Frisian Flag 2013

Frisian Flag 2013 was held from April 15th - 26th at Leeuwarden Air Base and the nearby Dutch, German and Danish airspace over the North Sea. This year’s focus was on international cooperation and integration. Touchdown Aviation got the opportunity to see this multi national cooperation at Leeuwarden Air Base but also in the air during an E-3A AWACS mission and KDC-10 air to air tanker mission.

The Exercise

After a very successful Frisian Flag 2012, the largest to date, this years edition was a good successor with slightly less aircraft participating from different countries but with a couple of firsts of which the presence of the German Deployable Control and Reporting Centre (DCRC) was the most newsworthy (You can find more on this in the report below). During the two weeks about forty-two aircraft flew a mission twice a day. Including spare aircraft a total of sixty operational aircraft were present on a very crowded Leeuwarden AB.

Hosting the exercise was 323 Tactical Training Evaluation and Standardization (TACTES) Squadron based at Leeuwarden, responsible for the standardization of national and international F-16 operations. Supervisor for the exercise was Captain Jos, F-16 pilot. He explains: "Frisian Flag is open to international NATO and Partnership for Peace (PFP) members, hence the presence of the Swedish Air Force. Participating pilots have different experiences and main goal is to make them better pilots after the 2 week course. 323 TACTESS pilots are operational pilots and also participate; I will fly 4 missions during Frisian Flag myself for example." 

One of the objectives of Frisian Flag is to plan, execute and debrief large scale Combined Air Operation (COMAO) packages in realistic scenarios. For each mission, planning takes about six hours. Initial planning is done by the leaders of each flight and this result’s in a scenario that's presented in a mass briefing in which all aircrew participate. For the morning missions planning is done the day before with the mass briefing held the actual morning prior to the mission. Afterwards a mass debrief takes place with a reconstruction of the mission. GPS data of all participants is used to show their movements during the mission. For the afternoon missions all planning is done and briefings are held on the actual day. Because of this planning pilots won't fly 2 missions a day and either takes part in the morning or afternoon mission.

The scenarios written are based on real world operations from the past and present. These operations require skilled pilots who can perform various missions like offensive missions as pre-planned strikes (in case of an Air Interdiction) and gaining air superiority, missions executed in former Yugoslavia and Libya. Defensive missions like support of ground forces and protecting slow movers, executed in Afghanistan are part of the scenarios as well. International cooperation is key in these missions which were and are being fulfilled under mandate of NATO. The presence of the Swedish Air Force however meant a slightly different approach as they are no member of NATO.

Integration with land forces made sure scenarios were as realistic as possible. Along the coast line of the exercise area several sites with air defence (surface-to-air) systems were installed provided by the German Air Force. More treats came from Smokey Sams in combination with Inflatable Targets, cooperation between the RNLAF and Dutch civil company AEC Air Support. At last Forward Air Controllers (FAC) from the Royal Dutch Army provided support for the Close Air Support (CAS) missions in directing the aircraft onto their targets.

Each type of mission, whether it be offensive, defensive or any combination of the two, require different aircraft. This year, the participating units came from the Belgium Air Force (F-16AM/BM, 10 Wing), German Air Force (EF2000, JBG31), French Air Force (Mirage F1CR, ER 02.033 and Mirage 2000, EC 02.005), Polish Air Force (F-16C/D, 31BLT) Swedish Air Force (JAS-39C/D, F21 Lulea) and off course the RNLAF with all operational F-16AM/BM Squadrons participating.

Each unit took spare aircraft (up to four per unit) to Leeuwarden AB for an optimal use during Frisian Flag. Exception to this was EC 02.033 from the French Air Force. They brought four of their Mirage F1CR for the recce and air-to-ground role. Having less electronic flight systems than the modern fighters participating, meaning fewer changes for failure, they were able to take part in almost each mission with all four aircraft. The French participation, including the Mirage 2000s from EC 02.005, was very welcome after a couple years of absence. 

Some additional countries participated with support aircraft for Frisian Flag (Tankers and AWACS). Skyline Aviation, a civil operator based in the Netherlands, provided electronic warfare support in the first week of Frisian Flag. This task was overtaken by the Royal Norwegian Air Force in week two. 336 Squadron from the RNLAF took part with one C-130H Hercules aircraft operating as a so-called 'Slow Mover'. For the first time it was completely integrated within the mission as the 'new' RNLAF C-130H aircraft are Link-16 equipped.

