Hunting SAMs over Mount Olympus


Babak Taghvaee visited Andravida Air Base in Greece to report on this year’s special weapons and tactics exercise Iniochos 2019

Nea Anghialos-based Block 50 F-16C, serial number 053, fitted with an AAQ-28 Litening targeting pod was one of six F-16s from 347 Mira deployed to Andravida for Iniochos.

Between April 1 and 12, Exercise Iniochos 2019 (Charioteer 2019), involving 87 fixed-wing aircraft including 83 fighter jets, two UAVs and six helicopters, was held at Andravida Air Base in Greece. This year’s exercise was primarily focused on the suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) role and was perhaps driven by Turkey’s infamous acquisition of the Russian S-400 SAM or surface-to-air missile system, which has led to a rift between the US and its NATO ally.

The exercise

Every year, between September and November, Polemikí Aeroporía (Hellenic Air Force) fighter jet crews train at Andravida with the Kentro Aeroporikis Taktikis (KEAT or Air Tactics Centre). The training course comprises two phases each lasting six weeks. The first inculcates the theory of combat tactics in lessons on the ground and in the air, and in the second part the students hone their skills to a fine edge.

Planning for Iniochos 2019 really got going in October 2018. Invitations were sent to allied air forces and four nations accepted, all of whom had participated before. The Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) with twelve fighter jets, a mixture of Tornado ECRs and debutants at Iniochos, its F-35As, the Israeli Air Force with 13 F-16C and F-16Ds, and a KC-707, the US Air Force with seven F-16Cs and a KC-135R tanker, and the United Arab Emirates Air Force with six Mirage 2000-9s.

The KEAT designs the course to ensure it covers the full spectrum of missions which the Hellenic Air Force crews trained for during their time at the school between September and November 2018. The syllabus for all participants in the exercise covered offensive counter air operations, air defence operations, counter surface force operations including air power contribution to land ops, and air power contribution to maritime ops. Reconnaissance missions, combat search and rescue, time sensitive target missions, dynamic targeting, high value airborne asset protection and slow mover (force) protection missions complete the list.

International participants and the force deployment

According to Col Konstantinos Zolotas, HAF Air Tactics Centre Commander, the exercise scenario adopted a single base concept (execution of operations from a single air base, Andravida), with the participation of all of Greece’s fighter squadrons: “This year was no different, but due to parking and taxi requirements 335 Fighter Squadron and 336 Fighter Squadron for the first week, participated from 116 CW – Araxos Air Base, which is 26km away from Andravida Air Base. However, the single base concept was not affected as all the aircrews participated in the planning, briefing, execution and debriefing of every mission and enjoyed the same benefits.”

Suppression of enemy air defences

Col Zolotas told AIR International: “The most important aspect of the exercise is teamwork: how to integrate and fight as a unit and how to coordinate and share knowledge and expertise while striving for a common mission objective. In each mission there are different leads and formation combinations.”

To illustrate the teamwork, several missions including those focussed on SEAD, were carried out jointly, by formations of Greek and American or Greek and Italian jets for instance. During some of these joint sorties, the 338 Mira Phantoms flew strike missions and also performed FASTCAPs, using their APG-65Y radars in conjunction with AIM-120B AMRAAM missiles for beyond visual range air combat engagements.

Israeli Air Force 109 ‘The Valley Squadron’ based at Ramat David Air Base participated in Iniochos 2019 with six Block 30 F-16Ds. It is understood that the training undertaken in Greece helped prepare the aircrews for an airstrike against an IRGC-run rocket and ballistic missile factory in Masyaf, Syria on April 13, 2019.

Zolotas told us: “The F-4 Peace Icarus 2000s of 117 CW, a platform which carries AIM-120 AMRAAM, Litening targeting pod, self-protection systems and modern air-toground weapons, is still an effective asset and a worthy competitor. The F-4E PI-2000, as a part of a joint mission within a force package, with supporting SEAD and fighter aircraft, can be very effcient and may play a significant part in the overall outcome.”

Major Addison Harding, the 480th Eexpeditionary Fighter Squadron detachment commander whose F-16Cs, together with Greek Phantoms carried out dozens of simulated SEAD missions against Hellenic Air Force S-300PMU-1 surfaceto- air missile systems, told us about those joint missions with 338 Mira: “We had many joint missions with the F-4Es during the exercise. They were tasked with destroying ground targets and our primary mission was to provide SEAD coverage for them and other strikers against enemy surface-to-air missile systems.”

