Exercise ‘Capable Eagle’, staged at RAF Leeming during October 2013, saw Royal Air Force and French Air Force aerial assets operating together to enhance military cooperation between the two nations. Steve Comber visited RAF Leeming to photograph the Exercise for GAR, with words by Rich Cooper.
With shrinking budgets and personnel shortages the order of the day, it is an absolute necessity to forge strong strategic partnerships towards an efficient, capable global response when the call to arms comes.
The British Prime Minister and French President signed the Lancaster House Treaty in 2010 to fully commit the RAF to what has been called a new era in military cooperation with the French AF.
Exercise ‘Capable Eagle’, held for two weeks in October out of RAF Leeming, North Yorkshire, was the aerial component of the wider ‘Joint Warrior 13-2’ operations (itself now one of the largest joint-military exercises in the world, held twice a year), and saw the RAF and French AF further build upon their growing partnership. Typhoons from No 1(F) Squadron deployed from RAF Leuchars to RAF Leeming, and were joined by Mirage 2000Ns from the Istres-based EC 02.004 La Fayette, along with a total of 700 personnel for two weeks of intense flying and development.
This year is the first time it has been commanded by a joint team of French and British air commanders, a move that paves the way to continued cooperation and training at a high strategic level. The first week of operations saw the units put together core skills and test everything that had been integrated so far, with the second week then putting it all into practice.
The exercise scenario replicated the challenges faced by an Anglo-French Expeditionary Air Wing (EAW) as it helps an overseas power cope with rising political and military instability, with elements such as tackling terrorism, maritime piracy and cross-border insurgency being some of the challenges faced by the air wing.
‘We undertook close air support, sea assault, maritime strike mission as mixed packages, tasked by British JTACs, twice a day,’ explained Captains Terrance and Aurelien, both FAF Mirage 2000N pilots. ‘We were simulating weapon release, such as GBU12, and undertaking tanking from a FAF C-135FR and also from RAF Tristars. We started flying Close-Air Support with just two aircraft in the missions at sea, and by the second week, we were in mass briefings towards a COMAO and multiple Blue v Red scenarios, which saw both nations taking on different roles depending on the mission brief. For example, we would be tasked as the Red Force and to strike boats at sea, or the Blue Force on CAS duties. We have learned that our training is the same – it’s been great to see the capabilities of another type of aircraft… and to improve our English! The best thing has been to fly in UK airspace, to work with different JTACs, and to refuel from a Tristar for the first time.
Wg Cdr Mark Flewin, OC No 1(F) Squadron affirmed the benefits of the partnership. ‘We are very similar; we are professional, adaptable and work very well together. Our Typhoons have been undertaking COMAOs, sweeping the Mirages in a DCA mentality and getting them to their target and protecting them on their way out, on top of CAS. This would typically see four-to-six Typhoons escorting a package of four Mirage 2000Ns and multiple Tornado GR4s, with MAGIC overhead. Our jets are all Tranche 2 and we are developing the Typhoon’s capability on a daily basis. We are due to receive our next software upgrade (P1EA), towards full multi-role capability with the introduction of Paveway IV LGB. As we’re the lead squadron for this, we’re due to receive the first jets at the end of this month and look forward to progressing that capability forward.’
On hand to inspect the capability and readiness of the EAW was RAF Chief-of-Staff, ACM Sir Andrew Pulford. ‘This is not just about economics’, the CAS exerted, ‘It’s about modern military power and the ability to work and operate together. It is quite pointless time on time coming together for the first time and learning about one another. We’ve got to do better than that. We’ve got to train together, prepare together and develop mutual procedures together – that’s what this is about.’
‘It’s everything from chefs learning to cater one another, medical techniques being observed, right through to the pilots in the sky – quite literally right from bottom to top. This is learning we are all the same, the language may be different, but actually our intent is the same.
‘It’s not just about turning up to go on operations either, but is preparing for future. It’s sharing standard ops procedures and techniques so that when we do come together we really truly are more than the sum of a whole, ensuring mutual trust so that we know one another and understand one another.
‘This is an extremely important relationship, not just for today but long into the future. The Combined Joint Expeditionary Force is really forging the way in the bilateral relationship between our two militaries – allowing the two best and clearly most powerful air forces in Europe to take the lead, and bring the rest of Europe along with us. The exercise is demonstrating how we can fly, plan, operate, command and control, and undertake all modern airpower roles and take it forward in an extremely professional way.’
Standing at the side of the RAF CAS in a visual show of solidarity was his French AF CAS counterpart, Gen Denis Mercier. ‘Operations in Libya and Mali had to be mobilised in a matter of hours, so this is why we want the capability to deploy in very short notice. We can now be sure that we have this short notice capability – and we are perhaps the only two air forces in Europe to be able to do so.
‘The cooperation is not new, but we are now moving from cooperation to developing a command force and I am very happy with what I have seen. When we come together, the devil is in the details, so we have to be sure that all the functions are compatible for the future – we have to be sure that they do not forget the lessons they have learned when they leave here.’
This is of course a relationship rekindled, with an Anglo-French partnership initially forged over the skies of the Western Front in WW1 and indeed whilst stationed in Yorkshire in World War Two. Now close strategic allies once again, the agreement was quickly put to the test in 2011 when the RAF and FAF led a coalition to intervene in the Libyan civil conflict. The damage inflicted on Gadaffi’s armoured forces by joint Typhoon and Rafale operations was one of the major factors that brought the conflict to an early end. This success led to the RAF supporting the French military campaign against Islamist rebels in Mali. This time it was the RAF’s unrivalled expertise in high-altitude reconnaissance and long-range logistics that helped the French quickly push back rebel forces and unify the fractured country.
The images accompanying this article show the British and French pilots during various exercise operations and scenarios at RAF Leeming, as well as flying together over the North Sea, as they did in the 1940s, and as they are today, side by side, complimenting each other’s strengths into the future.