Air to Air Refueling

One of the most important secondary missions of Frisian Flag was the Air to Air refueling support provided by the USAFE (100th ARW flying the KC-135 from RAF Mildenhall, UK), German Air Force (flying the A310 MRTT from Koln-Bonn, DE) and the Royal Netherlands Air Force (334 Squadron flying the KDC-10 out of Eindhoven, NL). Touchdown Aviation joined the latter on the morning mission on April 25.

For Frisian Flag the decision was made to fly the missions out of Eindhoven, located in the south of the Netherlands, home base of the KDC-10 and 334 Squadron. Underlying reasons for this was the lack of parking space at Leeuwarden and available infrastructure to make a quick turnaround time possible in between the missions. Contrary to the 2012 edition of Frisian Flag the KDC-10 flew two missions a day instead of one (being the morning mission) making it possible to get the maximum training value out of this years edition. A disadvantage of not flying out of Leeuwarden was not having a direct integrated evaluation of the mission. The planning of the multiple tactical tanker scenario was done at Leeuwarden though by AAR Tanker Planner Edward Blauw who was liaison officer for 334 Squadron at Leeuwarden in the first week of Frisian Flag. It's important to integrate the tanker mission into the COMAO as being able to refuel in time is essential for the success of the mission.

As the time in between the two missions was too long to stay in the exercise area the KDC-10 returned to Eindhoven after each morning mission. Once landed a short turnaround time made it possible to take off again in time for the afternoon mission. During the first week a turnaround time of less than an hour (49 minutes!) was achieved. Of the original planned 19 missions in two weeks 17 were conducted with one being cancelled due to high sea state on April 18th and another one due to a problem with the boom of the KDC-10.

Most missions were flown in support of Blue Air. The tanker track used was the Shell track located north of the Isle of Texel at an height of around 25000ft flying left-hand. The KDC-10 is equipped with a so-called 'Flying Boom' system to connect with the receiving aircraft. This boom is installed at the rear fuselage and has a length of 7 meters retracted and 14 meters fully extended. Contrary to theKC-135 tankersthe boom operator has no direct view on the boom to operate but is located in the front of the aircraft just behind the cockpit. In his 'office' 2 sticks can be found to control the boom.

First is the Telescope Stick to extend/retract the boom and second is the Flight Control Stick to operate the rudder and elevator to move the boom in position. Four monitors provide a clear view to the operator. On top are three Surveillance Monitors with an overview to the center back and right and left of the KDC-10 to provide situational awareness while below the Operator Monitor provides the actual view on the boom. This view is presented in 3D and with a 3D glass the boom operator is able to see depth in the picture provided. On the right a second seat and monitor are situated allowing an instructor to operate the boom in case of operator training.

According to normal procedure the receivers line-up on the left hand side of the KDC-10, moving to the right for refuel and afterwards waiting on the right hand side for the other aircraft of the same flight. With light signals (installed under the fuselage of the KDC-10) the reciever is guided into position before the nozzle plugs in. This system makes it possible to operate without radio contact.

While a wide variety of aircraft were participating in Frisian Flag the only receivers for the KDC-10 were the Dutch, Belgium and Polish F-16s. All other aircraft are equipped with the 'Probe and Drogue' system which means they can be refuelled by the German A310-MRTT and some of the USAFE KC-135s. During our morning mission a total of twelve F-16s (ten RNLAF and two BAF) were refueled in about 45 minutes. They joined us in the Shell track just after take off from Leeuwarden and prior to entering the mission area.

Eyes of the Sky - AOCS Nieuw Milligen

While preparations for Frisian Flag at Leeuwarden Air Base were in full swing, a group of Air Traffic Controllers and Fighter Controllers of the Royal Netherlands Air Force worked together in the 3D tower simulater at Air Operations Control Centre (AOCS) Nieuw Milligen to prepare themselves for the actual exercise. On March 29 Touchdown Aviation was invited to take a closer look.

