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The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has been conducting training and NATO enhanced air policing over Romania almost annually since 2014. With each rotation, lessons and advice about everything from executing quick reaction alert (QRA), to logistics and the weather, have been passed on from one Air Task Force (ATF) commander to the next.
LCol Stephen Latwaitis didn’t exactly throw out the playbook. But mission planning for the current rotation now established at Mihail Kogălniceanu Air Base — near the Black Sea city of Constanta — had a decidedly different tone. With the possibility of spillover from Russia’s war against Ukraine, preparing CF-188 fighter crews and support personnel was done with contingencies in mind.
“We brought some capabilities that we haven’t in years past to ensure we were ready to react if that call was made,” said Latwaitis, the ATF commander and the commanding officer of 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron at 3 Wing Bagotville, Quebec.
“We brought a few extra folks . . . just to ensure that if needed we would be prepared to hold certain posture levels longer,” he added. Though, for operational security reasons he could not expand on what that posture might look like.
RCAF members have built a strong bond with their Romanian counterparts over the years as they have detected, tracked, and on occasion intercepted Russian aircraft entering the Romanian Air Defence Identification Zone.
“This year is understandably different in that the threat is even more palpable,” acknowledged MGen Iain Huddleston, commander of 1 Canadian Air Division, in a statement. “We are proud to work with and stand by our Romanian counterparts who value our contribution to their air policing activities at a time of growing tensions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
The ATF has often arrived around the same time that Russia hosts a large fall military exercise in the region. That heightened activity has sometimes produced the first intercept of an attack aircraft. In 2021, it was a Su-24 Fencer, which Canadian pilots visually identified and then monitored as it left Romanian airspace.
With the Russian military engaged in Ukraine, Canadian pilots had yet to intercept any fighters when Latwaitis spoke with Skies. But the war has generated a lot of Russian aircraft activity over the Black Sea, he said.
“Our position is, we are here to respond if they approach the Romania [flight information region] as our primary responsibility, but typically we are seeing more of a stand-off posture.”
The bulkier ATF is comprised of around 180 members; previous task forces have been closer to 160 personnel. The CF-188 Hornet pilots and maintenance technicians are from 425 Squadron, but support elements include representation from across the RCAF — from 5 Wing Goose Bay, Newfoundland, to 19 Wing Comox, British Columbia.
When the task force assumed the NATO air policing role from the United Kingdom on Aug. 4, they were prepared for a “dynamic” operating environment, Latwaitis said.
“We have been supporting ATF Romania since 2014, so we had expectations that the sixth time might look like the first time,” he said. “What we are seeing with our enhanced air policing mission . . . is relatively traditional. [But] because of all the forward deployed NATO forces, it has provided a lot of assurance training; we are training a lot with the other NATO partners in the area.”
In addition to regular flying with the Romanian Air Force F-16s, the Hornets have flown with U.K. Eurofighter Typhoons, French Rafales, Belgian F-16s, and an array of American aircraft. Before the rotation concludes in December, they also hope to work with Italian Eurofighters. The U.S. Air Force recently deployed F-35A Lightning II jets to Estonia and F-22 Raptors to Poland as it expands its NATO commitment, opening the door for even more training opportunities.
The largest exercise to date has been a Bulgarian event called Thracian Viper. With air-to-air refueling support from a CC-150 Polaris tanker, the CF-188 crews flew with multinational partners, including the U.S., Greece, and Romania. But the highlight was flying against Bulgarian MiG-29s and Su-25s, as well as some of their surface-to-air missile systems.
“We had an excellent training event,” said Latwaitis, a former instructor with 410 Tactical Fighter Operational Training Squadron, and a pilot with 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta. “Flying with the MiG-29s was a rare opportunity for our aircrew.”
The ATF also recently concluded Exercise Justice Eagle, a close air support event with U.S. F-16s and Romanian ground forces, and it has conducted close air support exercises with the French Rafales and worked with Belgian joint terminal attack controllers (JTACS).
“I believe we are up to 10 exercises so far,” said Latwaitis.
The training mission with the Romanian Air Force has evolved considerably since 2014 as Romania has introduced a fleet of F-16s acquired from Portugal in 2013, and gradually wound down operations with the MiG-21 Lancer. Each ATF rotation has helped the Romanians advance fourth-generation fighter tactics and learn other NATO techniques and procedures.
The ATF today is flying almost exclusively with the F-16s, Latwaitis explained, and has steadily increased air-land integration training with ground forces co-located at the air base.
“Working with the F-16s is very similar to working with almost all the other NATO nations,” he said. “We are integrating almost all our mission sets with them; we are seeing four ships being employed together.”
Previous rotations have combined training with the Canadian-led battle group in Latvia, and with Canadian Army JTACS who have planned exercises for Romania’s varied ranges. Much of that was put on hold during the planning process because of the uncertainty generated by the Russian war in Ukraine, though Latwaitis still hopes to train with the Latvian battle group in November.
Since 2017, the ATF has expanded from four to five, and then six, CF-188s to address both the growing number of exercises with NATO partners and to deal with maintenance and supply chain issues affecting the 40-year-old airframes. For 2022, the ATF deployed with eight Hornets to provide sufficient participation in Thracian Viper, but the extra jets have provided some redundancy for air policing and other exercises, Latwaitis confirmed. One Hornet has since returned to Canada.
With such varied flying with and against an array of aircraft, the training opportunity for 425 Squadron’s junior pilots has been immense, he added.
“I don’t think they want to leave, frankly. It is some of the training we simulate at home, but we get to do it here every day.”
Going one-versus-one against MiG-29s was a “highlight for even some of our senior folks,” said Latwaitis.
He’s been equally impressed with the ability of the entire task force to support so many training events while maintaining their primary operational mission of air policing under challenging circumstances. For a team of “diverse trades from units across the country (some of whom have never worked with fighters) to come together — and in a very short amount of time seem like they have been doing it their entire career — and to generate the amount of flying we are doing… it has been a true pleasure to watch.”