Riccardo Niccoli visited Aviano Air Base, home to the F-16-equipped 31st Fighter Wing and learns about its training and importance to NATO
Aviano Air Base plays an important role for the United States and NATO and has a significant economic impact on the local economy. Its location within short flying time of many of the world’s trouble spots may well mean its future is assured for years to come.
One of the oldest airfields in Italy, Aviano Air Base, near the north-eastern town of Pordenone, was established in 1911. It was home to Italian bomber units during World War One and was an active Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica (Italian Royal Air Force) command during World War Two. It was taken over by the Allies at the war’s end and returned to Italian hands in 1947. Aviano remained home to Italian units until 1954, when the last Aeronautica Militare (AM – Italian Air Force) Wing to be based there, 51° Stormo and its F-84G Thunderjets, left to make room for fighters assigned to the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE).
”From my perspective, partnership and communication is strong, and we are continuously working to improve our interoperability between the NATO members…”
Brigadier General Lance Landrum, Commmander of the 31st Fighter Wing
Aviano is still an Aeronautica Militare base, controlled by its own Comando Aeroporto (airport command). Colonel Stefano Cianfrocca, who was in command until late last year, was in charge of about 250 Italian military personnel. He explained: “The tasks of this unit include the responsibility to secure Italian sovereignty over all the airport area including the flying activity. The Comando Aeroporto is responsible for all functions of a military airfield.”
Most of the Italian personnel are dedicated to security and defence tasks, together with US troops. Recent upgrading work, the socalled Aviano 2000 project, improved base infrastructure and provided new housing for the US military. Another of the colonel’s responsibilities is to ensure both sides comply with the bilateral technical arrangement between Italy and the United States that governs US use of the base. The agreement is reviewed and renewed every five or six years. Close liaison with the local and wider communities is seen as especially vital since the tragic incident in 1998 when a US Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler flying a sortie from Aviano cut the cables of an aerial tramway.
The Massacre at Cermis, as the incident became known, resulted in the deaths of 20 skiers and was caused by the crew making a tourist video and flying too low, in contravention of regulations. The incident and the crew’s subsequent acquittal at court martial seriously strained relations between Italy and the United States.
The Comando Aeroporto supports not only US operations, but also those of NATO and maintains a transit alert facility for aircraft passing through. It has also provided an operating location for NATO operations, including over Kosovo and during Operation Unified Protector in 2011, when Aviano housed not only the local F-16s, but also ten F-15Es, six A-10Cs, five EA-18Gs from the United State and six Jordanian F-16s. Aviano also acts as an alternate airfield for the bases at Istrana and Rivolto.
The Aeronautica Militare provides air traffic control services assisted by American personnel in the control tower. The tower supervisor is usually Italian, too. US Air Force air traffic controllers have to attend an Aeronautica Militare course before they are qualified to work in the tower. Italian personnel also staff the local radar approach system. Other services, such as fire-fighting, are staffed directly by US personnel under Italian authority.
Both nations have their own medical and emergency response services. Base operations support is provided by both air forces. At the moment, they are housed in separate buildings, but there are plans to move them in together. Similarly, both nations provide weather forecast services, but because Aviano is an Italian airport, Italy’s is the official one.
The 31st Fighter Wing (FW) was activated at Aviano on April 1, 1994, equipped with F-16C and F-16D Fighting Falcons. In the nearly quarter century since, the wing has taken part in many operations, including over the former Yugoslavia: Operations Deny Flight, Deliberate Force, Deliberate Forge and, finally, Allied Force. Aviano-based aircraft took part in the air war over Kosovo in 1999 and the wing supported Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom. In 2011, it flew missions over Libya for Operations Odyssey Dawn and Unified Protector. More recently, in August 2015 a contingent from the 31st FW deployed to Incirlik Air Base, Turkey, to take part in Operation Inherent Resolve against Islamic State.
Buzzards and Triple Nickel
The 31st FW reports to the 3rd Air Force at RAF Mildenhall, UK, which is itself controlled by USAFE Headquarters at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. It comprises several units with the flying component being part of the 31st Operations Group comprising two flying squadrons, the 510th Fighter Squadron ‘Buzzards’ and the 555th Fighter Squadron ‘Triple Nickel’. There are also the 606th Air Control Squadron, and the 31st Maintenance Group, which is responsible for the wing’s aircraft and their weapons. The 31st Mission Support Group is divided into seven squadrons dedicated to activities such as communications, construction, logistics and base protection. Finally, the 31st Medical Group’s five squadrons provide medical support to all American personnel. The total unit establishment of the 31st FW is 4,200 military, 300 US civilians and about 600 Italian civilians.
