United Nation of Air Forces

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In this age of multinational forces -- peacekeeping and otherwise -- it is more important than ever for military pilots to practice with aviators from other countries. Once a year, in a huge, Canadian military reservation, aircraft from around the world join forces in simulated combat to prepare for future battles.

Photos by William Gilson -- Aerophoto International

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The sky over 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, was unusually crowded over the past couple of months. Over 100 aircraft from many different countries could be seen taking off from the base and headed out to the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range. It was all part of the 37th Annual Exercise Maple Flag.

The six-week event is an international exercise, designed to simulate a modern air-combat environment. Maple Flag Director Captain Brehn Eichel said the event is a chance for some of the less-experienced pilots to participate in a simulated combat situation. "The overall intent is to provide a safe, academic environment for junior combat-ready wingmen to get their first 10 combat missions in a structured environment," Eichel said. "History has shown that is the crucial period in air combat."

Long, Intense Days

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Captain Brehn Eichel -- Maple Flag Director

Participating crews may get their weekends off, but there is not much down time during the week. There are two sorties flown each day. "The typical day for an aircrew here is 12 hours, so it's a pretty high tempo," Eichel said. "If you are part of the morning mission, you will start planning it the day prior. Each country and unit takes turns being the overall package commander. I will designate the transport commander and an escort air-to-air commander, and these people work to build up their plan. They have to figure out how they are going to make 100 airplanes take off, execute the task, come home safely and still fight red air in the process.

"The crews scheduled for the morning mission start planning at 2:30 p.m. on the day before. They have until 6 p.m. to put the plan together -- everything from deciding where and when they are taking off, how are they going to hold, what time are they going to push, what time is each unit going to hit its target and how are they getting home. The next morning they start briefing at 6:30 a.m. and the simulated war scenario takes place at 9:00 a.m. Once that is over, they land, debrief among their formations, have individual debriefs for the different positions of the war; and then the mass debrief starts at 1 p.m.," Eichel said.

Each aircraft has a different purpose at Maple Flag, and every country has different goals they want to achieve. First Lieutenant Lennon Radke is an F-4 pilot in the German Air Force. "Our main role here is to fly air-to-air," Radke said. "We intercept allied aircraft, check them out, identify them and kill them if we have to. Most of the time, we either stay in the back and protect some high-value airborne assets, or we go in front to basically detonate the formation the opponent force presents us, and the F-15s and F-18s clean the rest up. It is very difficult to coordinate all the air assets with all the precise timing, but its very realistic."

Lots Of Room

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Captain Marco Thies -- German Air Force Weapons Systems Officer -- inspects the F-4 Phantom

The wide-open airspace seemed to be the one common factor all participants appreciate. The Cold Lake Air Weapons Range where the exercise takes place covers close to 12,000 square kilometers. No civilian air traffic is allowed in the area, and it includes over 600 targets and seven airfields. "You basically have no restrictions. The minimum altitude for going supersonic is 100 feet. In Germany, over land, it is 36,000 feet so this is very nice," Radke said.

Radke's weapons system operator agreed. Captain Marco Thies said, "You can deploy chaff/flares almost everywhere. You normally are very restricted in German air space due to the civilian aspect."

The F-4 is an older aircraft, and that has created some disadvantages for the Germans at Maple Flag. Thies said, "The hardest thing when you are up there and handling all the different fighters is communication. Our equipment is old and we have to write down many things while we are flying the mission because we have limited recording systems that we can use for our debriefings."

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The pilot of a French Mirage aircraft gets ready for takeoff.

The French Air Force brought over several different models of the Mirage to take part in the exercise. Lieutenant Colonel Philippe Duchateau said, "Basically, in Maple Flag we are air-to-ground. We will go in and try to hit the targets, mainly simulated airfields or simulated tanks in the range. We will get fighter cover from air-defense assets. We have a lot of threats out there so those assets will try to go and kill the threats before they can shoot at us."

Duchateau said things can get confusing with over 100 planes in the air at the same time, but everything seems to work out if everyone sticks to the plan. "You have got blocks -- pre-set altitude -- and you cannot change those altitudes because you want to be sure you do not collide with another jet. The training is really valuable for us. It is a chance to work in a coalition with all different nations, learn to work together and try to synchronize everyone, because someday we may be working together in a real combat situation."

Reds Vs. Blues

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The pilot of a Norwegian F-16 lands following the end of an exercise.

In order for the exercise to seem as real as possible, someone has to play the bad guy. That role went to the Aggressors, a group of F-16 pilots from Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas. Duchateau said the Aggressors have been doing a good job. "You have to keep watching the sky, every single minute. You are just scanning, trying to find them and they will just pop up out of nowhere and try to come and get a good kill on you. We couldn't get a shot at them because they were just coming in and running out; it was very good training."

Captain Randy Cason is one of the F-16 pilots from the Vegas crew. "My job here is to train," he said, "and to teach other pilots how to fight against our adversaries by replicating them and determining how difficult to make the scenario that day." They change the mission daily, based on prior performance. "First of all, in the planning for the mission, I will determine what kind of tactic we are going to do for that day. I will brief it and we will go fly it. For example, we will set up a couple of caps and we will be waiting for Blue Air to come on range. As soon as they appear, we will commit out of different lanes. We will execute our tactics in a couple of different lanes. Space, execute into multiple groups all over the range and then let Blue Air try to target us from there. If they miss us, we will seed the airspace with chaff to try to cover our position or make them get some false radar locks. We will use electronic attack in the form of radar jamming to see if we can deny them the ability to get radar lock and therefore take shots at us. We will try to sneak in at a very low altitude if we can. On the perfect day, me and every one of my comrades die."

