ACE 2019 A sign of the times?


Jerry Gunner visited Sweden’s Luleå-Kallax Air Base to report on Exercise Arctic Challenge 2019 conducted over Sweden, Norway and Finland

A Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16AM in D-Day commemorative marks was one of the 331 Skvadron machines to take part in ACE 2019

Even if winter isn’t here yet the worldwide political situation is getting colder. In behaviour typical of dictators from time immemorial, Putin’s resurgent Russian Bear is ostentatiously sharpening its claws. This has not gone unnoticed by its neighbours and those whose responsibility it will be to stop Russian aggression in its tracks. Those neighbours no longer use euphemisms to describe a potential enemy, it is Russia, Russia, Russia all the way. Mats Helgesson the head of Sweden’s air force, the Flygvapnet said earlier this year: “Sweden faces the same [Russian] threat as Finland. Gripen, especially the E-model, is designed to kill Sukhois. We have a black belt in that.” In 2018’s Trident Juncture exercise held in Norway, Russia was blamed for jamming GPS signals; it paid close attention to the activities in ACE 2019.

Because of this, the far North and Western European nations’ borders with Russia are becoming the focus of defence planning. This year alone has seen a plethora of exercises in the region to ready the militaries of many nations to parry a thrust from the East. In March, thousands of Finnish and Swedish soldiers participated in Exercise Northern Wind 2019 in northern Sweden, then in May Exercise Arrow 2019 saw mechanised units from Finland, the UK, Estonia, the US Army in Europe and the US Marine Corps training together in Finland. Bold Quest 2019, again hosted by Finland saw multiple nations taking part in joint training and afterwards Arctic Challenge BALTOPS focused on the Baltic nations but again with Finnish and Swedish participation.

Arctic Challenges

The biennial Arctic Challenge began in 2009 with a series of Cross Border Training (CBT) exercises. They are organised within the framework of the Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) tripartite structure, which facilitates the implementation of military training and common procedures (interoperability, communication and so on) between Norway, Sweden and Finland. Such training continues on an almost weekly basis between the three main nations involved and as many as 35 are planned for 2019. They will become even more important when the host nations each operates one type of fighter, F-35, Gripen and whatever replaces Finland’s Hornets. The first edition of Arctic Challenge took place in 2013. Each of the three host nations shares leadership of the exercise, although some planning is shared. This year Sweden took the lead and had overall responsibility for planning and determining the direction of the exercise.

Arctic Challenge 2019, the fourth in the series, ran from May 22 to June 4. The largest in the series so far, it involved at least 140 aircraft from nine nations including 94 jet fighters as well as tankers, helicopters and ISTAR platforms. The fighter aircraft switched roles between Red air and Blue air as circumstances demanded.

Host for the exercise was the Flygvapnet’s Gripen C-equipped Norrbotten Air Force Wing, F 21, based at Luleå-Kallax Air Base, just south of the Arctic Circle. The wing was founded in 1963 and in its two squadrons carry on the traditions of the two divisions they replaced. As well as Gripens the wing has NH90 helicopters assigned for search and rescue duties. Sweden has two other Gripen wings, Skaraborg Air Force Wing, F 7, is an enhanced wing tasked with training located near Såtenäs in south central Sweden and Blekinge Air Force Wing, F 17, whichprotects the skies of southern Sweden from its base at Ronneby; home to the nation’s quick reaction alert detachment. Although by no means confirmed, it seems at least possible that with the advent of Sweden’s Gripen E fleet from the early 2020s other fighter wings may be resurrected. A White Paper released in May 2019 dealing with Swedish defence plans in the 2021 – 2025 timeframe calls for the retention of six squadrons divided into three wings as is the case at present. However, at the same time, it stipulates that at least 60 of the current fleet of 100 Gripen C and Gripen D aircraft should remain in service until as late as 2035. Those jets will be in addition to the 60 Gripen Es recently ordered from Saab.

