Jan Kraak reports from BA118 Mont-de-Marsan during the latest all-encompassing Armée de l’Air exercise
The second 2016 edition of Exercise VOLFA took place in France during October. This large-scale exercise was organised by the Commandement des Forces Aériennes (CFA or French Air Force Command) and the area of operations was near Aurillac in central France. Aircraft operated from their home base during the build-up week, and for the live exercise (LIVEX), which took place in the second week, all Blue Force aircraft were deployed to BA118 Mont-de-Marsan. VOLFA stands for VOL Forces Aériennes and is an exercise organised by the Armée de l’Air during which fully qualified personnel train in different entry force scenarios. The Armée de l’Air classes such scenarios as decisive interventions over long distances in the first hours of operations before switching to more sustained operations. France is one of a few European countries capable of executing all the different elements involved: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); deliberate strikes; and strike coordination and reconnaissance; insertion of troops into a conflict zone using tactical transports while fast jets provide protection; and close air support (CAS).
Recently, different combinations of elements were, for instance, put to use at the start of Opération Harmattan over Libya in 2011 and Opération Serval in Mali in 2013. AIR International visited Montde-Marsan during VOLFA and had the opportunity to talk to participating personnel and aircrew.
VOLFA has been likened to a French version of Exercise Red Flag staged by the US Air Force, because it has similar organisational characteristics. The exercise is held two or three times each year and includes every Armée de l’Air component operating together in any of the large training areas at the disposal of the organisers.
Train as you fight is the philosophy of the exercise and this is realised by incorporating as many wartime experiences as possible into the briefings, debriefings and mission scenarios. Wartime experiences are referred to as returns on experience or RETEX.
VOLFA 2016-2 involved approximately 25 aircraft and 200 personnel, many of whom were deployed to Mont-de-Marsan for the duration of this exercise. Two composite air operations (COMAOs) were flown from Mont-de-Marsan each day, one in the afternoon and one at night. Each COMAO was led by a different mission commander who was responsible for giving the mission outline to two package leaders: offensive counter air (OCA) and strike. Both officers are experts in the air-to-air and air-to-ground tasks and have responsibility for planning the mission. The command hierarchy remains in place throughout the mission, so the OCA and strike leaders are each responsible for their respective package, and the mission commander oversees the mission.
Explaining the importance of an exercise such as VOLFA, Mont-de-Marsan base commander Colonel Mollard said: “We have a strategic capacity that allows us to gain the upper hand over an adversary. However, before we can send an entry force in we have to establish air superiority, perform reconnaissance sorties, and carry out special forces missions. To integrate all these different tasks and steps requires a high level of training, so the CFA organises regular exercises such as VOLFA that allow experienced crew to train in advanced scenarios to maintain a high standard of operations.”
Because the Armée de l’Air is currently deployed for Opération Barkhane (Sahel region) and Opération Chammal (Jordan and the United Arab Emirates), it could be argued that its aircrew accumulate enough experience. However, the crews deployed on overseas operations do not automatically fly diverse sorties, as Colonel Mollard explained: “The most common mission for our fighter pilots during current operations is CAS, which means our crews don’t necessarily maintain a level of excellence across the entire spectrum of missions. Hence the importance of having large-scale exercises in which all these aspects are included, even in times when crews already have very busy deployment schedules.”
Missions during VOLFA 2016-2 were flown according to an evolving scenario prepared by the organising team during the six months preceding the exercise. Different missions were based on the training goals each participating unit had put forward. However, VOLFA is different from NATO’s Tactical Leadership Programme course at Albacete in Spain, as exercise director Lt Colonel Olivier explained: “All personnel participating in VOLFA are fully qualified and have recently participated in overseas operations. The exercise is not aimed at qualifying crews. Instead, our goal is that crews will be able to apply what they learn here when they are called upon to fly complex missions.”
One of the main reasons for deploying all Blue Force aircraft to Mont-de-Marsan is so participating crew can brief and debrief together in the same room with the air boss. The air boss is an officer who is responsible for overseeing air operations and taking the role of referee between the different participants in the mission. Interaction between participants and the air boss significantly increases the opportunities to learn from each other’s experience and procedures.
Every mission was led from the Centre de Détection et de Contrôle (CDC or command and control centre) in Mont de Marsan, a facility with responsibility for the overall communication between participants. However, the CDC is not the place from where the air boss follows each mission. He or she works from the nearby Centre d’Expertise et d’Instruction des Liaisons de Données Tactiques (CEILDT), a unit specialising in just about anything that has to do with IT infrastructures and tactical data links, such as Link 16. Personnel from the CEILDT and the Centre d’Expériences Aériennes Militaires (CEAM) based at Mont de Marsan used the Solstice system throughout the exercise.
