Author Archives: sln


Welcome to the 33rd issue of FLYMAG, we’re back post COVID, and we plan to be back stronger than ever!

#03 of 2019

The third issue of ’19 brings you around the world, from Europe, the United States, to countries such as El Salvador, Bahrain and Taiwan.

#02 of 2019

The second issue of 2019 features the story of the Prowler retirement, ‘The Swedish Fighter Pilot’, and many other stories.

#01 of 2019

We’re looking back at some events from 2018, in the first issue of 2019, such as the Swedish Air Force Christmas Tree flying and Hawgsmoke 2018

CBT – Cross Border Training

Cross Border Training

The Nordic countries of Sweden, Finland and Norway have discovered a way to optimize their daily training to include
training scenarios with and against other squadrons from other nations, without any of the parties having to deploy.
Cross Border Training
Each of the nations has an airbase geographically located close to each other, with Bodø in Norway to the west, Kallax in Sweden in the middle, and Rovaniemi in Finland to the east – giving the three nations a low cost, and efficient way to do training sorties, and train interoperability with dissimilar airframes from other nations, on a daily basis.

It all started with a political decision in 2000, where it was decided that Finland and Sweden should start working closer together and utilize the potential of NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation) across the borders of the two countries.

Lt Col. Peter ‘Restless’ Greberg, Squadron Commander 211 Fighter Squadron of the Swedish Air Force at Norrbottens flygflottilj F 21, explains, “From an economic point of view, it’s very efficient and very good. It’s a cost-efficient training. It takes the cooperation between the countries even further, based on the NORDEFCO, where all the Nordic countries want to cooperate, and we just wanted to take this a bit further, and that’s how Cross Border Training started.”

This was the start of what is known today as the Cross Border Training (CBT) program, starting out with a close cooperation between Finland and Sweden, in a bilateral training program between the two nations, utilizing the big airspaces to the north.

Four Jas 39C Gripens from the F 21 Wing at Luleå
The three nations of the CBT program: Finland, Norway and Sweden

The change in mindset
Each of the nations has an airbase geographically located close to each other, with Bodø in Norway to the west, Kallax in Sweden in the middle, and Rovaniemi in Finland to the east – giving the three nations a low cost, and efficient way to do training sorties, and train interoperability with dissimilar airframes from other nations, on a daily basis.

It all started with a political decision in 2000, where it was decided that Finland and Sweden should start working closer together and utilize the potential of NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation) across the borders of the two countries.

Lt Col. Peter ‘Restless’ Greberg, Squadron Commander 211 Fighter Squadron of the Swedish Air Force at Norrbottens flygflottilj F 21, explains, “From an economic point of view, it’s very efficient and very good. It’s a cost-efficient training. It takes the cooperation between the countries even further, based on the NORDEFCO, where all the Nordic countries want to cooperate, and we just wanted to take this a bit further, and that’s how Cross Border Training started.”

This was the start of what is known today as the Cross Border Training (CBT) program, starting out with a close cooperation between Finland and Sweden, in a bilateral training program between the two nations, utilizing the big airspaces to the north.

It’s been around for many years, the realization that countries like Sweden will fly in some of the coalition operations, next to NATO members. With the coalition warfare mindset, new challenges arose that needed to be faced and solved, as Lt Col. ‘Folder’ illustrates, “When the political go-ahead was given for closer cooperation between NATO air forces, and non-NATO air forces, to do these kind of exercises, it was quite exciting. It gave us more training opportunities. Along with that, there were parallel efforts, both between fighter squadrons and also the command and control centres, to achieve a higher degree of standardization. At the start up the gap was quite huge, as you had a NATO culture, and a set of TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures), that were quite different from non-NATO countries. That could be everything, like just the way you talk on the radio, like ‘Bingo fuel’ and so on.”

Lt Col. ‘Folder’ continues, “Then it’s easier to say that you have identified a pretty hard requirement; that we need to get them on board with our procedures, and how we (NATO members ed.) conduct operations. It’s the same way that NATO countries used to do exclusively, for exactly the same purpose, and now we see the benefits and gains, by doing it with the partnering nations.”

