“Welcome to Fighter Town Leeuwarden” – with these words Colonel Denny ‘Trash’ Traas – Base Commander, Leeuwarden Air Base, The Netherlands, welcomed media representatives to Exercise Frisian Flag 2016 held between 11 and 22 April. Tom Gibbons was there for GAR, with additional photography from Kevin Wills.
This, the latest iteration of the exercise, was to focus on international cooperation, international leadership and precision in addition to the opportunity to exercise cooperation between the varied tactical air commands and tactical control agencies involved throughout the exercise.
In delivering to the aims of Frisian Flag 2016 ten nations deployed over 70 aircraft operating mainly from Leeuwarden. Smaller numbers of Air to Air Refuelling (AAR) aircraft provided essential refuelling support whilst simultaneously participating in their own, concurrent, European Air Refuelling Training (EART) exercise. This was centred on Eindhoven Air Base in The Netherlands to the south of Leeuwarden. Also present as observers for the duration of the exercise was a Royal Australian Air Force delegation with a view to future participation.
With over 60 aircraft operating from Leeuwarden for the duration of the exercise the pace of operations was significantly higher than normally experienced at the base. Two exercise sorties were flown per day, each comprising around 44 aircraft per wave. Support aircraft, NATO E-3A Sentry, Royal Netherlands AF C-130H and AAR assets, operated from Geilenkirchen and Köln-Bonn in Germany and Eindhoven Air Base.
Col. Traas encapsulated the raison d’être of Frisian Flag. “[For] the last two decades western nations have been engaged in military operations essentially all over the world and in almost all of them air power has played a significant role, sometimes an autonomous role. [This position has seen nations] operate without exceptions, in coalitions.
“We see different nations participating in these coalitions but countries almost never operate [by] themselves – coalition is defence. On the other hand, reaction times have shortened for example [to a situation in] Afghanistan or Libya – reaction times are maybe a week or less. We need to be ready [to react] at all times.
“Political and public demands are great – they want us to be effective, with minimum assets at minimum cost and to avoid collateral [damage with no] casualties on our own side. Those are all logical demands but they’re high so the trend is to see high demand, high requirement for combat ready air forces to be ready at short notice [and] to be effective with minimum fuss and minimum assets. That puts [a correspondingly] high demand on training and training requirements and I believe Frisian Flag fulfils that requirement because Frisian Flag provides, at least within Europe, a very unique training opportunity for air forces willing to participate [and] willing to exercise with us to be able to create these effective combat ready air forces.’
‘If we operate together, we need to train together. That’s our motto, that’s what Frisian Flag does.’
The exercise organising team sets the objectives of each iteration of Frisian Flag, Captain Remco from the resident 322 TACTES (Tactical Training, Evaluation and Standardisation) Squadron staff acted as the 2016 Project Officer and provided an overview of the objectives structured to provide the basic framework around which the exercise missions would be built. These objectives are surprisingly simple:
• Provide air and groundcrew with realistic training in a modern air combat environment.
• Plan, execute and debrief Large Force Employment missions
• Practice different roles against a robust threat
• Integrate with land based forces
• Promote leadership, initiative and self-discipline.
• Enhance tactics evaluation, validation and development.
• Establish multinational relationships between air forces
In delivering to these objectives the missions flown during Frisian Flag 2016 range from Defensive – protection of ground elements, slow mover or high value assets and integration with Air Defence systems, Offensive – pre-planned strikes (Air Interdiction), Air Superiority (Sweep/Escort), Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) and dynamic targeting via Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTAC) and/or a combination of both. Providing a realistic ground based threat environment were a number of nations employing systems such as SA-6 ‘Gainful’ and Roland, the Franco-German mobile short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system alongside simulated inflatable targets and ‘Smokey Sam’ missiles that are fired at aircraft in training situations as simulated SAMs. Ground based Command and Control (C2) for the exercise was provided by Netherlands AF Link 16 networks deployed to Leeuwarden and the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) at Hachenberg Barracks, Erndtebruck Germany that provided a similar function to that available from the NATO AWACS aircraft.
