Text by Patrick Dirksen & Frank Mink of Tristar Aviation Photographs courtesy of the Royal Canadian Air Force
From September to December 2020, the Royal Canadian Air Force (rcaf) 433 Tactical Fighter Squadron (tfs) deployed CF-188 Hornets to Mihail Kogalniceanu Airbase in Romania. The main purpose was to perform nato air policing missions, but there was more.
The deployment was part of Operation Reassurance. Lieutenant Colonel David McLeod is commander of 433 TFS from Bagotville, Quebec, and was also commander of Air Task Force, Romania. While there, he explained the purpose of this deployment, “We are deployed with the RCAF Air Task Force with approximately 150 personnel and six CF-188s, and we are here to complete the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) Enhanced Air Policing mission. The mission has two main parts to it, the first part being the deterrent mission. That is the traditional Quick Reaction Alert (QRA), having armed jets on ground alert to be launched from ML (Mihail Kogalniceau Airbase) if there is any unscheduled or unidentified incursion into NATO airspace. Second, there is also the assurance part of the mission. And that part of the mission really focusses on multinational joint training and integration between our forces and locally based forces such as the Romanian Air Force.”
“We spend a lot of time exercising the assurance portion with Romania and other allies. We have done integration with their JTACS (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) and with our own Canadian JTACS who came into the country for approximately a week to do training. We also integrated with us forces that are co-located with us here at MK,’ explained McLeod.
In October, 555 Squadron of the USAFE (us Air Forces in Europe) completed air policing missions with F-16s over Bulgaria. For the Canadian detachment, this provided a great opportunity to perform multinational training with the Bulgarian, Romanian and American air forces. The nato airborne early warning E-3A awacs (Airborne Early Warning and Control), called Blue Bridge, also joined this exercise. The CF-188s transferred into Bulgaria to join the exercises. Some of their missions involved cooperating with Bulgarian MiG-29s and L-39s, as well as Romanian F-16s and MiG-21 LanceRs.
Because of COVID, the whole team quarantined for two weeks and conducted testing in Canada before they even crossed the ocean. Also, during the stopover in Keflavik, Iceland, everyone stayed in their quarantine bubble.
In Romania, they stayed on a separated part of the base. But COVID had more effects on the deployment. McLeod explained the challenge of good communication, ‘The biggest factor that is affected by all of the COVID protective measures, is the ability to do face to face interaction for these exercises. We switched to electronic means of interaction by using telephone or video conferencing, both secure and unclassified. We are using our own secure networks to coordinate and organize these events. And it’s really positive that we have been able to do all these events in this environment, that we can rely on these systems to do the coordination that we need. It’s a good reinforcement of the Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, the TTP, that we have as NATO allies. We are able to lean on those standard items and then bring them forward and help these exercises to still occur. That we were still able to speak the same language is really good to see.”
For McLeod, it wasn’t the first time he was deployed to Romania. Back in 2014, he had the opportunity to work with Romanian Air Force pilots during the RCAF’s first Air Policing mission in Romania. The Romanian Air Force flies the LanceR from MK, an upgraded version of the famous MiG-21. “They looked forward to working with us and soak up as much knowledge and professional development from the interaction as they can. But our side too. I mean, take my junior pilots, they are combat ready, but some have not deployed before. And now we bring them out here and mix them up with real MiG-21s and they get surprised! It’s a challenging target to see when airborne. It’s a small jet with a small profile, especially face on. We can try to simulate MiG-21s with Alpha Jets back home in Canada, or we fly certain profiles, but nothing beats the real thing, right? And my pilots learned the LanceRs have upgraded avionics, and they have very capable pilots. It really benefits both forces.’
The QRA mission is not a continuous mission. The Canadian detachment shared the duty with other forces in the region. ‘We are on a schedule. We work out with CAOC at Torrejon (NATO’s Southern Combined Air Operations Centre in Spain). So some days we are not on qra status and we are focussing on training. And then we have a set period in which we are on QRA, holding alert,” McLeod explained. “We are plugged in on the NATO secure systems so we are connected to the CRC (Command and Reporting Centre) in Bucharest, as well as as the caoc in Torrejon.’ This schedule was not a fixed one though, to make sure it didn’t become predictable. For the QRA, the Hornets carried a mixed weapons load, with a combination of AIM-9 Sidewinder heat seeking missiles and aim-120 AMRAAM radar guided missiles, plus external fuel tailored to the situation. “It is a little different here. Back home in Canada we often fly longer ranges to conduct intercepts due to the geographical differences. Here it’s a smaller AOR (Area of Responsibility) so we tailor the load a little more to the area of operation.” He continued, “The F-18 is fully day and night capable and all of our crews are qualified with ANVIS 9 Night Vision Goggles. Also, we have our Sniper electro optical targeting pod with us, which has an air-to-air capability. So if we are on alert, we are so 24/7.”
When there was a potential or actual violation of NATO air space, CAOC Torrejon sent a scramble alert to the Romanian NATO CRC callsign ‘Chrystal’ in Bucharest. Bucharest transmitted that to operations at MK and the scramble process was initiated. “Usually we do our mission without any lateral airborne support, just with the native radar coverage and communication coverage Romania has. If a NATO AWACS is airborne at the time, they contribute to that picture, but by default they are not controlling the Alpha scramble.”
Formally, the area of operation was the whole Romanian flight information region. However, because of aspects of the mission, main focus was on the eastern part of the country and especially the Black Sea region. Even at the beginning of the Task Force deployment, there was an increased level of activities in the Black Sea region because of the large-scale Russian exercise called kavkaz-2020. Therefore, the RCAF Task Force frequently changed its readiness posture. After a few weeks this culminated in an actual alpha scramble. A Russian jet flew alarmingly close to Romanian airspace, and two Hornets were scrambled. “We identified the aircraft as a Su-27 Flanker and monitored it closely until it left the Romanian flight information region. After retuning back to base, we fed all the data back to CAOC and our Canadian chain,” said McLeod. He was quite pleased with the result. “It was a really good boost to the morale of the air task force. They had all been building up to that moment, as we worked through getting our camp set up, COVID, NATO certification and the deployment. And this confirmed to ourselves we were operationally ready, as it was the real validation of that process!’
Apart from the assurance and reassurance parts of the mission, it was a great learning experience for participating personnel. “It is great to take my pilots out of their comfort zone in Canada and North America. We are used to the Canadian and us air traffic systems and way of doing business. In Europe, they have to get used to the difference between general air traffic and operational air traffic and what they can and can’t do. The difference goes all the way down to the accents on the radios when they communicate. Any time we go on a multinational operation, we never do them on our own, so we have to integrate with all these countries, with their different accents and capabilities. So the capability to work with all these forces, even if it’s on a small scale, such as here with the air policing mission, is a massive learning point for my guys here at mk. This is excellent preparation for any future multinational operation we are going to be a part of!”
McLeod concluded, “Even with the COVID situation I am lucky with the team that I have here. They take on these extra challenges, they just ball up with the mission and buckle down and get the mission done in a really positive way!”