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Tempest over the Desert - Typhoon's Middle Eastern Red Air Roadshow

Posted 6 October 2014 · Add Comment

Arabian Aerospace Defence Editor Jon Lake looks at a new integrated military training support solution ready to roll out to the Middle East.

London-headquartered company ECA’s has said its “Integrated Opposing Force” (IOPFOR), an advanced but affordable integrated military training support solution, will make its debut in the Middle East during a six-week deployment which is slated to cover the Kingdom of Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE.
The company claimed that this DEMEVAL (Demonstration and Evaluation) was in support of existing clients) and that it would also showcase the IOPFOR system to other interested nations.
ECA say that the deployment will comprise six Eurofighter Typhoons acting as ‘Red Air’ aircraft, together with four surface to air missile threat emitters, two mobile command & control systems, space and cyberwar assets, backed up by advanced simulation capabilities, and including AACMI (the rangeless Autonomous Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation), Link 16 including MIDS (Multifunctional Information Distribution System), and NDWS (Non Drop Weapons Scoring).
ECA boldly asserts that it is the first company in the world to exploit such advanced technologies in all domains (air, ground, sea, space, cyberwar and synthetic training). This, says ECA chief executive and IOPFOR manager Melville ten Cate, makes his company “a one stop shop for all military support needs, with a power by the hour concept which will allow our clients to go from a cost of ownership to a cost of use model.”
The blend of live training support, and networked simulations, will also allow the system to be used to support planning and advanced concept development for future military infrastructure investments.
With a smart brochure, a suitably stylish flying suit patch (motto: ‘Fab Est Ab Hoste Doceri’ – ‘It is right to learn even from an enemy’), and a smart address in the heart of the City of London, ECA seems to ooze respectability.

Behind this comforting image, however, the company has had a long and sometimes frustrating struggle to realize its grand vision. ECA’s plans have always been ambitious and as a pioneer in this field, Ten Cate has sometimes found the road to be a rocky one. As a result, his company has been forced to fine-tune, adapt and tailor its offering in the face of changing and sometimes unfavourable political circumstances.

“ECA has taken time to get the IOPFOR idea right since its inception in 2003-2004. That idea was in many ways ahead of its time; We were the military advocacy in a time when politicians were only too happy to use "the dividends of peace" to strip the military to fund more electorally popular areas. Now, ten years later, with tanks massed at the Ukrainian border, with MH-17 in a field, Iraq in shambles and the south China sea a powder keg waiting for a spark, it is hard for us not to say "we told you so!" ECA is not just the only affordable and relevant option, it is also the only one that will be available in time because time is a luxury the West no longer has.” Ten Cate told Arabian Aerospace.

Though the company has experienced a succession of (often narrowly) missed opportunities, it has given ECA unparalleled experience in exploring how (and how not to) put together a viable and compelling IOPFOR package, and October’s promised IOPFOR DEMVAL should demonstrate this, if a few remaining obstacles can be overcome.

ECA’s journey
ECA chief executive and IOPFOR manager Melville ten Cate started promoting the concept of using a fleet of privately-owned and operated lightweight fighters to provide an aggressor training service for Alliance nations in 2003. It has taken more than a decade to realize this goal, with some false starts along the way.

Realistic training is the key to success in military operations, allowing aircrew to learn the lessons usually imparted by real combat experience in a safe and controlled environment. Accurate replication of the threat is vital, and fighting against dissimilar aircraft types, flown by pilots from other air forces (or by specialized, specifically trained ‘aggressor’ or adversary pilots who are able to employ realistic ‘enemy’ tactics), is also useful. Few air forces have the resources to maintain dedicated OPFOR (opposing force) pilots and aircraft, however, and even the US Air Force has been forced to make economies, disbanding one of its Nellis-based Aggressor squadrons, the F-15 equipped 65th Aggressor Squadron, on 26 September 2014.

There are a number of commercial companies tasked with providing OPFOR and adversary training services – mainly in the USA – but most of these fly older aircraft types whose performance, missions systems, armament and equipment are unrepresentative of the real-world threat and which are therefore of limited training value.

ECA aimed to provide ‘higher fidelity’ training, using more representative, higher performance, more sophisticated ‘threat’ aircraft, and over a ten year period made a number of attempts to acquire and operate aircraft like the Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flanker’, MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ and IAI Lavi, before eventually coming to the realization that it would need to pursue an alternative approach.

Ten Cate’s then Luxembourg-based company was originally engaged in negotiating to provide Su-30MKIs with Irbis radars for Operational Test and Evaluation by the Pentagon, before switching its attention to training.

ECA proposed using a 24-aircraft system to support multi-national combat training, using Sukhoi Su-27 ‘Flankers’ or MiG-29s of some kind to replicate a generic threat, providing an opposing force in an integrated and network centric environment, including C4ISR capabilities, SAM threat systems, jammers, and cyber warfare capabilities.