Norway is, besides being a member of NATO, a member of the NORDEFCO collaboration, which has as its main aim and purpose to strengthen the participating nations’ national defences, explore common synergies and facilitate efficient common solutions. The partnership in NORDEFCO and the change in mindset of NATO opened up for new possibilities, as Lt Col. ‘Folder’ explains, “It’s well known that the interest for Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) has always been there, but it has been more in the open for the last 15-20 years, where it gradually had the opportunity to have more cooperation. I think in that sense the initiative has been broad.

This is an example of how you are able to use that initiative for good training, but also for the lower level, a little of the bottom up approach, at our level – at the squadrons, there was a positive and proactive mindset, really looking into, what we can achieve within this framework, and the new opportunities that raised a few years ago.”

Based on the changes and political decisions, Norway noticed the advantages of the CBT program, not only training against dissimilar aircraft, but also integrating with other non-NATO nations on a daily basis, would benefit both themselves, and the other nations. Furthermore, the big remote areas in the northern part of Sweden would give RNoAF access to facilities not seen in Norway, as Lt Col. ‘Folder’ explains, “Other advantages we identified, if you look at the map and look at the possibilities with airspace – in particular northern Sweden with big remote areas, where there are big airspaces for air-to-air training. That was clearly very attractive, because there will, a lot of the time, be difference in weather when looking at the coast of northern Norway compared to inland, like Sweden.”
“Other advantages we identified, if you look at the map and look at the possibilities with airspace – in particular northern Sweden with big remote areas, where there are big airspaces for air-to-air training.”
A local Jas 39 are about to taxi for the next CBT mission, as his ground crew waits

Norway joining the programme
This lead to Norway joining the Cross Border Training program in 2009, taking advantage of the entire CBT package, as Lt Col. ‘Folder’ illustrates, “If you look at it from our perspective in Norway, for both Bodø and Ørland, when we were only oriented towards other NATO air forces, we were limited if we wanted to do something from our home bases, as opposed to go to the Red Flag in the US of course, which was the type of the solution we had to go for.

So once the Cross Border-era kind of started to evolve, we could all of a sudden see that we had an excellent airspace, and the advantages of training from our home bases with, and against, mixed formations.”

A Finish F-18C Hornet on it’s way to take off at F 21 during ‘AFM’
The training order
What started more than fifteen years ago as small basic air to air engagements training, has now grown into one of the most effective daily training programs you can find anywhere in the world, utilizing the massive airspace of the remote and deserted northern part of Finland, Norway, and Sweden.

Today, the Cross Border Training program is a large operation, where the squadrons at the three northern bases put in a wish-list of what kind of training they want. It can range from a large forces deployment, to simple basic training for the students of the squadrons.

This wish-list is then once a year conducted into the operational plan for the Cross Border Training program. The plan is to have 40 events a year. This is then revisited after six months to check if they are sticking to the plan, as Major Jouni Turula, Fighter Squadron 11 of the Finnish Air Force at Rovaniemi states, “We make a CBT training order for the entire year, and we schedule the sorties in that. We want to make a lot of them, as they are easy to cancel if something comes up so we cannot participate – it’s harder to put new ones in it. The CBT sorties are planned for almost every week, and it gives around a CBT sortie every second month for each pilot.”

Only benefits
The big benefits of the CBT program are the low cost, the flexibility, the big airspaces, and the interoperability with other nations. The aircraft fly from their home bases, fight, and return to their home bases. It’s the same as a regular training sortie with the local units.

One of the unique aspects of CBT is the way that the communication, planning, briefing and debriefing are done. The squadrons have a Video Tele Conference (VTC) system setup, so that they can do briefing and debriefing ‘face-to-face’, even though they are not located at the same airbase.

They do the mission planning in a special internet portal, where all the mission commanders put in their planning. All of the briefings and debriefings are also stored in this portal. In this way, everybody can evaluate the facts of the missions, and this gives the squadrons a unique opportunity to enhance their training.

Even though the three countries are neighbours, there are still small cultural differences, and this is also present within the air forces and fighter squadrons that might do things in a slightly different manner. This is not a disadvantage – quite the opposite! It could result in the other nations gaining strategic or technical ideas that could be implemented to their training, as Lt Col. ‘Folder’ summarizes, “Maybe we can practice this more, or this is a better way of doing things, that could be interesting for us.”

