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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.

United States Coast Guard – San Diego

United States Coast Guard – San Diego

With the main missions of the United States Coast Guard being humanitarian based,
the USCG has many roles. Søren Nielsen reports from USCG station San Diego.
United States Coast Guard
The United States Armed Forces are not just the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps. As part of the Department of Homeland Security, the United States Coast Guard (USCG), is a part of the Armed Forces just like any other military branch in the U.S.

With the main missions of the USCG being humanitarian based, the USCG has roles in maritime homeland security, maritime law enforcement (MLE), search and rescue (SAR), marine environmental protection (MEP), plus the maintenance of river, intracoastal and offshore aids to navigation (ATON).

The USCG operates both at sea and from the air, with a range of boats, cutters and different aircraft types. The USCG is divided into two areas; Atlantic Area and Pacific Area – which are furthermore divided into multiple districts.

Each district then has its own sectors which carry out different roles. Søren Nielsen visited sector San Diego, from District Eleven in the Pacific Area, which among other things operates the MH-60T Jayhawk helicopter. Sector San Diego has a key role within SAR which includes the fight against drugs, illegal migration and the regulation of vessels coming in and out of the ports.

The ‘Tango’ version of the Jayhawk takes off from USCG San Diego
Sector San Diego
The USCG regulates not only all of the vessels within the port of San Diego, but the Captain of the USCG, (Sector San Diego), is also the Captain of the port itself, and as such regulates everything within the port.

Maintaining law enforcement in both air and at sea sees the USCG undertake many tasks. Lieutenant Timothy Nicolet, an MH-60T pilot in Sector San Diego explains,“We also impose law enforcement for drug running and illegal migration, especially here in San Diego. A lot of people enter illegally across the border, whilst others run drugs via the sea – coming from Mexico and further south – then heading offshore and run all the way up and around.

Search and rescue is our main thing, especially with the helicopters, but we also try to stop as many narcotics coming in, as we can. One of the main things within SAR, in San Diego, is medical evacuations of people on cruise ships, as well as from the big fishing fleet offshore. We spend a lot of time picking up people who have fallen, hit their head, had a heart attack, had a scuba diving accident etc. – we have even had shark bites.

The focus is not a battlefield focus, it’s a search and rescue focus. It’s more humanitarian – we’re going out to help people. That’s important for us, and that’s something we have in common and links us a little bit closer, more than just being work colleagues.”

The San Diego sector covers approximately 80 miles of coastline to the north of San Diego, then goes offshore for 200 miles, heading 100 miles south and back to San Diego. Then all the way inland, and covers the entire state of Arizona, including parts of Nevada and Utah, as well. Most of the operating area is inland. But as it’s the Coast Guard, their main focus is maritime distress, which results in 99% of the sorties sector San Diego responds to being over water, while other agencies usually covers inland emergencies.

Because of the endurance the Coast Guard unit would have to travel, (sometimes being more than four hours), it would be ineffective for them to respond to most inland sorties. There is always a risk of sorties inland. There could potentially be someone climbing a cliff inland, falling down injuring himself, and the USCG could be called in to aid them. But usually people call the fire department, and not the USCG when this happens, as you’re inland, and you don’t think about calling the Coast Guard if you’re on a mountain or in the desert.

Besides SAR and patrolling for drugs and migrants, the USCG also go out patrolling some of the critical infrastructures for the United States, like the Hoover Dam, for example.

The Aviation Assets Of USCG
The USCG has a fleet of fixed-wing propeller aircraft. These being the HC-130(H/J) Hercules, HC-144A Ocean Sentry and C-27J Spartan. These fixed-wing turboprops are long-range, high endurance aircraft, capable of covering long distances – and they can fly anywhere up to ten to twelve hours. These are the ones that patrol, especially, long offshore.

Besides the fleet of fixed-wing aircraft, the USCG operate two types of helicopters. These are the MH-60T Jayhawk and the HH-65(C/D/E) Dolphin. The HH-65 is frequently deployed to the larger coast guard ships, where they operate from a landing platform at the stern of the ship. The MH-60T is too large to land on any of the USCG ships, and are usually only land based.

On the aviation front (Sector San Diego) is equipped with three MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters (originally designated HH-60J before being upgraded and redesignated, beginning in 2007). The MH-60T is derived from the SH-60 Seahawk, which is a variant of one of the most common helicopter workhorses, the UH-60 Blackhawk.

The Jayhawk
The MH-60T is designed to fly a crew of four up to 300 miles offshore, hoist up to six additional people on board while remaining on-scene for up to 45 minutes and return to base while maintaining an adequate fuel reserve.

Lt. Nicolet continues, “The tango model (MH-60T red.) is equipped with an additional three external fuel tanks, a smaller one on the right and two on the left. That’s what allows us to go that far, it gives us almost two hours of extra fuel. We can fly for 6 hours, in total. If we’re that far offshore, they’ll usually launch a C-130 or a C-27 to fly behind us, to keep an eye on us, and help us with radio communication and things like that, because of the distance”.

An operational crew of the MH-60T consists of four crew members; Two pilots, one flight mechanic, and one rescue swimmer. Lt. Nicolet explains, “We always fly with two pilots, no matter what. The smaller helicopter (HH-65), you can fly with one pilot, but because of the size of the cockpit and things like that, we always have two pilots in the sixty.

The flight mechanic does a lot of maintenance while on the ground, but he also operates the hoist while out on a sortie. The pilot flying, when doing a rescue, can not see the boat directly under the helicopter. As the boat passes underneath (the helicopter), he loses all visual contact with it. The flight mechanic lays on the floor and looks out of the door, relaying where the pilot should fly. He guides the pilot ‘forward and right 5’, ‘forward and right 10’, ‘easy back’, as you as a pilot can’t see the boat, you are just listening to the guy in the back, trying to follow his instructions, and stay as stable as you can.

The rescue swimmer is the medical professional on board. They have an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) certification and they’ll administer medical care, if needed, once the patient is onboard the helicopter. Additionally, they can deploy down to the boat, or down in the water, by getting lowered down the hoist”.
“The flight mechanic lays on the floor and looks out of the door, relaying where the pilot should fly.”
The crew getting ready for a training sortie out of San Diego

Two Jayhawks on the ground at USCG San Diego. The yellow paint schema is a retro paint schema, painted due to the centennial of Coast Guard aviation. The ‘retro’ bird is powering up, before heading out for a new training sortie.
Lots of room
Besides the crew, it’s possible to have 5 people seated in the back, if additional seats have been installed. There’s not always enough seats for everyone, however, as Lt. Nicolet continues, “Of the two cases I can recall, there’s the one we were rescuing fishermen out in Alaska. They were in big, soaked survival suits. We picked up nine people, so that was eleven people in the back, with the two crew members.