Block 52+ F-16D, serial number 608, from 340 Mira based at Souda Bay, Crete; the unit is a frequent participant in Exercise Iniochos.

Similar joint operations were carried out by two Italian Tornado ECRs carrying CATM-88B HARM anti-radiation captive training missiles. The Tornados trained in providing SEAD support for a pair of HAF F-4Es. Greece’s own 341 and 343 Mira, which specialise in SEAD using AGM-88B HARM missiles on their Block 50 and Block 52+ F-16Cs performed a similar service for Italian Tornado IDS bombers.

Aeronautica Militare 6° Stormo Tornado instructor pilot, Lieutenant Colonel Giovanni Lodato, who was the boss of the Italian contingent deployed to Andravida talked about the SEAD missions carried out by his Tornado ECRs: “During Iniochos 2019 Tornado ECRs have performed several SEAD and DEAD [destruction of enemy air defence] missions in a complex scenario in which Hellenic land and sea forces simulated being enemy threats. That provided us with an excellent training outcome. In this context, in order to make the scenario more challenging and realistic, and also to let the crews train, these missions have been carried out with the use of CATM-88Bs.”

F-4E PI-2000 Phantom II, serial number 01528, was one of the six from 338 Mira to participate in Iniochos 2019.

Israeli airstrike

The Israeli Air Force carried out an airstrike against the Iranian Republican Guards Corpsrun rocket and ballistic missile factory in Masyaf, Syria in the early hours of April 13, 2019. The raid saw the first acknowledged use of Israel Military Systems’ long-range supersonic Rampage air-to-ground missile. Israel had been forced to halt air-to-ground operations against Syrian Arab Army, IRGC and Hezbollah related targets in the region once the Syrian Arab Air Defence Force installed a S-300PM-2 surface-to-air missile battery at Masyaf - Israel lost an F-16 attacking a Syrian target in February 2018 when it was engaged by a less-capable S-200 surfaceto- air missile battery. Barak crews of 109 ‘The Valley Squadron’ participated in Iniochos 2019 between April 1 and 5.

One of Israel’s missions at Iniochos 2019 presaged the later raid on Syria. Blue force 109 Squadron Baraks, escorted by F-16Cs from 117 Squadron simulated an airstrike against an airport under the control of Red land forces. Discussing the mission, Lt Col A, commander of 117 Squadron said: “We are not used to this type of training either in terms of size, the quality of the mission or the number of participants, all of these increase the quality of the training – it is extremely high. Various threats [surface-to-air systems and enemy interceptors] together with mountain topography require us to plan the mission accurately and try to avoid encountering the threats or shortening the chances of any fatality as much as possible. In this exercise we chose to focus on low-altitude flight and attack ground targets in a multi-threat environment. This is unique training we do not experience in Israel”.

UAE Air Force Mirage 2000-9 759 at Andravida. On the request of the UAE government, flights and missions involving UAEAF fighters were planned when no Israeli Air Force F-16s were flying.
Matsuzaki Hirobumi

Star player

For the first time in its history, during Iniochos 2019, Aeronautica Militare F-35A Lightning IIs participated in a major international exercise. However, they did so with one arm tied behind their backs. At the request of the United States government, the Aeronautica Militare installed Luneburg radar reflectors on its jets to increase their radar cross sections. Also, they could not use their APG-81 active electronically scanned array radar systems during the missions. Dissimilar air combat was practised only within visual range using CATM-9 Sidewinder captive training missiles.

While the exercise was progressing, the US government announced it had offered to sell F-35s to Greece. Probably this was by way of putting further pressure on Greece’s near neighbour, fellow NATO member but historic enemy, Turkey to cancel its S-400 deal with Russia.

If Turkey continues to increase its military ties with Russia the sale of F-35s to Greece may well take place.

Greece has already announced the upgrade of 84 of its Block 50 and Block 52+ F-16s to F-16V standard but the sale of 30 F-35Asto Greece would tip the balance of power in the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean in Greece’s favour, especially if they were used to replace the 32 ageing Block 30 F-16Cs and F-16Ds, 23 of which are assigned to 330 Mira. At the same time of course, NATO’s eastern flank would be significantly strengthened.

Israeli Air Force 117 Squadron also based at Ramat David deployed seven Block 30 F-16Cs to Andravida including aircraft 364.

