Winter Wonderland – F 21

Norrbottens Flygflottilj – F 21

FLYMAG took the trip to the North, to get close to our neighbors to the east, and its northern wing, Norrbottens Flygflottilj F 21
F 21 Wing
The F 21 Wing initially formed as a detachment from the rest of the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) in the north of the country in the early 1940s. The first permanent squadron joined the F 21 in the late forties, when the 211th Squadron was formed. The F 21 started out as a reconnaissance wing with this squadron as the only unit flying missions in the northern part of Sweden, some in Finland and as far away as Russia.

The squadron started out flying the S 18, a photo-reconnaissance version of the Saab B 18A bomber. Since then the squadron have flown many types of aircraft, including Spitfire, Mustang, Vampire, Tunnan, Lansen, Draken, Viggen and now the Gripen.

The second unit, the 212th Squadron, was formed and added to the wing during the early sixties. At this time both squadrons were flying the Lansen, one using the reconnaissance S 32 Lansen and the other squadron in the air-to-air fighter, the J 32 Lansen.

This was the beginning of an era with each squadron having very different and specific tasks. One had the reconnaissance role and the other had the air-to-air fighter role.

Two JAS 39 Gripen flying in formation, while the beautiful spring sun shines on them.
“This was the beginning of an era, with each squadron having very different and specific tasks.”
Multirole squadrons
Both squadrons transitioned to the Draken in the late sixties again in the reconnaissance version S 35E Draken and the fighter version J 35D Draken.

In the early seventies a third unit was added to the F 21 wing, the 213th Squadron. This squadron was equipped with the SK 60B bomber and had attack missions as their primary role.

The first Viggens were added to the wing during the late seventies, when the 211th Squadron started flying the reconnaissance version S 37 Viggen.

In the eighties, the 212th and 213th squadrons were both equipped with the air-to-air/attack version JA 37 Viggen. This started the multirole era during which a squadron no longer had only one mission, but was undertaking multiple roles.

The 211th Squadron was later equipped with both the reconnaissance and the air-to-air/attack version, the JA 37 Viggen. The Viggen upgrade programme then combined the different versions in a kind of a midlife upgrade project. It now became possible for the pilots to drop bombs and use heat seeking missiles during the same sortie.

In the late nineties, the third squadron was disbanded as a result of single role squadrons turning into multirole squadrons. The 212th Squadron transitioned to the JAS 39 Gripen a few years later covering all the roles and missions that the 212th & 213th Squadron had undertaken together.

211th Squadron ‘Akktu Stakki’
The 211th Squadron continued to fly the Viggen, but there was no defined role for their two-seat versions, so they armed them with jammers, turning this amazing plane into an electronic warfare fighter. The 211th Squadron flew all the different versions of the Viggen, including AJSF 37, AJSH 37, JA 37, and SK 37 from around the millennium to the end of the Viggen-era in 2005. The 211th Squadron was the last squadron in the world flying the Viggen.

The squadron then transitioned to the JAS 39A/B Gripen in 2006 and the entire wing was finally upgraded to the current C/D versions in 2008. The amount of airframes was reduced at the same time.

Another change was the fact that the squadron’s didn´t have their own airframes any longer as all the aircraft were shared across the wing. This cross-squadron cooperation was seen to good effect in 2011, when the Libyan operation was conducted with elements of both squadrons put together.

The lone wolf
The 211th Squadron is named “Akktu Stakki”. Akktu Stakki is in the native language of Sami, which translates into “The lone wolf”. The squadron was given this name as it was doing reconnaissance and when you fly reconnaissance missions, you are often alone as a pilot, deep in enemy territory.

Even the squadron emblem features a wolf although it’s actually the Big Bad Wolf from the Disney cartoon. The squadron even has a signed letter from Walt Disney saying that they are allowed to use the wolf in their emblem.

Today the squadron doesn’t only do reconnaissance, but covers all aspects of the multi role capabilities of the JAS 39 Gripen. The main tasks of the squadron are now Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) and Combat Readiness Training.

There has been an increase in activity for QRA around Scandinavia for the past couple of years, especially because of the Russians trying to show their new found strength by flying variety of mock bombing and fighter scenarios close to the borders of the Baltic and Scandinavian countries.

Compared to other parts of the country, the QRA activity hasn’t really increased much for the F 21, as they are surrounded by Finland and Norway.
The pilot checks whether everything is as it should be, before the next mission.

Luleå airport where Norrbotten Flygflottilj – F 21 belongs.
QRA for the entire Sweden
Strictly speaking, this is not entirely true as the QRA role is different for the F 21 wing, compared to the other Swedish wings. The F 21 wing is also responsible for QRA in different parts of Sweden, including Såtenäs, Ronneby, Visby and Malmen

The squadrons are planning when and whether the 211th Squadron or the 212th Squadron deploys to these air bases and this work includes logistics such as bringing together all the necessary equipment, airframes and crew including pilots, ground crew, mission planners and so on.

