Ludo Mennes and Frank Visser cover participation by the Armée de l’Air in this year’s Exercise Frisian Flag at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands
Speaking to media at Leeuwarden Air Base in April, base commander Lieutenant Colonel Ronald van der Jagt said: “One of the goals for Frisian Flag is to have as many different aircraft and air forces present for a joint exercise in order to realise a maximum learning curve.” The Royal Netherlands Air Force hosted Frisian Flag, the annual largescale, multinational exercise between April 9 and 20 at Leeuwarden. Participants included aircraft from France, Germany, Poland, Spain, the United States and the Netherlands. For this year’s edition, the Armée de l’Air (the French Air Force) sent the largest contingent of fighter aircraft from one nation in the history of the exercise, and for two weeks the base had, in part, a distinctive French feel.
The words from the exercise commander resonated, as the detachment commander of the Armée de l’Air, Lieutenant Colonel Olivier, Wing Commander of Escadre de Chasse 4 at BA113 Saint Dizier, proudly announced that Frisian Flag was the largest European exercise the Armée de l’Air would participate in during 2018. An experienced Mirage 2000N, Mirage 2000D and Rafale pilot and wing commander since 2014, Olivier took around 180 airmen from three different wings around France to the Netherlands: Escadre de Chasse (EC) 3 from BA133 Nancy, flying the Mirage 2000D; EC 4 from BA113 Saint Dizier, flying the Rafale B; and EC 30 from BA118 Mont de Marsan, flying the Rafale C. There were ten Rafale B crews, ten Rafale C pilots and 12 Mirage 2000D crews at Leeuwarden, which made it possible for the French detachment to participate at maximum level. In order to fly in the exercise, all French crew had to be combat qualified.
An initial invitation was sent out by the organising committee to the Armée de l’Air Staff in Paris, which approached the different wings. The main reason for French participation on such a large scale was the opportunity to fly different and difficult scenarios in a multinational context with multiple aircraft of different types, so-called composite air operations. Exercise scenarios offered the French the possibility to train using non-permissive tactics, including both air-toair and ground-to-air threats.
During Frisian Flag missions, crews encountered robust ground-based threats presented by Dutch and German ground-based air defence units simulating surfaceto- air missiles such as the Russian SA-6 Gainful and SA-8 Gecko. Ground targets with dynamic characteristics were set up each day for the air-to-ground players to strike.
Escadre de Chasse 3
For the third year in succession, EC 3 from BA133 Nancy participated with four Mirage 2000Ds serving in the air-to-ground role. Ground personnel and crews from all three squadrons based at Nancy, 01.003 ‘Navarre’, 02.003 ‘Champagne’ and 03.003 ‘Ardennes’, were present.
During the daily missions, the Mirage 2000Ds flew in fighter-bomber configuration; aircraft were seen carrying a GBU-49 precision-guided munition under the fuselage, a Thomson-CSF ATLIS II targeting pod (for day time/clear-weather situations) and/or the more capable multispectral Thales Damocles PDLCT targeting pod.
Absolutely the Armée de l’Air’s workhorse for over 20 years, the Mirage 2000 remains in service as a fighter (not covered in this feature) and bomber; the nuclear strike capable Mirage 2000N will be retired from service this summer with transition to the Rafale B, and the conventional strike Mirage 2000Ds, which are all currently based at BA133 Nancy in north-eastern France.
In 2016, the Direction générale de l’armement (French defence procurement agency) awarded Dassault Aviation and MBDA a contract for the mid-life update of 55 Mirage 2000D aircraft. An upgrade programme, designed to keep the Mirage 2000D in service until after 2030, will include installation of an automatic cannon for ground-attack work, modernisation of the avionics and provision for the MBDA MICA air-to-air missile in place of the older Magic 2.