Both fighter squadrons fly Block 40 F-16Cs and F-16Ds, and perform multi-role missions comprising both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. The wing’s aircraft are around 30 years old, but they have been extensively upgraded under the Common Configuration Implementation Program (CCIP) designed to provide enhanced mission capabilities and a common avionics configuration across the US Air Force’s F-16 fleet. CCIP included three modification phases to the cockpit (with multifunction colour displays and new software, software is cyclically updated with M-series operational flight program tapes) and to the avionics (Modular Mission Computer, Common Data Entry Electronics Unit), plus integration of the AAQ-33 Sniper XR Advanced targeting pod, Link 16 datalink (Multifunctional Information Distribution System), Joint Helmet-Mounted Cueing System. New armament continues to be integrated which includes the AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile, AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (a 1,000lb-class glide standoff missile), the 2,000lb GBU-31 Joint Direct Attack Munition and the 2,000lb EGBU- 27 GPS/INS guided bomb.
Block 40 F-16Cs and F-16Ds were upgraded to CCIP standard in one single working phase from 2005, and were the first to be equipped with LANTIRN (Low Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) pods. In 1995, the 31st FW’s jets were the first to receive the Sure Strike package comprising night-vision goggles and improved data modems to improve close air support performance over Bosnia. More recently, the 31st FW introduced the AAQ-33 SE (Sensor Enhancement) version of the Sniper pod in 2015.
Deployments and detachments
The 31st FW is very busy, flying intensively both at home and on deployments and detachments for exercises and real-world operations. It logged 12,100 flying hours in 2016. Six aircraft deployed to Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti the military side of the Djibouti-Ambouli international airport, to operate under US Africa Command in case they were needed to protect US citizens and interests in South Sudan.
From January 20 to February 3, 2017, 280 personnel and 14 aircraft, supported by one KC-135 from the Arizona Air National Guard, deployed to Souda Bay, Crete, for a flying training deployment, destined to improve interoperability with the Hellenic Air Force and to exploit the airspace and the ranges on and around the island. Aviano pilots were able to practise with their Greek counterparts from the Block 52+ equipped F-16Cs and F-16Ds assigned to 343 Mira (Wing) based at Souda Bay. During the deployment, 31st FW F-16s flew dissimilar air combat training, with Hellenic Air Force F-4E Phantoms and Mirage 2000s. The commander of the 555th FS, Lt Col Vincent J O’Connor, told AIR International: “The purpose of the deployment was to improve our proficiency in full-scale air-to-ground weapons delivery, integrate with tactical air control parties in close air support missions, and conduct combined training with the Hellenic Air Force to further strengthen that partnership. The 555th FS flew a combination of basic surface attack, close air support and air interdiction missions. We conducted training with live, inert and simulated ordnance. The 555th FS employed Mk82, GBU-12, GBU-24 [bombs], M151 rockets, and 20mm rounds on the Karavia range.
“We also conducted combined training with the Hellenic Air Force in large force employment missions, which included both air-to-air and air-to-ground training. These missions would normally include air-to-air refuelling, an ingress to a target area that was defended by enemy aircraft and simulated enemy surface-to-air missile systems, interdiction on pre-planned targets, followed by a tactical egress against air-to-air and surface-to-air threats. The Hellenic Air Force was extremely hospitable and provided our squadron with outstanding support to meet our training objectives. We enjoyed training with them and getting to learn about Greek culture.”
In July 2016, the 31st FW took part in Red Flag 16-3, sending 14 aircraft, 250 personnel and more than 83 tonnes of stores from Aviano to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. That August, the contingent took part in exercise Green Flag 16-8, also staged from Nellis. This exercise, dedicated to air-toground joint operations, is centred on the US Army Fort Irwin training complex outside Barstow, California. Lt Col Benjamin Freeborn, commander of the 510th FS, described his unit’s roles there: “Green Flag is a joint training exercise the Air Force puts on in partnership with the US Army National Training Center. It focuses on the integration between Army and Air Force tactical-level units. The Buzzards are a multi-role F-16 fighter squadron; we’re comfortable swapping between mission types rapidly. In Green Flag, our role was primary to support the ground commander’s objectives.
We provided precision fire support, destroyed enemy air defences, hunted the adversary’s drones and helicopters, and acted as killerscouts, all in order to shape the close fight for our Army partners. We flew primary close air support and forward air controller (airborne) missions.
