For three weeks in March, the skies over Lincolnshire, northern England and the North Sea reverberated to the sound of numerous jet fighters. Whilst this isn’t that unusual as half of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoons are based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, between the 6th and 24th March there were additional aircraft adding to the noise. These aircraft were taking part in exercise Cobra Warrior 23-1, the largest exercise conducted by the RAF, which is designed to train crews in high intensity large force tactical air warfare. The exercise also formed the Mission Employment Phase of the RAF Qualified Weapons Instructor (QWI) course. Chris Wood reports from Lincolnshire and the North Sea with additional input from Kevin Wills and Tom Gibbons.
The exercise was run from the RAF’s Air Warfare Centre at RAF Waddington. The main participants came from the Royal Air Force and the United States Air Force Europe (USAFE) flying from their home bases in the UK. RAF Eurofighter Typhoons from RAF Coningsby and RAF Lossiemouth and USAFE Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles from RAF Lakenheath made up a large part of the Blue (friendly) Force.
They were joined by the Belgian Air Force flying six Lockheed Martin F-16AM Fighting Falcons from 349 Squadron at Kleine Brogel, the Finnish Air Force flying six Boeing F/A-18C Hornets from 31 Fighter Squadron at Rissala and 11 Fighter Squadron at Rovaniemi, the Indian Air Force flying five Dassault Mirage 2000s from 40 Wing at Gwalior and the Royal Saudi Air Force flying six Eurofighter Typhoons from 2 Wing at Taif/King Fahd Air Base near Jeddah. The Belgians, Finns and Indians were operating from RAF Waddington whilst the Saudis were flying from nearby RAF Coningsby.
Additional support was provided by the NATO Airborne Early Warning Force flying Boeing E-3A Sentries from Geilenkirchen Air Base in Germany, plus various refuelling assets including RAF Airbus Voyagers (a version of the Airbus A330) from RAF Brize Norton, USAFE Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers from RAF Mildenhall, NATO Airbus Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTT – also a version of the Airbus A330) from Eindhoven Air Base in the Netherlands as well as French Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotankers and Airbus MRTTs from their bases in France.
Whilst all these aircraft made up the Blue Force, on certain missions some of them swapped sides and flew for the Red (enemy) Force. There was also support from Draken International for the Red Force.
The White Force running the exercise came from 92 Squadron which is the training and tactics element of the Air Warfare Centre. Officer Commanding 92 Squadron, Squadron Leader John McFadden said “92 Squadron have developed a challenging air-led multi domain exercise focussed on pitting our NATO, Joint Expeditionary Force and International partners against a capable peer adversary within a contested, degraded and operationally limited threat environment.”
According to Group Captain Jim ‘JJ’ Calvert, the Exercise Director, the purpose of Exercise Cobra Warrior was to bring different platforms together so that the crews can learn how to integrate and enhance their interoperability. To help achieve this all the participating nations fulfilled leadership roles during the exercise and were involved in the mission planning. It was the mission commander’s role to formulate tactics for the mission, to exploit all the available capabilities from the different platforms. Many of the lessons learnt were learnt during the planning phase.
The exercise simulated operations against a made up enemy, commencing with a defensive posture and then developing in to offensive action, including surface attack and dynamic targeting (unplanned and unanticipated targets).
Exercise missions were flown on the mornings of alternate weekdays, starting on Monday 6th March and finishing on Friday 24th, totalling eight missions. The other time slots were devoted to mission planning by the exercise crews. However the visiting nations brought extra pilots so non-exercise missions were flown on non-exercise days by all participants. Missions were also flown during the afternoons of exercise days, particularly by the Belgians and Finns. The Belgians and Finns took advantage of the UK low flying system, as did the Saudis on at least one occasion. The Belgians had other commitments so were only able to participate for the first two weeks.
Other aspects of the exercise involved Air Mobility Force’s Airbus A400 Atlas and Lockheed C-130J Hercules deploying elements of 16 Air Assault Brigade for an associated ground mission that formed part of the overall exercise scenario. Joint Helicopter Command provided a rotary wing element, which included RAF Chinooks, Royal Navy Merlin HC4s and Wildcats plus Army Air Corps Apaches, all operating from RAF Leeming.
Their roles during the exercise included personnel extraction and downed pilot recovery. To support their operations a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP) was set up. These missions also saw the fast jet element providing armed overwatch.
Cobra Warrior is now a biannual exercise and the next iteration is expected to take place in September 2023.