Star of David over the UK

AIR International visited RAF Waddington towards the end of this year’s multi-national Exercise Cobra Warrior, the first of the series involving the Israeli Air Force

F-15D 733, named ‘The King Ran’, just before touchdown on RAF Waddington’s runway 20. The circular satellite antenna aft of the aircraft’s cockpit canopy is part of the jet’s satellite communication system. This is a bespoke Israeli system used when the aircraft is tasked as a networked command and control node to uplink data from other jets to a satellite for downlinking to Israeli commanders located at long range. Similarly, the satellite communication link enables data to be received from commanders and other assets for datalink distribution to other aircraft in the strike package. Ian Harding

WHEN IT comes to defence, in recent years, since the end of the Cold War, Britain has maintained its contacts with neighbouring nations for training purposes. Joint exercises with NATO members and other friendly nations are regular features of the Royal Air Force’s and the United Kingdom’s other armed services year. Regular exercises like Joint Warrior test the skills of British armed forces and brothers-inarms from the United States, France and Canada. Increasingly, perhaps as a result of the expeditionary nature of many of the Royal Air Force’s real-world operations, as well as the urge to sell British military equipment overseas, exchanges of aircraft and personnel further afield have become more commonplace. The concomitant of that is that warplanes from far-flung nations visit the UK to train with the Royal Air Force. In 2007 Exercise Indradhanush (Hindi for Rainbow) saw six Sukhoi Su- 30MKI Flanker-H air superiority fighters visit RAF Waddington, Lincolnshire to train against visiting British Tornado F3s of XXV Squadron as well as Eurofighter Typhoons from nearby RAF Coningsby. Eight years later the exercise was held at Coningsby with four Sukhois making the trek from India.

Coningsby began holding its own series of exercises, codenamed Cobra Warrior in 2015 as a continuation and expansion of the Royal Air Force’s Combined Qualified Weapons Instructor course, focusing on providing the combined assessment phase for Royal Air Force Weapons Instructors. Earlier foreign participants include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Italy. In 2018 the Luftwaffe took part, sending Eurofighter EF2000s from its Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 73 (TLG 73) based at Rostock- Laage and Panavia Tornado ECRs assigned to TLG 51, the Luftwaffe’s only dedicated reconnaissance wing. On that occasion Italy contributed Eurofighter F-2000s (Typhoons) to the exercise.

Today the Ministry of Defence says that Exercise Cobra Warrior is usually held twice-yearly, once in spring and once in autumn. The spring edition is usually largely virtual using synthetic training. A press release said: “The exercise is the RAF’s capstone tactical training event which is designed to conclude the training of the Qualified Weapons Instructor, Qualified Multi-engine Tactics Instructor, QWI Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, and Qualified Space Instructor students. The exercise aims to develop the tactical skills of aircrew and supporting elements with a composite air operation and provides valuable training opportunities for all participating force elements to practice and develop tactics, techniques and procedures in complex scenarios against a near peer adversary.”


Early in 2019 it was revealed that for this year Exercise Cobra Warrior would be held at RAF Waddington because of maintenance work at Coningsby. Rumours, soon confirmed, abounded that Israel was to take part along with Italy and, once again, Germany. The Israeli contingent was to comprise two versions of the Israel Defence Force’s Zroa HaAvir VeHahalal’s (Air and Space Arm) fleet of Boeing Eagles. Air superiority was to be provided by examples from the air arm’s most recent batch of Eagles, the F-15I Ra’am (Thunder). They were to be accompanied by the older, jack-of-all-trades, F-15C and F-15D Baz (Falcon). In the event the Ra’ams cancelled leaving seven Baz, four F-15Ds and three F-15Cs belonging to 106 ‘Tip of the Spear’ Squadron to make the long journey from Tel Nof Airbase. Interestingly, before the formation of the Israeli state, from 1941 to 1948 Tel Nof was in Palestine and was known as RAF Aqir. Logistics support was provided by C-130H and C-130J-30 transports as well as Boeing KC-707 Re’em air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

Speaking to journalists at RAF Waddington, Brigadier General Amnon Ein-Dar, head of the Zroa HaAvir VeHahalal’s Training and Doctrine Division said: “We are happy and proud to participate in the Cobra Warrior exercise. This is the first time Israeli Air Force fighter aircraft are deployed to and flying in Britain … the deployment will help improve Israeli Air Force readiness and capability. We view this exercise as the highest standard of training, an excellent opportunity for mutual learning and bolstering cooperation between partners.”