Another advantage, for the F-35 community, should the US ratify its arms embargo on Turkey and decline to deliver the six Turkish F-35As already flying in America, or with Lockheed Martin at its Forth Worth facility, is that the aircraft could instead be delivered to Greece at a hefty discount.

Speaking during a press conference at Andravida on April 5, Greek Minister of Defence, Evangelos Apostolakis said with regard to the US offer of F-35: “We are beyond the F-16 upgrade and we are in the process of choosing the new fighter that Greece will have to purchase to slowly transition to a new generation of aircraft. The statement made at the US Congress [offering F-35] is helping this outlook. We will examine it, all the components, and we will see what happens.”

Col Zolotas told AIR International: “The main difference of Iniochos 2019 from the previous year was the introduction of the fifthgeneration jet, the Italian F-35. It was a great challenge to test the integration between the third, fourth and fifth-generation aircraft all working together towards a common goal. The Aeronautica Militare F-35 aircrews were approachable, cooperative and down to earth, sharing the same considerations and facing the same tactical problems with the Hellenic aircrews. Although most of the capabilities of the F-35 are classified, the [Italian] aircrews learned to cooperate and help each other particularly during mission planning and debriefing.”

Lieutenant Colonel Giovanni Lodato said: “F-35As have carried out several combined missions with all the participating weapon systems which are usually called COMAOs. In these COMAOs there was a rotating mission commander that plans, arranges and organizes the available weapon systems, with the arsenal of the other participating countries, in order to accomplish the task of the mission.

Truthfully, 13° Gruppo has already done five long national deployments but this [F-35A deployment to Greece] was the second deployment abroad [for the F-35s] and the first in a major multinational exercise. Moreover, Italian F-35s and pilots also recently participated in the large-scale exercise Red Flag in the United States, albeit flying US Air Force machines. The experience at Iniochos has been amazing, because we had the opportunity to exploit all the capabilities of the weapon system, performing both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, SEAD and DEAD.”

Aerial refuelling training

As mentioned above, both the US Air Force and Israeli Air Force provided tanker aircraft, enabling all HAF F-16 pilots participating in the exercise to sharpen their aerial refuelling skills. On April 1, Israel provided a KC-707 serial number 290. The jet has a secondary role as an airborne command post.

On April 2, the KC-707 launched and refuelled Israeli F-16s over the Mediterranean Sea. On the same day, a KC-135R from RAF Mildenhall’s 100th Air Refueling Wing provided fuel for HAF F-16s over the Ionian Sea. The tanker flew to and from its home base and did not land in Greece.

Goals achieved

Col Zolotas told the author: “The main exercise objective is the training of all aircrew in an intensive battle rhythm with realistic attrition rates and challenging scenarios, which include multiple modern threats and real time live injects, tailored to produce the fog of war and test both the physical and psychological endurance of the modern fighter.”

Lt Col Giovanni Lotado gave the Italian verdict: “Due to the fact that it is a medium-scale exercise, Iniochos provides the Aeronautica Militare with a high level of training and unique experience of participation. Firstly, the variety of weapon systems involved in the exercise gives a unique opportunity that, obviously, is not so common during daily training. Moreover, we had the opportunity to enhance cooperation within participating countries. Finally, Iniochos 2019 gave us the opportunity to perform in a complex scenario conducting a full spectrum of missions such as close air support, dynamic targeting, strike coordination and reconnaissance, offensive counter air, air operations versus integrated air defence systems and defensive counter air”.

“The combined use of third, fourth and fifth-generation aircraft, air-to-surface integration in tactical scenarios, has been an important opportunity to exercise not only the standardization of tactics, techniques and procedures but also the interoperability between different systems and the ability of one type of aircraft or system to use information produced by others. All these kinds of missions have been carried out simultaneously during COMAOs.”

Major Harding the 480th EFS boss told us: “Our goal was to integrate with our NATO and international partners and learn how to operate in a challenging threat environment. The 480th excelled during this exercise and our Greek hosts were extremely professional and accommodating.”

Col Zolotas said: “It is worth mentioning that every year is heavily influenced by lessons learned from previous exercises and as such the organization and management of Iniochos 2019 was more efficient than previous years.”


Three Aeronutica Militare Tornado ECRs assigned to 155° Gruppo participated in this year’s big Greek gun fight; aircraft MM7055/6-65 is seen loaded with a pair of CATM-88B HARM anti-radiation captive training missiles.