There was another sortie, where they rescued some people off a cruise ship. They were smaller people, and they weren’t in big survival suits, and I think they had 25 people in the back. One person couldn’t fit in the helicopter, because it was so full, so they had him in the basket, hanging outside the helicopter – but these scenarios are very rare”.

Usually it’s only one or two people they’ll rescue, unless it’s a sinking vessel. It’s just the people in immediate peril (or sick) that get picked up. What’s important to remember is, hoisting people is always dangerous. It’s not easy to hover the helicopter near a boat, as it gets very loud, windy, and it’s a stressful environment. So the USCG only pick up people that are in absolute need of urgent attention, as it’s safer both for them and the USCG. Otherwise they’ll take a boat back to shore if they’re not in urgent need of attention.

Flying In The Dark
Ships don’t just sink without reason and, usually, it’s due to high seas and/or bad weather. Combining this with flying in the dark of night, makes this demanding job even more challenging.

“Flying in the dark is more demanding. From a pilot’s perspective, flying the helicopter is like balancing a broomstick on your hand. A lot of small movements – as long as you correct it right away, then it stays balanced, but if you let it start tipping too far, you can’t go catch it. The helicopter is like that, it’s very delicate. To balance it, you use your visual references outside the helicopter. You use different objects to see if they’re moving, helping you sense how the helicopter is flying.

At night most of these visual references disappear, due to it being dark. So it becomes difficult to sense the motion of the helicopter. Because you can’t always feel it in the seat of your pants you can end up drifting very slowly, and you may not notice it, if you don’t have anything that indicates it.

But if there’s a lot light, or the moon is very bright, then it’s not that difficult. But if it’s really dark then it gets more difficult, especially out at sea. Then you obviously use the instruments in the helicopter, even though you can’t sense the motion occurring outside the helicopter. When we’re hoisting out of boats on dark nights, that’s probably the most difficult thing we do.

But to help with that, we have night vision goggles that we wear, which helps a lot. It basically amplifies the ambient light from the stars and things, magnifying it a lot. But goggles have their limitations, too. A person’s field of view is 180 degrees by 135 degrees. With goggles it’s just a 40 degrees circle, so you have to move your head a lot to see things you usually could see without moving. So it’s important to look around and move your head, to see how the helicopter is moving, to make sure it stays stable.

The helicopter has a lot of systems that helps you, you can even push a button and it will hold a stable hover for you, but when you’re over a boat you need to be very precise, as you need to lower the basket right onto the deck, and the automated hover is not precise enough. It will hold you stable, but usually it will have a little drift.” concludes Lt. Nicolet.

Waiting on the ramp, in front of one of the big hangars as USCG San Diego, is this Jayhawk
“At night most of these visual references disappear, due to it being dark. So it becomes difficult to sense the motion of the helicopter.”
Become A Part Of The USCG
There are two ways to join the USCG; you can either enlist in the Coast Guard, or become an Officer in the Coast Guard. To enlist you just sign up for four years, starting at a bootcamp for 9-10 weeks. You’ll then get your station once you have graduated from bootcamp. The enlisted are the work force of the USCG. The jobs they can choose can also be a lot of fun, such as being a flight mechanic, or a swimmer. Everyone that works on the helicopters – besides the pilots – and everyone that pilots the smaller boats, as well as all of the secretarial and logistical jobs – most of those are enlisted people.

As with all the branches of the U.S. military, all pilots within the USCG are Officers. There are two ways to become an Officer in the USCG. For one, you can go to the Coast Guard Academy once you’ve completed high school. It’s four years of college, after which you receive your degree in one of the eight majors available through the Coast Guard Academy. These majors are:
  • Civil Engineering.
  • Mechanical Engineering.
  • Electrical Engineering.
  • Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering.
  • Operations Research and Computer Analysis.
  • Marine and Environmental Sciences.
  • Government.
  • Management.

When you finally graduate from the academy, you’ll do some extra training before you become an Officer in the USCG.

You can also go to a regular civilian college, get a degree as a lawyer etc., and then go on a 17 week Officer program, at the aptly named Officer Candidate School, becoming an Officer that way.

Once you’re an Officer you can become a pilot as a specialty. To do that, you’ll have to apply to the Flight School Program and, once accepted, you’ll be sent to Pensacola to be trained as a pilot.

Lt. Nicolet explains, “That’s what I did. After high school I applied and got into the Coast Guard Academy. I went there for four years. I studied Marine and Environmental Sciences, and got a Bachelor degree in Environmental Sciences, and then went to Pensacola for flight training. You’ll get a bachelor degree, just like of any other college. They are actually very well respected degrees.

There are a lot of support programs once you’re in the military, that can help you. You can also transfer a lot of what you’ve learnt in the military, (mechanical engineering on the helicopter, for example), to the civilian world, getting certification of what you did in the military, which helps you.”

Being A ‘Sixty’ Pilot
The job as flight crew in the USCG is more like a regular day job, where you have weekends, and you come in to work 7:00 am to 4:00 pm. You go home every night to your family, especially in the 60 community (MH-60 red.), as they do not deploy to ships, which leaves them on the USCG station. Although it’s not always a strict 7 to 4 job, as they do duty rotations. Once a week you’ll stay on base overnight to be part of the crew that’s ready to go out, in case there’s a sortie over the night.

“I kind of like that, it gives you a break from being home every night. I like the pace of the lifestyle.” concludes Lt. Nicolet.

Lt. Nicolet continues: “Flying the aircraft is fun. It’s never easy, it’s always a new challenge. They say you’ll never have a perfect flight. You’ll always mess something up, because there’s always a lot of small motions going on, and there’s a lot of pieces to the equation, navigating, talking on the radio, landing the helicopter, and lot of pieces of knowledge you get from practice, but there’s just too much to practice every day.

So you may only practice one maneuver a couple of times a month, so each time you do it, you try to remember how to do it perfectly, and you’ll never get it perfectly, but you do your best, and you do it well enough.

So it’s a constant learning curve, as a pilot. You’re always studying, so you don’t forget things, and then you’re always relearning the skills, because it takes a lot of practice to learn how to do it, and once you know how to do it, if you don’t do it for two weeks, you’ll be rusty at it, and need to practice it again.