Solstice allows the air boss to see in real time the operating area and every aircraft flying within it. The air boss briefs the crews during the mass brief and acts as a referee during the mission. The goal is to stick to the scenario. For instance, if the air boss sees that there are not enough Red Force aircraft in a zone or that the Red Force aircraft are not flying where they should be, he or she can instruct them to remain within a realistic scenario, as Lt Colonel Olivier explained: “The air boss will instruct the Red Force before the mission. During the sortie he will tell them what to do. Whenever there is a simulated missile shot from any of the aircraft he can decide whether to validate the shot or not, depending on the probability provided by the system. These combat situations are as realistic as possible and when someone is shot the air boss will tell them they have to leave the zone. He also decides when and where they can regenerate so as to rejoin the fight.”
Besides the real aircraft, the air boss may decide to insert simulated Red Force aircraft. Operators from the CEAM can insert simulated aircraft among the real aircraft flying in the area of operations. Discussing the process, Captain Alain from the CEAM said. “Sometimes aircraft have to return to base sooner than planned, due to bad weather conditions or when they have used more fuel than was foreseen. We can then use simulation to provide a richer training environment for the aircraft that remain in the area.”
Simulation has become much more realistic in recent years and is becoming an integral part of crew training. Speaking about some of the possibilities, Captain Alain said: “We can program more or less everything: the direction, speed, behaviour of specific aircraft or even the radar emission of a simulated E-3F. We can program the simulated aircraft, but we can also pilot them manually, which we usually do if there are only one or two. However, if we program a KC-135 or E-3F to fly in a specific track for two or three hours, when a real aircraft engages the simulated aircraft the pilot sees the radar lock and can also fire back.”
Mirage 2000s flew different strike roles whereas Rafales typically flew swing-role missions, starting with air superiority then shifting to air-to-ground before going back to the air superiority role.
AIR International asked how VOLFA fits with sorties currently being flown by Rafale crews against the so-called Islamic State over Iraq and Syria. Captain Cyril, a Rafale pilot assigned to EC 2/30, replied: “The complexity of the threat lay down during VOLFA might be a little bit higher than what we encounter during current combat missions. If we are effective during these types of exercises we’ll be prepared for those missions even though the level of stress is higher during a wartime mission.”
Systems fitted on the Rafale like the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and encrypted data links such as Link 16 give the fighter more capability to detect airborne targets, as Captain Cyril explained: “Our radar is more powerful than before and our missiles have a longer range than the previous generation. With Link 16 we can link with radars of other aircraft in different locations to see enemy aircraft before we even have them on our radar. This gives us the ability to see what the aircraft type is and what they are doing over long distances. Consequently, we have improved situational awareness, which helps the pilot to take appropriate action.”
Armée de l’Air Rafales should receive the Meteor active radar-guided beyond visual range air-to-air missile in 2018. The combination of an AESA radar and Meteor is very powerful: the ability to attack airborne targets over 100km (62 nautical miles) away. That is 40km (25 nautical miles) more than the current MICA missile.
Recently, the Armée de l’Air has trained more explicitly in mixed packages where tactical transport aircraft operate alongside fighters. Besides the VOLFA exercises, Transall C-160s and CN235s also participated in SERPENTEX 2016. According to Captain Cyril, there is a good chance that wartime missions involving fighters, transports or drones will have to be flown together: “That’s why we want to learn more about each other during these exercises. Before, everybody would practise their own procedures and brief together in case of a joint mission, which meant we needed to adapt as we went along. Nowadays we train beforehand, so we already know each other’s procedures, means of communication, capabilities to be able to work efficiently from the start.”
Rafales involved with VOLFA 2016-2 also flew with other air assets, including a Harfang unmanned aerial system from ED 1/33 that typically flew in an ISR role, but was also used in the CAS cycle, as Captain Cyril explained: “We had the Harfang flying overhead the area and a JTAC [Joint Terminal Attack Controller] on the ground. The Harfang gathered information about possible hostile targets and downlinked that data to the JTAC who then relayed the information to Rafales when calling in the fighters for CAS. Furthermore, the Harfang also acted as an airborne FAC [Forward Aircraft Controller] and illuminated targets.”
Four tactical transport aircraft flew different formations (e.g. two C-130s and a C-160) during missions that included parachute drops, tactical landings and low-level flying. The Armée de l’Air paratroopers came from the different Commandos Parachutistes de l’Air units.
Captain David, a C-160 pilot, said that VOLFA is challenging because of the Red Force fighters flying against them, citing the realism of the missile threat despite being simulated shots: “We also have escort fighter aircraft flying with us to provide protection. On top of that, we fly in formations of two or three aircraft.”
