With COVID restrictions affecting the Global aviation industry negatively at unprecedented levels the airport of Las Palmas on Gran Canaria is a mere shadow of the usual hive of activity it normally experiences from the holidaymakers seeking sun and sangria on the Canary Islands. For two weeks in October this was the opposite experience for Gando air base which shares the runways at the location.

Though still with restrictions in place for a safe exercise, Ocean Sky 2020 took place with a strong participation from Spanish air combat units with a large support cast from France. From October 18th, a Sunday, missions in support of the exercise were flown.

The exercise was not always called Ocean Sky, this was a recent addition in 2018. Originally the mission was to test the combat units of the Ejercito del Aire (Spanish Air Force) and the defence of the Canary Islands. Before Ocean Sky it was simply known as DACT training, DACT is used by all NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) units to signify Dissimilar Air Combat Training which is basically air combat manoeuvres where the opposing aircraft are of a different type than your own squadron.

For Ocean Sky the exercise had three objectives;

1 – Protection of the Canary Islands from unknown actors

2- Escort of important aviation assets

3 – Entry Force (Offensive Force)

For the latter, the Armee del Air (French Air Force) took on this role to test their Spanish counterparts, using no less than thirteen deployed Dassault Rafale B and C combat aircraft. The French Air Force also deployed to Gando a Boeing C-135FR from ERV 04.031 for in-flight refuelling. There was also a Boeing E-3F Sentry flying from France each day for the Airborne Warning and Control (AWACS) mission. Working with opposing and defensive forces, The E-3F was also part of the number two objective, with the need of being protected from ‘RED’ forces. As is usual with NATO specific training ‘BLUE’ is the defenders and ‘RED’ the aggressor.

The Rafale Cs at Ocean Sky came from Escadron de chase (Edc) 30 from Mont-de-Marsan. The commander of Edc 3/30, Lieutenant Colonel Guillaume, stated that Ocean Sky will be the only overseas exercise committed by the French Air Force for 2020 due to the COVID situation. He also said that Ocean Sky marks the first simulated use of the METEOR active radar guided beyond visual range air to air missile which is integrated into the latest Rafale F3-R standard. The five Rafale B coming from Edc 4 at Saint Dizier made up the rest of the French Rafale contingent. The French deployment to Ocean Sky was made up of 195 servicemen and women.

The main purposes of Ocean Sky 2020 are the evaluation and training of the Spanish Air Force combat and support units and how they maintain command and control in an air superiority environment. To keep with the DACT element, and as a commitment to NATO and the multi-national experiences of modern war fighting, the Spanish always invite foreign participants. This year those countries being France and Greece, though due to COVID the Hellenic Air Force had to cancel.

The exercise is to be carried out in four phases;

  • Generation and deployment of forces
  • Theoretical phase
  • Practical phase (DACT and Mixed Fighter Force Operations)
  • Withdrawal

The first phase, according to the organisers, is ‘the aim of carrying out all personnel and force preparation tasks, as well of the deployment of participating units.’ This was quite significant, because alongside the heavy French presence, most of the Spanish assets were deploying the 2000 kilometres distance to the Canaries from the Spanish mainland, of which 700 personnel were directly involved in Ocean Sky.

The second phase, ‘Theoretical’, included conferences on force integration, flight safety, combat tactics and many other subjects and disciplines.

Practical phase, encompassing the DACT and MFFO elements into missions, saw the participants take part in two sorties a day over the exercise period. This is where all the planning from phase one and two comes to fruition. There is a wide variety of scenarios that the aircrew have to plan for and execute.

According to mission planners, there would three periods of visual combat (1v1), and nine main missions involving most aircraft which include defence of an Air Exclusion Zone, this was known at Ocean Sky as the ‘Main Wave’; and flown in the morning. The afternoon mission was ‘Shadow Wave’ and consisted of 18 minor entity missions of up to fourteen aircraft involved in two simultaneous missions using the same aircraft. All missions were flown in an area called D-79 which is 74 kilometres south of Gando and is 300 km by 370 km with no height restrictions.

