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The fighter force that amassed at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands for Exercise Frisian Flag 22 might not have been as large as originally planned, but for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) detachment of six CF-188 Hornets and about 130 personnel from 433 Tactical Fighter Squadron, it was a long-overdue training opportunity to integrate with NATO allies in European skies.
“This was the first time we have attended an exercise on this scale since the Covid-19 pandemic started,” said LCol David McLeod, the commanding officer of 433 Squadron. While the squadron had conducted training at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona before Christmas, Frisian Flag was the unit’s first major force-on-force exercise outside of North America in two years.
Over a two-week period in late March and early April, crews from the Netherlands, France, Italy, Germany, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States, alongside NATO Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, launched about 30 fighter jets per day in a high-intensity combat scenario.
As with other flag exercises such as Red Flag in Nevada and Alaska, the intent is to increase survivability in the opening days of a conflict by exposing pilots to the intensity of their first combat missions before they confront the real thing.
The first week of Frisian Flag involved a defensive scenario, defending territory from an enemy attack. The second week shifted to offensive operations, including air strikes, air-to-ground attack, close air support, and personnel recovery, mostly with top air cover.
“It is a complex training environment, which is only doable with the number of assets and countries involved,” said McLeod. “It is training that we can’t get at home. It is even different than what we would get at a Red Flag because of all the NATO European nations; this is in their backyard, effectively, so there are lots of training partners that we haven’t seen for many years.”
Integration with NATO partners was particularly “eye opening” for the junior members of the squadron, he noted. 433 Squadron deployed to Romania in the fall of 2020 under Operation Reassurance to provide NATO air policing – squadron members intercepted a Russian Su-27 Flanker over the Black Sea – and conduct training with the Romanian Air Force and other allies based in the region. While Frisian Flag was a validation for the senior members who also flew in Romania, for junior members it was the first time flying alongside European partners.
“A lot of good lessons learned,” observed McLeod. “[They saw] other perspectives, other ways to tackle these tactical problems. For a good half of my pilot cadre and half of my maintenance cadre, they have never been to Europe to train like this.
“Flying with different platforms and sharing ideas . . . flying in much busier airspace – that level of exposure is a huge experience for our folks. It is really a validation of the things they have learned up to now.”
The initial format for the exercise entailed around 50 aircraft taking to the skies for each launch. The Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February caused several countries to cancel or reduce their participation as they focused resources on what was unfolding near their eastern borders. Others, like the Royal Air Force, opted to fly their fighter aircraft from home bases in the U.K.
Air-to-air refueling, normally a prominent feature of the annual exercise, was also scaled back to tanker support from NATO aircraft based in Eindhoven. The RCAF had planned to include a CC-150T Polaris and air weapons controllers in the exercise, and possibly some strategic airlift, but the CC-177 Globemaster and CC-130J Hercules have been employed for transporting materiel for Ukrainian forces. (Tanker support for the transit over the North Atlantic was delivered by Omega, a company that provides contracted air-to-air refueling to the U.S. Navy).
One of the more intriguing highlights of Frisian Flag was the integration of so-called 4th generation fighters like the CF-188 Hornet, Eurofighters, Tornados, and F-16s with the Dutch F-35A Joint Strike Fighter, which the Royal Netherlands Air Force began receiving in late 2019.
“There is a challenge because [F-35 nations] are not going to be able to share everything they can see and do with that airplane,” McLeod noted. “But that is what it would be like if we had to go on operations together. We’d have the same challenge of trying to integrate some of these capabilities effectively.
“So, this was a really cool opportunity to see nations come together and, in our planning sessions and execution and then post-flight evaluation, mix the new and older platforms.” Moreover, figure out how best to navigate discussions while respecting the top-secret level of some of the F-35’s systems.
In addition to NATO integration, Frisian Flag also allowed the squadron to validate recent systems upgrades to the CF-188 Hornets, which includes changes to the Link 16 data link and Identification Friend or Foe system, explained McLeod. That information is being shared with 425 Squadron, also based at 3 Wing Bagotville, Quebec, which will be participating in Red Flag Alaska — along with aircraft from 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta — later this month.
“Some of these lessons learned are going to be important for 425 as they integrate the same upgrades into that exercise,” he said.
In fact, four of the six Hornets at Frisian Flag feature the distinctive Alouette or skylark of 425 Squadron on their tails. In advance of the exercise, both squadrons had prepared an equal number of jets and then selected the six that were best ready for deployment on the day of departure.
Though the exercise was planned well before Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the ongoing fighting and pleas for a NATO-led no-fly zone over Ukraine had a “palpable” effect on the training, said McLeod.
In the months before the exercise, 3 Wing was the RCAF unit on high readiness; 433 Squadron was on NORAD quick reaction alert duty over the Christmas period – so there was some uncertainty as to whether the squadron would participate or remain, like many European allies, poised for possible deployment.
“Regardless of what is going on in the world, we have a commitment to always have a squadron ready,” McLeod said. But there was a lot of “waiting” to see if they would be making the trip. (The squadron has a Dutch exchange officer who was able to reach out to colleagues at Leeuwarden Air Base for updates on the status of the exercise.)
While he understood why some nations cancelled their participation, McLeod stressed that for those who attended, it was “almost a doubling down. This is an even more important time now for us to do this exercise. When we arrived, you had this palpable sense of purpose. We are not just getting together to train for the fun of it. [Rather], at the tactical level, there was a renewed sense of purpose in why we do what we do together as an alliance.”
MGen Eric Kenny, Commander of 1 Canadian Air Division, said in a statement: “Exercises like Frisian Flag provide highly valuable training not only for our members, but also those of our allies, to practice working together at all levels – including command, air crew, ground crew, and support personnel – in a wide variety of tactical combat scenarios that they could face on real-world operations. Recognizing the current security environment, this training is of particular importance for the [RCAF].”