At 3,250m (10,662ft) the runway at Kallax is the longest in Sweden. The base itself is on the doorstep of the largest overland military training area in Europe. It is centred on the Vidsel test range which boasts 24,000 km2 (9,266 square miles) of uninhabited land but for ACE 2019 the exercise area was even larger with boundaries extending over an area of 700 x 350km (380 by 190 nautical miles) reaching to the Gulf of Bothnia to the east of Kallax, almost to the Norwegian Sea to the west and from south of the Vidsel range below Umeå far up into the Arctic Circle. For almost all of the exercise period participants had free range to fly from ground level up to the edge of space. Within the exercise area there are several other ground training areas with opportunities to fly against ground-based air defences. Threat systems available included typical Russian SA-6 Gainful, SA-8 Gecko, SA-10 Grumble and SA-17 Grizzly surface-to-air missiles. The National/Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System or NASAMS, which is a surface-launched variant of the ubiquitous AIM-120 AMRAAM was also deployed. Vidsel range itself has 3,300km2 (1,274 square miles) of land from which the public is prohibited. Kallax controls other runways that aircraft can operate from including Jokkmokk Air Base, a revitalised relic from the Cold War built so that the Flygvapnet could disperse its aircraft across small austere airfields, and the revamped Vidsel Air Base, 95 miles (150km) inland from Luleå, which now has four modern flow-through hangars and is frequently used by European air forces and manufacturers to test weapons and other systems. There are many other facilities throughout the training area.


A quick look at the map demonstrates the suitability of the three main bases chosen for the exercise, Bodø, Rovaniemi and Kallax in Norway, Finland and Sweden respectively. Their geographic proximity means that, provided the participants fly from their home bases, CBT exercises do not involve expensive re-positioning of men and materiel before training can start. With Kallax at the centre of a triangle, neighbours Norway, Sweden and Finland can train with each other easily, and all three nations can take part without diffculty when the training is centred on Sweden.

US Marine Corps F/A-18D Hornets at Rovaniemi Air Base in preparation for exercise Bold Quest 19.1 on May 14, 2019. The jets remained in Finland to take part in ACE 19.
Cpl Cody Rowe/US Marine Corps
Non-military operated aircraft like this Learjet 36 operated by German company GFD were engaged in various roles related to jamming and threat simulation.
Jerry Gunner

Arctic Challenge 2019 participants

This Nordic cooperation generates excellent dissimilar air combat training by virtue of the three nations’ diverse combat fleets; Norway with its F-16AMs and now F-35As, Sweden its JAS 39 Gripens and Finland its F/A-18 Hornets.


The main aims of ACE 2019 were defined as:

• Conduct basic fighting manoeuvres (BFM) in beyond visual range engagements with other nations and dissimilar aircraft systems;

• Introduce low experience pilots to BFM against a dissimilar airframe;

• Introduce low experience pilots to the cross border training environment;

• Familiarise aircrews with performance capabilities and limitations of participating aircraft, and mandatory briefing items in accordance with the Fighting Edge NATO doctrine;

• To understand the scenario rules of engagement when applicable;

• To command and control using multinational and NATO, Partnership for Peace procedures.


Wing Commander Matt D’Aubyn, Officer Commanding 6 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth, Moray, Scotland was the leader of the Royal Air Force detachment. As well as his five Typhoon FGR4s, the det also included a Hercules C4 from 47 Squadron, based at RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, and a Voyager tanker flying from its home base of Brize Norton. Personnel totalling 155 people from 14 RAF stations travelled to northern Sweden. D’Aubyn was quick to point out to AIR International that ACE 2019 was the first time that Typhoons, which had been upgraded under Project Centurion, had been deployed on an exercise overseas. The so-called P3E (Phase 3 Enhancement) aircraft are the most modern and capable available. P3E combines the ability to use both the MBDA Meteor beyond-visual range air-to-air missile and the MBDA Storm Shadow conventionally armed stand-offmissile that was conferred by P2E and has added, among other capabilities, the newest version of Brimstone low collateral damage weapon. Typhoon and Meteor are a fearsome duo for beyond visual range air-toair combat. Speed, long-range and lethality give the combination the edge over any other NATO combination that does not include Meteor. In the case of ACE 2019 where RAF Typhoons were acting as Red air, this will have been an eye-opener for some opponents. In a briefing for the press on the second day of the exercise Lt Col Claes Nilsson, Deputy Commander Norrbotten Wing, said the attendees were training against opponents simulating Russian jets including Su-24 Fencers, Su-30 Flankers and Su-34 Fullbacks.