In its efforts to acquire Russian fighters, ECA followed a two-tier approach. This promised to result in a useful light/heavy mix if everything went to plan, but also incorporated its own ‘Plan B’, with a better chance of acquiring at least one fighter type, since both design bureaus and their associated factories had completely different political allies and influence in Moscow and the Kremlin.

Initially, ECA planned to buy new Su-27s and Yak-130s from Russia, but was soon obliged to go through Belarus, so that Russia would not be seen to be co-operating with NATO countries. At this point, ECA’s interest switched to second-hand, ex-Indian Air Force Su-30Ks which were to have been delivered via Belarussia’s plant 558 at Baranovichi. (These 18 aircraft were eventually taken back by Irkutsk and then some of them were sold to Angola, and according to recent rumour, also to Iran). The aircraft would have been augmented by a range of OPFOR equipment, including Sorbitsiya jamming pods, a range of missile training and acquisition rounds, ground based radars, GPS jammers, and EW equipment.

The company negotiated to base Su-27s at Goose Bay, and then, after talks broke down, at Keflavik in Iceland, according to reports in the Financial Times and elsewhere in April 2010. It was reported that the Su-27s would “not be equipped to carry ammunition, allowing them to be licensed as commercial aircraft.” Responding to criticism that his company was building up a ‘private air force’, Ten Cate drily responded that: “We couldn’t take out a pigeon unless it flew into the engine.” The aircraft would have been operated under an Experimental category under ICAO’s Annex 2.

ECA told Arabian Aerospace that it had agreed to buy 15 of the ex-Indian Sukhoi Su-30 ‘Flankers’ jets from the Belarusian arms export company BelTechExport, with an option on 18 more newly-built aircraft, which would also have been delivered via Belarus.

BelTechExport reportedly first confirmed and then denied knowledge of the deal to the Financial Times, while Kristjan Moller, Iceland’s then-Minister for Transport, Communications and Local Government confirmed that he had granted permission for the Icelandic Civil Aviation Authority to begin preparations to licence ECA Program Limited to operate in Iceland, while stressing that this did not mean that the project had been green-lighted to go ahead.

By March 2011, it was being reported that permission to use Keflavik had been withdrawn by the incoming left-leaning Icelandic government, though Arabian Aerospace understands that ECA had revised its own plans long before, realizing that it faced an uphill struggle against a Government that was hostile to NATO, and to any military, ‘capitalist’ or environmentally sensitive development, including the construction of a new aluminium smelting plant by Rio Tinto, and a Google data centre. At one stage, in November 2008, during an official lunch with foreign diplomats, Iceland’s President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson shocked representatives of neighboring countries going as far as to invite Russia to make use of Keflavik air base.

In the end, the plan to acquire ‘Flankers’ via Belarus finally fell through when BelTechExport was subjected to US sanctions for delivering missile technology to North Korea and Iran. This was probably a blessing in disguise for ECA which would have been left with a small fleet of old and hard-used Su-30Ks which would have been difficult to support even before any further deterioration in relations between Russia and the West.

In May 2012 Flightglobal reported that Melville ten Cate was expecting to announce the selection of an alternative aircraft type in mid-May, with candidate platforms including the Chengdu J-10, RSK MiG-35 and Saab Gripen, though after a banner ad appeared on Bloomberg’s website seeking private investors to underwrite the deal, Saab reportedly responded that it “Had not heard about the ECA Program.”

This would seem to have been a slightly disingenuous response, as Arabian Aerospace has learned that ECA’s plans were laid before Saab’s Business Board during the first half of 2012, prior to the issue of an LOI. The proposal was for 24 Saab JAS39As to be delivered over three years max with an interim capability to be achieved using rented aircraft from the Swedish Air Force’s reserve of stored Gripens.

It was reported that the Schiphol-based company had raised €283 million ($375 million) to support the programme via an asset-backed convertible bond, which was offered from 2-30 April.

A Dutch tabloid quoted ECA’s own website as saying that the Luxembourg fund Cino Lux had invested 113 million euros in the plans, and that ECA had purchased an undisclosed number of “Russian MiG aircraft”, the tabloid clearly having failed to keep up with ECA’s switch of interest to the Saab Gripen, and having managed to firmly grab hold of the wrong end of several sticks while compiling a scandalous but remarkably inaccurate story.

In the event there has no purchase. Although the total raised was short of the required total of €430 million, ECA said that they “considered it a success", and said that it was sufficient to support the purchase of an initial 14 Gripen aircraft, though in the event local press attention probably ‘spooked’ Saab enough to derail the proposal.