I love being a pilot, as it’s always challenging, and that’s probably the most fun part about it. And also as an Officer, a lot of officer jobs in the military are mostly administration, a lot of emails, managing personnel, managing payroll, managing projects. When you’re a pilot, you can actually go out and do the mission. You are the guy that picks up people in trouble, and actually flying the helicopters.”

“It took us 4 hours to get there, hoist the person, and come back, it’s a long sortie, and it can be further than that.”
The crew of the Jayhawk
The ‘retro’ paint schema looks good on the Jayhawk

Training To Be Ready
When they are not flying, they have other assignments, but when the crew flies during their work day, it takes about half of that day to prepare, execute and debrief, etc. They aim to fly about four times a week, even if there’s only a sortie once or twice a week on average. This means that it could be a long time between when the different crew has an active sortie.

Which is why training is a big part of the work for the crew of the sixty. Lt. Nicolet explains, “The training sortie is always two, to two and half hours, but the law enforcement, and search and rescue sorties just depends on what’s going on. I did a sortie, 220 miles of the coast in Mexico, there was a tanker ship that needed medevac. It took us 4 hours to get there, hoist the person, and come back, it’s a long sortie, and it can be further than that. Sometimes you have to go, get more fuel, and then continue from there. There’s some islands that we can get fuel from, to extend our range offshore.”

The training is structured, and all the aspects of the training must be completed every six months, to be cleared for active sorties, as Lt. Nicolat explains; “We have broken the training into 9 segments. We call them recurrent trainers, and every six months, you have to do that flight one time, to make sure you practice all those skills.

Each flight has a list of maneuvers you have complete, which includes day and night landings, day and night hoistings, instrument flying, external loads, degrading the helicopter (turning off parts of the helicopter red.), practicing emergency procedures, turning off different systems of the helicopters, so it gets harder to fly, like flying with only one engine, or turning off all the hydraulics, making the controls harder to move etc.

The elements on each segment are pretty long, it takes about two hours to do a segment. That’s how we stay proficient.

Infrared and night vision cameras used for locating people in the water, with the heat signatures, also to videotape rescues. The helicopter is equipped with a good radar, including a weather radar, mapping out storms, also to track vessels that have lost radio communication, etc.

Radio frequency tracking, so if someone is talking to us on a certain frequency, then we can use that signal to home in on the direction where the radio call is coming from. If you can’t find somebody, and they don’t know where they are, they can be located with the help of the radio frequency tracking device.

It’s a very capable helicopter, and it has more tools than we can use in one sortie, and it helps us to get the job done.”

The Search – A Crew Effort
When people are in the water, it’s only possible to see the head and shoulders. “Like a needle in a haystack in the ocean”, as Lt. Nicolet points out. “If there are any waves or wind, you have white caps on top of the water, depending on the where the moon or the sun is, there is glare, and it’s like finding a watermelon floating on the water.”

The entire crew helps to search for people, either by using the cameras, or by looking out the windows to do visual searches for people – it’s a crew effort. The pilots can’t do anything by themself.

Communication is the key, as Lt. Nicolet illustrates, “One of our main focuses is our communication. We have to be very clear, and very concise and short, in what you’re trying to say to the other person. When you talk to a person, 70% of the talk is non-verbal. The tone of the voice, how the person reacts etc. When talking on the radio, you’ll miss all the non-verbal communication, and you’re down to 30% of the ability to communicate complex ideas, and complex motions.

So most of what we say is scripted, exact words meaning exact things, and every word has a specific definition. Every phrase is set to a certain speed, so even the speed of the things you’re saying has a meaning. If you come over the top of a boat to hoist, the flight mechanic will guide you in ‘forward and right 20’ … ‘forward and right 15’ … ‘forward and right 10’ … ‘forward and right 5’. If he starts going faster, then you know you’re coming in to fast, and you know you have to slow down, etc.

So there are a lot things like that, where the crew has to be in sync, so that nothing dangerous happens.”

Off we go! Yet another training sortie is under way.
CRM – Crew Resource Management
Teamwork and communication are the keys to success for the USCG. It’s called CRM – Crew Resource Management, and it basically means making sure everyone is communicating clearly, and everyone feels like they have the right to say whatever they want. Lt. Nicolet explains, “Like if someone in the back sees something happening that’s unsafe, or he thinks that this maneuver isn’t safe, or why are we going out to do this, it doesn’t make sense, there is another option – maybe we could do this, it’s much safer.

We want the environment in the helicopter to become low key, so that everybody feels like he has the right to say ‘Sir, I think you’re wrong, this is the wrong thing. Let’s try this’, or ‘I think this would be better’. Because a lot of times a lot of mishaps have happened where someone was just watching while it was happening, and in their mind they thought ‘This is not right, I have seen this happen before, and it’s not good’, and they didn’t say anything, and something bad happens.”

Making sure everyone feels equally responsible for the success of the mission, and equally has the right to give their opinion about how to do something the best way possible, is really important, and a challenge, especially in the military where ranks matter.

Lt. Nicolet concludes, “So you have the person in charge of the aircraft, one of the pilots, called the pilot in command, he’s the ultimate authority. He has 51% of the votes, for whatever we do. Usually he’s the guy with the most experience, he’s the older person who has normally seen most, but that doesn’t mean that someone that’s junior, that’s brand new to the helicopter, doesn’t see something that’s still important.

So we want the most junior mechanic in the back to be able to tell the captain of the sector, who owns the helicopters, who might be flying the mission ‘Hey Sir, I don’t think that’s the best way to do it, let’s try something else’.

So communication is the big key to success. We do a lot of training, so it’s a fair environment, there’s no punishment for giving your opinion on the best way to do something, or giving your feedback. Everyone is fair game to say whatever they think.

Communication between two people can be the most complicated thing. It’s something that we’re always trying to improve.”

A huge thanks Sector San Diego of District Eleven, and especially Lt. Timothy Nicolet, and PA1 Rob Simpson for making this article possible.

#04 of 2017

The last issue of 2017 features a look at ‘The last Prowlers at WTI’, as well as the unique way that Norway, Sweden and Finland train together on a regular basis.

