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Canadian fighter jets intercepted a pair of Russian Su-24 Fencer attack aircraft operating near Romanian airspace over the Black Sea on Sept. 23.
The CF-188 Hornets were scrambled by NATO’s southern Combined Air Operations Centre Torrejon after the Russian aircraft were detected by the Romanian Air Force’s Control and Reporting Centre Crystal in Bucharest, and failed to use a transponder or communicate with air traffic control.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots made visual identification of the Russian jets and monitored their flight away from Romanian airspace.
The intercept was the first for Air Task Force (ATF) Romania, which began conducting NATO air policing on Sept. 8, following a certification ceremony at Air Force Base Mihail Kogalniceanu. The ATF stood up on Sept. 1 and will hold a quick reaction alert (QRA) posture and conduct bilateral training with the Romanian Air Force and multinational exercises with NATO and regional partners until December.
Completing the intercept of a Russian aircraft early in the rotation “means a great deal to the entire team,” admitted LCol Corey “Alcan” Mask, the ATF Commander and the Commanding Officer of 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta.
Like shaking off tension early in a big hockey game, “you get the nerves out the second you hit the ice,” he said. “In this case, when that horn goes off and you take the intercept from start to finish, you can finally say, ‘We did it.’ There is always a sense of excitement every time the scramble horn goes off, which everyone can hear, and it gives a great shot of adrenaline and sense of purpose to the mission. The formal recognition and release of footage from an intercept is also a great motivator and provides a tangible piece of accomplishment for all.”
Canada first deployed fighters for bilateral training with Romania in 2014 in support of NATO assurance and deterrence measures, following the Russian annexation of Crimea. That mission concluded with multilateral training with NATO allies in the Baltics and near the Black Sea region. When an RCAF task force deployed again in 2017, the mandate expanded to include NATO enhanced air policing in Romania.
Those three pillars of bilateral and multilateral integration and air policing are still the core of the mission, said Mask, but the regional training continues to expand. This year, the ATF will participate for the first time in an exercise, Joint Endeavour, with the Ukrainian Air Force and Joint Task Force-Ukraine, a Canadian Army-led training mission known as Operation Unifier.
The intercept came during a “busy period” for the air policing role, said Mask. While an annual Russian strategic command exercise, Zapad-2021, generated activity near Belarus and the Baltic Sea, “the Black Sea area of operations has been very active since we arrived. There were no specifics from the exercise that were focused on the western portion of the Black Sea, but non-NATO aircraft are definitely flying around.”
Mask is leading a detachment of approximately 160 personnel from across the Canadian Armed Forces, with the majority from the fighter community at 4 Wing Cold Lake. In keeping with the rate of flying that has evolved with each rotation, the ATF brought six CF-188s to Romania. Previous rotations from 2017 to 2019 relied on four and then five Hornets to conduct operations, but the training tempo and logistics challenges of receiving spare parts from Canada led to the addition of a sixth jet in 2020.
When not holding QRA duty, the ATF has made full use of the late summer weather to train, said Mask.
Before assuming command of 409 Squadron, he served four years in Ottawa, working primarily on the Future Fighter Capability Project that will deliver a replacement for the almost 40-year-old Hornets.
“We are producing six lines per day, and we are going into a surge period where we are capable of even more,” he said. “The jets have been great; we’ve been getting a lot of training out of them.”
The ATF’s “full slate of events” includes supporting a Canadian Army Joint Terminal Attack Controller course on one of the Romanian training ranges in October; multinational exercises with American, Bulgarian, and other NATO allies; and the aforementioned Exercise Joint Endeavour in Ukraine.
Training with the multinational Canadian-led battle group in Latvia was paused in 2020 due to Covid-19. While “it would be a strong desire on our part” to resume an exercise, prepositioning aircraft, aircrews, and maintenance technicians in Latvia might still be problematic, Mask noted.
Perhaps more significant, the ATF will undergo a NATO force evaluation during the deployment. The FORCEVAL, the first since 2007, is a tactical assessment of Canadian readiness for NATO operations involving an exercise conducted under the watchful eye of NATO and Canadian evaluators.
Throughout, the CF-188 pilots will conduct regular training with their Romanian counterparts. Since the rotation began, the focus has been on air-to-air training such as air combat maneuvering with the Romanian MiG-21 Lancers and F-16 Fighting Falcons. “We are going to keep building on that, moving into the defensive counter-air type scenarios,” said Mask. Air-to-ground scenarios could be added later, though the Hornets will get plenty in Ukraine and working with the JTACs.
Romania acquired the F-16s from Portugal in 2013 and the Air Force has been integrating them into operations over the past five years. Each Canadian rotation has witnessed a steady progression, Mask observed.
“I just flew a mission against one this morning. They were in the Link 16 network employing tactics that we are well familiar with, and providing a great platform for us to get some training in. Myself and the other pilots who have flown against the F-16s the last two weeks have been impressed with the skill and knowledge of NATO air tactics that they are bringing forward.”
In addition to the Romanian fighters, Hornet pilots will also train with Ukrainian Su-27s, Bulgarian MiG-29s, and various U.S. aircraft participating in regional exercises. “It is a great opportunity to work with both NATO nations and non-NATO nations, people we are familiar working with, and those we’re not,” he said. “It is great training for aircrews dealing with a different style of control, different regulations for airspaces, and all the challenges associated with operating out of a different location.”
While Covid may again prevent a training exercise in Latvia, the pandemic has not had the same disruptive impact as in the fall of 2020, Mask observed. Some planning meets have remained virtual events, but “with vaccinations and the current situation, we have been able to get out and about and maintain training and outreach opportunities with the host nation.”
Before deploying, Mask sought the advice of the two previous ATF commanders, LCol David McLeod and LCol Forrest Rock, on how to best to integrate into NATO operations. The network systems and command-and-control differences with NORAD QRA duty are subtle, he said, but challenging enough.
“I’m very proud of the entire ATF Romania team. They are providing world-class skills for enhanced air policing and in all the training we are doing with our NATO partners. Everyone is supporting flying operations day and night, and it is a great example of how Canada is helping Romania and NATO protect the integrity of NATO airspace and build capacity.”