Some days there’s two nations fighting each other, other days it’s all three nations joining the fight, where a typical trilateral force could be eight Swedish JAS 39 Gripens, and two Norwegian F-16s working together against six F-18s from Finland. The nations share the burden as Red air, where they try to have every second sortie as the ‘enemy’ doing as they please.

The sortie is built up upon what the ‘good guys’ want. Red air will then play the role desired by the other units. In this way, you get as much variation as possible, but also optimizing your training to be specific to what you want to train for, whether it’s offensive counter air, defensive counter air, large scale deployment scenarios or whatever the squadron wants.
A Finish F-18 getting ready for its next CBT mission

The ‘Home’ team today, but they might fly in Norway or Finland tomorrow.
Geographical advantages
The geographical location of the three bases gives big advantages for the three air forces, making it possible for them to train together and make use of each other’s airspace, as Maj. Turula explains, “The other fighter squadron that has F-18s here in Finland is quite a lot further south of Rovaniemi, so basically the closest fighter squadron we have is at Kallax. It’s really cost efficient to train with the Swedes here in Lapland.

The airspaces in the northern part of Finland and Sweden are very good, with very limited commercial traffic, which basically means we have unlimited vertical airspace most of the time, so it’s really easy to train here.”

Although the three bases are close to each other, it’s not only those bases that gain benefits of CBT, as the other squadrons of the nations from time to time are a part of the CBT sorties. Maj. Turula explains, “If we fly a bilateral sortie between Finland and Sweden, then we can use the airspace south of Rovaniemi that is closer to Kuopio, which enables them (Fighter Squadron 31 at Kuopio ed.) to participate. Or they can land at Oulu, which is one of our alternatives, and refuel there, participate and fly home.”

Arctic Challenge Exercise
As an air force, and even as a squadron, you cannot just deploy on an internal mission, without being prepared, which takes training and practice, especially if you’re joining a coalition operation.

The practice and training can be achieved in many ways, but the most common method is to deploy to an international exercise, and gain valuable experience through the exercise. When you have the biggest airspace in Europe, with some of the best weapon ranges in the middle of it, then why not bring the exercise to you?

The three countries took all the benefits and experience from CBT -and the requirement to be prepared – and enlarged the CBT package with the Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE). An exercise first held in 2013, taking all the advantages of CBT, utilizing all three bases for the exercise. It was something that was unproven as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ explains, “If we look back at ACE, then it’s a direct spin-off of CBT. Everything ACE is based on, was first tested and developed from CBT. ACE is CBT on a larger scale. In 2013, for the first ACE, we were a little bit worried as we had participants deployed to three different bases.

When we had previously been participating in exercises, all had been deployed to one airbase. Now the participants were at three different air bases, in three different countries.

We used the VTC facilities to do all the planning, briefs, and debriefs. We thought ‘How is this going to work on such a large scale?’. We knew it was tricky just in the CBT environment, and that is not that many aircraft.”

A Norwegian F-16C Fighting Falcon from Bodø
The runway of F 21, and four of their jets

Experience gained
It was an unnecessary concern, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ adds, “The funny thing is that one of the main pros from the other countries, during ACE 13, was ‘It’s perfect that we are on different bases, because that is the real world. We would never meet in one single planning room, where everybody plans together – everybody will be spread out’.”

They took the experience gained at the first ACE, with the unknown elements that worked better than expected, and brought, and is continuously bringing, ACE to a higher level. As Lt Col. ‘Restless’ continues, “That was kind of an awakening, that this new concept, worked so very good. We continuously try to improve that, making all the facilities, planning rooms, VTCs better, to facilitate the planning, briefs etc. even better. All the things we were worried about in the early days, have now been beneficial for the exercise. Everybody thinks it’s good.”

Another benefit of having the aircraft spread out, is that having that many aircraft on a single base – with a single runway – limits the amount of launches you can have. Thereby also limiting the possible scenarios for the exercise. Spreading them out on three bases, gives three times the capability and makes the perfect scene to train real world scenarios, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ concludes, “You have the possibility to build real world scenarios, flying from different bases, meeting in the air, and do the sortie together.