Lt Col Freeborn described a typical Green Flag mission: “We brief with the Ground Liaison Officer first thing in the morning; they bring us up to speed on what the Army commander’s intent for the day is. Then we typically spend time preparing for the mission by updating our digital and paper maps with friendly locations, objectives and known threats. After that, we’ll brief the mission, highlighting any specific tactics or procedures that are especially critical for today’s mission.
“Taking-off from Nellis, we fly south into the National Training Center airspace. Once we check in through air traffic control, we switch mind sets to a tactical focus and work our way through the scenario’s command and control agencies. They’ll typically be an Air Support Operations Center that we initially check in with. They pass a situation update and funnel us to either the deep fight, where we may operate autonomously, or to whichever Tactical Air Control Party [TACP] needs us the most at that time.
“A typical mission would be searching past the TACP’s line of sight for adversary manoeuvre units. [Green Flag has a robust opposing force, with vehicles, threats and a good number of enemy personnel to react to.] In our exercise specifically, the opposing force was using extensive camouflage and concealment. We would work through our various sensors to find dug-in adversary position and simulate striking them with precision-guided weapons. The Green Flag staff would track all of this from Nellis, and real-time kill remove any of the opposing force we successfully struck. This would then affect the ground fight realistically, as the adversary would not have these assets to use in the ground battle.
“After landing, the debrief by Green Flag personnel was world class. They replayed our positions relative to the friendly and adversary ground units, showed us adversaries that we might not have detected and accounted for the adversaries we were successful against. It was then our job to take that scenario debrief back into a flight-specific debrief to find how we could better execute our tactics the next day, and for our intelligence specialists to exploit what we learned about how the adversary acted.
“We dropped quite a bit of ordnance during this trip, but the Green Flag scenarios described all involved simulated weapons, for obvious reasons. There is a live range that we use with the TACPs, but it is out of scenario. On the live range, we employed GBU-12 laser-guided bombs, GBU-38 GPSguided bombs, unguided 70mm rockets, 500lb bombs and 20mm cannon. That specific Green Flag exercise was the most effective close air support training I’ve ever experienced. The investment in integrating with the Army unit was unique for us. The threat simulators and opposing force made the training very effective. The focus on high-intensity, major combat operations really tested the Buzzard pilots, maintainers, and support personnel; there was very little room for error.”
During operations from Aviano, flying training is usually carried out in regulated airspace nearby. Facilities in the surrounding Friuli region include the Zita military training area, itself split into six sections, and another area called Speedy (formerly a NATO area), over the Adriatic Sea where supersonic flight is permitted. On the western side of Speedy is another area called Sara, which extends over the Romagna region and the adjoining sea. About 70% of the 31st’s sorties are flown in Speedy and Sara, which together offer a training area about 100 x 150 nautical miles (185 x 278km). The upper limits of these areas do not extend to high altitude because they are positioned beneath commercial airways down the Adriatic Sea. Very occasionally, the Americans use a smaller area called Lola, located south of Brescia, where some of the airspace extends up to 37,000ft (11,277m).
Aviano’s F-16s do not use any bombing ranges in Italy. All air-to-ground missions, using inert munitions. Takes place on two ranges in Slovenia and Croatia.
The 606th Air Control Squadron, a mobile command and control combat unit, relocated to Aviano as part of the European Infrastructure Consolidation Plan in June 2016, and is assigned to the 31st Operations Group. As a consequence of the move, 31st FW F-16s are now able to train with their own tactical air controllers during normal training activity in Italy.
Aviano is in a beautiful part of the world, not far from Venice, and the flying opportunities are tremendous, with all sorts of terrain nearby. A newly qualified pilot on a first tour arrives at Aviano directly from one of the F-16 formal training units at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico and Tucson Air National Guard Base, Arizona.
To reach mission ready status, he or she must complete mission qualification training (MQT), which lasts two or three months. The novice will fly a couple of missions each week as wingman to an instructor pilot or as part of a four-ship flight. The missions are used to familiarise the new pilot with local procedures and air space, and to demonstrate to the instructor the ability to safely fly assigned tasks. The MQT syllabus requires each tyro to demonstrate the ability to carry out one of each sortie type performed by the wing: basic fighter manoeuvre, tactical intercept, defensive counter air, offensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defences, close air support, dynamic targeting and more. At the end of the programme, there is a certification ride, and if successful, the new pilot is eligible for every task the squadron is required to carry out.
