How competition created a 'winged brotherhood' in the desert
What happens when top-class pilots and air crew from various nations meet up? Stefan DeGraef and Edwin Borremans joined the multinational F-16 large force deployment exercise in Jordan to find out.
Strengthening multi-lateral military relations by allowing international aircrew to work and train together in realistic operational conditions and, at the same time, offering an opportunity to freely exchange ideas and experiences, is one of the most successful concepts in creating strong coalitions between countries and air forces.
The input of several informal air competitions in the tactical flying programme, which allows the participating pilots and ground crew to compete against each other as ‘equals’ will transform them into ‘winged brothers’, boosting mutual respect and long lasting friendship.
The positive impact of such an exercise and informal competition on the Kingdom of Jordan’s coalition partners was brilliantly perceived and put into action by HRH Prince Feisal Bin Al Hussein.
This desire to improve multi-lateral relationships was quickly joined by the Colorado National Guard in the United States. In April 2004 the kingdom of Jordan and the US Colorado National Guard signed a bi-lateral State Partnership Programme to exchange military, civil and cultural ideas. Initially created to improve military relationships, as part of the US Department of Defense global security policy, the program rapidly also shifted to civil, economic and even cultural issues.
A rushed start for ‘Deuce’ and ‘Smack’
Muwaffaq Salti Air Base (MSAB) Azraq, Wednesday October 19, 2009: two young F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots of No 349 squadron of the Belgian Air Component and four Belgian ground crew rush to their two F-16AMs lined-up some ten meters in front of them. Only seconds after hearing the ‘go’ whistle, “Deuce” and “Smack” have boarded their aircraft and lit their powerful P&W F100-engines. At the same time the mechanics perform the vital external checks to secure a safe and procedurally correct start-up and arming of the on-board aircraft systems.
This highly professional ground-ballet, witnessed by some 100 international spectators, ends when the second of the two jets moves forward to abruptly stop a few seconds later. “Deuce” and “Smack” have just terminated the first part of the ‘Air-Air Scramble’ competition event in the 2009 Falcon Air Meet, organised at the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) prime F-16 fighter base, located in the desert some 100 kilometres east of Amman.
The stopwatch of the all-seeing referee – a pilot of USAF’s Colorado Air National Guard – will later reveal whether they outclassed their American and Jordanian opponents.
Minutes later both Belgian aircraft would take-off from MSAB to intercept a RJAF CASA 295 bi-engined transport aircraft. Each formation needed to score – as soon as possible after brakes release on the runway – a Fox II short-range heat-seeking (but simulated) missile kill on the unfortunate CN295. Competition-points would be deducted if the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile was fired outside pre-determined distances to the target.
How it all began
The first Falcon Air Meet was organised in 2006 at MSAB attended by the RJAF, 522FS/27FW Cannon AFB/NM, and the Turkish Air Force (161 Filo / Bandirma), under supervision of 120FS/140FW Colorado ANG (COANG).
In 2007, the Belgian Air Component participated for the first time by sending F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcons of No.1 squadron (Florennes) to MSAB.
From 2009 on the operational emphasis of the Falcon Air Meet shifted from a multinational flying and ground-handling competition into an overall large force employment (LFE) air exercise, using the vast airspace over eastern Jordan and the available multinational air-assets.
Unfortunately the Turkish Air Force had to decline its traditional participation in FAM 2009 but three F-16AM Fighting Falcons of No 349/Belgian Air Component and six F-16CJ Block 52 Vipers of 157FS/169FW South Carolina ANG joined RJAF’s MSAB-based No1 squadron, equipped with MidLifeUpdated F-16AMs. Several of these Royal Jordanian Air Force F-16s were purchased second-hand from the Belgian Air Component in 2008 but were degraded from MLU M3 to M2-status before delivery.
Much more than a simple competition
Having arrived a few days before the official kick-off, both visiting foreign squadron contingents flew a familiarisation sortie over the exercise ‘playground’ of east-Jordan, ranging from the Syrian border in the north over the world famous Wadi-Rum area to the Saudi-border in the deep south of the kingdom.