Lt Col. ‘Folder’ adds, “During ACE 17, there were more than 100 aircraft. You do the planning via the VTC tool – that’s different from sitting around the table – but that’s also realistic training, because that’s how recent combat operations have been done as well, where you are spread out on multiple bases.

ACE led to special events
The major benefits and possibilities of CBT have been noticed around the NATO community, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ concisely adds, “The reputation grew.

The interest in CBT from other countries has been growing, and it’s not only the Nordic countries now taking advantage of it, what with the huge airspaces available, and the possibility to fly against dissimilar airframes. Two years ago the so called ‘Special events’ in the CBT program started, which included a couple of F-15 Eagle formations from RAF Lakenheath, being dragged by a RAF Mildenhall KC-135 tanker, to take part in a CBT sortie in the north, and return to RAF Lakenheath. Lt Col. ‘Restless’ explains, “The US Air Force participated in the first ACE, and saw the advantages of the big airspace and the possibility to train with many fighters on a day to day basis. That’s how it all started, and they said, ‘Hey we want to chip in on this’. Which is why we created the ‘Special Event’.

Adapting to the situations
What was a priority yesterday, may not be a priority today, as the world is changing with new situations and potential crises lurking, the focus also shifts in the armed forces around the world. Something that can also be seen in the ever-evolving CBT, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ explains, “We have been very focused on international types of missions here, which means peace support and peace enforcement operations, as ACE has these kinds of scenarios. I think that most of the air forces around the world are now looking back to basics, which means national defense is once more on the agenda, and we’re not that large scale anymore, we might be on our own.

What we have been trying to do, is to implement a little bit more of a national scenario, with a high threat environment. A couple of years ago we mostly trained against a medium level threat, but now we’re more focused on a high threat environment, so we need to go in low – we can’t go mid level anymore.

Changing the focus from international operations to more national oriented operations, but still keeping the international readiness, is a fine balance. The combination of CBT and ACE seems to be the key for the Nordic countries, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ continues, “Adjusting to the different crisis scenarios. We need to continuously improve CBT. When we launched CBT on a really large scale, we had 65 occasions a year. There’s actually a reduction now, and this year we only have 40. That’s because when something is new everyone is eager. But it also takes a lot of resources to plan and adapt to the different situations, both for the squadrons and from a political side – to come to fruition.

We’re looking at the bilateral meet up differently than we did five or six years ago. Now we can do a lot of good stuff with them, instead of doing basic BVR (beyond visual range ed.) setups, we can actually bring in scenarios, where four adversaries are ample to fulfil our goals. Earlier we just looked at large scale scenarios all the time – it’s still interesting, and we still need to train it, but not on the same scale as before. The smaller scenarios are equally useful for us, to reach our goal.

Even though it’s not the large-scale scenarios that are the main focus of CBT, it’s still a part of CBT, and in combination with ACE, this keeps the squadrons on a high level of readiness and interoperability with other units, as Major Turula explains, “We are training to be interoperable with NATO, as we’re not a part of NATO, but under the NATO ‘Partnership for Peace’. With Norway being a NATO country, flying CBT sorties with the their F-16s helps us to know how the NATO work.
“Adjusting to the different crisis scenarios. We need to continuously improve CBT.”
A Finish F-18C Hornet taxiing out for a new CBT mission

Interoperability is the key
Lt Col. ‘Restless’ adds, “CBT is easy, and extremely useful, to keep a sufficient amount of interoperability in the squadron. To reach these goals, before we had CBT, we needed to travel to the Netherlands, or the US, otherwise it wasn’t possible. Before CBT came about we needed to go to the bigger exercises, deploying to other countries. It’s very expensive with only a few pilots at a time. Now we can actually train more pilots during the year. It’s been very beneficial.

It’s important for the countries involved in CBT to be ready to handle an international crisis if need be. This is where ACE helps the squadron be ready, and train these coalition scenarios in their regular training, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ illustrates, “Interoperability is the key to success. No matter how the crisis may look like, if it’s in Europe or anywhere else in the world, interoperability is the key.

