Leeuwarden Air Base, Netherlands

Frisian Flag is an annual exercise held at Leeuuwarden airbase in the Netherlands that brings together the combat elements of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and partner air forces that join together in multi nationality, and multi type combat manoeuvres in the skies above Europe.

A brief history of the airbase and its operational squadron can be found in the report from 2015 via this link.

Hosted by 322 Squadron of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht over 50 combat aircraft participated in this year’s event bringing together General Dynamic F16AM Fighting Falcons from Belgium, McDonnell Douglas F18C Hornets from Finland, Dassault Mirage 2000D’s from France, Eurofighter EF2000’s from Germany, General Dynamic F16C Fighting Falcons from Poland, Panavia Tornado GR4’s from the UK, McDonnell Douglas F15C/D Eagles from the United States Air National Guard, as well as the F16’s from the home base itself.

The exercise began with the arrival of the participating aircraft and their support units, and continued into the “war” phase that ran from the 11-22 April; the Pixelsnipers team enjoyed the action between the 11-13 April, from both ends of a very active airfield.

The exercise uses the airspace of Northern Europe that takes in the territory under the stewardship of the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark with action taking place over land and the Baltic and North Sea.

Associated elements within the exercise were the air refuelling tankers that were based at Eindhoven airbase, and NATO E3 AWACS from Geilenkirchen. The tankers operated under the European Air Refuelling Training exercise (EART 2016), and comprised a McDonnell Douglas KDC10 from the Netherlands, Boeing C135FR Stratotanker from France, Airbus A310MRTT from Germany and a Boeing KC767A from Italy.

The mission of the exercise is to prepare the air and ground crews for combined operations in different combat zones where the emphasis is on co-operation to achieve the required objectives, this is important not only in providing a strong alliance to prevent aggression in Europe but also to focus skills in missions against targets in other theatres such as Iraq or Syria.

Each day will have started with mission briefings for the aircrew so that they can operate not only on a combat footing but also understanding that the flights have to be operated safely and respect the restrictions that using the congested airspace above Europe can entail.

The first flight of the day is the weather check from a based F16, once the clearance for operations is given then the morning launch commenced from 09:30. Coming from all the active dispersals on the airfield the aircraft make their way to the holding point for final checks and a clearance to launch.

Depending on the mission type they go in pairs, three or four ships and head out to the training areas. The aircraft returned by 12:00 and were then prepared for the second mission of the day from 13:30, returning by 16:00.

The exercise areas above the North Sea are designated TRA01-TRA10 and are in airspace controlled by the Netherlands, restrictions are in place from ground level to 55000 feet (FL550) so as to allow air combat manoeuvres across the whole spectrum of an aircraft (and pilots) capability.

Air to ground missions were conducted on the NATO air weapons range at Vliehors, designated EHR4 this a 17 square km area on the south western part of the island of Vlieland, and operates under the NATO code name of “Cornfield”. The range is the only one in the country that supports the use of live and practice weapons, outside of Frisian Flag it is in regular use by NATO partners to hone their gunnery and bombing skills.

Other operational sorties are conducted by simulated attack to ground targets within the training area at Marnewaard, situated within the province of Groningen on the northern coast and managed by the Netherlands Army there are realistic targets for air (and ground) units to use.

As well as providing advanced air combat and ground attack training Frisian Flag also provides an opportunity to improve leadership skills and for countries such as Poland and Finland to assess the inter-operability of aircraft and crews that are not currently participating in military operations.

The Polish Air Force pilots who do not have any combat experience use Frisian Flag and the Tiger Meet as a way of simulating real time threats in a training scenario and provide the most up to date F16 aircraft in Europe to do so.

The United States Air Force uses the exercise as part of its deployment programme of rotating combat units to potential war zones. Under the heading of “Proven Eagle” the arrival of F15C Eagles from the Air National Guard Guard’s131st Fighter Squadron in Massachusetts and the 194th Fighter Squadron from California heralded the start of a 6-month deployment to augment US firepower in Europe.

Frisian Flag is an important exercise in the military calendar and plans are already underway for 2017 where it is hoped that other non-European units will be able to participate. Observers from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) were present this year, and by the time that operations begin the Lockheed Martin F35A Lightning II will have commenced operations in Europe, and so the mix of aircraft types and action should be even more interesting.