Based at AOCS Nieuw Milligen is 711 Squadron from the RNLAF. This squadron is responsible for the Dutch Military Airspace (Air Traffic Control) and Air Defence role (Fighter Control). It includes the School of Air Control, a training centre for training of new controllers or to keep them current. Part of this centre is the 3D tower simulator. It's constructed like a real tower (control deck only) including a copy of the desk with monitors, communications, external antennas and 360 degree window view. The windows are replaces by monitors on which an exact copy of, in this case Leeuwarden Air Base, is projected. A sound system with all surrounding sounds like taxiing aircraft makes it very realistic. Only thing that's missing is the smell of kerosine.

Michel Nauta, Air Traffic Controller at Leeuwarden AB explained us the benefits of the tower simulator: "It's so realistic that after 5 minutes of working in it you forget you're actually in a simulator due to the fact all fighters are places in the actual infrastructure. All flora and fauna is present as an exact copy; I just noticed the tree line in front of the tower was cut down in real life last week, it's the only remarkable difference" he jokes. "We are able to simulate the complete Frisian Flag mission minute by minute. Main benefit is the possibility to suddenly change the weather conditions or build in unexpected emergency situations. These are controlled by the scenario director downstairs in the control and observation room. With the simulator you can recall all 45 participants for example if nescesarry. Hopefully this will never happen in real-life but if it happens you can better be prepared for it."

We were presented the possibilies the simulator has during an emergency situation. With the possibility to zoom into the situation when something happens on the runway for example helps in a better understanding for the ATC'er in what the pilots and emergency units expierence. The possibility to zoom into the cockpit view was presented when we 'sat' down into the cockpit of a F-16, took off from Leeuwarden AB and flew over Friesland. This is made possible by the sattelite images used. While standing on solid ground but with a non natural moving horizon it was a little bit confusing for the brain.

Unique this year was the cooperation between the Air Traffic Controllers and Fighter Controllers of Bandbox in the simulator. After the ATC of Leeuwarden AB cleared the participating aircraft to move on to the exercise area they were taken over by Fighter Controllers. In the past the classified systems and procedures from the Fighter Controllers prevented a direct cooperation in the simulator between the two disciplines. Petra Wijnja, Fighter Controller with Bandbox showed us the simulator room, which also is a direct copy of their daily environment.

The course lasted 4 days in which different groups from Leeuwarden and AOCS Nieuw Milligen practiced in the simulator. With Frisian Flag being the only large scale exercise in the Netherlands this year, the training value of the simulator not only applies to the exercise itself but also is an opportunity to be prepared for a possible deployment anywhere in the world. In the simulator it's possible to train all year long with 'Frisian Flag like' exercises without the need to have all aircraft in real life, resulting in cost-saving and lowering noise pollution.

Eyes of the Sky - DCRC Red Hawk

For the first time Leeuwarden AB was host to the German Deployable Control and Reporting Centre (DCRC), part of Einsatzfuhrungsbereich 3, based in Schonewalde/Holzdorf. With the integration of the DCRC into Frisian Flag, Fighter Controllers of both the RNLAF and GAF worked together from the same location instead of from their own CRCs of which AOCS Nieuw Milligen with tactical callsign 'Bandbox' is the Dutch unit and CRC Schonewalde with tactical callsign 'Sunrise' is the German unit.

A (D)CRC provided the following tasks:

  • Produce a Recongnized Air Picture (RAP) through connection of their own or/and host nation radar systems, including those from AWACS
  • Detect, Track and Identify aircraft in accordance with pre-defined criteria of air traffic and air operation regulations
  • Automated data exchange with airborne and ground-based command posts and weapon systems by means of different tactical data links (e.g. Link 11B and Link 16)
  • Control of any kind of military airborne or ground based weapon systems

Whether it being a native CRC, Deployable CRC or AWACS, the tasks mentioned above more or less are applies for the three of them. We will take a closer look in our E-3A AWACS report below.

While entering the DCRC you can't miss the tactical callsign of the DCRC, being 'Red Hawk', as it is presented on a large flag near the entrance. After handing in our cell phones we were presented an overview of the setup of the DCRC. With a length of 17 Metres it consists of a large tented area with on one side modular components build up from 20ft containers. Each modular component hosts a discipline like Track Production or Link Management. Also included is a rest area, telephone central and briefing/debriefing room. 