Students and international readiness
The Flygvapnet squadrons work in three cycles each lasting a year. A squadron starts out with training students, then the next year the squadron prepares for international readiness. The last year the squadron is on international readiness.

It is during this period the squadron can be deployed to international hot spots like “Operation Freedom Falcon”, the 2011 military intervention in Libya. When training pilot students, the amount of international exercises are very limited, as the cross border training programme gives the students the benefit of international exercises.

NATO Partnership for Peace
Usually students are deployed to Rovaniemi in Finland to give them a possibility to familiarize themselves with an unknown airspace. Doing the second and third year, when the unit prepares for international readiness, they attempt to participate in at least one, sometimes two large international exercises.

Sweden is a NATO Partnership for Peace – P.f.P. nation, which means that NATO builds relationships with partners through military-to-military cooperation on training, exercises, disaster planning and response, science and environmental issues, professionalization, policy planning, and relations with civilian governments.

Sweden participates in many international missions, despite not being a full member of NATO. NATO would most likely call upon Sweden’s help in an international situation, given that Sweden operates a fairly new multirole plane, the JAS 39 Gripen.

The Flygvapnet is a lot further ahead, technology wise than some NATO nations, and even more so when they upgrade to the new E/F version of the Gripen.

The question of whether Sweden should join NATO or stay neutral and not be bound to any alliance has for many years been a point of controversy. The Swedish people are becoming more positive towards NATO, and think that NATO actually makes a difference.

Sweden will be a part of the NATO Response Force from 2016 and Sweden actually participates in more international missions than many of the full NATO members.
“NATO would most likely call upon Sweden’s help in an international situation.”
The sun lights up the frozen lake up while the two JAS 39 flies above it.

Snow and deserted areas is something you do not have to go far to get in Luleå.
Winter wonderland
As Luleå is located just south of the Arctic Circle, it presents a lot of challenges during winter time, especially with extremely cold weather and very limited daylight. But instead of seeing it as a problem, the F 21 wing takes this as a challenge and uses it to it’s advantage.

During winter, the wing has the opportunity to easily fly “night”-sorties during normal daytime working hours. This is a huge benefit for the unit as pilots do not need to stay late and fly all night to get the dark sortie training.

The downside of the northerly location of Luleå is that the weather is a huge factor during winter and sorties are often cancelled. To compensate for the cancelled sorties, the unit has four weeks every year during which they only fly dark sorties. The pilots train for operating the different sensors and weapons systems in the dark.

The four weeks are scheduled with two weeks in a row in November / December and again two weeks in January / February. This way, having two weeks in row, the unit reduces the amount of sorties that they need to cancel.

Flying in the dark, during the day
It’s not only the four weeks that they train dark sorties. The unit fly dark sorties every Thursday from around the beginning of October to the end of May, weather permitting. During the summertime there is daylight virtually all day long, making it perfect to train low level missions and daylight sorties.

During winter, poor weather is not the only challenge. The associated temperatures are also an important factor. Missions are carried out even if it’s -25 degrees outside. The only restriction during such low temperatures is that they can never be further away than nineteen minutes of flying time by the rescue helicopter.

Flying at -25 is avoided though. When adding darkness, the wind chill factor (making it feel more like -55) and that the rescue helicopter can’t find you right away, it is simply an unnecessary risk to take.

“The answer is simple, in having the Norwegian air base at Bodø, the Swedish air base at Luleå, and the Finnish air base at Rovaniemi so perfectly geographically located.
The silhouettes of the beautiful JAS 39, can here be seen over the bay at Luleå.
The pilot has settled down and doing the final preparations together with the ground crew before departure for a mission in the dark.

The Cross Border Training programme
How do you optimize your daily training to involve training against other squadrons from other nations with different kind of airframes without deploying?

The answer is simple, in having the Norwegian air base at Bodø, the Swedish air base at Luleå, and the Finnish air base at Rovaniemi so perfectly geographically located as to utilize the potential of Nordic defense cooperation across the borders of the countries – which started out as the Cross Border Training programme.

What started more than ten 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 Sweden.

Today, the Cross Border Training programme is a large operation, where the squadrons at the three northern bases can 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 squadron.

This wish-list is then once a year conducted into the operational plan for the Cross Border Training. The plan is to have 64 events a year. This is then revisited after six months to check if they are sticking to the plan.

Takes turns being the “enemy”
Some days it’s two nations fighting each other, other days it’s all three nations joining the fighting, where a typical trilateral force would 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 build up upon what the ‘good guys’ want, and 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 what the squadron wants.

The Cross Border Training Programme is a very rewarding cooperation, as it doesn’t cost anything more than regular training would cost. The squadron doesn’t have to deploy as they take off from their home base, then they fight and land back at their home base.

The squadrons have setup a video conference system, 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.

The Cross Border Training gives an almost endless list of advantages, the main one being that the students of the Cross Border Training squadrons have flown many more sorties against a mix of JAS 39 Gripen, F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-18 Hornet aircraft whereas the students that are in squadrons that are not part of the Cross Border Training program have not flown many sorties against other systems besides their own.
Arctic Fighter Meet
Once a year the participating squadrons arrange an actual meeting with the units meeting face to face at one of the air base. This is called The Arctic Fighter Meet and is a great opportunity to meet, and shake the hands of the pilots you fight, and do video conferences with. It creates a strong connection, and relationship between the squadrons across the border.