Swedish Air Force – Flying Training School

Swedish Air Force Flying Training School – Luftstridsskolan

The Swedish Air Force flying training school, located at Malmen Air Base, is pretty much incomparable with other armed forces flying training schools.
Swedish Air Force Flying Training School
The Swedish Air Force flying training school, located at Malmen Air Base, is pretty much incomparable with other armed forces flying training schools. A very flat and practically non-existent hierarchy, in a place where everyone is equal, gives the students the best possible opportunities to make a success as pilots in the armed forces.

Cutting away the mandatory contract for new pilots, letting them select which type of aircraft they are going to fly before they start the education as well as the amazing atmosphere at the school are just some of the elements that makes Luftstridsskolan at Malmen something you don’t see every day.

In the past, the Swedish Air Force did what many armed forces are doing today when it comes to selecting and training new pilots. This is an approach where less than 25% of the students make it through to become a pilot so the Swedish Air Force took a decision in the seventies to optimize the whole process.

The process has been scrutinised many times before but with no real improvements. They needed to think radically and had to look away from previous points of investigation, the students, and look at different alternatives.

This resulted in an impressive improvement, moving the success rate of less than 25% to a success rate of 95% and where the last 5% isn’t usually due to bad flying skills, but rather personal problems, personality or a mental attitude that is not suitable for the armed forces. Today the Flying Training School houses 48 pilot students (12 helicopter pilots, 4 transport pilots and 8 fighter pilots, every year for two years) and almost the same amount of instructor pilots, split into three squadrons:
  • Basic training Fixed-Wing Sk 60, 1st squadron
  • Advanced training Fixed-Wing Sk 60, 2nd squadron
  • Advanced training Rotary-Wing HKP 15, 3rd squadron

As Capt. Magnus Bragvad, Commanding Officer of the 1st squadron, explains “We changed our philosophy on how we educate future pilots. We start by letting the students know what they are going to fly before they begin their training.”
Number one in the formation of two Sk 60 shows it topside

Type decisions
When the students apply for the education, they can choose between three types – fighter, transport or helicopter and they then need to apply for at least two categories in a priority order. Once they are accepted, they already know which type they are going to fly.

Capt. Bragvad continues, “This comes with the way we are picking our pilots – they should know from the start what they are going to fly. We don’t want to pick out who is going to fly what, because then we becomes judges and not educators.

We want them to know that before they start here there isn’t any competition on who’s going to fly what type – and that’s what we want, no competition. The students are not competing with the other students – only with themselves to get as good as they can get. That’s our philosophy. We look at our students as colleagues from day one – not students. The student is our future wingman.”

The educational environment
Cadet Christian Johansson, a future JAS 39 pilot – who already had civil flying experience before applying, tells “The environment in the school is completely different from the civil world and even the other branches of the military where you get called by your last name. As soon as you got here, the first thing the teachers asked was: What’s your nickname? That kind of sets the standard of how we speak to each other here and how the environment is.”

Cadet Robin Norén, a future TP 102 Gulfstream pilot, who also has civil flying experience, adds “The whole idea is to build up a relationship where you feel safe, where you don’t have anything to lose by telling the truth, because that becomes dangerous as seen in the other branches where you get a penalty every time you do something wrong, even if it’s not your intention, then later on you won’t tell what happened because you are afraid of the potential penalty.

Here we want everyone to be comfortable to tell everybody what happened, so we can all learn from our mistakes. We even discuss family relation subjects with our teachers. It’s a really trustworthy environment.”

Cadet Johansson continues, “In the civil world you have grades and here you either pass or you don’t. You never see on paper how good or bad you fly. The Swedish Air Force dropped the grades in the seventies because it starts a competition on who is the best pilot. We don’t know who’s best because it doesn’t matter. I felt that in the civil pilot school that everybody was more on their own because you should get the best grades to get the best job for yourself. You didn’t really care about each other, you were friends, but you didn’t really care.

Here it’s totally different, we really care for each other. If someone has a bad day, we all learn from it and we don’t judge. We help each other to go from there to the next level.”
“As soon as you got here, the first thing the teachers asked was: What’s your nickname?
A Sk 60, flies high above the Swedish midland around Linköping

The ‘office’ of all the pilot students of the Swedish Air Force
Helping each other
“The students help each other out within the student community and they wouldn’t do that if they were competing against each other to be the best in the class, just to be sure to fly the type that they want – because they want that seat.” says Capt. Bragvad.

Cadet Johansson, adds “If a student fails, the entire class fails. We are all colleagues and we will work well together in the future, and the best thing is to help your colleague out, so you know you’ll have the best wingman you can get.”

“The instructors are very happy when the students makes it and concerned when they don’t. That’s how I want all my instructor pilots to be; He wants the students to succeed, he wants them to make it, and if the students doesn’t make it, he’s concerned. The instructor pilots care about their students and that’s where we want to be.” says Capt. Bragvad.

Psychological training
Capt. Bragvad continues, “We have studied the psychology of how the brain works. You don’t learn when you are forced and stressed. We don’t want to stress and put pressure on the students; the students do this all by themselves!”

Cadet Norén continues, “It’s not a strict environment. The teachers expect us to be prepared and to have read-up the lessons. We talk a lot about the flying window. Half an hour to an hour before we go to the aircraft, we should leave our cell phones alone and sit by ourselves to think through what’s going to happen on the upcoming flight during the lesson. I never had this in the civil world. Yes, we needed to be prepared but it wasn’t that strict. You could sit with your phone, watch YouTube or what you wanted to do beforehand, then you went out flying and evaluating.

It’s very different here, as a lot of time is spent on preparation and evaluation, but it’s not strict in a way where you need to spend a certain amount of time on it. You need to figure out what works for you – your way.

Take the debriefs as an example, it’s a very open environment where we all talk it through and the teacher maybe gives us a few recommendations or sometimes they just say that you have learned a lot today and just continue forwards.”

The only trainer in the Swedish Air Force, the Sk 60
“The teachers are not judges, but coaches, helping us getting through in the best way possible.”
‘No blame’-culture
Cadet Johansson, adds “Debriefs are really an exercise in this ‘No blame’-culture, you admit to all your faults and all the mistakes you made. This is very helpful as this is done within the class and not just in a student to teacher talk. You can listen to what others have just done which is maybe what you are going to do tomorrow and the student for example says that I did this, but I should rather have done it like this. Next time you’ll think about this and use the experience that the other student shared with you. Then the next day when you are in the exact same situation, you remember what he said and you learn from their experience.

The teachers are not judges, but coaches, helping us getting through in the best way possible.”