Flight reported that ECA would support a three-week demonstration and evaluation exercise for NATO and allied air forces over the North Atlantic in early 2013 (Defence IQ reporting a slightly different date of October 2012). It was hoped that this would enable the company to showcase its operating concept in a "no holds barred" scenario. "People don't buy Powerpoint," he was quoted as saying, and Flight characterized his philosophy as being one of “if you build it then they will come”. This would have marked the debut of the rented Saab Gripens.

“Getting a good report from the operational deployment in October should help in securing the funding at the end of this year. It will park the whole thing in reality.” Ten Cate was reported as saying.

Defence IQ reported that ECA was looking to raise another €150 million (£117 million) by the end of the year (2012) to acquire more assets. The company expected to be at full operational capability, with all of the necessary ground systems and C4ISR capabilities as well as the aircraft, by “no later than 2014.”

On 9 August 2012, ECA issued a press release announcing the (overdue) selection of a candidate aircraft to deliver the company’s proposed future aggressor service, claiming that it was “ready to procure 36 advanced, single engine jets from Israeli Aircraft Industries, with 12 more under option.”

Flight reported that the Dutch company would acquire the Lavi-2, a derivative of the moribund Israeli combat aircraft that had been cancelled in 1987. Peter Campbell, COO of ECA Program BV said that: “Although the Su-35 and other 4th Gen. fighters are formidable aircraft, they will no longer have any real relevance beyond the 2020 horizon and seen the capital investments we have to think ahead. IAI has a very good technology base and the flexibility needed to produce the aircraft in the best possible timeframe.”

Flight’s Craig Hoyle wryly observed that: “ECA’s selection of an aircraft which does not exist raises further doubts about the chances of this idea ever getting off the ground.”

But ECA’s potential order for the aircraft was significant, and large enough to justify the relaunch, which would have resulted in an affordable fast jet offering a top speed of over Mach 2.2, including supercruise performance, as well as advanced systems including an active electronically scanned array radar, signature management techniques, helmet-mounted designators and countermeasures equipment. Arabian Aerospace’s sources suggest that detailed discussions with IAI and Elta did take place, and that a Lavi 2 based design was offered to ECA and at least one air force customer.

Melville ten Cate acknowledges that ECA made some mistakes in these early years, not least in failing to damp down press speculation and exaggeration. “The Financial Times piece led us to believing in our own hype, and we went public too soon in revealing that we were in talks with IAI, Saab and Boeing, virtually forcing our potential partners to refuse to confirm what we were saying.”

But behind the scenes, it is clear that ECA came very close to realizing its vision as early as 2011, when (according to very reliable Emirati military sources) the UAE Air Force and Air Defence authorized ECA to negotiate with the Russians for the acquisition of more than a dozen Su-35BMs and Su-30MKMs to equip a dedicated OPFOR force, whose aircraft would be on the UAE military register, but which would be owned, operated and maintained by ECA.

When this initiative failed, ECA changed its approach, realizing that using aircraft from a national air force, flown by that nation’s own pilots, would effectively get around the certification issues that had dogged the company’s previous attempts to buy and operate its own fast jets.

Thus for the company’s planned October/November deployment to the Middle East, Arabian Aerospace understands that eight Spanish and Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoons (including two spares) and about 20 pilots will be used, though ECA have resolutely refused to confirm the source of its aircraft.

Arabian Aerospace understands that complex negotiations between the Spanish Treasury, Air Force and Materials Directorate and with the Italian MoD and Air Force have not been concluded at the time of writing, but that agreement to use the Typhoons had been reached in most areas.

The selection of pilots (with a minimum ‘qualification’ of 1,400 hours, graduates of TLP or Fighter Weapons School, and qualified as four-ship flight leaders) has reportedly been concluded, and visas are being finalized for all personnel. It is planned that five of the six aircraft will each fly two (one hour ten minute) sorties per day, five days per week, for the six week deployment. Spain and Italy will not cede control of the aircraft, so that the arrangement cannot accurately be termed as a ‘lease’. Such detailed planning suggests to this writer that this is a deal that is ‘done’, if not yet ‘dusted.’

Ten Cate is clearly impatient with what he sees as an over-concentration by the press on the “nerdy and geeky” detail of what aircraft type will be used for OPFOR training, something that he views as something of an irrelevant distraction: “Everybody keeps coming back to the question about which plane we are going to use. But the plane isn’t that important when you consider the big picture of the integrated network. The plane is just another tool in that network, same as ground-based radars or antennas. The plane is a node on a network, it doesn’t operate alone and nor does it operate by itself. We just need a generic, integrated aircraft with a data link, representative sensors and a particular performance.”

He explained ECA’s vision as being: “much more than a fancy aircraft. The real power comes from a global, dedicated network running networked simulators, live and synthetic training assets, combined with threat parameter databases... all accessible by clients because ECA is open source, with no political or commercial agenda. Clients will be able to use the network to build coalitions and coalition training adapted to their needs and the realities of the 21st century. Building coalitions is a big part of this, since no-one can afford to "go it alone" any more,” he insists.

