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The intercept of a Russian Su-27 Flanker by two CF-188 Hornets over the Black Sea on Sept. 23 might have been relatively straightforward, but it was a significant marker and confidence-booster for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) detachment conducting enhanced air policing and training with the Romanian Air Force.
“It’s one of those things that really electrifies the morale of the task force,” admitted LCol David McLeod, Commander of Air Task Force-Romania, which began operations on Sept. 5 following a certification ceremony from NATO on Sept. 3 at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Force Base.
“Once that first intercept is complete, it is easier to settle into the [mission]. You tick that box: we’ve been able to do what we came here to do. The pilots were amped up and our maintainers and everyone else on the detachment was really excited.”
The intercept was “fairly benign, which is what we expect to see from the professional aviators flying out of those other bases on the other side of the Black Sea,” said McLeod, who was one of the pilots on quick reaction alert (QRA) duty that day.
The two Hornets were tasked to interdict the Flanker by NATO’s southern Combined Air Operations Centre at Torrejon, Spain, after the Russian aircraft was detected by the Romanian Air Force’s Control and Reporting Centre. They made contact and identification over the Black Sea and tracked the SU-27 to the edge of the Romanian flight information region (FIR) without incident.
The encounter was nothing like an intercept by Russian Su-27 pilots of a U.S. Air Force B-52 over the Black Sea on Aug. 28. In a video released by the U.S. military and posted online, the Russian pilots can be seen flying alongside and then crossing within 40 metres of the nose of the B-52 while in afterburner, generating turbulence and causing the B-52 to shake noticeably.
“That is not what we saw,” said McLeod, “just a calm, professional intercept.”
The intercept coincided with Kavkaz 2020 (Caucasus 2020), the largest Russian military exercise of the year. The event was held across the Southern Military District and involved a reported 80,000 troops and 60 Ilyushin IL-76 military transport aircraft.
“We had been running through different readiness states over the course of that week,” said McLeod, noting that the Russian exercise generated a lot of NATO and U.S. interest. “As we were finishing up one mission, we were redirected to check out a contact that was in the FIR off the coast.”
The Air Task Force deployment, the fifth rotation since 2014, is part of Operation Reassurance, Canada’s contribution to NATO assurance and deterrence measures in Eastern Europe. Comprised of six CF-188 Hornets and around 135 personnel, most from 433 Tactical Fighter Squadron at 3 Wing Bagotville, Que., the detachment is augmenting Romanian air policing and flying training missions together with the Romanian Air Force and allies in the region into December.
In addition to holding a very high readiness QRA posture for the first weeks of the mission, the Air Task Force participated in several NATO exercises and in joint training with Romanian, Bulgarian and U.S. air forces.
The joint exercise with the Romanians and Bulgarians, an annual event known as Exercise Blue Bridge, is intended to improve coordination and interoperability between the forces and extend the air policing mission across the airspace of both countries. The 2020 iteration focused on QRA activity and allowed the Canadians to “participate in some of the bilateral discussions,” said McLeod.
A follow-on exercise, Thracian Viper 2020, focused on cross-border operational capacity and interoperability with Romanian F-16 Falcons and MiG-21 Lancers; Bulgarian MiG-29s and Aero L-39 Albatros; and U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons supporting Bulgarian air policing for a month.
More recently, the detachment worked on maritime integration, conducting air defence exercises with the Romanian F-16s and the Royal Navy’s air defence destroyer, HMS Dragon, operating in the Black Sea.
In part because of Kavkaz 2020, the first six weeks of the mission were a demanding period involving more flying than previous deployments. “That’s a reflection of the intensity of that exercise and the lead up to it for the Russians and the interest in it from the NATO side,” said McLeod.
Since then, the flying tempo has returned to a level consistent with previous deployments. In fact, the overall amount of cockpit time has decreased slightly due to limitations imposed by COVID. In past years the Canadian contingent participated in events such as the Czech Republic’s NATO Days airshow and conducted close air support and other exercises with the Canadian-led multinational battle group in Latvia. This tour, the ATF has had to say no where the deployment of supporting assets are involved. “If we can do it from our main operating base here, we are still doing it,” he said.
COVID has also crimped some of the off-base activities and changed how the detachment supports local charities, orphanages and other organizations. “We are trying to find innovative ways we can maintain that community connection,” said McLeod. “Even if we can’t go out in-person, at least we can still support some of these charities that are probably even more in need with the COVID situation.”
In the weeks before a second wave of the coronavirus affected much of Europe, the commander had permitted activities such as dining in Costanta restaurants. “We had to shut that down a couple of weeks ago as cases started to rise in Romania. We really limit any off-base travel.”
McLeod first deployed to Romania in 2014 and then again in 2016, and has seen the Air Task Force role evolve from strictly a bilateral training mission to the more complex NATO air policing and multinational training. He’s also seen the Romanian Air Force reform as it has integrated further with NATO and introduced new capabilities and equipment such as the F-16 Falcons, acquired from Portugal in 2013.
“What you see is this change in mindset as they learn and incorporate these lessons from different NATO allies,” he explained. “It really enhances their capability and their flexibility. In 2014 there was a lot more rigidity in terms of their approach to things. Today, there is a marked difference in flexibility, which is really important to the application of air power. It really makes them a much more capable force.”
Previous missions have helped with the integration of the fourth-generation fighter jet. Tactics and the employment of tactical datalinks are still of interest, but now the emphasis has to more advanced operations. “Some of my senior pilots are talking about four-ship academics with the Romanian pilots,” he noted.
COVID has restricted some of the face-to-face briefings, but Canadian pilots have been able to help their Romanian counterparts with a “building block-type approach” to develop their four-ship concepts of operations. Recently two F-16s and two CF-188s collaborated as a four-ship against an F-16 and CF-188 flying red air.
“We find it exciting to see this capability develop over the year,” said McLeod. “To see how far they have come with the F-16 is truly awesome.”
For 433 Squadron’s junior pilots, ramp crews, maintainers and support staff who don’t have the operational experience of missions in Libya and Iraq, operating “out of their element” in unfamiliar airspace and with different accents and control styles has been important, he added.
“It’s fascinating to live that fresh experience through them as they get used to operating here. They are saying, ‘say again,’ a couple of times on the radio” as they react to a different style and tempo of communications. “All the right pieces are there, but they have to open their minds up to a slightly different sequence then they are used to back home. It is a really good lesson for all of our crews, that adaptability and integration with NATO.”
That has been especially true for staff in the Tactical Operations Centre and in headquarters interacting with NATO procedures. “Even though we are a strong alliance, there is a lot of cross talk that has to happen to make these operations work,” McLeod noted. “This demystifies the process for them. It is really good learning.”
With each rotation, the Air Task Force has learned lessons of its own to sustain the almost 40-year-old Hornets while participating in more and more training events. For 2020, a sixth jet was added to the previous two rotations of five. The detachment had debated reducing the fleet to five when it became evident that COVID would eliminate some exercises. But with Canadian Armed Forces supply lines to multiple missions around the world effected by COVID, have six airplanes “has proven to be a really good call,” said McLeod. “That extra jet has really paid dividends. We’ve had times where we had to wait a little longer for airlift. That’s normal, but we have been able to work through it much more easily with that extra aircraft.”
Previous rotations have often conducted jet swaps midway through a tour, trading out one or more aircraft if they required supplemental or periodic inspections. The sixth jet has negated the need for any swap and the challenge of trans-Atlantic crossings and stopovers, “which in COVID times are much more complicated to do,” he added.