The Brigadier General made the expected comments about the British weather but pointed out that ordinarily his men do not use English when they are flying, and this provides difficulties of its own.

He disclosed that the Israelis were mostly acting as Red Air during the exercise and he said his airmen had already picked up some good tips during the exercise. He pointed out that unlike the other nations, Israel’s participation was not linked to any particular course or training but was seen as an opportunity to increase the experience and knowledge of those involved.

Brigadier General Amnon Ein- Dar said Israel is looking forward to hosting Royal Air Force pilots taking part in Exercise Blue Flag 2020, Israel’s largest international air exercise. It will be the first time that RAF jets will have trained in Israeli airspace although F-35B Lightnings operating from RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus, exercised over the Mediterranean with Israeli jets this past summer.

Several Israeli combat pilots took part in a joint training seminar with RAF Typhoon pilots last year, and in 2017 senior Royal Air Force personnel toured Israeli bases.

Lieutenant Colonel ‘D’, commander of Israel’s ‘Tip of the Spear’ Squadron and the deployment leader said: “We had three main goals for the exercise. The first is improving the strategic cooperation between the countries, the second is providing the aircrew members with an operational exercise featuring a wide variety of challenging missions, and the third is improving the Israeli Air Force’s status in the eyes of other air forces by proving its capabilities both in the air and on the ground.”

“We can’t see everything in advance during wartime. We prepare and drill various situations, but the enemy has surprises in store which we then have to respond to… Training in unfamiliar terrain simulates situations of this sort”.

“Combining the experienced Israeli ‘Baz’ aircraft with new aircraft such as the fourth-anda- half generation Eurofighter and the fifth-generation British aircraft [F-35B], helps us merge various platforms and combat doctrines.”

Lieutenant Colonel ‘D’ said: “The mission commander has aircraft, defensive means, intelligence and a mission overview at their disposal. They then have to plan the mission in a single day and execute it the day after. They have all participating aircraft at their command.”

The training of planning the various missions for Cobra Warrior is arguably more valuable than the flying and is the reason that of the more than three weeks of the flying phase of the exercise, only nine days were assigned to actually launching and recovering jets for the exercise.

Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev and Brigadier General Amnon Ein-Dar pose for the cameras in front of F-15C Baz 810. The writing on the jet’s nose is in Hebrew and says Elapidae, a species of venomous snake. Ian Harding
Four Israeli F-15s in the Waddington overhead before recovery. Ian Harding
Italy’s Aeronautica Militare sent four Eurofighter F-2000As to the exercise. This example, MM7321/37-12 is assigned to 37° Stormo based at Trapani-Birgi, Sicily. Ian Harding

Lieutenant Colonel ‘D’ explains: “Behind each mission stands extensive planning … if the mission at hand is landing forces in enemy territory, you have to ensure air defence, plan the forces’ arrival, think up ways to protect the area while the helicopter is on the ground and decide on how to get the forces back to safer territory.

We experience the international forces’ modes of thinking along the way while also showing our own.” Lieutenant ‘A’, the aircrew member managing the Israeli deployment told reporters: “We have some sort of operational experience, and other countries have their own versions of operational experience. We all fight together in the aerial theatre and everybody does it differently, which allows for cross-fertilization.”