Employing a 180nm x 120nm chunk of airspace off the western coast of The Netherlands, each mission sees a Mission Commander from each unit take his or her turn to plan, develop and execute their specific mission profile. This may, for example, see a scenario where Leeuwarden is to be defended from intruders coming from the north or a ‘Slow Mover’ exercise where the prime objective is to protect the Netherlands AF C-130H working to achieve an ingress to an area in order to drop a number of paratroopers. Planning for these missions takes around six hours with flight leads performing the initial planning activity within their specific role culminating in a mass briefing in which all aircrew are required to participate.
The ‘Red Air’ (bad guys) function throughout the exercise is performed ‘in house’ and aims to replicate representative threats from potential opponents. The overall mission split of forces averages out at around 70/30 (Blue/Red) for each mission scenario. In discussion with Col. Traas and 322 TACTES Squadron staff it was clear that there was currently no ambition to see Frisian Flag embrace the use of (relatively expensive) specialist contractor based aggressor services such as those provided by Discovery Air Defence Services and Draken International.
Mission durations varied with Red Air being the first elements to get airborne and head to the tankers to ‘top off’ fuel loads and position themselves in readiness for the imminent engagements as the particular scenario was played out. Post mission and with recovery of all assets complete the mass debrief is conducted with the effectiveness of the session enhanced by extensive use of GPS data downloaded from the pods/trackers carried by each participating aircraft. This data is consolidated and used to reconstruct the conduct of each mission and to validate the effectiveness (or not) of each specific sortie; what were the lessons learnt? Was the mission effective and successful? If not, why not?
Given the popularity and growth of Frisian Flag year on year, rumours continue to rumble around that the exercise may be split into separate exercises, i.e. in a manner similar to Red Flag and Green Flag. Col Traas: “Training requirements and amounts are high and with Frisian Flag as it is right now we fulfil part of that requirement and we can also paint how to do things differently but we also have to take into account our own capacity at the base. We need to do other missions as well, train other things as well so talking about the future, how it will develop, I’m not sure. I mean we still try and match the training requirements that we have and the way we keep Frisian Flag on the map we always try to take the newest developments into account, so there are certain things to look at but it’s too soon to say how this angle will develop.”
The USAF/ANG F-15C/D Eagle element deployed to Europe as part of the on-going Theatre Security Package (TSP) programme, Operation Atlantic Resolve attracted considerable attention at Frisian Flag 2016. Major General Eric W. Vollmecke is the Air National Guard Mobilization Assistant to the Commander, United States Air Forces in Europe/Air Forces Africa: “We have deployed from the United States, from two main bases with the 104th (FW) and the 144th (FW) in Massachusetts and California with 350 airmen, 12 aircraft – eight of those aircraft are here (Leeuwarden) – deployed as Theatre Security Package with the other four deployed to Iceland to participate in Iceland Air Policing activity. The aircraft will be here (Europe) for about six months and deploy throughout Europe after the exercise.
“There will be some rotation of personnel as the mission back home, Air Sovereignty Alert for the United States, still needs to be fulfilled 24/7. Essentially the two units (CA & MA) will commit for three months each but base-operating support will come from Ramstein and Spangdahlem to make more money available for European deployments.
“The timing of TSP gives our pilots and crews opportunity to very quickly get merged into the European theatre. So (for) most of these pilots that are here this is new for many of them or at least it’s been many years since they’ve been here. Frisian Flag speeds up the process to integrate them into operations. What’s very important to us is to be able to leverage the airmen that we (USA) have here based in Europe in the five major bases in UK, Germany and Italy to help enable these deployments for our air forces to come over here to work with our allies and partners.’
Major General Leon S. Rice is the Adjutant General, Massachusetts: “Flexibility is the key to airpower and for us to deploy and do something different and show all of our flexibility, you know every nation brings something to the table, so it’s pretty important to us for the principles of how we operate.” An ex-Lakenheath F-111F and MA ANG A-10A pilot, Rice was asked if he had seen any great changes with regard to the principles of force deployment: “You would think that you go on a few deployments and you think that you’ve seen everything that you can but every time I step out into a new environment I learn something new and that was the same as when I was a young fighter pilot 30 years ago to where I am even now today. I’m impressed, I‘m surprised and I always have the ability to learn something and I always see something new. For us this is a very big deployment. We have not deployed out of the country for a long time so this is a big event for us. Within the last ten years we did Air Sovereignty and Air Policing missions to Iceland, so we’ve deployed there for that type of operation but for a single unit, our squadron and our maintenance squadron to deploy together like this, we haven’t done (with F-15s) for a long time.”