Cason pulls no punches when it comes to letting everyone know how they performed during the exercise. It is his job to critique them during the debrief. "As an Aggressor, it is my responsibility to conduct the air-to-air debrief. I am in charge of it, I run it and I pull out all the lessons learned for the group. If someone did something wrong, I will point it out. If you screwed up, I am going to tell you that you screwed up so you don't do it again the next time."

Cason's home base is the site of Red Flag, a U.S. operation similar to Maple Flag. "Red Flag is definitely smaller and there is a different kind of flying up here in Cold Lake. Maple Flag is a lot more wide open and there are more participants. One of the differences is the density of Red Air. Here there is a lot more Red Air for a short amount of time. At Red Flag it is a little bit of Red Air all of the time."

Multi-National

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A row of F-16s, including several from the Norwegian Air Force, sit at 4 Wing Cold Lake as crews prepare them for the day's first exercise.

Cason said he likes to be able to work with other countries in a simulated combat situation, because it helps train for the real thing. "When NATO gets involved in another operation somewhere around the world, I will walk in the door over there and see a familiar face and we will be able to work together based on our combat experiences at a place like Maple Flag. It is good to work with other countries and get familiar with their capabilities, and weapons systems, and just putting a name and face together."

Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina sent several of its F-15s to take part in Maple Flag this year. Lieutenant Colonel Wylie Lovelady is an experienced Air Force pilot taking his first turn at the Canadian exercise. "It has been good to be able to work closely with the NATO allies and see how they operate," said Lovelady, "because we plan with them, we fly with them, and then we debrief with them, so everything gets a pretty hard look. It is a good environment to learn. It is made for the young guys and they get good experience. That is really what it is all about: getting the young guys the training that they are going to need in the future sometime."


Different Planes, Different Missions

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An F-3 Tornado from 111 Squadron of the Royal Air Force takes off to participate in the afternoon mission.

Lovelady pointed out the F-15 plays a couple of different roles in the simulated combat exercise. "We are a strike role, but we are also dual-role capable. We play the air-to-air role, but usually what we do is swing. We will go in as a striker, but after we drop weapons, we will turn into the straight air-to-air fighter and drive our way up. We clean out the bad guys along the way so we can fight our way in and fight our way out so we really don't need any support, but its always nice to have some people that are dedicated to that mission."

Lovelady likes the fact they get to fly against several different types of aircraft. "We don't get a lot of dissimilar training on a day-to-day basis, so flying against the Mirages and F-16s is good. We don't even see a lot of Vipers on a regular basis. The F-4s ... I haven't flown against them in a long time so it is nice to see them back in the fight. The F-3s out there ... I used to fly with those guys in England. So it is familiar faces and it is nice being able to see them because, on a day-to-day basis, we don't get that."

An AWACS from Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma was one of the larger aircraft participating in Maple Flag. It was the command and control center for the exercise. Major Tom Padgett said, "We will martial all the forces in, help them identify the targets and then let them go to the targets and strike them. We then point to any adversaries or threats they might have and try to help them stay clear of that. The large number of aircraft taking part makes the exercise interesting. We have a limited number of people on the AWACS so we've got them scattered around. Most of the crew is brand-new to this and it is their first chance at a large force exercise and they are learning a lot. It will pay big dividends down the road."

Bigger Every Year

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An E-3 AWACS from Tinker Air Force Base sits on display for the public at the annual Maple Flag Open House.

This year's Maple Flag was considered a success, and the largest in the history of the exercise. Exercise Director Captain Brehn Eichel said, "This year we had 10 countries taking part, plus a NATO AWACS. We also had six countries come as part of the observers program. That program is usually for countries that have interests in participating in future Maple Flags. It doesn't necessarily mean they will be there in the next year. They come to observe how the exercise is run, and see if it is something that appeals to their Air Force. For example, Norway had come as observers a couple of years ago and now they are participating this year."

Eichel notes the biggest value of Maple Flag is that countries get to work together and learn from each other. "In this day and age, especially for some of the smaller nations, it provides a rare opportunity to do large-force, multinational, combined air operations because these days, when nations become engaged in conflicts, they are usually part of a multinational force. For these countries, it is a good opportunity to come together and work with one another and see how everyone operates and learn from each other and then actually exercise together. Many of these nations have recently been in campaigns overseas together, and a lot of what they have done, they have learned here at Maple Flag."

Eichel said they are already planning for next year's event, and try to consider the goals of each nation. "The challenge with this exercise is every unit has very specific objectives that they want to achieve and never are two the same. What we try to do is present a scenario, and an exercise campaign, that tries to offer as many objectives as possible."

There is less traffic over 4 Wing now that Maple Flag 37 is over, but come May of 2005, that will change as crews from all over the world once again converge on the Canadian Air Force base to learn to work together and fight as a united nation.