We were very focused on the global situation fifteen years, where we were going to do peace enforcement, or peace support operations, and we needed to train for that. We did not prioritize how to fight in Sweden, to defend our self. Presently we’re back, focusing on national defense, and now it includes interoperability, and that is ACE for me.

All the scenarios can be trained in the CBT package, to be ready to handle the real world, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ concludes, “If you look at how we have been flying the last ten years, one large exercise every second year (ACE ed.), in combination with CBT, that will be totally sufficient for us, to maintain our interoperability level – so that is ACE for me.

Arctic Fighter Meet
Once a year the participating squadrons arrange an actual meeting with the units meeting face to face at one of the three air bases. The location changes every year, and this year it was held at Kallax. This is called Arctic Fighter Meet (AFM), which is a great opportunity for the pilots to meet, and shake the hands of the other pilots they fight with and against, and do video conferences with. It creates a strong connection, and relationship between the squadrons across the borders.

The meeting is invaluable and it gives the squadrons a chance to learn the pros and cons from the other squadrons. During AFM some of the more experienced pilots from one nation, fly with the younger, and less experienced pilots from another nation – a method that benefits all the players.

There’s different ways to flying the airframes, and with most of the modern missiles and weapon systems these days the most predictable outcome of any engagement against an enemy would result in a BVR fight, but as Lt Col. ‘Folder’ states, the good old fashion dog fighting is still an important aspect of their training, and CBT – and especially AFM – facilitates this kind of training: “This fighter meet in particular is all about getting back to basics, such as one-on-one. Maybe the awareness wasn’t there twenty years ago. We started to get new systems, new missiles, and the training would start to shift away from the visual engagement. I think it’s nice to see that we are now embracing this component of our training.

Even though we’re hoping that at the time we hit the merge with the adversary, that the outcome has already been decided (the enemy has been shot down ed.). But if that’s not the case, you of course have to have a plan for what to do next, if you actually find yourself there.

“The future for CBT is good, and we’re always trying to improve it. We should not be satisfied with how it is, and we should always try to improve it. If we want it to be as productive as it has been for the past ten years.”
A Jas 39 Gripen rests on the flightline of F 21
Four Jas 39 and the beautiful landscape close to F 21

Developed by pilots, for pilots
If you was to give AFM a motto, it would most likely be something as simple as ‘Developed by pilots, for pilots’, as Lt Col ‘Restless’ illustrates, “I love AFM, it’s brings us back to the very basics of flying. To keep it easy, we just keep it to BFM (basic fighter manoeuvres) all the time. There shouldn’t be any big planning, or evaluation. The most important thing about AFM is to be at the same place, to meet – to get to know each other. That’s equally important, as it is to fly.

AFM is all about going back to basics, and getting to know the other pilots from the other countries, building a social bond, as Major Turula concludes: “It’s a good thing with AFM to do briefings and debriefings face-to-face for the young pilots, because in the near future they will fly the CBT sorties and brief and debrief across the VTC. AFM gives them an opportunity to build a relationship with the other nations’ pilots. It’s a lot easier to brief and debrief when you have met the other pilots previously – put a face to the name.

The future
No one can predict the future, but the CBT package is helping the squadrons of the Nordic countries to adapt to the ever-changing global situation, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ explains, “The future for CBT is good, and we’re always trying to improve it. We should not be satisfied with how it is, and we should always try to improve it. If we want it to be as productive as it has been for the past ten years.

The typical BVR scenario might not work in all situations, the conflict or situation is not aggressive, but more defensive, protecting your borders, by being present in the air, to show air superiority, as Lt Col. ‘Restless’ illustrates, “It has always been a focus to have the younger pilots, to have an environment, to learn how to fly against dissimilar aircraft. Doing BFM manoeuvres – does it bring us further in some war-type tactical scenario? No, but it’s a way to know how to use your aircraft in different situations, because it’s not only peace and war. You can find yourself up there, in various states of crisis, and then being able to manoeuvre your aircraft, and learn your aircraft against dissimilar ones, that is the main achievement.

Lt Col. ‘Restless’ concludes, “CBT is the perfect platform to prepare for real world scenarios.

The author would like to thank Major Jouni Turula, Lt Col. Erik ‘Folder’ Brettingen, and especially Capt. Daniel ‘Northug’ Strand, Louise Levin, Chief of Public Affairs Norrbottens flygflottilj F 21 and Lt Col. Peter ‘Restless’ Greberg for making this article possible.