After an absence of ten years, Rafale fighters returned to Leeuwarden. Ten years ago, practically brand-new Rafales assigned to BA113 Saint Dizier made the type’s debut in Frisian Flag. What a return. This year, the Armée de l’Air deployed five two-seat Rafale Bs from BA113 Saint Dizier, and four singleseat Rafale Cs from BA118 Mont-de-Marsan. According to the French personnel, all nine jets were assigned to the respective Escadron de Soutien Technique Aéronautique from each base; the unit responsible for providing the serviceable and correctly configured jets to the operational units assigned to the wing.
There was a mix of tail flashes and markings representing three different Saint Dizier-based squadrons, although all of the crews were from EC 01.004 ‘Gascogne’.
Among the various squadron markings applied to the jets was Escadron de Transformation Rafale 03.004 ‘Aquitaine’, the training unit responsible for the training of all Armée de l’Air and Aéronautique Navale crews. Aquitaine is also tasked with training pilots from those nations that are procuring Rafale; Qatari pilots are being trained over the next couple of years at Saint Dizier, while Qatari technicians receive the maintenance training at BA118 Mont-de-Marsan.
One jet had the markings of Spa 167 ‘Cigogne’ applied to its tail fin. Spa 167 is one of three escadrilles (flights) in EC 02.004 ‘La Fayette’, a squadron with a 30-year history of flying the Mirage 2000N that is in transition from the Mirage 2000N to the Rafale B. Spa 167’s colours and historical artefacts are currently at BA125 Istres (its previous base), but will be moved to Saint Dizier in September, when the squadron will be declared fully operational on the Rafale B.
Three different jets each had the badge of one of the three different escadrilles of EC 01.004 ‘Gascogne’, a squadron assigned to the Forces Aériennes Stratégiques (the French Strategic Forces), and has flown the Rafale since 2010. Gascogne’s primary role is the nuclear deterrence mission, so the squadron is only equipped with two-seat Rafale B aircraft; a two-person crew is required for the nuclear strike role. Right now and until EC 02.004 is declared fully operational, Gascogne is the only Rafale B unit with that status: a unique position within the Armée de l’Air.
Beside conventional missions, the squadron performs over 50 training exercises per year to practise the different procedures required to remain qualified for the unthinkable mission, for which an undisclosed number of crews remains ready. Nuclear strike by the Rafale involves delivery of the ASMP-A (Air-Sol Moyenne Portée – Ameliorée or air-to-ground medium rangeimproved) nuclear missile.
Originally, the Rafale B was planned to be a trainer aircraft, but the experiences of the first Gulf War showed the importance of a second crewmember for reconnaissance and strike missions, and handling multiple tasks at the same time. In 1991, the Armée de l’Air decided to alter its objectives for the two-seat variant and opted to make approximately 60% of its total Rafale fleet comprise two-seat B-model aircraft, each capable of training and combat tasking. The Rafale is, of course, a swing-role aircraft capable of conducting different roles that include air defence, strike and reconnaissance, and can do on the same mission.
Jets featuring markings from all three escadrilles based at Mont-de-Marsan were present, amongst them a special tail from Spa 162 ‘Tigre’, a flight in EC 03.030 ‘Lorraine’. This unit is a full member of the NATO Tiger association, and has painted Rafale C No.128 with special tiger liveries on both sides of the tail fin.
Also present was one jet in the markings of the famous Normandie-Niemen squadron. Today the unit is referred to by its historical name, the Regiment de Chasse 2/30 ‘Normandie-Niemen’, but is officially designated an Escadre de Chasse.
Formed in Syria during September 1942, the unit soon moved to Russia to fight the Nazis. The original tie with Russia features in the squadron badge, with two leopards, joined by a silver arrow, representing the symbol of the 303rd Soviet Air Division commanded by General Zakharov.
Flying Rafale since 2010, on January 13, 2013, a pilot from the Neu-Neu squadron (the squadron’s nickname) flew the longest bombing mission in the history of the Armée de l’Air since World War Two, lasting for nine hours and 35 minutes.
