Ian Harding reports on the latest UK-based exercise that’s growing in both importance and air power capability
DESIGNED AND co-hosted by the US Air Forces in Europe’s 48th Fighter Wing based at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, Suffolk, and the Royal Air Force, Exercise Point Blank is a recurring large force integration exercise. The event has grown in stature since the first event took place in March 2016. Drawing its name from Operation Point Blank, the code name for a portion of the Allied bombing offensive in World War Two, traditionally the exercise has been conducted on a smaller, regional scale. Staged on November 27, 2018, Point Blank 18-3 significantly increased its scope and scale with approximately 40 aircraft participating, including UK F-35B Lightnings and the Armée de l’Air for the first time.
Acknowledging the importance of Exercise Point Blank, Major General John Wood Commander 3rd Air Force, based at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, said: “We are already at a high state of readiness, but readiness can only be maintained if we exercise and train for it every day.”
United Kingdom Joint Air Component Commander Air Commodore Jez Attridge said: “As we saw last weekend, Russia is challenging the international rules-based order. We therefore need an insurance policy. Point Blank gives us the opportunity to stay ready, and if we stay ready, we don’t have to get ready.”
The primary objective for the Point Blank series is to prepare NATO allies for a highly contested fight against adversaries operating in a multidimensional battlespace. Inspired by largescale exercises such as Red Flag held at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, Point Blank seeks to integrate a large number of dissimilar aircraft, and teach flight crews how to best operate together and train in a safe environment. Rather than forward deploying a large number of aircraft to a single base at a huge cost, Point Blank utilises the UK’s extensive training range network; this latest event took place using airspace over the North Sea. The UK’s range network is in close proximity to most Royal Air Force and US Air Force fighter squadrons, making it ideal for training either over land or sea. Using training hours already budgeted for and programmed, Point Blank is a low-cost event designed to increase the tactical proficiency of participating units stationed within the UK and Europe.
After years of uncontested air superiority, NATO forces acknowledge that any future war fighting will be contested and involve highly capable threats. Training with NATO allies such as the UK and France improves interoperability and demonstrates that the United States is committed to regional security. In addition, event 18-3 allowed the UK to use its shiny new F-35B Lightnings in the controlled environment of a joint air exercise for the first time, marking a notable milestone on the UK Lightning Force’s march to declaration of initial operating capability targeted for the end of December 2018. Explaining the tactical aims of the exercise, 48th Fighter Wing Chief of Weapons and Tactics Major Eric Joachim said: “We teach war fighters three things at Point Blank: common tactics, a common operating language, everything from radios to datalinks making sure they’re synchronised with systems, and finally, synchronising and compounding the effects.”
Mission planning for Point Blank 18-3 was completed at RAF Lakenheath on November 26, 2018, in preparation for the exercise staged the following day. At approximately 09:30hrs on November 27, all participating aircraft launched from multiple locations across the UK. The scenario used involved the standard NATO Blue (friendly) vs Red (hostile) forces, with Blue based in the east engaged by Red located in the west.
Blue force pilots were tasked with destroying simulated hostile surface–air-missile threats before moving forward into hostile territory to destroy simulated targets. Red force pilots were presenting a threat laydown designed to challenge the air superiority held by the Blue force. Exercise moderators also introduced other challenges – for example, simulated radio communication jamming designed to force aircrew to overcome and counter communication degradation.
United States Air Forces in Europe is not standing still with its current version of Point Black. General Tod Walters, Commander United States Air Forces in Europe, and his staff intend to create a more effective tactical-level exercise, one with a changeable operational focus depending on the training requirements of the participants involved, in the same way that Exercise Red Flag is choreographed at Nellis.
Previous Point Blanks have focused on combat SAR and dissimilar air combat training. Major Joachim confirmed the aim of the organisers of Point Black is to develop the event to become one of the world’s leading large force integration combat training exercises. These aspirations will be enhanced when the mighty 48th Fighter Wing ‘The Liberty Wing’ receives the first of 48 F-35A Lightning IIs.