In a quiet corner of Eastern Europe, a new Cold War has been playing out since 2014. Chris Wood reports from Constanta, on Romania’s Black Sea coast, on NATO’s assurance and deterrence measures in the area.
UPDATE 30th November 2021: podcast link added here.
Following the Russian annexation of Crimea in early 2014, in March that year NATO agreed to establish air surveillance missions over Poland and Romania with their fleet of E-3A Sentry Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft (AEW&C). Additional measures were agreed on April 16th and enhanced Air Policing (eAP) was established in two Implementation Areas, supplementing Baltic Air Policing (BAP) in the northern area and a temporary augmentation of national Air Policing in the southern area, covering Romania and Bulgaria. The objective of the eAP mission was, and still is, to respond to incursions into NATO airspace.
Canada is currently fulfilling the enhanced Air Policing mission in Romania under Operation REASSURANCE, which is Canada’s contribution to NATO assurance and deterrence measures. This demonstrates Canada’s ability and willingness to react rapidly to international crises and to work alongside its NATO allies to reinforce NATO’s collective security.
To achieve this the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has deployed an Air Task Force (ATF) with six CF-188 Hornets and around 150 personnel to Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near Constanta. The aircraft and most of the personnel come from 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS), part of 4 Wing based at Canadian Forces Base Cold Lake in Alberta. The Task Force Commander is Lieutenant-Colonel Corey Mask, the Commanding Officer of 409 TFS.
They arrived at the end of August for a three month long block, from September 1st to November 30th, routing via Gander in Newfoundland and Prestwick in Scotland. They took over the eAP role from the Royal Air Force’s IX (B) Squadron with their Typhoon FGR4s based at RAF Lossiemouth, and were declared operational on September 8th.
The ATF is only one part of Operation REASSURANCE. Additionally the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) have a frigate within the NATO area and around 540 troops leading a NATO enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group in Latvia.
Canada was the first nation to deploy for the ATF-Romania (ATF-R) mission, arriving in late April 2014 less than two weeks after it was implemented, at Campia Turzii in the middle of the country. The RCAF returned to Romania in 2016 for a four month deployment to Mihail Kogalniceanu on a different mission, and then have returned to Mihail Kogalniceanu every year since 2017 on the eAP mission, picking up the September to November slot. The RCAF has four front line Hornet squadrons and the ATF-R deployment is rotated through them all, with the 2020 deployment being undertaken by 433 Tactical Fighter Squadron, part of 3 Wing at Bagotville, Quebec. Most personnel stay for the entire deployment, but the pilots are swapped over at the mid point (with a two week overlap) so that all the squadron’s pilots can gain experience of the eAP mission.
ATF-R flies a mix of planned sorties and Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) missions, with aircraft kept on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The QRA commitment is shared between the MiG 21 Lancer Cs of the Romanian Air Force’s 861 Fighter Squadron based at Mihail Kogalniceanu, and the Hornets of ATF-R.
Command and control for the eAP mission is integrated within the structure of NATO, with ATF-R reporting directly to a Command and Reporting Centre (CRC) in Bucharest. There are three Canadian Aerospace Control Officers from ATF-R in the CRC. Scrambles are initiated by the Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Torrejon Air Base, just outside Madrid, in Spain. They are relayed to the CRC in Bucharest and through the local ATF-R Wing Operations Centre (WOC). This is all overseen by NATOs Allied Air Command (AIRCOM) headquartered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
The ATF-R doesn’t benefit from any dedicated AEW&C or air-to-air refuelling support. Occasionally air-to-air refuelling support is provided for specific missions, but whenever these assets are in the area the opportunity is taken for some joint training. Recently the ATF-R participated in Exercise Joint Endeavour in Ukraine, which also involved an RCAF CC-150T Polaris (Airbus A310) based in Bucharest, so that provided training opportunities for both the ATF-R and the Polaris crews.
For NATO operational missions the aircraft are armed, with the weapon loadout and sensor configurations being determined by the mission. This is part of their defensive mission and deterrence posture. The pilots are authorised to use weapons for self-defence, or when ordered by the Chain of Command under NATO Rules of Engagement.
It should be noted that some missions are flown independently and some have a joint response, and that the ATF-R and Romanian Air Force can operate in an integrated way.
