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Frisian Flag a Dutch Master Class
AIR International

Frisian Flag a Dutch Master Class

Posted May 23, 2015   |   1945 views   |   Aviation & Transport   |   Comments (0) After two successive years of cancellation, in April Leeuwarden AB once again hosted exercise Frisian Flag. Kees van der Mark and Arnaud Boxman report

The previous edition of Frisian Flag, the annual large-scale air exercise organised by the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (Royal Netherlands Air Force, RNLAF), was a big success.  That is, until the ash cloud resulting from the Eyjafjallaj?kull volcano eruption in Iceland came in from the north on April 15, 2010, forcing the organising No.323 Tactical Training, Evaluation and Standardisation (TACTES) Squadron to suspend flying activities on the fourth day of the two-week exercise.  In the second week the participating RNLAF F-16s resumed flying – the other nations decided to redeploy their jets from Leeuwarden as soon as the opportunity was there, to prevent them from being stuck in the Netherlands for a longer period in case the situation deteriorated further.  Frisian Flag 2011, scheduled to run in July 2011, fell victim to the busy operational agenda of the RNLAF F-16 community, in particular the involvement in Operation Unified Protector over Libya and the ongoing operations in Afghanistan.

This year, Frisian Flag was back with the largest edition since the exercise was first held in 1992.

Since its inception, Frisian Flag has more than proven itself as a low-cost alternative to the ‘Flag’ exercises held in North America.  “We want to train our pilots to plan, execute and extensively debrief large-scale COMAO [combined air operations] packages in realistic scenarios, and we ask other air forces to join us,” said Capt Jos a pilot with No.323 TACTES Squadron and this year’s Frisian Flag project officer.  “There is no participation fee involved, participants just pay for their own expenses, like accommodation and fuel.”  One of the exercise objectives is described as “to establish multinational relationships between NATO and non-NATO [Partnership for Peace – PfP] countries.”

With so many and diverse participants, there is a lot of experience gathering at Leeuwarden during the Frisian Flag exercises.  Lessons learned from recent operations, including those of NATO and PfP air forces over Libya and Afghanistan, but also from other exercises held recently, are all taken into account and integrated into the exercise scenarios.

Leeuwarden is ideally situated close to the vast training area over the North Sea, which covered roughly 180 x 145nm (330 x 270km) in Dutch, German and Danish Temporary Reserved Airspace (TRA) areas for this year’s exercise.  Overland training areas were added to provide additional training value, although these were minimally utilized to comply with noise abatement. 
Although the Cornfield range at the isle of Vlieland is located close to Leeuwarden, the use of live or even practice bombs was not part of the exercise.  “The use of weapons, either air-to-air or air-to-ground, is all simulated,” said Capt Jos.  One of the reasons for this is that “we cannot afford to take any risks with aircraft loaded with live weapons when so many jets have to use the same runway for take-offs and landings at Leeuwarden,” according to the project officer.  All missions were flown during the day and the jets took off without the use of afterburners when possible.  Again, this was done to minimize noise, since the air base is located relatively close to the city of Leeuwarden and some surrounding villages.

Between April 16 and 27, up to 60 aircraft took to the air twice a day for a Frisian Flag mission.  During the ten flying days, the organisation built up a ‘war’ in a so-called building block approach, in which the scenarios increase in complexity as the exercise develops.  In line with common practice the participating fighters and bombers were assigned to a large Blue Air force and a smaller, opposing Red Air force.  Almost every possible aspect of current day air operations was practised, as Capt Jos explained: “Most missions are offensive counter air [OCA], including time-sensitive missions.  On some days, we also fly defensive counter air [DCA] missions.  All missions are flown under high-threat level.  Sorties flown during Frisian Flag include air defence, elimination of static and dynamic targets on the ground or at sea, protection of high-value air assets [HVAA] such as AWACS and tanker aircraft, and protection of slow-movers and CSAR helicopters. Usually, many aspects are combined within a single mission, that lasts no longer than an hour and a half on average.  Nevertheless, the pilots spent at least ten hours on planning, briefing, executing and debriefi ng each mission.”

No.323 TACTES Squadron has large debriefing facilities, enabling all participants to analyse each mission thoroughly during a mass debrief.  All participating aircraft carry GPS trackers, and a special computer program was used to ‘stitch’ together all GPS data to create a ‘God’s eye view’, giving a better understanding of exactly what happened during the missions.
Supporting Assets
A RNLAF Fokker 50 was called upon to play the role of slow-mover, with the aircraft operating out of Leeuwarden on three occasions.  Although the RNLAF’s two Fokker 50s were officially taken out of service on October 1, 2010, as a cost-saving measure, they have not been sold to date.  Pending a possible sale, they continue flying – albeit a limited number of hours annually – to keep them airworthy.  Leeuwarden-based AB-412SP helicopters of No.303 SAR Squadron acted as CSAR assets within the scenario.  Aircraft specialising in electronic warfare (EW) operated from Leeuwarden as well.  These included a Learjet 36A from Eelde-based Skyline Aviation in the fi rst week of the exercise, and a Royal Norwegian Air Force Falcon 20ECM from the Forsvarets Elektronisk Krigf?ring St?ttesenter (FEKS - Air Force Electronic Warfare Support Centre) 717 Skvadron at Rygge in the second week.

Working alongside the Red Air fighters were ground-based air defence units located in the Marnewaard military training area, at the Cornfield range and various other spots in the exercise area.  These included Dutch Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries defending the northern part of the Netherlands, as well as a Russian-built SA-6 Gainful SAM system.  “The latter is a real threat system operated by the German Bundeswehr, not a simulated system.  It was placed in a location unknown to the pilots, to add some surprise for them,” according to the project officer.  Inflatable targets combined with ‘smokey SAMs’ were also used to provide an extra realistic touch to the training.

The RNLAF Air Operations and Control Station (AOCS) in Nieuw Milligen and the German Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) in Sch?newalde, together with the AWACS’, provided the air picture for the participants.  Similar to 2010, the Dutch tri-service National Datalink Management Cell (NDMC) deployed to Leeuwarden for the duration of the exercise.  The NDMC not only manages Link 16 systems, its operators can also add virtual assets to the exercise.  Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACs) from the Special Forces within the Royal Netherlands Army and the Royal Netherlands Marine Corps, working in both the Netherlands and Germany, guided the jets to their targets during close air support (CAS) operations.

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