Made in France

Jan Kraak visited Corsica to report on 2017’s iteration of the SERPENTEX series of exercises

Ten years of close air support expertise


The 433 Squadron crews were busy during SERPENTEX. Here, one Hornet is undergoing maintenance, while another is being refuelled and the third is flying.
All photos by Jan Kraak

The 2017 edition of SERPENTEX took place on the French island of Corsica from September 11 to 29. In the last ten years, this exercise has evolved from a predominantly national workup for French joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) and aircrew before their deployment to Afghanistan into one of the leading close air support (CAS) exercises in Europe. SERPENTEX is for CAS specialists, which means that the goal is not to qualify personnel: all participants are already combat-ready.

Every year, the organisers create different scenarios by using the input from past and current wartime operations to provide participating JTACs and aircrew with realistic training. A lot of work is put into preparing the tasks, planning how resources will be used and reserving airspace. According to the exercise commander Lieutenant Colonel Arnaud, who is a Mirage 2000D pilot with the Escadron de Chasse 3 (EC 3) at BA133 Nancy, a team of 25 began work on the exercise back in September 2016.

Most participants only spend one or two weeks in Corsica. Therefore, a new scenario starts each Monday. Lt Col Arnaud said: “We try to play out the entire scenario throughout the week, so that the time is really used for training. This means that the scenario will sometimes continue to the next phase even when a real operation would be interrupted. This way we make sure to provide sufficient training to the primary audience. On top of the participant rotations the organisers also have to deal with changing weather conditions and serviceability of the air assets. Therefore, the exact planning is finalised one day in advance.

“We have an overview with all the exercise areas where the JTACs are deployed. Each of these teams has to carry out an operation. The air planner must provide the right support for each of these operations. This includes the tankers, AWACS and UAVs that will play into the scenario.”

Throughout each operation the JTACs will put in different types of joint terminal attack requests to the air assets through the different command and control structures. As communication between the different participants is highly standardised, it is not necessarily about the messages between JTACs and aircrew, but more about how the communications are performed, learning about each other’s ways of working and using the proper chains of command.

Lt Col Arnaud said: “SERPENTEX is not Africa, the Middle East or Afghanistan. It is a set of rules that are made for this exercise to succeed in its training goals, but we also train realistically, which means that we fly in the same manner as when we actually deploy with the Mirage 2000N and 2000D.”

Over the course of three weeks, approximately 1,000 French personnel – 600 Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) and 400 Armée de Terre (French Army) – took part in the exercise. The Armée de Terre off ered realistic simulations in the form of artillery, as well as opposing forces, coordinated from Brigade command level in Solenzara. A total of 200 international participants took part in the exercise. The JTACs were from 11 different countries (Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, Slovenia, the UK and the United States).

However, SERPENTEX is not only about CAS. Arnaud explained: “It is about everything we do during air-to-ground missions. We fly X-AI [emergency air interdiction] where we have a list of potential targets when we take off and have to adapt during the sortie, ISR [intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance] and personnel recovery: basically, all the missions we can execute with the different assets present here. This means it is not only about fighter aircraft, but also about helicopters and tactical transport aircraft. During SERPENTEX, we execute tactical airlifts and tactical airdrops under JTAC control. The only thing we do not do here are tactical missions with cruise missiles.”

Approximately 280 sorties were flown each week. Although quite a few participants flew from other airbases, the majority operated out of BA126 Ventiseri-Solenzara. A varying number of aircraft took part each week. There were a few cancellations, such as the Armée de l’Air’s C-160 Transall and a SA330B Puma from Escadron d’Hélicoptères (EH) 1/44 ‘Solenzara’ that were re-tasked to French relief operations after Hurricane Irma.

Air-ground integration

Every SERPENTEX typically focuses on a particular CAS element relevant for ongoing operations. Last year, the exercise focused on digital aided CAS as the Armée de l’Air was testing new systems and the operational squadrons were about to receive new tablet computers, OCAD-2 (Outil Connecté d’Aide à la Décision (Connected Decision Support Tool)), providing aircrews quick access to all mission data prepared by their intelligence officers.

For 2017 the theme was air-ground integration. To this end, SERPENTEX was integrated with another exercise named TOLL. This Armée de Terre live-firing exercise took place at the French Army base of Canjuers, situated about 100km (60 miles) north-east of St Tropez. The facility has several live-firing ranges used by artillery, tanks and helicopters. It is the only range in France where the army can fire its mobile missile systems, the Lance-Roquettes Unitaires (LRU), which have been deployed for Opération Barkhane since April 2016. LRUs are used in conjunction with aerial assets in Barkhane, so the training is very relevant. Both army exercises were coordinated from the temporary Army Brigade headquarters in Solenzara.

Colonel Arnaud said: “The command structure here at BA126 is responsible for 3D-coordination. They provide simulated artillery for SERPENTEX. At the same time, our Air Operations Centre provides simulated air activity for the army live firing exercise at Canjuers.”