Foreign participants based in Sweden included 12 F-16C Fighting Falcons from South Carolina Air National Guard’s 169th Fighter Wing. Usually based at McEntire Joint National Guard Base the Swamp Foxes, as they are known, are one of two Air National Guard squadrons dedicated to hunting and killing enemy radars. The author spoke tothe squadron’s commander, Lt Col Michael Ferrario who confirmed that his squadron would practise its war role of suppression and destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD and DEAD) during ACE 2019. The squadron’s jets, Block 52 F-16Cs, were painted in the distinctive Have Glass radar-reflective paint finish and equipped with an AAQ-33 Sniper pod on the starboard engine of the intake and an ASQ-213 HARM Targeting Systems pod on the other. The two pods enable the pilot to track and engage radar systems with the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile. For self-defence the jets were aimed with AIM-120C AMRAAM training rounds. The Americans took 170 troops to Sweden including 25 pilots. The deployment threw up a number of challenges for the Swamp Foxes with one jet requiring a full wing change before it could fly home and another suffering severe damage when it was hit by lightning.

The host nation Sweden allocated 18 JAS 39 C and JAS 39D Gripens from all three Gripen units all operating from Kallax.

The South Carolina ANG’s F-16CJs are one of two dedicated SEAD units in the Air National Guard.
Jerry Gunner
Massachusetts Air National Guard F-15 Eagles prepare to departfrom Bodø Main Air Station during Arctic Challenge
Hanne Hernes

Over in Finland the main focus of attention was at Rovaniemi Air Base, home to the F/A-18Cs and F/A-18D Hornets of Hävittäjälentolaivue 11 (Fighter Squadron 11) which provided 12 jets for ACE 2019. Amongst the participants based at Rovaniemi were eight US Marine Corps F/A-18Ds from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 (VMFA-251), which had arrived before ACE 2019 started to take part in Exercise Bold Quest 19.1. The unit’s commander, Lt Col Roy Nicka said: “The Marine Corps has been fighting in a desert environment for the last 20 years and we’re not used to fighting in the Arctic North; cold weather has not been something we’ve trained to in the last couple of years. We have learned a lot being here at Rovaniemi Air Base, learning how to operate our machines in the cold weather. We want to increase the survivability of our aircraft, so we’re fascinated to learn how the Finnish Air Force uses the roads as runways. We’ve been able to share tactics, techniques and procedures with the Finnish Air Force.”


Finnish Hornets take on fuel from the Luftwaffe A310 MRTT shortly after take-offfrom Rovaniemi Air Base.
Hanne Hernes

Each day of flying was marked by two waves of fast jets launching from each of the three main bases. The missions were planned by the respective National Airborne Operations Centres in consultation with the coordinating Combined Aerospace Operations Centre in Sweden. A typical mission described in an air tasking order might include DACT involving basic fighter manoeuvres and mixed force fighter operations, and include close air support over any of the ranges available whilst dealing with GBAD either individually or as part of a larger package.

For the day’s second wave Blue air might advance from the south where the tankers and AWACS were holding out of harm’s way to be confronted by the opposing Red air, which would be shielding its own tankers to their rear. The five threat scenarios planned for the ten flying days were anchored by NATO multinational task force rules of engagement.

Overall, ACE 2019 was designed to challenge pilots, ground crews, planners and all support staff, and did so very effectively. In future editions, participation of Gripen E and F-35 fighters, with Rafale and Typhoons reaching maturity, Arctic Challenge is set to continue to grow in scope, effectiveness and importance. AI