#04 of 2018

In this last issue of 2018, we’re among other looking at the newest piece of hardware for the RDAF, reports from as far as the arctic and Lebanon.

#03 of 2018

This issue features among other, reports from the worlds largest maritime exercise with more than 200 aviation assets – RIMPAC.

#02 of 2018

In the second issue we look at the RDAF deployment, that were patrolling the sky above the Baltics, as well as multiple exercises.

#01 of 2018

We kick off 2018 with a feature about how many NATO nations train their future pilots through the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training Program.

18th Aggressor Squadron – The Blue Foxes

18th Aggressor Squadron – The Blue Foxes

Eielson Air Force base in Alaska is home to one of only two United States Air Force (USAF) Aggressor Squadrons,
the 18th Aggressor Squadron – also known as The Blue Foxes.
History of The Blue Foxes
The 18th Aggressor Squadron can trace their history back to 1940, when they were activated as the Southwest Air District 18th Pursuit Squadron at Moffett Field in California. The squadron first moved to Alaska in February of 1942, when they were stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base (AFB), flying the Curtiss P-36 Hawk and P-40 Warhawk.

In Alaska the squadron were engaged in combat during the Aleutian Campaign in 1942-43. The squadron remained in Alaska as part of the air defence forces until it was deactivated in August 1946.

Over the following years the squadron went through a number of reactivations and deactivations, which saw the squadron flying from various bases around the United States, flying a range of aircrafts, including the Northrop F-89D Scorpion, McDonnell F-101B Voodoo, Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II before getting the F-16C Fighting Falcon in 1991.

The squadron were assigned to Eielson AFB in Alaska on 1 January 1982, and have remained there since. On 1 October 2007, the then 18th Fighter Squadron were re-designated the 18th Aggressor Squadron, taking on the role of teaching fighter pilots how to best defeat the enemy in the air.

An arctic aggressor F-16 from the 18th taxies out from their hangars at Eielson AFB. The 18th have given way for the F-35, that will arrive at Eielson AFB wihtin a couple of years.
“We don’t have any ability to change the F-16, obviously, into a Su-35, but we try to modify the way we behave.”
Know, Teach, Replicate
As an aggressor squadron the Blue Foxes main mission is to replicate enemy aircraft during exercises. As the commander of the 18th Aggressor Squadron Lt. Col. Gregory “Pinball” Keller explained “We work to know the enemy, to both an academic and a flying standpoint, to teach and replicate. So our mission is to “Know, teach, replicate”. As the 18th aggressors we primarily focus on the PACAF (Pacific Air Force) area or responsibility, so obviously China, Russia those types of countries.”

The squadron works closely with the intelligence community to build up a large knowledge base about potential enemy aircrafts as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explained “Our goal is to work with the intelligence community to understand the enemy, and then we take that knowledge and teach that to all the units throughout PACAF, and then replicate those threats in the air.”

Once knowledge of the enemy have been obtained and analysed, the squadron have to teach “Blue Force” pilots what they can expect from the enemy when it comes to air-to-air combat. Although teaching air-to-air combat is the squadron’s primary mission, they can replicate air-to-ground threats as well. Lt. Col. “Pinball” continued, “We are primarily an air-to-air squadron, for replication purposes. So every once in awhile we will replicate air-to-ground capabilities, when required or requested too, but our primary mission is to replicate air-to-air.”

Teaching for the 18th means replicating the capabilities for the enemy. The squadron flies the F-16C/D Fighting Falcon and they use it to replicate enemy aircrafts. Lt. Col. “Pinball” elaborates, “We basically have to take our avionics and try to work out how that would collate to enemy type of capabilities. We don’t have any ability to change the F-16, obviously, into a Su-35, but we try to modify the way we behave in the air and way we employ to mimic, as close as we can what the enemy would do.”