Transport pilots must be qualified as package leader in order to lead formations of tactical aircraft, and this remains the highest qualification any Armée de l’Air transport pilot can obtain. There are different roles in the package. Armée de l’Air Hercules and Transall aircraft are equipped with countermeasures, but the CN235 is not, so depending on the type of threat the mission commander decides whether or not a CN235 will be part of the package.
Captain David said: “If a CN235 takes part in a mission, then aircraft equipped with countermeasures fly ahead to create a protective bubble, detecting electromagnetic or infrared threats. If a threat is detected we use manoeuvres and flares, and the CN235 remains close enough and in our protective bubble so the pilot can react to our actions.”
VOLFA tasks transport aircraft crews to fly specific tasks in large COMAOs. Asked if there are any particular challenges during such missions, Captain David replied: “The challenge is to execute the mission according to plan. It’s a heavy workload, because we fly at low level a lot and have to cope with airborne and surface-based threats while coordinating with the escort fighters protecting us and being aware of our aircraft parameters and the other aircraft in the formation. Amid all of those considerations, we have allotted slots: gates that we have to pass at very specific times. We cannot be early or late, because the escort fighters that protect us have a limited playtime compared to us, so we have to fit perfectly in the mission flow. This flow is also important for the troops on the ground, especially when the area is not completely secured, because they cannot linger. We have procedures to minimise the time we spend on the ground. This week we flew a daytime mission to Aurillac during which we were on the ground for 3 minutes and 45 seconds between landing and take-off to open and close the ramp and let the troops board.”
The Transall is the oldest transport aircraft in the Armée de l’Air fleet, but is still serving in ongoing operations such as Barkhane and remains a very useful asset, as Captain David explained: “Currently, the A400 can fly higher, faster, further [than] and transport three to four times the load of the Transall, but does not yet have the tactical capabilities. The C-130 can also carry a heavier load, but does not have the same performance on unprepared runways. This means the Transall is still useful from a tactical standpoint when it comes to infiltration or exfiltration of troops in hostile areas.”
The Armée de l’Air used a Tactical Radar Threat Generator (TRTG) to simulate SA-6 and SA-8 surface-to-air missile systems and jamming systems to scramble frequencies being used by the Blue Force in the area of operation. The TRTG is highly mobile and, as they would during real operations, drove around the Red zone at speeds up to 80km/h (50mph).
VOLFA 2016-2 was the first exercise in which the Armée de l’Air used surface-toair defence systems on the Blue Force. It is usual to generate threats using short range Crotale and medium range Système sol-Air Moyenne Portée Terrestre (SAMP/T) systems, but never as part of the Blue Force. Lt Colonel Olivier said the SAMP/T is typically assigned to the Red Force to allow French aircrews to practise against the system and SAMP/T personnel to train against the aircrews: “However, they also need to be able to work together – for instance, when the SAMP/T is deployed – which means that everybody needs to be able to train together.”
An Armée de l’Air SAMP/T battery has four launchers that each carry eight Aster 30 missiles. These missiles can engage not only aircraft, but also cruise missiles. There are four SAMP/T squadrons in France, one at Mont-de-Marsan and one at each nuclear base (Avord, Saint-Dizier and Istres). During VOLFA 2016-2, the SAMP/T and Crotale systems deployed were from Escadron de défense sol-air 1/950 ‘Crau’ from BA125 Istres.
Assigned to the Mont-de-Marsan-based EDSA 12/950, Captain Laurent was part of the team that wrote the mission scenarios for VOLFA and the role of the ground-to-air defence systems. He said the novelty for an EDSA unit during VOLFA is the cooperation with Blue Force aircraft in the same area, called a joint engagement zone: “This is very different from acting as a Red Force asset, because now in order to succeed we need to have good coordination with the Blue Force fighters. Either we are in contact with an air-to-ground representative in the command centre who can inform the pilots about our capabilities or we can contact the aircraft directly through a Link 16 datalink. At the same time, we have Alpha Jets acting as Su-25s and Mirage 2000Cs and Mirage 2000-5s as Su-27s and Su-30s, together with simulated aircraft to test our operators.”
A Future VOLFA
VOLFA is likely to continue to be one of the main exercises for the Armée de l’Air in the near future. The big advantage compared to exercises like Red Flag or Maple Flag is that personnel do not have to travel far, which reduces costs and time. Those aspects alone are so important for an air force that has struggled for resources to continue to perform beyond its operational contracts. The availability of vast training zones above the Massif Central, the infrastructure and capacity of bases like Mont-de-Marsan provide an ideal training environment for the Armée de l’Air and any foreign air arm that wants to participate.