Home from home

The difficulties caused by the location of the exercise were compounded by the fact that RAF Waddington is not a fighter base. Major ‘G’, Commander of the Aircraft Department in Tel Nof’s Maintenance Squadron, who also served as the deployments’ Technical Department commander explained: “Seeing as the base didn’t have the means to maintain the fighter jets, preparation was different than it usually is. In the US, they’re prepared for the arrival of F-15s. Here, we had to care for everything, from fuel/oil labs and to basic tools such as a ladder for boarding the aircraft”.

He emphasised that the technical crews had to carefully prepare for the deployment to ensure that everything that might be needed was on hand when the exercise got underway.

F-15D 818, named ‘Octopus’, carries one and a half kill markings for Syrian aircraft. The half kill was awarded to the jet for shooting down a Syrian MiG-23 on June 8, 1982. The victory was shared between two Baz crews because both launched AIM-7F Sparrow air-to-air missiles at the target and it remains unclear which missile destroyed the enemy aircraft. Ian Harding

And there was more…

Two other nations sent aircraft to RAF Waddington. Germany sent ten Eurofighter EF-2000s under the auspices of Laage-based TLG 73. When they arrived with the rest of the German fighters on August 29, two of the jets were painted for TLG 74 based at Neuburg in Bavaria, but they were soon repainted. Ground equipment and other materiel was taken to Lincolnshire by Luftwaffe Airbus Military A400M Atlas transports.

The Luftwaffe also sent one of its tanker aircraft, an Airbus A310MRTT which dispensed fuel to participants on most days of the exercise. It flew from the home of the Royal Air Force’s tanker fleet, RAF Brize Norton, Oxfordshire.

A member of the German contingent and a veteran of many such exercises said that Cobra Warrior was comparable to the Red Flag series of exercises held in the United States, but he had reservations about the US effort: “It is comparable, but Red Flag has changed.” He explained that because Red Flag is open to nearly all-comers, the standard of training has to be accessible to those participants. This, he said, has led to a diminution of the level of training available. “On some Red Flags, the training has not been of the same high level as we experienced ten or 15 years ago.”

The other Waddington-based participating nation was Italy which provided four Eurofighter F-2000As, two of them, from Gioia del Colle Air Base’s 36° Stormo, of the most up-to-date Tranche 3 standard. The Aeronautica Militare’s (Italian Air Force’s) two other Typhoon wings, 4° Stormo from Grosseto and 37° Stormo from Trapani-Birgi provided a single jet each. Colonel Urbano Floreani, 4° Stormo commander told journalists: “We are honoured to participate again in this very demanding and well organised international exercise.” He noted that Cobra Warrior provides: “A chance to fly with a selection of the best weapons instructors from the participating countries; sharing our experiences will mutually increase our capabilities.”

Italy used C-130Js to support the deployment of its jets, including one of its three KC-130J tankers for the flight to Waddington.

The exercise involved all three of Britain’s armed forces and those of allies Canada and the United States. UK F-35B Lightnings provided input as did the F-15 Eagles from the United States Air Forces in Europe’s Liberty Wing, the 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk.Tanker support was provided by United States Air Forces in Europe’s 100th Air Refueling Wing and its KC-135R tankers. Canadian input centred on its CP-140 Aurora reconnaissance aircraft operating in its littoral surveillance mode. Royal Air Force Chinook helicopters from RAF Odiham, Hampshire, added to the challenge posed by the multiplicity of assets taking part.

RAF Waddington is home to Britain’s ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) fleet of Boeing RC-135V Rivet Joints, E-3D Sentry AWACS platforms, Shadow R1s and Sentinel R1s. An 8 Squadron Sentry took part most days and valuable input was provided by the colocated Air Warfare Centre.

Some missions were focused on the Electronic Warfare Tactics facility at RAF Spadeadam, Cumbria. The Royal Air Force’s Control and Reporting Centre at Boulmer, Northumberland, home to the secretive Aerospace Surveillance and Control System Force Command took a significant, classified part in the exercise.