Becoming an Aggressor
Back in 1972 when the first aggressor squadrons were formed, they were made up of a very selected group of instructor pilots. If you had more the 1500 hours flight time, you could try out to become an aggressor. Today the requirements are different as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explained, “Minimum requirement currently is for a 4-ship flight lead to become an aggressor, and that is handle through our normal assignment cycles for the most parts. Once you show up here as an aggressor it kind of depends what you show up as. If you show up as a 4-ship flight lead or do you show up as an IP (Instructor Pilot), or whatever the case may be, then we go from there.“

He continues “With a typical guy that shows up, it takes about three rides to become an aggressor wingman, that also involves several simulator and academic sessions, and then from there to progress from aggressor wingman to aggressor flight lead to eventually and aggressor instructor and finally a MiG-1, is going to be anywhere from 2 to potentially 10 or 15 more rides.”

“MiG-1” is what the “Red Air” calls the Mission Commander during large exercises. Becoming a “MiG-1” does not happen overnight as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains “Typically what is going to happen is someone showing up as a Blue mission commander, he goes through our upgrade process which can be anywhere from 3-6-9 month depending on his experience level when he shows up. When he has finished the normal upgrade, we are going to asses if this guy ready to lead a Red Flag. Once again, depending on his experience level, that could be three month after he shows up, because he is a highly experienced instructor pilot, or it could be that he never achieves that level here at Eielson.”

The ‘bad guys’ walking towards their planes, getting ready for yet another sortie
as the ‘red force’.
Take off from their homebase – Eielson AFB.

Big exercises
Where the 18th Aggressor squadron really comes into its own are during the large-scale exercises where they participate as Red Air. A couple of times a year the Red Flag Alaska exercise is held at their home base at Eielson AFB, and bi-annually the large combined exercise Northern Edge takes place with aircrafts flying from both Eielson AFB and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), which is located outside Anchorage.

During these large exercises the Blue Foxes are flying at least twice daily acting as Red Air adversaries, trying to teach the Blue Forces how to complete their mission objectives when facing enemy opposition in the air. Doing this requires a lot of planning before the mission is flown as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains: “For Northern Edge, or other large exercises, it is a little more planning intensive than our day to day operations, but a typical sortie is going to start the day prior just like for the Blue side, so we need to mission plan that sortie. We will start by meeting with White force intel, the people who are putting on the exercise, and find out ‘What is Blue’s objective?’. We are a support squadron to them, we are here to train Blue, so we need to know what they objectives are, so we can plan something accordingly, to try and teach them or test their objective.”

He continues: “Once we know what Blue’s objectives are, we are going back to work with Intel, to develop a game plan that is realistic and that will be challenging to them, so whether we are doing Defensive Counter Air or Strike on the day it depends on Blue’s objective.” The aggressor pilot responsible for planning the mission is the designated MiG-1, and he will typically spend 4-8 hours on the day before the mission, figuring out tactics, de-conflicting the airspace and other administrative tasks.

MiG-1 briefs
On the day of the mission, the aggressor MiG-1 starts the day by briefing all the participants in the exercise, Blue and Red, with a Red Air Coordination brief. During this briefing, the training rules for the exercise is briefed, as well as all the admin, which involves both Red and Blue air. This briefing usually last about three hours.

Following this is another hour of “Red” briefing, where the aggressor pilots brief their mission and the tactics that they will be employing during the mission. Then follows the actual mission lasting anywhere from one and half to two and half hours. Once the mission is over, the aggressor pilots will run the entire air-to-air portion of the exercise de-brief, which last about an hour and a half.

Once all the de-briefing is over, comes one of the most important aspects of the whole mission, Lt. Col. “Pinball” elaborates “Once that is all done, we will gather our lessons learned and provide those to Blue air and go ‘Hey, these are the area that we saw, that may have been weaknesses for you, or areas that we think you need to dig deeper into to get your lessons learned’. So we will provide that information to them, and then it is up to them to build upon that, and figure out what they did right and wrong.”

One of the latest aggressor schemes, the arctic splinter.
A ‘Lizard’ painted aggressor seen taxiing back from a sortie.

Not all alone
With the amount of work that goes into every single mission the 18th’s fly, it is vital that they replicate the threats as accurately as possible, and that they make sure the Blue force, learn as many lessons as possible from each mission.