Cadet Norén continues, “We have a lot of sessions that are not about flying, but about what’s best for a pilot such as health, training and physiology, what not to eat and what’s best to eat. It’s been very helpful. You really feel here at the flying school, that they want you to have the best opportunity to become as good as you can be.

We are not in a rush, we are enjoying it here. I think this year at the flying school has been the best year of my life. If they tell me that I should stay here for two more years, I would sing a song, grab a beer and celebrate. It’s absolutely amazing here. I have been inspired by being here and I hope that I one day can come here as a teacher. Nothing is really a problem here, we do everything together.

We have become best friends within the class and are really tight connected.”

The Nordic culture
Capt. Bragvad explains “It has something to do with the Nordic culture. I’m not sure it would work for all cultures around the world, like if you have a very segregated society. A rank here doesn’t mean so much and that’s intentional.

The philosophy is that the student has one instructor the first year. This instructor is then responsible for that student and an instructor usually only has a maximum of two students. This is to build a strong relationship between the instructor pilot and the student because that helps in learning. If you feel safe and you feel that this instructor really wants you to make it, then you won’t focus on what the instructor thinks, the only thing you need to focus on is getting as good as possible.

If the student and instructor relationship doesn’t really work, we don’t try to change the student, but we’ll change the instructor to another instructor. The two personalities needs to match.

We do not have grades, so you can’t compare yourself with your classmates to see if you are doing better. We write words, describing how the session went instead of giving you a grade. It makes it a bit harder for the instructor pilot as they need to be more specific when writing in this diary; what went good, what went bad, where the student has to develop etc.

The grade doesn’t, in our opinion, make a better a student.”
concludes Capt. Bragvad.

Two pairs of students and instructors are allready evaluating their flight,
on the way back to the squadron building
Motivation on the walls of Luftstridsskolan; “You are here for the sole reason, you will be a pilot in the Air Force and defend your country.”

The pilot course
The student already knows which type they’re going to fly once they’re accepted which helps in different ways as described earlier. Another advantage is that the structure and flow of the education can be adjusted to be more specific about the type they’re going to fly.

The first two years of the education is similar for all students. The students starts with a standard armed forces Junior Cadet education which lasts for six months. This is a basic armed forces education, which isn’t only for future air force pilots, but for all branches of the armed forces.

They’ll then start on the National Defense College Aviation (NDCA) program once they’re Junior Cadets. The first one and a half years of the three year programme is spent at the Military Academy Karlberg in Stockholm, where they learn the theory in tactics, military techniques, leadership, as well as physical training.

Once the first year at the academy is completed, the students get split for the next year. The fixed wing students will head to Luftstridsskolan at Malmen Air Base, close to Linköping. Here they’ll go to 1st squadron, the basic fixed wing training squadron, flying the Sk 60. Rotary wing students will go to Bückeburg in Germany for their basic rotary training, flying the Eurocopter EC135.

Bachelor degree in war science
After this year of flying, the students head back to the academy in Stockholm to complete the NDCA programme with a six month officer’s exam. This will make the students officers in the Swedish Armed Forces, earning them a bachelor degree in war science, a degree that’s of equal value to any other degree from civilian university.

The fixed wing students then return to Luftstridsskolan at Malmen to join 2nd squadron to begin their advanced flying training. The transport pilots will stay in 2nd squadron for five months before heading off to civil aviation training in Ljungbyhed, then heading to their future squadron for type rating and combat readiness training (CRT).

The fighter pilots will stay in 2nd squadron for eleven months to complete their advanced fixed wing training, all done in the Sk 60. They’ll then go to F 7 at Såtenäs for six months for the conversion training (CT) to the JAS 39 Gripen. Here they learn all about the fast jet, as well as all the avionics, sensors etc of the Gripen. Once they have cleared the CT, they’ll head to their future squadron for CRT. The student don’t pick their own squadron, as this varies from year to year between the three Swedish fighter wings: F 7, F 17, and F 21.

The rotary students will return to Bückeburg for further six months of flying training which then concludes their basic flight training. They’ll then join up with 3rd squadron, the advanced training Rotary-Wing, at Luftstridsskolan. Here they’ll fly the HKP 15 (AgustaWestland AW109) for the next two years.

“When you have a fast, dynamic jet, things can go wrong and with the speeds they’re flying.”
Break, break! A pair of Sk 60 breaks away
The iconic silhouette of the Sk 60, during sunset

Fixed Wing
The basic flying training starts off with theoretical training combined with some simulator work. Within the first 3-4 weeks the students will find themselves in the Sk 60 for their first flight. The Swedish Armed Forces might be the only air force in the world to train its fixed wing pilots in a jet from day one, which is an advantage, as you can do everything with the jet trainer from day one.

The theoretical training, combined with simulator training continues, as they are flying. The students have around two hours of theoretical training for every flight they do. One flight can include multiple theoretical sessions, making the ratio of theoretical to flying larger.

The basic flying training consists of simple handling, aerobatics, instrument (Instrument Flight Rules – IFR), navigation, formation etc. The students go solo quite late, usually after around thirty hours of flying, compared to around fifteen hours before reaching solo when you’re flying a prop plane. When you have a fast, dynamic jet, things can go wrong and with the speeds they’re flying, they can go wrong fast. Having the pilot get to thirty hours before going solo, makes a difference and keeps everyone safe.

The side-by-side configuration of the Sk 60 has its advantages in the early stage of training, making the interaction between the student and instructor a lot easier, where the instructor gets a lot of information about the student by just looking at him. The instructor is able to monitor the students, making notes on where their hands and feet are, where the student is looking, and how he or she behaves.

When all the fixed wing students are back after completing the NDCA program, they’ll start of the advanced flying training together but they will be split up after a short while. The transport students will get a short taste of the air-to-air role, but will never do it solo. They will stay at Malmen doing advanced flying training for five months, before moving to the Trafikflyghögskolan in Ljungbyhed, to train for multi crew, multi-engine types and to get the required commercial pilot license (CPL).

Travel to Finland
Once done in Ljungbyhed, the students will move on to their assigned squadrons to get their CT. In the squadrons, the pilots will get the type rating in the type they are going to fly as well as getting their combat readiness training.

The fighter pilots stay for eleven months with 2nd squadron, doing simulated fighter and recce missions, air-to-air, and air-to-ground missions, NATO-procedures, as well as a “Tour Europe”. The “Tour Europe” is a flight to a European country, where the student needs to do all the planning, coordination, approvals, permits etc. to facilitate such a flight with a Swedish military aircraft. This teaches the students about all of the processes such a flight requires.