The meeting is very valuable, and it gives the squadrons a chance to learn the pros and cons from the other squadrons. During the Arctic Fight Meet some of the more experienced pilots from one nation, fly with the younger, and less experienced pilots from another nation – a way to benefits all the players.

The Cross Border Training Programme is a very good, and unique cooperation between the three countries.

Off it goes! Although most hours in winter are in the dark, missions are also flown in the hours where there still is light.

The large airspace, and big ranges
The Cross Border Training program benefits from the massive airspace of the remote and deserted northern part of Sweden. Having an airspace almost four times larger than the airspace used for the Red Flag exercises at Nellis AFB in America gives a lot of opportunities, combined with very few restrictions. There are different ranges very close to Luleå that make for an ideal combat ground.

When compared to other airspace within central Europe, the Cross Border Training program is spoiled, says squadron commander LtCol Tobhias Wikström. He mentions that every time he is deployed, he is surprised about how many restrictions the alternative airspaces have and how they can plan their air to air training because they are always restricted in either the size of the area, altitude or speed.

Having the largest live firing, evaluation and test range in Europe within five minutes of your base is a big plus. With 10,000 square kilometers of restricted airspace and up to 3,300 square kilometers of restricted ground space, gives evaluation programs a possibility to be executed efficiently with very few restrictions from other air or ground activities.

As it’s the Swedish government defense industry that owns the range, you cannot drop bombs as you like, so you need to book time. The big advantage of the range is that everything you drop gets measured and evaluated which is very useful for the squadron learning. The Flygvapnet are not only the air force that uses the range; the defense industry and a lot of foreign nationalities are also present as well as other parts of the Swedish armed forces.

The range was a former cold war base and it still has a landing strip, which makes it ideal for squadron deployments direct to the range instead of a nearby base.

Two JAS 39 Gripen flying in formation, while the beautiful spring sun shines on them.
“Having the largest live firing, evaluation and test range in Europe within five minutes of your base is a big plus.”
Arctic Challenge Exercise
Take the advantages from the Cross Border Training program community, and the Arctic Fighter Meet, and put it into a large international exercise, this gives you Arctic Challenge Exercise, ACE. This exercise utilizes the same advantages as the Cross Border Training program gives, but includes more units spread out across 3 air bases.

The aim is to exercise and train units in the orchestration and conduct of complex air operations, with a close relationship to NATO, and Protection for Peace partners. The unique cross border air space makes ACE a one of a kind training ground for increasing interoperability and skills in all parts of the chain.

The exercise consists of a wide range of scenario drills, and cooperation between the three host bases, with large operational areas available both in Sweden, Norway and Finland.

There are two flight periods per day with the first one focusing on training with units stationed at the same base, with flights taking place in the surrounding air space. This includes everything from weapon delivery, both against ground and airborne targets and combating simulated anti-aircraft artillery, to low-level flying and air-to-air refueling.

The second period of flying comprises of composite air operations where all aircraft meet, mainly in the Swedish air space, for a vast operation.

ACE 2015 will be one of the largest exercises within Europe in 2015, having about 3,600 personal and 115 aircraft from nine different countries taking part. The participating nations besides Sweden, Norway, and Finland, will be Switzerland, United Kingdom, France, Germany, USA and Holland.

ACE 2015 is the second time that the multinational training exercise has been carried out, the first being in 2013 and the future plan is to continue every other year. Even though Norway, Sweden and Finland are the host nations, all of the participating countries contribute to the planning, which helps build the national and allied capability to lead air operations.

The future of the F 21 wing
More or less all the armed forces around the world are facing cutbacks. There is currently a suggestion from the politicians to reorganize the whole Swedish defense force, which would mean that the air force could cut back the number of active squadrons by having one, bigger wing at each base, F 7 Såtenäs, F 17 Ronneby, and F 21 Luleå.

This is to reduce the expense by reducing the number of personal and airframes. It has been suggested that this change in the structure of the air force and squadrons will be put into effect once the squadron’s transition to the JAS 39E/F Gripen, the latest JAS 39 version – the “Next Generation” is completed.

The pilot checks his g-suit for leakage before he steps out to his JAS 39.
The full moon lights up the otherwise dark evening sky.

The survival of the 211th squadron
The wings will still have the capabilities they have today even with the reduced number of planes. This is something that is common for the armed forces around the world today especially in European countries.

“If this suggestion goes through, then it will most likely be the 211th squadron that will survive. The F 21 wing started out with 211th squadron and now we will see what the future brings”, says squadron commander LtCol Tobhias Wikström.

A big thanks to Louise Levin, Head of Public Affairs Office F 21, squadron commander of 211 squadron LtCol Tobhias Wikström, Martin Westerstrand and Björn Lindroth for making this article possible.