Tuesday 27th November saw the latest iteration of Exercise Point Blank take place over eastern England and the North Sea. Point Blank is a recurring large force exercise, designed and hosted by the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force’s 48th Fighter Wing at RAF Lakenheath. Its objective is to increase tactical efficiency of UK and US forces in the UK and Europe and is seen as a low cost alternative to exercises such as Red Flag at Nellis AFB, Nevada. Chris Wood reports for GAR from onboard MADRAS 21, an RAF Voyager tasked with supporting the exercise.

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Point Blank 18-3 was a Tri Lateral exercise, with the French Air Force joining the RAF and USAF for the first time © Chris Wood – www.globalaviationresource.com

The Point Blank series of exercises has been running since 2016 and the latest, Point Blank 18-3, notched up some notable firsts; the first time as a Tri Lateral exercise with the French Air Force participating and the first time with the RAF’s new F-35B Lightnings. It provided an opportunity for the RAF’s F-35 force to work on its integration between fourth and fifth generation aircraft, as it moves towards achieving its initial operational capability (IOC), which is on target to happen for deployable land based operations before the end of the year.

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A pair of 617 Squadron F-35B Lightnings alongside the RAF Voyager © Chris Wood – www.globalaviationresource.com

Surprisingly, historically there has been little integration between UK and US forces on a day to day basis in the home environment, which is something that Point Blank aims to address.  According to Major General John Wood, Commander of the USAF’s 3rd Air Force, “interoperability is very important… we are already at a high state of readiness, but readiness can only be maintained if you exercise and train to it every day. This is what this exercise will gain for us, our readiness.”

Air Commodore Jez Attridge, the RAF’s UK Joint Force Air Component Commander, stated that “we’ve moved from a scenario where we have control of the air, and it’s taken for granted, to a time now when we have to recognise that all the environments are being contested ………… For the RAF we need to think about defence of the homeland. We are seeing Russia challenging that rules based international order more and more, so we have to stay ready.”

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Vapour trails high in the sky from the air battles raging overhead © Chris Wood – www.globalaviationresource.com

Major General Luc de Rancourt, French Air Force Air Defence Air Operations Command Chief of Staff, said that with the “geo political trends that have been unfolding across the world, it is mandatory to be able to fight with all our assets at all times. The more we train together the better it is.”

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A French Air Force Rafale C from EC2/30 ‘Normandie Nieman’ alongside the RAF Voyager © Chris Wood – www.globalaviationresource.com

Reportedly, around 40 aircraft and between 200 and 250 personnel took part. The Blue force comprised 16 F-15E Strike Eagles from the 48th Fighter Wing, four Typhoon FGR4s from RAF Coningsby, four French Air Force Rafale Cs from Escadron de Chasse 30 at Mont-de-Marsan which were operating from RAF Lakenheath, and a pair of F-35Bs from 617 Squadron at RAF Marham.

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Echols

Five F-15Es from the 48th Fighter Wing getting ready to depart from RAF Lakenheath for Exercise Point Blank – U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alex Echols

Support for these assets included a pair of KC-135R Stratotankers from the 100th Air Refuelling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, an RAF Voyager KC3 operated by 10 Squadron from RAF Brize Norton, as well as a NATO E-3A Sentry from Geilenkirchen and a 55th Wing RC-135V Rivet Joint operating from RAF Mildenhall. Additionally, a CV-22B Osprey from the 7th Special Operations Squadron at RAF Mildenhall was tasked with a JPR (Joint Personnel Recovery) mission, to rescue a downed pilot.

U.S. Air Force Courtesy Photo from 494th Fighter Squadron

A KC-135R from the 100th Air Refuelling Wing leads an F-15E, an F-35B and a Rafale C – U.S. Air Force Courtesy Photo from 494th Fighter Squadron

U.S. Air Force Courtesy Photo from 494th Fighter Squadron

The RAF Voyager leads an F-15E, F-35B and a Rafale C – U.S. Air Force Courtesy Photo from 494th Fighter Squadron

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The RAF Voyager was tasked with refuelling the F-35Bs and the French Rafales © Chris Wood – www.globalaviationresource.com

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The MSO (Mission Systems Operator) station on the Voyager © Chris Wood – www.globalaviationresource.com

According to Colonel Jason Camilletti, 48th Operations Group Commander, “there were a good number of aircraft pretending to be the adversary air throughout the North Sea ……………. with simulated surface-to-air missile sites, getting that high end contested environment that we have been lacking and haven’t had to face over the last two decades.”  Aircraft known to have made up the Red force included more RAF Typhoons and RAF Hawks from 100 Squadron, the RAF’s Aggressor squadron, based at RAF Leeming.

The exercise was a major milestone for the RAF’s F-35 force as, according to Wing Commander John Butcher, Officer Commanding 617 Squadron “it’s the first time we’ve done a peer exercise and that we’ve worked alongside French and US partners.” 617 Squadron currently has nine aircraft, with the first four having arrived in June followed by a further five in August.

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A 617 Squadron F-35B takes on fuel from the Voyager © Chris Wood – www.globalaviationresource.com

Summing up, Air Commodore Attridge said, “Point Blank gives us the opportunity to stay ready, and if we stay ready we don’t have to get ready.”

Exercises like Point Blank offer cost effective and valuable training, with the opportunity to integrate with allies, without the logistical hurdles, disruption and costs of deploying a third of the way around the world for a short period of time. It would seem, then, that it’s here to stay.

The author would like to thank the crew of MADRAS 21, and Wing Commander Eklund for their assistance with this article.