Missions usually involve about 90 minutes’ flying time, but this can be extended if the jets receive fuel from tankers, typically KC- 135R Stratotankers assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing based at RAF Mildenhall, UK, and sometimes those from Air National Guard units deployed from the United States on a rotational basis to the NATO Air Base at Geilenkirchen, Germany.
Aviano’s fighter pilots are the only ones based in Italy to practise hot pit refuelling and re-arming. The procedure requires the pilot to stay in the jet, with engine and systems running, while it is prepared for another sortie.
When the wing schedules three consecutive missions with two hot pits, pilots have to remain strapped to their ejection seats for more than eight hours in one stretch. That’s a hard day, but during the air war over Libya, pilots from the 31st FW operated directly from home base flying combat air patrol missions lasting up to 12 hours. On average, 31st FW F-16 pilots fly about 120 hours per year.
The boss speaks
Brigadier General Lance Landrum is Commander of the 31st Fighter Wing with responsibility for the only US Air Force fighter wing on Europe’s southern flank and the closest combat-coded wing to the Middle East and Africa. He told AIR International how that impacts on operations: “We take our relationship and our role as a NATO alliance member very seriously. We are stationed south of the Alps, and we do focus on operations across the Mediterranean, and to Africa.”
General Landrum emphasised the importance of the non-flying assets his wing provides to NATO: “Of course, you know about the F-16s, which are very visible and very loud, sometimes, but we also have a relatively new organisation, which is an Air Control Squadron, the 606th ACS, which is now fully capable here, having relocated from Spangdahlem Air Base, in Germany. They have command and control, air battle management and tactical air control functions. Their personnel are air battle managers, they talk to aircraft, giving threat warnings, tactical directions, as well as tactical airspace de-conflictions, so everybody can fly safely in a tactical situation. They have other airmen that maintain their equipment, such as TPS-75 radar systems, the associated datalink, radio and satellite communications systems. In addition to this squadron, we look forward to the arrival of the 56th and 57th Rescue Squadrons. They will arrive from Lakenheath in the UK this summer [by June 2018], and will bring with them their [five] HH-60 helicopters, maintenance personnel, the flight crews, of course, and the para rescue personnel, the para jumpers that we call Guardian Angels.
“Our relationship with the local Italian Air Force, and with the local base commander, is very important. We couldn’t accomplish our mission without our partnership, and without very open communication between the 31st FW and the airport commander. We rely on some Italian personnel for the security forces, for the base operations centre, which helps with flight plans, and flight control systems. In addition, the Italians lead in air traffic control and radar approach control, working side by side with Americans.
“In terms of flight activity, some of the limitations we have here are fairly common to Europe, and some are very common to our bases in the United States. We work closely with the Italian Air Force leadership here to schedule our daily routine within the airfield operating hours. Sometimes there are exceptions, when a mission requires activity outside the airfield operating hours: for example, night flying training. In summer, the sun stays up until late, and in that case, we need to fly until midnight. We have a scheduled communication process with the Italian Air Force to allow the airfield to stay open for extra hours. Sometimes there are mission requirements that require the airfield to be open at the weekend. Of course, we try to minimise those exceptions as much as we can.
“We take part in COMAOs [Combined Air Operations], NATO large forces exercises with the Italian Air Force. Our jets participated in exercise Ramstein Dust, which was associated with the deployable CAOC [Combined Air Operations Centre] from Poggio Renatico [that was] moved to Decimomannu. There are also opportunities for us to take part in activities with the Italian Air Force in local exercises, for example, training with Italian Army JTACs who attended briefings with us about close air support [CAS] training after which we flew a simulated CAS mission in the urban area of Aviano town, taking advantage of the ROVER [Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver] systems fitted in our aircraft, and linked to the Sniper Pod.”
Commenting on a resurgent Russia, General Landrum had this to say about the future of the base: “Across the American government and across NATO, there is a general security and stability concern.
There are dynamics taking place in Ukraine, and just across the Mediterranean, in Libya, and of course we know very well about the refugee flow, from Syria and elsewhere … My sense is that the NATO Alliance is strong, and its members are committed to solidarity. From my perspective, partnership and communication is strong, and we are continuously working to improve our interoperability between the NATO members. It’s important to show that solidarity and the capability to work together and partner together. I wouldn’t speculate about any future operations because the world is so dynamic, we are so connected such that a small event in some places 20 years ago would have been very isolated and insignificant, but now grows global quickly and creates many emotions. Sometimes those spiral and create dangerous situations. That’s why we train; we are ready for the mission, in a good partnership with Italy. Italy is very engaged around the world in many different places, one of the most engaged NATO members, and stand as an example where its forces are deployed.” AI