Commenting on the recent joint operation at Red Flag 16-1 (with the CA ANG) Rice said: “It was definitely purposeful for us to prepare for this exercise together and to operate together because we brought some of their aircraft and we have some of our aircraft; we’ll end up with a full maintenance package and all that equipment we’ll hand off to California when they come in three months.”
Lt Col David ‘Moon’ Halasi-Kun of the 131 FS MA ANG is the ANG Det Commander: “We’ve been surprised at how easily we all integrated, everybody kind of does business the same way in the fighter business. From The Netherlands, Finland or wherever it doesn’t really matter, everybody kind of does Air to Air, Air to Ground operations kind of universally. There haven’t really been any real challenges to overcome since operations began here. There has been lots of discussion with previously deployed units to understand lessons learned and operations continue to get better and better.”
Frisian Flag 2016 participating nations and aircraft were as follows:
Air to Air:
Finnish AF – HävLLv 31 (31 Fighter Squadron) based at Rissala AB with 6 x F-18C
German AF – TLG-31 based at Norvenich AB with 10 x EF2000
USAF – Massachusetts ANG, 131 FS based at Barnes ANGB with 8 X F-15C/D (Exercise debut for this unit)
Air to Ground:
French AF – EC 03.003 based at Nancy AB with 5 x Mirage 2000D
Royal Air Force – IX(B) Squadron based at RAF Marham with 6 x Tornado GR.4
Belgian Air Component – 349 Squadron based Kleine Brogel AB with 8 x F-16AM
Polish AF – 31 TAB, 3rd Fighter Squadron based at Poznan AB with 6 x F-16C
Royal Netherlands AF – 312, 313 Squadrons & 322 TACTESS based at Volkel & Leeuwarden AB respectively with a total of 14 x F-16AM/BM
Electronic Warfare and ‘Aggressor’:
Cobham Aviation Services based at Bournemouth and Teesside with 1 x Dassault Falcon 20
Royal Norwegian AF – 717 Squadron based at Oslo-Gardermoen with 1 x Dassault Falcon 20ECM (Week 2 only)
Externally based participants were:
Air to Air Refuelling:
French AF – ERV 02.091 based at Istres and operating from Eindhoven AB with 1 x KC-135FR
German AF – FBS BMVg based and operating from Köln-Bonn with 1 x A310MRTT
Italian AF – 8 Gruppo based at Pratica di Mare and operating from Eindhoven AB with 1 x KC-767A
Royal Netherlands AF – 334 Squadron based and operating from Eindhoven AB with 1 x KDC-10
Airborne Early Warning & Control:
NATO – NAEWF with 1 x E-3A AWACS aircraft based and operating from Geilenkirchen, Germany
Royal Netherlands AF – 336 Squadron (Week 2 only) based and operating from Eindhoven AB with 1 x C-130H Hercules.
Held annually since 1992, Frisian Flag continues to provide focussed, high end, integrated training at a relatively low cost to participating nations whilst simultaneously bringing a financial injection to the Province of Friesland. Local hotels, for example, benefit through substantial bookings placed by participants for the duration of the exercise and local research indicates that the region shows an increase of 11 to 14 jobs made available as a direct consequence of the exercise. With those local benefits in mind and looking to the near future and the transition to the F-35A Lightning II there are potential impacts to Frisian Flag and specifically the question, will it continue? Col Traas concluded: “We’ll try and do that (continue with Frisian Flag) but obviously transitioning from one fighter to another is a lot of work and that could mean that during that timeframe that we’re transitioning from F-16 to F-35 that you could see a year maybe without a Frisian Flag, that’s a very realistic scenario I think.”
With thanks to the Public Affairs Office, Leeuwarden AB and to the USAFE Public Affairs team from Spangdahlem, Germany for their assistance in the compilation of this article.