The availability of a McConnell (Kansas)-based USAF KC-135R Stratotanker of the 22 ARW at MSAB enabled the Jordanian F-16 pilots to train and regain their air-air refuelling skills and qualification, while showing their guests some critical exercise areas (including Prince Hassan Air Base to be used for technical emergency diversions).
Immediately after the official opening of the Meet, attended by a large number of regional and international air force commanders, attachés and observers (including Royal Air Force of Oman, RAAF and RAF’s ADWC at RAF Waddington), the FM2009-competition launched with a timed formation arrival event over the on-base viewing area.
Two days later, after the completion of the air-air scramble and intercept competition, the first large force employment (LFE) was flown by a sizable multinational F-16 force. Similar to other large-scale exercises, the complexity of the flying programme and scenarios was gradually increased as things progressed.
To optimize the training value for the various participants, mission command during the different LFEs was rotated between the various squadrons, offering a broad spectrum of ideas and experiences to exchange.
A realistic test of skill and knowledge
FAM 2009 offered the RJAF pilots of No.1 squadron their first opportunity to fully operate their M2/M3-updated F-16 Fighting Falcons in realistic tactical scenarios.
Alongside the intense flying programme, the FAM competition also tested the skills of maintenance and armament personnel by giving scores for individual sortie success. The various nations had to compete in a missile loading competition, during which ground crew needed to install an inert AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM 120 AMRAAM on two of the aircraft (wingtip) hard points. Once more ground crew of the COANG supervised the competition and deducted vital points for incorrect hardware manipulations or safety hazards.
By far the most spectacular FM event was the live air-ground bombing competition, in which all participating F-16s dropped two live Mk.82 Snakeye general-purpose bombs on training targets, close to the airbase.
This event was integrated in a large-scale time-sensitive insertion and extraction exercise of Jordanian Special Forces, making a C-130H Hercules-borne assault landing. All pilots needed to drop their bombs within 30 seconds of the preceding aircraft. Each flight lead – the first pilot in the formation of four aircraft – needed to be over the target exactly two minutes after the last aircraft of the previous formation.
To keep all pilots and ground crew competitive until the end, no individual or intermediate scores were given out before the official closing ceremony on November 3. USANG became the overall-winner.
Jordan is the host with the most
FAM 2009 saw for the first time the integration of full-scale large force employment missions into its flying programme and scenarios. Operating for two weeks over the vast and almost unlimited airspace of eastern Jordan, all participants were able to test and train their skills during exercise set-ups, often impossible to organise in their homeland (especially Belgium) due to airspace congestion and unavailability.
Ideally located within this enormous airspace ‘bubble’, MSAB offers plenty of usable parking infrastructure and an almost unlimited willingness of its air force personnel to solve practical problems.
The availability of modern MidLifeUpdated F-16 Fighting Falcons, being a quantum-leap over their old pre-update Block 15s and/or Mirage F-1C/E fighters, will rapidly and successfully bring the RJAF pilots into the digital age of aerial warfare. Their eagerness to demonstrate their capabilities and their vast experience in operating with great tactical efficiency over desert terrain will make them ideal brothers in arms and/or sparring-partners for all parties involved in future FAMs.
More air forces could turn the air blue
To continuously improve the high standard of flying operations during the Falcon Air Meet, various air forces – operating state-of-the-art fighter aircraft – will be invited to participate in the LFE missions, with the option to skip the competition events.
The integration of additional ‘blue air’ participants, ‘red air’ opponents and ground-based air-defence systems will make this exercise an ideal training-venue.
The use of Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) hardware for debriefing purposes will enhance the capabilities to analyse the various missions in all its aspects.
Supervised by the Colorado Air National Guard, the annual Falcon Air Meet may well become a cheaper and realistic alternative for Southeast European and Middle/Near East Air Forces, lacking the logistical support and financial assets, to participate in large-scale exercises in North America (RedFlag - Nellis AFB/USA or Maple Flag/Canada).