy does not always behave as predicted! I like to remind the crews that 'the enemy gets a vote!', which means that the they have to be able to adapt and improvise in the air, making split second decisions to maintain the offensive and dominate the air battle. It's 3-d chess with 50 very fast pieces and despite advances in technology, the lessons of history ring true: a bold but flexible plan, aggressively executed, gives the greatest likelihood of success."
JS explained that his job was to leave every participant better prepared for operations - be they the missions being performed in current operational theatres or developing and maintaining the skills that may be needed in an uncertain future. He explained, "The nature of our profession is to go into harm's way. We have to be capable of completing our missions in the face of resistance from an adversary - it's a contest of wills and we must be prepared for lethal force to be employed against us. CQWI provides the realistic training that is crucial to being prepared for the full range of missions that we could be called upon to perform and it allows us to practice overcoming the threats that we might one day face. As the White Force, it's our determination to leave our Front Line colleagues better prepared for combat operations - more effective, more survivable."
2009-08-06 - Neil
Very impressed with the content on GAR, well written and good photography - the gripe I have is with the colour of the copy, the larger bold white face is fine, but the smaller grey is difficult to read for those of us of a more mature vintage! Otherwise keep up the good work, and well done!
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