Rafale Cs deployed to Leeuwarden flew each mission carrying a single MICA captive training missile on the left hand wingtip station; MICA or Missile d’Interception, de Combat et d’Autodéfense is an interception, combat and self-defence missile. This configuration denotes the air-to-air role within the exercise, although the Rafale fighter can, of course, simulate employment of both laser-guided and GPS-guided munitions, Different roles and tasking were flown during the exercise, including sweep, air-to-air and air-to-ground. The current standard Rafale configuration (software and hardware) is dubbed F3 standard.
This will be updated to the F3R standard within the next two years, including an improved active electronically scanned array radar system, an update to the Link 16 terminal, the MBDA Meteor beyond visual range air-toair missile and a new Thales targeting and designation pod dubbed the PDL-NG.
Train as you fight
Although Frisian Flag was a non-qualifying leadership exercise for the Armée de l’Air, it offered very realistic training for pilots and weapon system operators with an intensive flying programme. All of the nations involved with this year’s Frisian Flag also send pilots to NATO’s Tactical Leadership Program (TLP) at Albacete Air Base, Spain. Unlike TLP which provides crews with three days of academic courses, Frisian Flag starts, from day one, with a continuous daily programme of planning, briefing, flying and debriefing.
All French crews flew between five and eight sorties during the two-week exercise. The specific number was dependent on the individual pilot’s level of experience; more experienced crewmembers flew more missions. Just like other nations, the French provided mission commanders, who were responsible for the overall planning and coordination of an entire morning or afternoon strike package. Four or five French mission commanders were tasked each week for both red and blue air mission planning. Blue air is the coalition friendly force and Red air represents the opposing enemy force.
Train as you fight is the name of the game, especially as Armée de l’Air fighter pilots, amongst others, have been permanently involved in overseas operations since 2014.
Nancy-based Mirage 2000Ds have been deployed for overseas operations in Africa since August 1, 2014, under Opération Barkhane, an ongoing anti-insurgent operation.
The Armée de l’Air maintains aircraft at Niamey/Diori Hamani in Niger and at N’Djamena/Hassan Djamous in Chad in the sub- Sahara region. Since July 2016, EC 3 maintains two Mirage 2000Ds at both bases beside Mirage 2000Ns and Mirage 2000Cs deployed by other units. Crews rotate every two to three months.
Rafale units are also heavily committed to overseas operations since September 2014 under Opération Chammal, fighting ISIS militants.
Originally operating from the United Arab Emirates, Rafales were moved to a forward operational base in Jordan during the summer of 2016. The move resulted in much more time over target areas and less transit time for the six aircraft, which conduct air interdiction and close air support missions on a daily basis. Just like their Mirage 2000D counterparts, the Rafale crews from the different units rotate regularly.
During the middle weekend of Frisian Flag, the adage ‘train as you fight’ got a different meaning, when Rafale pilots assigned to Saint Dizier were involved in strikes against three targets in Damascus, Syria, on April 14. A coalition force comprising French, British and American aircraft launched the overnight strike following an alleged nerve gas attack ordered by the Syria’s President Assad on the sieged city of Douma: a clear example showing how close conflict can be from an exercise. Lieutenant Colonel Olivier said: “We are always prepared to act. Even though my feelings said I want to be at Saint Dizier close to my crews, my rationale took over and I remained at Leeuwarden for the exercise, because I know they are professionals and extremely capable of doing their job.”
The wing commander flew one mission during the exercise as part of a four-ship of Rafale B fighters, tasked as Red air defending an area against a large Blue air package of jets. He was clearly impressed with the high standard and reality of the exercise, saying: “I’m very proud that the Armée de l’Air could participate in Frisian Flag, acting together with other nations and live up to expectations, as the quality of this exercise is tremendous. We have shown our capability to fulfil our missions successfully, which was my intentional goal and makes our participation meaningful.”