But while OPFOR training may entail more than ‘fancy aircraft’, an aircraft platform with viable performance and avionics is essential for accurate threat replication, and ageing A-4 Skyhawks, F-5E Tigers, IAI Kfirs and Hawker Hunters are insufficient for high end OPFOR training.

The company is believed to have negotiated with Boeing to use the F-15 Eagle for OPFOR training. ECA was apparently approached by Boeing Phantom Works with a proposal to use ex-Saudi F-15s for OPFOR training. These were to have comprised all of the F-15Cs and F-15Ss that Boeing were initially expecting to have to ‘take back’ as part of the new F-15SA deal. It soon became clear that there would have been severe restrictions as to where these F-15s could have been based, and as to what equipment could be used with different customer nations. The proposal briefly looked as if it might be viable – effectively providing a privatized alternative to the USAF’s own Nellis-based adversary units, but the proposal was torpedoed by the State Department, and by the RSAF’s decision to retain and upgrade its older F-15s.

And now, ECA’s attention has shifted to the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Ten Cate believes that the Typhoon is an ideal OPFOR aircraft, offering sufficient airframe and sensor performance to be able to simulate any threat, with any sensitive national data protected through the use of a dedicated OPFOR software drop, incorporating ECA’s own proprietary Mission Data, and allowing the aircraft to use ‘Red Air’ tactics like distributed jamming and SAM control. In Ten Cate’s vision, an adversary Typhoon “Walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, but is actually a goose!” and he is enthusiastic about an informal Eurofighter GmbH suggestion that the aircraft should use a new name – Tempest – to reflect this!

In the longer term, Ten Cate’s dream is for ECA to operate surplus Tranche 1 Eurofighters, obviating the need to sell them off cheaply to nations like Argentina or Bulgaria, perhaps even buying some aircraft in the 2018-2019 timeframe. An AESA conversion might be funded, as this would allow for the easier replication of threat radars. By then, Ten Cate hopes, ECA will have “built credibility’, perhaps sufficiently for EASA and the relevant national aviation authority to allow the company to operate its own fast jets under a ‘military derogation’.

Future OPFOR opportunities
ECA issued a Press Release on 27 January 2014, announcing that several of its IOPFOR Capability Elements would soon achieve ‘Initial Operational Capacity’ after “years of preparation and planning,” some as early as the second quarter of 2014.

ECA characterizes its key Capability Elements as including: “Generation 4+” fighters and weapons systems; Leading-edge Ground-Based Air Defence systems, advanced Electronic Warfare and ISR systems and platforms, as well as threat emitters and threat emulation systems. In the longer time, Ten Cate has aspirations to operate dedicated tankers and transport aircraft.

ECA already has a letter of agreement to integrate IOPFOR elements into NATO’s TLP (Tactical Leadership Programme), though the contract has yet to take effect. NATO sources told Arabian Aerospace that the agreement covered four classes annually (with provision for a subsequent ramp up in the number of classes per year, if sufficient added value is demonstrated), but that OPFOR elements had only been partially defined. ECA will base its assets at the Ciudad Real Central Airport, which closed in April 2012 after going bust, and which ECA has a bid in to purchase.

Ciudad Real Central Airport has a 4,000 metre runway and is located about 200 km West of Albacete, the home of TLP, and is separated from the main base by a desert which would be an ideal location for an EW range – which ECA see as vital if TLP is to be transformed into the European Red Flag. Ciudad Real has good facilities, and could easily accommodate a cyber warfare facility, networked simulators and other IOPFOR infrastructure.

Ten Cate sees a huge window of opportunity for the kind of service that he is offering. “Allied air forces can no longer rely on Red Flag (which was briefly suspended last year by budgetary cuts),” he insists. “Europe needs to look after its own needs but does not have the budget to establish an equivalent to Red Flag. So Europe needs a commercial company to provide the service, and by leveraging off training in the Middle East, perhaps with Saudi, Jordanian and Emirati earnings, this can be done cost-effectively.”

The company is now offering a low-risk 30-hour “IOPFOR Card” to allow potential customers to evaluate its training methodology and IOPFOR capability elements without having to commit major portions of their in-house training budgets.

ECA says that the IOPFOR will gradually expand to operate as a global real time network, operating across four continents over the next few 24 months.

But everything hinges on the forthcoming DEMVAL in the Middle East – which represents ECA’s first opportunity to demonstrate its OPFOR offering, and which it will do in an area where there is plenty of unrestricted airspace, and where red tape and political obstacles may be more rapidly overcome. Another false start could critically or even fatally undermine credibility and confidence in ECA’s bold plans, whereas a successful deployment could be the foundation for an exciting new business. Arabian Aerospace will return to this subject when the time is right!


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