As well as the operational missions, the ATF-R also fly regular training missions, to maintain their skill set. Recently they have been working closely with the F-16s of the Romanian Air Force’s 53 Fighter Squadron ‘Warhawks’, based at nearby Borcea Air Base, and synchronized their training programme with them. Starting with Basic Fighter Manoeuvres (BFM) and progressing through Air Combat Manoeuvres (ACM) with 2 v 2 flights, and Air Combat Tactics. They have now progressed as far as 4 v 4 flights in mixed Canadian and Romanian formations.
This is one way that the mission has evolved. Initially the focus was only on the enhanced Air Policing mission and internal training. Over the years this focus has expanded and ATF-R now assists with increasing joint training between the Romanian Air Force and allied forces. As an example, they have recently carried out some Close Air Support (CAS) training, with Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs) from Canada, Romania and the USA.
The Canadians have built up an excellent relationship with their Romanian hosts, who have been both welcoming and supportive. All the ATF-R members have benefited from the joint training.
For the pilots, deploying to Romania provides plenty of new experiences, especially for the newer pilots who may never have crossed the Atlantic or flown in Europe. European procedures are different, the airspace is laid out differently, the Command and Control is different and even the weather can be different. This is the main driver behind the pilot swap over.
For the engineers, their challenge is keeping six aircraft serviceable a long way from home. Everything is kept in house, there is no centralised supply system among Hornet operators, and all spare parts have to meet Canadian standards, which essentially means they have to come from Canada.
Canada received its first Hornets in 1982 so they have already seen extensive service. However they are well maintained and age related issues are mitigated by a vigorous inspection regime. The longevity of the CF-188 is a testament to the skill and dedication of the RCAF maintainers. Through the Hornet Extension Project it is planned that the RCAFs Hornets will be in service up to 2032.
For this deployment the squadron brought five single seat CF-188s and one two seat CF-188B. This was brought for training opportunities but is fully combat coded. The decision about which particular aircraft to send on deployment is made at squadron level, and is determined by where the aircraft are in the Major Inspection Cycle, where all major aircraft components are disassembled and fully inspected.
With Covid still an issue, the CAF’s resolve and commitment to its operations remain paramount. The detachment have taken increased measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, with a combination of physical distancing, appropriate use of personal protection equipment (PPE) and by increasing their already robust sanitation practices.
Currently Canada is committed to the mission until March 2023, so the RCAF will be there for at least one more ATF-R deployment, from September to November 2022. Any future decisions on the mission will be made by the Canadian Government.
Looking further ahead, Phase 1 of the Hornet Extension Project will see enhancements to 94 of Canadas Hornets, mainly focusing on addressing evolving civilian air traffic management issues and meeting allied military interoperability requirements.
Phase 2 is focused on additional combat capability upgrades for 36 Hornets, to bridge the capability gap until the, yet to be determined, future fighter fleet reaches full operational capability. Candidates for the future fighter fleet currently comprise the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II and the Saab JAS 39 Gripen.
As part of Phase 2 it has recently been announced that an order has been placed with Raytheon Intelligence and Space (RI&S) for 36 of its AN/APG-79(V)4 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar systems. The AN/APG-79(V)4 helps pilots detect and track enemy aircraft from farther distances and with more accuracy than legacy systems. The radar provides improved targeting capabilities to give an advantage in air-to-air, maritime strike and air-to-surface missions. It uses solid-state electronic technology with no moving parts, which equates to lower maintenance and repair costs, and increased aircraft availability. This smaller radar shares 90 percent of the same parts and technology as the larger AN/APG-79 radar used in the F/A-18 Super Hornet.
Initial operational capability is planned for December 2023 with full operational capability expected in June 2025.
All this means that if Canada renews its commitment to enhanced Air Policing it will soon have improved capabilities to bring to the mission.
The Canadians will be heading for home once they’ve handed over for the next rotation, which is expected to be undertaken by the Italian Air Force.
To find out more about the ATF-R mission, have a listen here to GARs Gareth Stringer in conversation with Major Renaud ‘Grat’ Thys, the Deputy Task Force Commander. If you think that name sounds familiar, have a look here to find out why!
GAR would like to thank the members of Air Task Force – Romania, particularly Task Force Public Affairs Officer Captain Christine MacNeil, Task Force Commander Lieutenant-Colonel Corey Mask, Deputy Task Force Commander Major Renaud Thys and the Romanian Air Force for their invaluable assistance with the preparation of this article.