During large-scale exercises the 18th F-16’s will often be supplemented with fighters from other non-aggressor units to bolster their numbers. These will typically be F-15’s or F-16’s from units already participating in the exercise. This is done because the 18th simply doesn’t have enough jets to meet the demand during exercise like Red Flag or Northern Edge.

Speaking about flying with these units Lt. Col. “Pinball” elaborated “Even in the Blue world, when you are just flying around, you will pretend to be Red at times, just because we have to do upgrade rides things like that, so everybody has a basic understanding of how to be Red and I think from the flying aspect those guys can show up and we just provide them a bit more information and they do just fine.”

He continues “We are very scripted with those guys, and how we want them to act, where we want them to be those types of things. The aggressors themselves typically will afford a little bit more freedom than they do, because they understand the tactics more and so those guys are great to support us base on the numbers that we can’t put up.”

Day-to-day tasks
When there isn’t a Red Flag Alaska or Northern Edge exercise taking place, the 18th’s are being kept busy. Units participating in the big exercises usually arrive well early and leave a couple of weeks after the exercise finishes, not only to take advantage of the huge air space available over the Alaska ranges, but also the unique capabilities of the Blue Foxes.

Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains “We call that ‘Distant Frontier’, as the name of that ‘exercise’, so we are basically a free-agent at that point for whatever unit is here training and whatever they would like to archive. Obviously there are only so many of us to go around, so we kinda have to share that between the units that are in town. So in the summer that is going to be our primary customers, the units that are here at Eielson. Throughout the rest of the year and even during the summer when we can fit it in, we train on a day-to-day basis with the 3rd Wing down at JBER, so we are the primary training aid for the Raptors.”

When not supporting units before and after Red Flag or Northern Edge exercises, the squadron is busy gathering new intel and honing their skills as aggressor pilots. From time to time they also bring in new equipment to test their usefulness as a tool in their advisory training. Recently the squadron started flying with the Lockheed AN/AAQ-33 Sniper pods.

The squadron is still trying to work out how best to use this new tool in the adversary role as Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains “We started using the Sniper pod back in the fall [of 2016] and we are just trying to employ that right now as an additional sensor and see how that goes. For us it is something new to try out and see how it works with us and our replication, but we are in the infancy stages right now.”
“We train on a day-to-day basis with the 3rd Wing down at JBER.”
The spring is almost there, with only a bit of ice left. The 18th flies year round.

The beautiful scenary at Eielson AFB, with the Alaskan Range as a perfect backdrop.
Working with the 64th
The only other dedicated aggressor squadron in the USAF is the 64th Aggressor Squadron based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Being such a small community, the two squadrons have to make sure that they are on the same page when it comes to how they teach the pilots they fly against.

Speaking about the relationship the 18th have with the 64th Lt. Col. “PinbalI” said “The 64th and the 18th get together annually and review how we do tactics, how we replicate the enemy. We publish an aggressor threat replication guide together, and make sure that we are both on the same page.

What we don’t want to see is one unit training against the 64th and then training against us, and go ‘Hey you guys replicate that threat completely different’. That would be contrary to what we are trying to achieve here.”

He elaborates “The one time we will get together is usually once a year, when we will travel down to Nellis AFB, and supplement them for Weapon School support, and during those three weeks we will get together and have conferences, and talk about ‘Hey are we doing the same thing you are doing?

Is our replication the same?’ And in that same vain, we will fly their pilots in our aircraft while we are at Nellis and we will occasionally fly in their aircraft. Just to make sure that we are doing the same thing, so we can observe each other’s ways of doing business.”

Once an aggressor – always an aggressor
Becoming an aggressor is part of the normal USAF assignment cycle, which means that after three years an aggressor pilot will be rotated out to other squadrons. They take with them a huge amount of knowledge, which they continue to use in their new units.

Lt. Col. “Pinball” explains “That guy [the pilot leaving the 18th] is not going to remain one of our aggressor subject experts, because we don’t have control over that guy anymore, but we definitely encourage our pilots that leave here, to go to their new unit and continue to teach the information that they have learned here and to try and propagate that out to the rest of the CAF (Combat Air Force).”

A bit thank you to Lt. Col. “Pinball” of the 18th Aggressor Squadron, USNR Lt. Mikel Weigel, and the 354th Fighter Wing for making this article possible.