Exercise Frisian Flag 2018

Exercise Frisian Flag 2018 took place at the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (KLu) – Royal Netherlands Air Force base at Leeuwarden between the 9th and 20th April 2018. Situated in the northern province of Friesland the base provides easy access to the northern ranges at Vliehors as well as the training areas over the North Sea, vital for air combat manoeuvres and in flight refueling.

Hosted by the KLu the participants this year comprised elements from KLu as well as overseas units from the United States Air Force (USAF), French Armee de l’Air (AdlA), Spanish Ejercito del Aire (EdA), German Luftwaffe, and the Polish Sily Powietrzne.

As is typical for the weather in Northern Europe the air and ground crews had to contend with low cloud and rain for the first week followed by clear skies and bright sunshine in week two, this would also be a challenge for the hundreds of aviation enthusiasts that flock to the base to enjoy the action. The operating day is split into two sorties with a launch and recovery in the morning, followed by a second mission after lunch; this makes the base very busy with up to fifty aircraft participating at any given time. As well as the combat elements support aircraft also take part with Cobham air supplying a Dassault Falcon 20C from its special mission unit that provides state of the art technology used for training in a live environment.

Airborne early warning and control was provided by a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) Boeing E3A operating from its base at Geienkirchen in Germany. Currently experiencing a period of downsizing the unit has retired two examples of the aircraft to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group (AMARG) in Tucson, Arizona. With a third to follow later in 2018 the remaining 14 aircraft will remain available for NATO E3A missions and operations. Running alongside Frisian Flag the European Air-to-Air Refueling Training exercise (EART) takes place from Eindhoven air base in the Netherlands. The objective of this element of the exercise is to train the air and ground crews in planning and executing complex air-to-air refueling (AAR) operations in a multinational environment to enhance the effectiveness and interoperability of forces. 2018 EART aircraft included the Boeing KC135R Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing (ARW) based at RAF Mildenhall in the United Kingdom, McDonnell-Douglas KDC-10 operated by 334 Sqn of the KLu, and the Airbus A310 MRTT from 1/FBS of the German Luftwaffe.

The final element to participate in the exercise is the aggressor aircraft provided by Top Aces (formerly Discovery Air Defence services) based at Wittmundhafen Air Base in Germany. Using the Douglas A4N Skyhawk that had been retired by the Israeli defence Force Air Force (IDFAF) the company is tasked to provide “Red Air” adversary support for the fighter forces, and electronic warfare simulation.

Leeuwarden becomes the fighter central of Europe during Frisian Flag with aircraft that have spanned the last 40-years of fast jet operations. The KLu flew the license built Lockheed F16AM and BM Fighting Falcon, drawn from the 3 remaining operating squadrons, 312/313 Sqns from Volkel air base, and 322 Sqn as the host unit. Supplied by Fokker the F16 was introduced in 1979 replacing the Lockheed F104 Starfighter, and Northrop NF5 Freedom Fighter in all front line squadrons. The KLu received a total of 213 F16 aircraft comprising 177 single seat A and 36 twin seat B variants. Delivered in 2 batches the final aircraft with tail number J-021 rolled off the production line on February 27th 1992. From 2004 the KLu has reduced its fleet of the aircraft with sales to both Jordan and Chile of the surplus airframes. Taking into account attrition and overseas sales the KLu has around 50 operational aircraft available.  Replacement with the Lockheed Martin F35A Lightning II is underway and building work is evident at Leeuwarden in preparation for the arrival of the new aircraft.

 As part of the Operation Atlantic Resolve theatre security package the USAF deployed the McDonnell-Douglas F15C/D Eagle to Leeuwarden for the exercise. Drawn from 2 Air National Guard (ANG) units the wings involved were the 142nd Fighter Wing (FW) from Portland (Oregon ANG), and the 104th FW from Westfield (Massachusetts ANG). Operating as the 123rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron (EFS) the air and crews are supported by the 52nd FW based at Spangdahlem in Germany.

Participation in Frisian Flag will be followed by forward deployments to RAF Lakenheath in the UK, and Graf Ignatievo air base in Bulgaria to conduct training missions with NATO partners. 

