Exercise Frisian Flag is the largest NATO air exercise held in Europe and is hosted in the Netherlands. Frisian Flag 2013 saw Royal Netherlands Air Force Base Leeuwarden become home and operating base to pilots and personnel from six nations, as Zaid Meherali guest-reports, with additional imagery from Steve Comber.
This year there were in excess of 80 fast jets stationed at Leeuwarden, including aircraft from the French AF which brought five Mirage 2000Cs and four soon-to-be retired Mirage F1CRs from Mont-de-Marsan, the Royal Swedish AF with nine Gripens from F 21 at Lulea and five F-16Cs and a sole F-16D from the Polish AF. Eight German AF Eurofighters from Norvenich also took part, as did 349 Squadron from the Belgian AF which deployed eight F-16 MLUs, including one in the 70th anniversary colours, from Kleine Brogel, while the host nation provided a total of 15 F-16MLUs, plus locally-based aircraft.
Additionally, and for the first time at Frisian Flag, a RNLAF C-130 Hercules from 336 Squadron at Eindhoven AB was also based at Leeuwarden AB. Having recently benefited from an upgrade, it is now Link16 data-link capable and took part in a tactical transport capability.
A variety of tanker assets also participated with KDC-10, A310 MRTT and KC-135 being deployed from Eindhoven, Cologne/Bonn and RAF Mildenhall respectively, as did a NATO AWACS E-3A from Geilenkirchen.
Electronic warfare was provided by either a Royal Norwegian AF DA-20 or the Skyline Learjet 135, with a main role of jamming communications, plus, to make the pilots’ lives a little more difficult, the German AF provided an SA-6 radar guided missile system together with batteries of smokey SAM rockets, meaning that the simulated ground threat was significant. The Royal Netherlands Army provided Special Forces, to increase the realism for close air support missions and to integrate laser target designation, giving all the participants an opportunity to train with diverse air and ground forces.
Frisian Flag 2013’s two-week long objective was to simulate composite air operations and multi-national mixed fighter operations against both airborne and ground-based threats. It permitted full-scale usage and integration of the Link16 data-link, from both air and ground systems. Frisian Flag aims to help both NATO and non-NATO forces to establish a common operational doctrine and to practice, apply and learn this together, so this included large-scale planning meetings, briefings and debriefs.
“Sweden is a neutral country with no links to NATO, and will only act under a United Nations resolution, not at NATO’s request, for example as a result of the UN mandate in Libya in 2011. However, operations must always be coordinated and conducted in co-operation with NATO, so the Royal Swedish Air Force must understand NATO doctrine and apply it within Sweden, where previously we had our own native procedures,” Lt Col Frederik “Kodak” Holmbom RSAF told me, highlighting the importance of an exercise like Frisian Flag to his nation’s air force.
From a flying perspective, Frisian Flag allows relatively unrestricted air operations within the area of Frisia, the coastal region along the south-eastern corner of the North Sea, covering north-western Netherlands, north-western Germany and clipping the edge of Denmark. This entire area, including the North Sea, is the training area and gives the exercise its name.
Operations include defensive missions, such as protection of ground, slow-moving or high-value assets, as well as offensive missions such as pre-planned air-strikes, air superiority and escort, suppression of enemy air defence systems, dynamic targeting via forward air controllers or special forces, and combat air patrols – all of which are seen, or have been seen, for real in both Afghanistan and Libya. With four Dutch F-16s currently deployed in the Afghan theatre, there is a real imperative to ensure that nations work together faultlessly.
With so much expected of Frisian Flag 2013, and with both morning and afternoon missions planned each day, the two days prior to the exercise commencing, when the participants were due to arrive, actually turned out to be a massive disappointment, as the weather was generally misty and grey with passing thunderstorms, lashing rain and howling winds. Friday’s conditions were so bad that a Swedish Hercules crew had to abort an ILS approach and try again, and a Polish F-16 accidentally dropped its braking parachute on the runway, so its colleagues had to ‘go around’ in the murk until that was cleared. The Belgians performed pairs landings in the driving rain and, at 5pm sharp, and just as the last French Mirage F1CR landed and taxied off the runway, they closed the airfield!