The LRU missiles can travel distances of up to 70km (38 nautical miles) at very high speeds. To guarantee safety, the LRU operators had to request the use of the airspace above the range with the fire support coordination cell at the Brigade command in Solenzara. To coordinate the requests for air support by the ground commanders and air force Tactical Party Air Liaison Officer was present at the Brigade command in order to advise the army commanders and to coordinate with JTACs on the ground.

Canadians in Corsica

Apart from four JTACs, the Canadian Armed Forces also participated with 43 personnel and three CF-188 Hornets from 433 Tactical Fighter Squadron, which is based at Bagotville. The Royal Canadian Air Force detachment flew out to Corsica and returned straight home after the exercise. Lieutenant Colonel Jared, 433 TFS’s Commanding Officer, explained why SERPENTEX appeals to the Canadians: “SERPENTEX is very close to what we do in actual operations. One of the different things is that there is more emphasis on collateral damage estimation than I have seen in past exercises. There are also more command and control elements that the JTACs have to go through. This enhances the training. Corsica is also well suited for this type of training. The terrain offers similarities with many of the current areas of operations. The airspace is also great. It’s compact and close to base, so we have a lot time for the mission and our training.”

The 433 TFS focused on the training experience of its younger pilots. Out of the five combat-ready pilots that participated, only two were flight-leaders. The other three were wingmen who had never flown in Europe and who had not yet been in combat.

Jared said: “it is a good experience for them to come to SERPENTEX. It is always good to work with different countries, to understand other people’s capabilities and how they work. They will fly single ships and we will brief them, debrief them and watch their tapes. We are also doing mixed formations with French Rafale and Mirage, which is another good aspect of this exercise. All the wingmen have had the opportunity to do that once or twice. This allows pilots to have an exchange of tactics, techniques and procedures.”

The 433 TFS pilots primarily flew CAS and some strike coordination and recce, but did not fly air interdiction missions. The Royal Canadian Air Force did not take any weapons to Corsica, so did not use the Diane range. Although this year’s participation represents a significant investment (approximately CAD 1 million, excluding fuel) the deployment had to be carried out with limited logistics.

Colonel Jared explained: “There were two C-17s with gear, which is about half of what we normally take for a six-jet deployment. However, when you reduce half the jets that does not mean that you can reduce the number of C-17s, so we had to choose what to bring. This means that when a part breaks that we do not have or when the one we have is broken, or when we break two of them, we have to FedEx that in, which is pretty challenging in terms of logistics.”

As the Canadian Polaris is currently deployed to Iraq, a French KC-135 flew up to Goose Bay and escorted the Hornets all the way to BA126. On the way back, A RCAF KC- 130 was scheduled to join the Hornets over the UK to escort them to Iceland and then to Goose Bay the next day.

Firsts and a last

Although the Harfang drones assigned to ED 1/33 at BA709 Cognac have taken part in previous SERPENTEX editions, 2017 was the first time that a French MQ-9 Reaper participated. The Armée de l’Air currently has one Reaper in France (the other five are based in Niamey, Niger). This drone flew several missions from Cognac.

The fast jet flightline at Solenzara during the final week of SERPENTEX. The number of Rafales and Mirages varied from week to week.

Another first at SERPENTEX 2017 was a new surface-to-air threat simulator that the electronic warfare squadron of the Centre d’Expertise Aérienne Militaire (Military Aviation Centre of Expertise), the Escadron de Programmation et d’Instruction à la Guerre Électronique (EPIGE, Electronic Warfare School) is currently developing at BA118 Mont-de-Marsan. This device, which looks like an actual man-portable air defence system (MANPADS), simulates the SA-7 Grail surface-to-air missile. EPIGE operators have an infrared sensor in their shoulder-mounted MANPADS that tracks the incoming aircraft. When the operators simulate a missile launch, the aircrew are told by radio that an SA-7 has been fired at them. The simulator then tracks and records the actions of the jet as the aircrew carries out the prescribed tactical manoeuvres for avoiding an SA-7. Thanks to the GPS in the threat simulator, data from the EPIGE system can be integrated with that from the aircraft through the Raceview flight data analysis tool to analyse the manoeuvres in detail.

EPIGE is still developing the system. The current equipment was built from scratch from off-the-shelf components and is therefore limited in what it can do. Operators can only call the aircrew over the radio and they need a big generator to power the system. However, thanks to an innovation grant by the Direction Générale de l’Armement, the project team can now further develop the simulator and the next updates should see a simulation of the missile on the aircrews’ screens in their cockpits and the MANPADS, as well as an autonomous MANPAD simulator that will no longer need the generator. The goal is very soon to have a fully developed and operational system, available to each Armée de l’Air squadron for training purposes.

This year’s exercise marked the swansong of EC 2/4 and its Mirage 2000Ns at SERPENTEX. The type will be retired next year and even if the squadron deploys for Opération Barkhane during its final year, we will not see the Mirage 2000N at the next SERPENTEX.