Once the transport pilots have left Malmen, the fighter pilots begin their extended air-to-air training. The air-to-air training is very advanced and creates a high demand on the students as they go solo without limits.

The students will also go to Finland to take part in the final air-to-air exercise at the Finnish flying training school – a Red Flag event for students. This is a relatively new concept, which illustrates the strong bond and cooperation between the Nordic countries.

The fighter students will also go to Flygvapnets Luftstridssimuleringscentrum (air combat simulation center), FLSC, in Stockholm, to do familiarization flights in the JAS 39 Gripen simulator. The FLSC consists of eight simulators, all linked up, giving them the opportunity to do a 4 vs 4 in the simulators. This gives the students a hint of what’s coming, before they head out to the F 7 wing at Såtenäs to conduct their JAS 39 training to become the new generation of Swedish fighter pilots.
“The students will also go to Finland to take part in the final air-to-air exercise at the Finnish flying training school – a Red Flag event for students.
On approuch for runway 19 at Malmen Air Base. This is the view that the students face when returning from a traning sortie.

Rotary Wing
The course for the rotary students is a lot different when compared to the fixed wing students. The rotary students start their basic flying training in Bückeburg in Germany, flying the Eurocopter EC135 and covering navigation, IFR (CPL), mountain flying, basic night vision goggles (NVG) training. There is one Swedish Qualified Flying Instructor (QFI) based at Bückeburg.

The basic flying training for the rotary students is longer than the basic flying training for the fixed wing students, as they will return to Bückeburg to continue the basic flying training when the fixed wing students return to Malmen for their advanced flying training. This means that the students will get 115 flight hours in Germany before heading permanently to Malmen.

When the transport students leave Malmen to go to Ljungbyhed, the rotary students begins their advanced flying training in the 3rd squadron, and the 14 QFI, at Malmen, where they will fly the HKP 15 – AgustaWestland AW109. The advanced flying training consists of low level flying, mountain flying, formation training, advanced NVG and finally solo-flights.

The rotary students will stay eleven months at Malmen for their advanced flying training, gaining them an additional 110 flying hours. Once done with their training, the students will move from the 3rd squadron to get their CRT. The HKP 14 pilots will get CRT in France, HKP 15 pilots will stay at Malmen and HKP 16 pilots in the USA. Once they have their CRT, they’ll join their future squadron.

Getting the Sk 60 ready for a new sortie
Instructor courses
Besides having the student pilot courses, Luftstridsskolan also runs other courses, one of them being the Qualified Flying Instructor course (QFI). This course trains pilots from different Swedish front line squadrons to become qualified flying instructors, which gets them back where their flying career started.

The Swedish QFI course takes a different approach to many other countries QFI courses. The most noticeable difference is in the first two segments of the course. Here they have a lot of theoretical training about psychology and pedagogy as well as a “live practice” segment, which really tests the future instructors to their limit. This is to get the instructors to have the right knowledge, mind-set and skills to train pilots and to give them a chance to practice this. The course turns the future instructors into coaches rather than judges.

It’s important that the instructors don’t judge a student for having a different personality to their own. This helps them to become as objective as they possibly can be. If a sortie is “failed”, it is as much a failure for the student as for the instructor. In most other countries instructors just control that the student is doing the right things. Instead the focus is on the learning process and trying to create an environment that is optimal for learning.

The student and the instructor are in it together and their goal is to get through it together. This method has three pillars: the relationship between student and instructor, communication, and self-confidence. It’s a very open relationship between the students and the instructors, and it has to be like this, as they don’t want to end up in a “higher officer and cadet” situation, where the cadet is afraid to speak to the higher officer. Students and teachers can say anything, every right and wrong thing they do, every thought they have, absolutely anything.

This is where they build the foundation of the future pilots, via the future instructors. The instructor needs to build the students self-confidence as much as they can. It is scientifically proven that confidence makes better learning possible and that if you learn during stress you don’t get the deep learning process.

You’ll always need some amount of pressure, but the Swedish Air Force makes sure never to pressure the students too much, by understanding the cone of stress, where there is a fine balance between the levels of stress you have and how well you perform. Once they learn the elements under the right amount of pressure, then it’s going to be how they do it by instinct. When the students later come under stress in a live war situation, then they know how to handle the situation as they have already had the experience and instinct for it.

Visual, Auditory and Tactile
The instructor pilots have to evaluate and adapt to student’s personality and learning style. This is an important skill for the instructor to master. If the student and instructor are too alike, they might not be a match as some might be too much of a perfectionist, where the opposite would be chaotic. It should be a fine balance, where the students and instructors line up mentally. The instructors are instructed in the three learning styles; Visual, Auditory and Tactile so they can adapt to the way that the student learns the best. These important skills are the first that the instructors must learn and develop.

After this basic training, they’ll head into the “Live practice” segment, where they take volunteers, more or less “from the street” with no previous flying or military experience. The instructors are then supposed to teach them how to fly within three weeks. They will fly once every day from day two. The instructors have to put theory into practice and really adapt and show what they have learned.

The volunteers selected are based on the instructor’s knowledge, to get the person least similar to the instructor as possible. This is done to challenge the instructor as much as possible and to get them in the worst-case scenario from the beginning to see what they are capable of.

The pair will then fly special sorties that are known to be confusing in terms of communication between the instructor and the student to test the instructor’s abilities to teach, observe and communicate with students. It’s a very intensive three weeks, as they make mistakes and learn each day, giving the instructors the equivalent of almost a year of experience in just three weeks. Compared to talking about it, doing theoretical practice, and then getting a real student, this is an effective way of training instructors.

This will, in the end, give the instructors the mental tools they need to teach future pilots to be autonomous and have the self-confidence to make those split second decisions when they sit alone in the cockpit of a fighter jet in a war situation.
The sun is setting behind these Sk 60s, before they return to base

Sk 60
The Swedish Air Force bought a total of 150 aircraft back in 1965 to replace the aging De Havilland Vampire fleet. The aircraft were divided into three principal variants:
  • The Sk 60A for training and liaison duties using a four-seat configuration.
  • The Sk 60B for light attack missions in a twin side-by-side seating configuration.
  • The Sk 60C dual-role attack and reconnaissance aircraft equipped with various cameras in the aircraft’s nose.

Today the Swedish Air Force flies the Sk 60A and Sk 60B models, using them for training and liaison duties. The first student pilots started flying the Sk 60 in July 1967, making 2017 the 50th anniversary of the Sk 60, making the workhorse of the Swedish Air Force fixed-wing pilot school an old lady.

