Every early spring for the past quarter century, jets from numerous European air arms have congregated like migratory birds in the north of the Netherlands for the annual Frisian Flag exercise, taking place at The Royal Netherlands Air Force Base Leeuwarden.
Like the other "Flag" exercises (Red Flag, Green Flag, Maple Flag, etc.) the Frisian variety is all about large-scale battle scenarios involving both a large contingent of air assets engaged in air-to-air and air-to-ground missions, and land-based assets attacking as well as defending certain positions and areas.
Frisian Flag's main goal to enhance the leadership skills of participants on all levels, through exposure to realistic large-scale mission scenarios. Participants work together with international partners towards successful execution and thorough evaluation and analysis. These experiences are an invaluable training aid in preparation for real-world deployments and engagements. This goal has been a constant since the start of the Frisian Flag exercises, and this year’s iteration was no different.
Around 50 airplanes from eight different countries took part in two missions per day for a total of 10 days, with all crews flying both blue air (the good guys) and red air (the bad guys) missions. The fighters were supported by tankers taking part in the EART (European Air Refueling Training) exercise, flying from Eindhoven Air Base to the south. Surface-to-air units from both the Dutch and German Army / Air Force took part as both surface defense and threat assets. German and Dutch surface radars supplied a nice overall picture for all the participants through their air controlling from the ground, while a NATO AWACS unit assisted in this aspect from the air. Each day, a morning and afternoon mission was flown, each wave containing around 40 jets. This meant a fast turn around from planning, briefing, flying and debriefing to analysis and evaluation. This high tempo is standard operating procedure for Frisian Flag.
What has changed over the years, though, are the scenarios and actors involved. New factors are influencing tactics and strategy in today’s air forces. From working together with new, non-NATO partners, to deploying to a threat zone on very short notice while having to rely on an ever shrinking asset pool, today’s Air Forces have to do a lot more with a lot less. Just have a look at the Dutch Air Force (Koninklijke Luchtmacht/KLu). KLu units are deployed in the Baltic for the NATO Air Policing Mission and might be engaged through a deployment next year, according to Base Commander Col. Denny Traas during the press briefing at Leeuwarden. At the same time, the Klu have to defend Dutch air space together with the Belgian Air Force, while also maintaining their standards through training this year at Red Flag and starting the transition process from the aging F-16 Fighting Falcon to the new F-35 Lightning II. The Dutch are doing all this on a small budget, while also organizing a large scale exercise like Frisian Flag. That’s a lot to handle, especially when the KLu must also be at the ready to help contain arising situations that may occur around the world.
This context is, of course, not unique to the Dutch, and it’s the main reason why Frisian Flag is such a popular exercise. By working efficiently together, participating units can gain valuable experience not available nor attainable through their day-to-day training at their home base. And they can do so in one of the biggest training air spaces available in Europe. The exercise airspace is a combined area of Dutch, Danish and German air spaces to the north of Leeuwarden, providing yet another level of multi-national training.
|Belgian Air Force||F-16A|
|United States Air Force||F-15C/D|
|French Air Force||Mirage 2000D|
|Royal Air Force||Tornado GR4|
|Portuguese Air Force||F-16A|
|NATO||AWACS (out of Geilenkirchen AB)|
|Cobham Aviation||Falcon 20|
|European Air Refueling Training (EART)|
|Italian Air Force||Boeing KC-767|
|French Air Force||C-135|
In their briefing both Col. Denny Traas and Capt. Remco (the Supervising Organiser, flying with the 322 Tactical Training Evaluation and Standardization Squadron) talked about focusing more on high intensity conflict scenarios during this year’s edition of Frisian Flag, and less on asymmetrical threats. One only has to look at the posture Russia has taken over the last several years to realize NATO and its allies need to be able to react in a clear and decisive manner, protecting member states and friendly nations.
Another point of focus this year was air-to-air combat training. Already a major training aspect for the Dutch pilots during Red Flag, brushing up on air-to-air skills is crucial after being tasked with ground support missions and deployments for such a long time. And how better to do it than to train against the main USAF air defense asset of the last 40 years, the mighty F-15 Eagle.
Participating this year, as part of their deployment through the Theatre Security Package in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve, was the 122nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, comprised of Louisiana and Florida Air National Guard (ANG) aircraft and members. During the first three months of this six-month deployment, the Louisiana ANG will be deployed. Then they will rotate personnel back to the US and the last three months will be flown by the Florida unit.
Fourteen-year Eagle veteran, Lt. Col. Daniel 'Deuce' Fischer, Commanding Officer of the 122nd FS, stated that they requested an earlier deployment start so they could attend Frisian Flag, having heard about it from other units and really wanting to take part. After weather-related delays en route, the 122nd arrived just prior to Frisian Flag. With little time to get acquainted with the Dutch airspace, its pilots and personnel jumped right into the action. The Louisiana Guardsmen will fly purely in air-to-air roles during the missions and will stay at Leeuwarden for most of April after the exercise ends, hoping to engage and train with nearby units. From Leeuwarden they will head east to one of the eastern NATO member states. The main goal of this TSP deployment is enhance interoperability between NATO partners and training less experienced pilots in a different environment and in large scale missions - "Dealing with the fog and friction of war", as ‘Deuce’ stated. Frisian Flag provides a natural lead-in to such a deployment.
As for the future of Frisian Flag, there were rumors there would not be a 2018 or 2019 edition because of the KLu's transition to the F-35. But Col. Traas stated there would be a yearly Frisian Flag for the foreseeable future and was looking forward to the integration of new systems like the F-35 and MQ-9 in the mission scenarios. He looks to the US or UK for possible participation with the Lightning II's since they are the furthest along in their operational deployment of the F-35. The Royal Netherlands Air Force will receive their first home-based F-35's in 2019/20. This could mean a hiatus in the annual exercise schedule, due to work up to Operational Capability of the F-35 in the Royal Netherlands Air Force in 2021.
It makes sense to have these new assets available during the exercise since there will be a long transition period where there are fourth and fifth generation aircraft operating together in the same environment. The sooner forces start training under those circumstances the sooner they will know how to get the most out of that generational combination. And that is what Frisian Flag is about: working together, planning, executing, analyzing, and evolving.
Words & Photography: Roger Kemp
Additional photos: Leonard van den Broek and Roel Reijne
Video: Reinier Bergsma