The first exercise day of Frisian Flag 2013 also started off murky and grey, but the sound of engines starting could be heard from miles away and, with the roar of eight Dutch Vipers, as the two leading flights departed, the exercise was officially under way.
The typical schedule for the pilots taking part in the morning wave saw them attending a mass briefing from 05.00Z to 05.45Z (GMT), at which every pilot had to be present, with 07.15Z seeing the first departures. Morning missions were actually flown in the training area between 07.30Z and 10.00, but since it could take up to an hour to get all the participants airborne, some of the earlier flights had already completed their tasking, and be either heading back or tanking for fuel and staying on station, while others were just getting started.
Once all the active participants had landed there was a mass debrief between 11.00Z and 12.30Z. At 13.15Z a three hour planning session began for different sorties and the scenario that would be played-out the following day, with the final coordination between assets occurring no later than at 16.30Z, which took about 30 minutes or so. For the afternoon mission teams it was a very similar procedure, with the timings moved accordingly. This resulted in a gruelling 10 hour day, with 45 minutes for lunch, and potentially two and a half hours of flying involved for aircrew.
With so many aircraft and ground assets requiring command, control and communication (C3), the NATO AWACS provided both participant unit commanders and the Frisian Flag training team with a complete overview of proceedings. A large majority of the assets were equipped with Link16, a jam-resistant, high-speed digital data-link with secure speech, telemetry, data and sensor information interchange between other capabilities on the net. The RNLAF National Data Link Management Cell (NDMC) provided control and coordination of the Link16 network back at Leeuwarden AB. However, and as a first for this year, DCRC also took part. This is a Deployed Command and Reporting Centre, a German AF ground asset, that was run at Frisian Flag by both Dutch and German personnel. It plugs directly into the Link16 network and provides a ground-based, AWACS-like air picture for the participants and provides an additional command and control function for the exercise, allowing the unification of Dutch and German airspace, with Danish co-operation, during Frisian Flag.
To assist with the debriefing sessions, everything is reconstructed and played back on monitors and, as all of the participants carry a GPS tracker, telemetry is available at all times. This, together with the Link16 data that has been recorded, provides ample feedback for all concerned.
It is interesting to note that each nation also had its own key objective at Frisian Flag, and for the Polish AF it was gaining experience in air to air refuelling procedures, so 334 Squadron’s KDC-10 was in great demand, with its crews usually briefing at 05.00 and departing Eindhoven AB at 07.00.
The “Jan Scheffer” (tail code T-235) was assigned with the call sign “Texaco” and flew a racetrack pattern called “Shell” at 21,000ft over the training area. Depending on the number of receivers, “Texaco” was airborne until 14.15Z or returned at 10.15Z for a rapid turnaround would get airborne again from then until 14.15Z. Currently, the second RNLAF KDC-10, the “Prins Bernhard”, is undergoing maintenance and was therefore unavailable for the exercise.
Sgt Major Louis Martin Ruzette, “Loadi”, a boom operator and loadmaster on the KDC-10 told me:
“If the pilots have just come out of a dogfight they are often full of adrenaline, and they can be, when they are refuelling, a little impatient sometimes, but that’s just part of the job! It happened this first week with the Polish AF when a pair of F-16s plotted an intercept and attempted to initiate contact with the tanker without following correct procedures. On board, both our radar warning receivers and traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) went off and left us wondering what was going on!
“At the moment we can only refuel aircraft from the boom, like the F-16, C-17 and NATO AWACS, but if we are to integrate into NATO fully, it would be great to provide a probe and drogue capability as well, so we could be a universal tanker.”
This is just one example of what Frisian Flag was all about; pilots and aircrew, ground and air assets, all working together, co-operating and learning lessons, improving procedures and doctrine, practising and training tactics that will be employed in current or future battle spaces. It is all about integration and flexibility, which will be the key components in any combat operations.
I would like to thank everyone in the Royal Netherlands Air Force media relations team from both Leeuwarden AB and Eindhoven AB, the crew of “Texaco 53” , Major Erik Boekelman, Sgt Maj Louis Martin Ruzette, Karl Drage, Gareth Stringer, and finally Eddy from Weidumerhout for providing a hot shower, warm room and cold beer after an 11 hour drive!