“Only time will tell what the Swedish Air Force and Luftstridsskolan will end up with, if it is one aircraft replacing the Sk 60 for either basic and advanced flying training or a two type aircraft configuration.”
The final break of the day, for this pair of Sk 60
The future
SAAB received a contract in December 2008 to extend the support of operations of the Sk 60s in the Swedish Air Force trainer fleet up to mid-2017. This has then been extended to mid-2020.

The majority of the Swedish Sk 60s are based at Luftstridsskolan in Malmen with a number of planes throughout the three air bases too, F 7 Såtenäs, F 17 Kallinge and F 21 Luleå. All of the Sk 60s that are not at Malmen will be moved from their base during the summer of 2017, to Malmen as time is running out for the airframes and the Air Force need to concentrate on getting all the hours possible from these aircraft to train the future pilots of the Swedish Air Force.

What the future will bring is currently uncertain, as a request for information (RFI) was issued in April 2015, by the Defense Materiel Administration for a new Military Flying Training System to provide long term basic and advanced training fleet functions. The advanced trainer requirements specify the presence of an embedded training capability including simulated radar and weapons use, as well as tactical displays in the cockpit resembling fourth and fifth-generation jet fighter aircraft.

Replacement aircraft, such as the Alenia Aermacchi M-346, BAE Systems Hawk, Embraer Super Tucano and Pilatus PC-21 have been suggested. SAAB and Pilatus Aircraft signed a memorandum of understanding to offer the PC-21 to the Swedish Air Force.

Only time will tell what the Swedish Air Force and Luftstridsskolan will end up with, if it is one aircraft replacing the Sk 60 for either basic and advanced flying training or a two type aircraft configuration.

A huge thanks to Luftstridsskolan and especially Capt. Jan Westman, Capt. Magnus Bragvad and Major Michael Rosenquist for making this article possible.

Northern Edge – 2017

Northern Edge 2017

Northern Edge 2017 saw 6,000 personnel, and approximately 200 aircraft participating,
from U.S. military units from both the continental U.S., the Pacific.
Northern Edge 2017
The majority of the lakes were still frozen and the mountains were still covered in snow, when dozens of 4th and 5th generation fighter jets, together with surveillance, electronic warfare, tankers and transport planes, from across the U.S. military took to the skies over Alaska on 1st of May 2017, as Northern Edge 2017 (NE17) kicked off.

With Spring appearing early May in Alaska it would mean the lakes wouldn’t remain frozen for too long. And with the long hours of light and great weather, NE17 now had the right training conditions.

NE17 was one in a series of U.S. Pacific Command exercises in 2017 – which all have the same goal; to prepare the joint forces to respond to crises in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The exercises are designed to sharpen participants’ tactical combat skills, to improve command, control and communication relationships, and also to develop interoperable plans and programs across the joint force.

NE17 saw 6,000 personnel participating from U.S. military units stationed in the continental United States, and from U.S. installations in the Pacific, as well as approximately 200 aircraft from all the services. The participants served as part of a joint task force, practicing tasks associated with joint operations.

Major participating units included U.S. Pacific Command, Alaskan Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Forces, Marine Corps Forces Pacific, U.S. Army Pacific, Air Combat Command, Air Mobility Command, Air Force Material Command, Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve and U.S. Naval Reserve.

As Col. David Mineau, Commander of the 354th Fighter Wing, explained:
“The different U.S. forces are gathered to sharpen the tactics, techniques, procedures, command and control, and the interoperability with each other, against the most advanced, and the most complicated scenario that they can go face.”
“The different U.S. forces are gathered to sharpen the tactics, techniques, procedures, command and control, and the interoperability with each other.”
A packed ramp with fighters at JBER during NE17

The newest and most advance airplane in the USMC inventory, the F-35B
Still maintaining real world capacity
The majority of the planes were split between the two air force bases, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER) to the south, and Eielson AFB to the north. Besides the local aggressors and tankers, Eielson saw additional tanker support, as well as two air force units on base. The majority of the planes were placed at JBER. Fast jets, surveillance, and electronic warfare, tankers and transport units from the marines, air force and navy had JBER as their temporary home during the exercise.

“Right now we have one runway on each base, so there’s a limit on the number of aircrafts we can actually launch and recover at anyone time. But the other thing, and that’s a very positive aspect of the training; we would expect if we would operate in a large-scale conflict, that we would have to operate from a number of different air bases, and you could imagine, how they would sit there and depart, and we would have to synchronize in terms of times, so they would arrive at the same place at the same time, and orchestrate the exercise.” said Col. Christopher Niemi, Commander of the 3rd Wing, to illustrate the challenges the planners faced during the exercise, as they would in a real world conflict.

The massive training ground
Even though most of the local Alaskan units participated in the exercise, the units were still ready to handle any real world event that would come up, as Col. George Dietrich, Commander of JBER and the 673d Air Base Wing illustrated: “So, the exercise aside, here at JBER we’re always going to be ready to respond to any real world event. If we had a call today, we would still be able to do that, despite the exercise going on. The exercise gives us the opportunity to hone those skills even a little bit better.”

Large scale radar/anti-radar and electronic countermeasures training can be conducted at the vast Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC) where NE17 took place. To cover all scenarios, and give the participants the opportunity to achieve their goals, a couple of large training areas in Alaska were used.

“It’s a great venue for training, we have the largest range space available to almost anybody in the world, certainly in the United States, to practice techniques, tactics and procedures, not only for our airmen, but also for our soldiers, marines and sailors as well.” said Lt. Gen. Ken Wilsbach, Alaskan Command and 11th Air Force Commander.

The entire JPARC airspace covers around 157.000 square kilometers over land in the southern and central part of Alaska, as well as a separate area of about 130.000 square kilometers over the Gulf of Alaska were used during NE17. Adding to this, a special corridor between the two airspaces was set up by the FAA, that allowed the participating aircraft to travel from one airspace to the other, without getting into conflict with civilian traffic.

Col. Niemi illustrated; “We don’t have the opportunity to operate in airspaces that we potentially would be in, in a conflict. In the course of a conflict, we would expect that there probably wouldn’t be a lot of airline traffic. Work could be in an area that’s very wide open, that’s not heavily populated, like the lower 48 States are, and so Northern Edge with it’s expansive airspace here in Alaska gives us kind of a peak into the opportunity, and allows us to bring all these assets in, both other air force units, navy units, marine units, and integrate them all together in one place and time in the exercise.”