As is often the case, private contractors, on this occasion Falcon 20s belonging to Cobham, were used to simulate threats and provide jamming and general confusion.

Let the games begin

Men and materiel began arriving at Waddington on August 8. The Lincolnshire base was to be their home until the end of September. Italian and German transports arrived at the end of August but the first fighters, in the shape of Israel’s contingent, didn’t make their appearance until the afternoon of August 28. The German and Italian Eurofighters joined them the next day.

Two Boeing KC707 Re’em tankers visited Waddington during Cobra Warrior 2019, including this example, 272. Jerry Gunner
As well as one of its older C-130Hs, Israel used three of its relatively new C-130J-30s to support its deployment. This aircraft, 665, was delivered with national and squadron markings but as can be seen here, it is now totally anonymous. It serves with 103 ‘Elephants’ Squadron. Ian Harding

Exercise Director for Cobra Warrior, Group Captain Robert Barrett from the Air Warfare Centre at RAF Waddington describes his responsibilities as three-fold; ensuring the participants achieve their objectives from the exercise; to serve as the higher headquarters of the exercise, acting as the Joint Force Air Component commander, replicating that function and trying to bring an operational view to the exercise. Lastly, he said he is responsible to the commanders of those taking part for the safety of the men under their command. He gave journalists his view of Cobra Warrior: “We describe it [the exercise] as a large-force employment live exercise, [LIVEX]… There are up to 50 aircraft participating in certain missions.”

“The missions are planned as COMAOs, with a large number of aircraft performing diff erent roles within the overall construct of the exercise to achieve a number of tactical objectives in diff erent scenarios. That means there are a wide number of types of aircraft involved, you’ve seen today the fighter aircraft that are participating, but we’ve had platforms from across the air capability - intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and air-toair refuelling tankers are involved as well. We have been simulating the involvement of our uninhabited aircraft such as Reaper [RPAs]. A number of the missions have also included battlefield helicopters, so we’ve had air force and army helicopters participating in some of the scenarios performing particular roles in those particular COMAOs.”

Barrett said the principle objective of Cobra Warrior is to develop the skills of tactical leaders and front-line crews including pilots and other aircrew but also support personnel such as intelligence and command and control specialists. He stressed that such people are involved in the whole of the exercise, underpinning the structural parts as well as delivering training and bringing the participants up to speed in their particular discipline.

Group Captain Barrett emphasised that his aim was to make Cobra Warrior as complex as he can with as many participants as possible. He emphasised that for the nations with Typhoons, Italy, Germany and the UK, the exercise was the culmination of their respective weapons instructor courses as well as the other courses mentioned earlier.

Those who qualify demonstrate the ability to: “Achieve a tactical eff ect at scale.”

The Group Captain was at pains to point out that the foreign participants were: “Fully embedded in the conduct of the exercise”, from intelligence briefings and working up command and control plans. They were not just the point of the spear with their fighter jets, each nation brought along its own cadre of instructors that provided its own unique input.

Barrett said that the socalled ‘White Force’ provided by contractors was vital to the success of the exercise, supporting scenarios and facilitating their realisation.

The main locus of the exercise was of course Waddington, but most fast-jet flying took place at medium level over the sea off the coast at Newcastle.

Getting the most out of it

Even though there were only nine days assigned to flying for Cobra Warrior, generally there were two packages, morning and afternoon, flown by the visiting aircraft every day. This gave pilots the opportunity to take advantage of the excellent training facilities off ered by the UK. The other nations’ assets joined in on these non-Cobra Warrior sorties.

Israel’s jets were the first to leave. One of the Re’em tankers demonstrated why traffic on the main A15 road that borders the base is controlled by traffic lights when aircraft are arriving or departing. The heavily laden vintage tanker barely cleared the boundary fence as it left for home.

Next year’s iteration is expected to return to RAF Coningsby. Cobra Warrior 2019 will be hard to beat for the novelty of the aircraft involved but one can be sure it will be another world class exercise.