Major Peter Karthaus, contingent leader of the DCRC at Leeuwarden AB presented us some insights of the DCRC: "We came here to construct the DCRC on March 24 2013. As it is a peacetime mission we took our time for bulding and connecting all systems. During the two weeks of Frisian Flag our contingent consist of around 80 Germans complemented by 12 Dutch. May 6 will be our last day on the base. We experience a very warm welcome by the Dutch. Our DCRC uses existing power supplies and radar stations, therefore our lay out is slightly smaller compared to a mission were we are in need for our own supplies."

He continues: "Main benefit to concentrate both the German and Dutch Fighter Controllers on Leeuwarden AB is the possibility to brief and debrief with in an international setting and cooperation. Secondly we now control both the German, Dutch and Danish airspace from one location and at last we're close to the pilots so Fighter Controllers can evaluate the mission with the pilots 'face to face'."

Eyes of the Sky - E-3A AWACS

While we visited the DCRC at Leeuwarden Air Base, Major Peter Karthaus said that they have some kind of 'Gods eye view' over the Frisian Flag Exercise. The day after, on April 18, this term was given another dimension when we were privileged to board E-3A AWACS flight 'NATO01' with tail number LX-N90450 out of Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany to take part in the Frisian Flag missions of the day.

The E-3A Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) is a flying radar platform based on the Boeing 707. In use with NATO its primary role is airspace surveillance of the affiliated countries. Part of the E-3A Component, seventeen AWACS are on strength, operating out of Main Operating Base Geilenkirchen or one of the Forward Operating Bases/Locations being situated in Turkey, Greece, Italy or Norway. The AWACS force is complemented by seven E-3D AWACS aircraft operated by the Royal Air Force out of RAF Waddington, UK.

During Frisian Flag the E-3A Component supported the mission in its secondary role; providing Tactical Air Battle Management. Most days an E-3A was active in the exercise area for about nine hours including air-to-air refueling inbetween the missions. With the large 360 degree Northrop Grumman AN/APY-12 radar mounted on top of the fuselage the AWACS is an essential part in providing the radar picture of the mission area. As it looks 'down' it's better able to detect and track low flying objects then land based radars that suffer from the curvature of the earth.

With 31 people on board our flight it was crowded in the office. Apart from a couple guests some functions were double manned to get the most training value out of the mission. The following roles can be found in the AWACS:

  • Pilot, Co-Pilot, Flight Engineer and Navigator in the cockpit
  • Communications Officer and System Technician
  • Surveillance Operators
  • Weapon Controllers
  • Tactical Director
  • Surveillance Controller and Passive Controller
  • Radar Technician

Seventeen of the eighteen participating NATO countries deliver crew for the AWACS resulting in a variety of nations manning the seats.

During our flight the AWACS took over the role of the DCRC and was in command of the mission supporting blue air with tactical callsign MAGIC51. Each role just mentioned plays a vital function in executing the mission given. All decisions made are based on the Recognised Air Picture (RAP). This is the radar picture in which all aircraft are identified as being friendly or hostile. Responsible for the RAP is the Surveillance Controller supported by the Surveillance Operators. Identifcation Friend or Foe (IFF) systems on board of the AWACS help to identify the participating aircraft. When an aircraft has a pre-expected location, speed and identification from its transponder it's declared friendly. Otherwise it's declared hostile. The Passive Controller shares the RAP with all friendly aircraft and other participants through Link-16, an integrated secured data exchange network.

The Surveillance Controller is in direct contact with the Tactical Director who is responsible for the overall conduct of the mission as tasked by the operating authorities. During our mission we had 2 Tactical Directors on board of which one was in charge of the mission and the other functioned as a back up and viewer of the bigger picture. Central located is the Fighter Allocator, being responsible for the coordinated use of airspace. He is responsible for the Weapon Officers who are in contact with (a group of) aircraft, acting as a kind of wingman. They assist the pilots in executing their (pre-planned) mission with tactical orders.

The morning mission saw us being positioned roughly above the Isle of Texel, the Netherlands being the friendly side (blue air) of the exercise area. Afterwards we refueled in German Air Space and just before the afternoon mission started it was cancelled due to a high sea state, making it too dangerous for the fighters to operate above the North Sea in this peace-time exercise. It ment we landed back at Geilenkirchen AB after almost seven hours of flight.

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