The size matters, and with the size comes opportunities, that is not achievable in other places: “We have a great opportunity because of the size of range – to train and maximize our assets, because of the space, and the freedom of maneuver that the large space allows.” explained Lt. Gen. Wilsbach, and added; ”It’s the size of Florida!”
“It’s a great venue for training, we have the largest range space available.”
A F-16CG from Misawa high above the Alaskan Range

Training inexperienced and experienced crew
About 50% of the crews were inexperienced and used this exercise to gain experience, and learning these lessons for the first time. The experienced crews were mostly in a leading role, giving the inexperienced crews the lessons, and also improving their own leading capabilities.

“We have specific mission objectives on every sortie.” said Lt. Gen. Wilsbach, “We are doing some experiments during this Northern Edge where we have additional new hardware and new software brand new to the forces, that we’re trialling during the scenario, so we can learn those tactics, techniques and procedures. Much of that is classified, so we won’t publish what we’re learning, other than to say that we’re improving capabilities overall.”

Strike Eagles from Seymour Johnson AFB gets it’s last chance checks done,
before another NE17 sortie
The classic good guy against bad
The battlefield is the classic good guy against bad, seeing the good guys on different missions, trying to defeat or hold back the bad guys.

“It’s red vs. blue. The red forces’ side is primary made up by aggressors – predominantly airmen that have the expertise to simulate threat tactics, techniques and procedures. We have aircraft, we have surface to air missiles, cyber, and many other things they simulate.” said Lt. Gen. Wilsbach.

It’s not only the F-16s of the 18th Aggressor Squadron at Eielson AFB, which made up the red force. The other participants of the exercise would also act as aggressors, where a typical mission could be ten aggressor F-16s from the 18th Aggressors Squadron, supplemented by another six F-15Es from Seymour Johnson AFB, and six F-16CGs from Misawa AFB. It didn’t have to be all dedicated air superiority units taking the role as the red force.

Almost all of the participating air units would split their time between doing red air and blue air. Besides the military assets, a number of civilian airplanes were taking part in the exercise. These civilian airplanes were equipped with sensors and jammers, etc. to add complexity to the training. To simulate different threats and scenarios, making the blue air training even more difficult.

Continued development of 5th generation fighters
NE17 saw 5th generation fighters, with the air forces F-22s side-by-side with the marines F-35s, integrating with 4th generation fighters, such as variants of the F-15, F-16, and F/A-18.

It was not all training, but also a continued development of the integration of the 5th gen. aircraft, such as the F-35, as Lt. Gen. Wilsbach explained:
“We are all learning what the F-35 can do, including the marines. So it’s of great benefit to see how all of it comes together – army, navy, air force and the marines – over both land and water, all of what is being practiced. So it’ll be a tremendous benefit at the end of this exercise.”

It was not all integrations and crew training of the 5th generation aircraft, but also further testing of the aircraft themself, both 4th and 5th generation. Having the aircraft loaded with new hardware and software saw them testing all new usages of the planes, as well as operating the newest weapon system in a large-scale operation, which brings great possibilities, to find the surprises, limitations and opportunities of the planes.

Col. Niemi, illustrated: “When you acquire a new weapon system, like the F-35, then it’s not like going in and buying a car, where there’s not really a lot of surprises. We have a very rigorous test and development program, but the reality is that when you are dealing with something completely new and complex as the F-35, despite our best efforts, there’s going to be some surprises and we’re going to learn some things.”

Col. Niemi got an extensive experience from the F-22 test program, which was used during NE17 with the F-35s; “I was fortunate enough to be involved in the early F-22 test program, and some of the ideas of how we were going to employ the aircraft turned out to be exactly spot on, but to be absolutely frank with you, some of the ideas were way off the mark and we didn’t know that until we had the opportunity to integrate, and there were some strings that we discovered, that we didn’t anticipate. There were also some limitations that we became aware of, that we had to mitigate. By working with the F-35 we are able to sit there and realise those, so that we can be better operating in an operational environment in the future.”

The continuation of the training with the F-35 and F-22 carried on after the exercise, where the marines of the VMFA-121 would stay for an additional few weeks, before returning to Japan. This was to do dedicated tests side-by-side with the F-22s of the 3rd wing at JBER, and the 18th Aggressors at Eielson, building on top of the experience gain during the two week exercise.
A thirsty local Alaskan F-22 Raptor gets some gas, before it re-joins the battle

“Red Flag is a very good exercise, but Northern Edge builds on that, and takes it to the next level. We have had Northern Edges over the years, and we have been able to continue to build on that, and improve it each year, and that’s what we are doing again this year.”
Northern Edge 17, was the first time with participation of the U-2 from Beale AFB
Better than Red Flag
The Northern Edge exercises are massive in scale, both with the physical training areas used, and the number of players involved. To get all the involved players aligned and up and running for the short time, of the two weeks the exercise was running – this being; the ground crews, pilots, sailors on their ships, army foot soldiers on the ground, to the mission planners etc., wasn’t an easy task, but it’s something that reflects how real combat operations works, and making this exercise as close to real combat operations, as possible.

With the exercise coming to and end, Col. Niemi concluded that Northern Edge was a success, and was as close to a real combat operation as possible:
“I was fortunate enough to be here (Alaska red.) from 2007 to 2011, and during that time frame, we had three Northern Edge exercises and I flew in two of those. Each year we continued to build on that, make it better and generally bigger.

When that younger pilot, or that younger operator, gets into a combat environment for the first time, they have that same feeling like I did in 1999, where it’s comfortable to them because they’ve seen it before and they know what to expect, and they know how to deal with it.

My comment, the first time I flew in Northern Edge, was: This is the closest exercise that we have, to combat operations, even surpassing Red Flag, for numerous reasons.

Red Flag is a very good exercise, but Northern Edge builds on that, and takes it to the next level. We have had Northern Edges over the years, and we have been able to continue to build on that, and improve it each year, and that’s what we are doing again this year.”

This edition of Northern Edge saw the last time that Alaskan Command was in charge of it, and the future Northern Edge exercises were handed over to the U.S. Pacific Command, which will lead the 2019 edition of the exercise.

A big thank you to Alaskan Command, and especially USAF Capt. Anastasia Schmidt, USNR Lt. Mikel Weigel and USAF Lt. Kellie Rizer for making this article possible.