The French AdlA was represented by the Dassault Mirage 2000D, and the Dassault Rafale B/C aircraft. The Mirage 2000D came from Base Aerienne 133 Nancy with examples sporting the markings of EC 01.003 (Navarre) and EC 03.003 (Ardennes). The 2000D is a conventional strike/attack aircraft developed from the Mirage 2000N nuclear attack platform. Introduced into service in March 1993 a total of 86 2000D’s were delivered between 1993 and 2001. The type has received a number of upgrades while in service including an improvement in air-to-air capabilities that will offer a multi role configuration to compensate for the retirement of the 2000C air defense variant. The Dassault Rafale participated in 2 guises at Frisian Flag with the 2-seat B model drawn from BA113 Saint Dizier, and the single seat C model from BA118 Mont-de-Marsan.

The AdlA originally ordered the single seat variant as the operational aircraft with the 2-seat version to be used in a support and training role. Operations in the Gulf War demonstrated the value of a second crew member for strike and reconnaissance missions and in 1991 the preference towards the 2-seat variant was made. Initial orders for the Rafale for the AdlA were reduced to 212 aircraft with 60% of those being the B-model. Introduced into service on the 18th May 2001 the Rafale is now the backbone of the AdlA. Examples of the Rafale B came from EC 01.004 (Gascogne), EC 02.004 (La Fayette) and ETR 03.004(Acquataine). EC 02.004 is in the process of transition from the Mirage 2000N to the Rafale. The Rafale C wore the markings of EC 01.030 (Cote d’Argent), EC 02.030 (Normandie-Niemen) and EC 03.030 (Lorraine).

The German Luftwaffe provided the Eurofighter EF2000GS from Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader (TLG) 31 “Boelcke” based at Norvenich air base, and from TLG 71 “Richtofen” at Wittmundhafen. In August 2003 the Luftwaffe received the first of an initial order of 143 aircraft comprising the Single seat GS and twin seat GT. Unlike the Rafale programme the 2-seat version was not developed for combat operations and is instead used in the support, training and conversion roles, while retaining a secondary operational capability. Optimised for air-to-air operations the Eurofighter has a developing air-to-ground capability and is a contender to be ordered in increased numbers to replace the remaining Tornado aircraft in that role with the Luftwaffe.

The Ejercito del Aire (EdA) from Spain flew the McDonnell Douglas EF18AM/BM Hornet. Deliveries of an order for 72 aircraft began in 1985, and the total was later augmented by 24 ex United States Navy (USN) aircraft. Major upgrade work to an equivalent F18C/D standard has modernized the Hornet while in service and it can be used in both the air-to-ground and air-to air roles. The wing assigned to Frisian Flag 2018 was ALA 15 from Zaragoza Air Base, a unit that is also a member of the NATO tigers association.

The final air arm to participate in Frisian Flag 2018 was from the Air Force of Poland with 3 Mikoyan Mig 29A (NATO reporting name Fulcrum) from 23. Baza Lotnictwa Taktycznego (BLT) at Minsk Mazowiecki, and 5 Lockheed-Martin F16C Fighting Falcon’s from 31.BLT at Poznan. An initial order of 12 Mig 29A/UB were delivered from the Soviet Union beginning in 1989 and this has been added to with 10 used examples from the Czech Republic in 1995/96. A further 22 aircraft were received from the German Luftwaffe in 2004 with 14 of these being overhauled for service and the remainder retained for spares. There are 31 aircraft still in service in the air defence role and with further modifications possible, could serve until 2025. The F16C from Poland is the most modern of the type to fly in Europe. Deliveries of an order of 48 aircraft began in 2006 under the US Peace Sky programme to form 3 squadrons in 2 wings, the second being 32.BLT at Lask. The F16C can be used in both air-to-ground and air-to-air configuration and carries modern US precision ordnance in both roles.

As the sun set on Frisian Flag 2018 the expectation is that the next exercise may see the F35 Lightning make an appearance with examples due to be delivered into Europe over the coming 12-months, this could pitch the most modern of jet fighter aircraft against some of the oldest cold war vintage types still in service, we shall have to wait and see.