A welcome sight at Ocean Sky 2020 was the Arma Aerea de la Armada Espanola (Spanish Naval Air Arm) with four British Aerospace/McDonnell Douglas EAV-8B+ Harrier II’s from the 9a Escudrilla Aeronaves. The Harriers are expected to be phased out of naval service in 2025 but as yet there is not a replacement, with the only realistic candidate, the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II, being thought of as too expensive in the current climate. The 9 EA currently operate from the aircraft carrier ‘Principie de Asturias’ and the Landing Helicopter Deck (LHD) ‘Juan Carlos I’ so a Vertical/Short Take Off and Landing (V/STOL) aircraft if thought to be a must.

Gando air base is home to ALA 46, which is split into two units which both supported Ocean Sky 2020. The 462 Esc is the only F-18 unit in the Air Force equipped with the ex-United States Navy McDonnell Douglas F/A-18As received between 1995 and 2000. This fighter unit, which protects the Canary Islands 365 days a year, takes part in the exercise whilst also maintaining a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). The 802 Esc is the Search and Rescue (SAR) squadron for the Canaries, and as such is equipped with two aircraft, the CASA Cn.235MPA and Eurocopter AS.332c1 Super Pumas for its duties. The Super Pumas are fairly new having replaced earlier AS.332M1 models. The new AS.332c1 is known also as the H-125. As the exercise included recovery of downed airmen the new helicopters and crews had a chance to show the advantages of the updated Super Puma.

The rest of the participation for the combat assets at Ocean Sky are the four Wings from the Spanish mainland equipped with the McDonnell Douglas EF-18 Hornet and Eurofighter EF2000 Tifon. The two Hornet units are Ala 12 and Ala 15, the Tifon wings are Ala 11 and Ala 14. Each Tifon unit bought six aircraft each, though Ala 14 added a seventh with EF.2000B CE.16-11 coded 14-70. Interestingly Ala 12 bought two extra EF-18BM two seat Hornets. It was thought the two seaters to allow participation from VIPs, and pilots from the French Air Force to experience the Hornet and Tifon.

The Spanish Air Force also supplied an Airbus A.400M in tanker configuration to assist with in-flight refuelling duties alongside the French Air Force C-135FR

Known visiting participants (excluding Ala 46)

Spanish Air Force

Ala 31         Airbus Military A.400M

TK.23-07, 31-27

Ala 12      McDonnell Douglas EF-18M Hornet

C.15-44, 12-02          C.15-51, 12-09         C.15.60, 12-18           C.15-61, 12-19

C.15-65, 12-23          C.15-68, 12-26         CE.15-11, 12-74        CE.15-12, 12-75

Ala 15      McDonnell Douglas  EF-18M Hornet

C.15-15, 15-02          C.15-23, 15-10         C.15-26, 15-13        C.15-30, 15-17

C.15-38, 15-25          C.15-64, 12-34

Ala 11       Eurofighter EF.2000 Tifon

C.16-33, 11-33          C.16-38, 11-38         C.16-42, 11-42         C.16-43, 11-43

C.16-52, 10001, 11-52        C.16-53, 10002, 11-53

Ala 14         Eurofighter EF.2000 Tifon

C.16-37, 14-04       C.16-48, 14-12       C.16-49, 14-13       C.16-60, 10040, 14-19

C.16-67, 10090, 14-25       C.16-74, 10202, 14-32       CE.16-11, 14-70

Spanish Navy

9 Ella        McDonnel Douglas/BAe EAV-8B+ Harrier II

VA.1B-26, 01-916             VA.1B-35, 01-923           VA.1B-36, 01-924

VA.1B-37, 01-925

French Air Force

ERV 04.031     Boeing C-135FR Stratotanker

738, 31-CJ

EC 4        Dassault Rafale B

317, 4-HO       319, 4-HN      323, 4-HT      350, 4-FQ      353, 4-FT

EC 30      Dassault Rafale C

118, 30-IW      123, 30-GB      125, 30-GD       126, 30-GE      129, 30-GH

131, 30-GJ       137, 30-GP      139, 30-GR