Last year the 11th Fighter Wing at Morón Air Base, near Seville, became the first Spanish Air Force unit to integrate new capabilities offered by the P1Eb software enhancement and Litening III Laser Designator Pod. P1Eb is predominantly an air-to-ground capability upgrade and provides enhancements to the Litening Pod with integration to the pilot’s Helmet Equipment Assembly.
Hence the Spanish Air Force’s focus for the intense two-week multi-force exercise at Nellis Air Force Base in the United States was clear from the outset. Give the aircraft, pilots, ground crew, P1Eb and Litening III, a thorough workout in some of the most testing, congested air space there is, where the workload and intensity never eases off.
111 SQN Leader Major Victor Manuel Barranco Ferrer puts it in very clear terms: “One of the principle objectives at Red Flag (RF 17-2 which ran between Feb 27 and March 11) was to show our capabilities following the integration of P1Eb and Litening III. It wasn’t really about air superiority — we have already demonstrated that during our Baltic Air Policing role — but we wanted to demonstrate our multi-role capability.”
By the time you dropped your bomb there were aggressor aircraft coming toward you
The 11th Fighter Wing lead and formed the and core of a Spanish Air Expeditionary Unit, which was composed of six Typhoons and 119 people from 11th Fighter Wing out of Morón Air Base. A further two Typhoons were drawn from 14th Fighter Wing in Albacete, along with two C-130 from 31st Airlift/AAR WING and staff from Spanish Air Combat Command. The unit — pilots, maintenance crew and aircraft from 11th FW and 14th FW — were under the command of Group Commander was Lieutenant Colonel (OF-4) Enrique Fernández Ambel from the 11th FW.
In pure number terms the Spanish Unit’s efforts were impressive — it dropped the most live ordance of any of the participants of this particular Red Flag and did so under real pressure. Maj Barranco says: “We dropped a total of 48 GBU-16s, which was a decent number for two weeks of flying. In fact, we were the only unit dropping live weapons (others were using inert weapons).
“It was a very congested environment where we were constantly facing a lot of air-to-air and surface-to-air threats. In the sorties you were in a sort of ‘funnel’ and by the time you dropped your bomb there were aggressor aircraft coming toward you. But, despite that, most of the sorties we flew were right over the bullseye.”
Captain (OF-2) Joaquín Ducay, who helped plan the Unit’s tactical approach to Red Flag, says: “The overall picture was impressive. Our standard was a little bit higher than conventional aircraft, we survived through most of the bombing sorties and we had a high air-to-air kill ratio. I can’t say the exact numbers but, for example, I know that on one of my missions there were a total of 32 kills and my wingman and I had 12 of them between us.
But the main objective was not about scoring a high kill ratio — it was to carry out multi-role missions. Of course, we were involved in air-to-air activity too — but that’s what we do, day in, day out.
“It was good to see that on missions when we were flying with bombs we were still capable of reacting to air-to-ground threats, and make air-to-air kills at the same time. That’s not something everyone is able to do. But that’s really thanks to our training and the aircraft. The Eurofighter allows you to multi-task like crazy.”
Maj Barranco says the Unit achieved everything they’d set out to during the US Air Force-hosted event: “In every single respect it was a very successful deployment because we were able to accomplish nearly all the scheduled tactical sorties (119) as well as 26 FAM flights. In terms of reliability the Typhoon’s rate of operation was very high, just like it was during our Baltic Air Policing mission in 2015, and that’s thanks to the efforts made by the Maintenance team during the exercise and in the preparation of the fleet pre-deployment.”
The group deployed eight aircraft — initially to ensure they had six available for sorties per day/night shift. Five of the aircraft (four plus a spare) were fitted with Litening III for air to ground and swing role to air attack after attacking the assigned target. The other three (two plus a spare) were dedicated more to air to air work.
However, the Spanish group really took maximum advantage of the deployment. For example, Red Flag staff designated that Mondays would be dedicated for Defence Counter Air (DCA) missions and there were no ordnance flights on Thursdays. So the Spanish Command decided to schedule all eight of their aircraft for DCA. And thanks to reliability of Typhoons the unit also accomplished a number of additional air to air sorties during the second week, once all the GBU-16s had been dropped.
Of course, an exercise is not just about testing out machines — it tests the people too. Hence another key objective was to see a number of pilots graduate in both Air to Air and Air to Ground Package Commander, as well as Mission Commander of a Large Force Employment of coalition aircraft.
Since the Red Flag deployment the Spanish Typhoon force has been assigned the FBX role (meaning all weather fighter bomber) which adds to the consolidated ADX role (all weather air defence) they previously held. The ADX Mission Capable grade dates back to October 2015 when the 11th FW was evaluated by NATO during CAPEVAL 2015.
The view from the cockpit during the Red Flag mission
The Verdict on P1Eb
Given the mission focus, the two weeks of day and night missions represented a vigorous test for the P1Eb software and Litening Pod. How well did it perform?
“There’s no doubt it marks a significant uplift in capability for us. While we could have deployed overseas for a real bombing mission even before P1Eb we would have had limited capacity — now there are no limitations,” says Maj Barranco.
Through the final quarter of 2016 the crews had given the software a thorough test following the install in Morón. They flew test runs in Salamanca and Zaragoza, where everything at both a maintenance and operational level was checked. But Red Flag was another thing entirely — a huge step up in intensity.
“Red Flag was the best possible test for P1Eb. We knew what the aircraft was capable of before we went because all the pilots who went to Red Flag had trained on the new software ahead of the deployment. But this was an opportunity to validate both the aircraft and our training in a unique environment.
It was the ideal test — a high threat scenario, with air and ground aggressors.
"It was the ideal test — a high threat scenario, with air and ground aggressor. Of course, it was very demanding for both pilots and the technicians to get ready for combat, reaching a high degree of preparation, but the effort was worthwhile. We are proud of the results we achieved and happy with new capabilities.
“It’s important because Spain has always looked to have a multi-role weapons system, first for air defence and then with the ability to drop bombs, and this exercise was really interesting in terms of confirming our current capabilities.”
Capt Ducay says the P1Eb enhancement is transformative. “It’s like flying a whole different aircraft. Air-to-air-wise there are a number of small improvements that allow you to find information quicker. This in turn gives you more reaction time and that means you can move on to another task quickly.
“But it’s in air-to-ground operations that it enters a whole new level of sophistication. There is a great deal of logic behind it and it’s now much more intuitive for the pilot. In previous software configurations air-to-ground took quite a while to get used to. Once you pick up the P1Eb software for air-to-ground work you can’t go back.”
The Link 16 was another piece of the jigsaw that contributed to the Spanish Typhoon’s success in Nevada.
Capt Ducay says: “With the data exchange Link 16 we were able to see everyone all of the time. There is a huge difference between looking down into the screen and seeing the track of your Number 2 then figuring out where he is, compared to having a circle on your helmet which tells you exactly where he is. That’s what the new Link 16 was able to bring. It was consistently good. Every day the tracks worked, we got our messages, everything was perfectly correlated, as it should be at all levels. It all worked perfectly.”
Fast jet exercises don’t come much bigger than Red Flag. The setting, the Nevada Test and Training Range is, as the natives might put it, ‘awesome’. The base boasts more squadrons than any other in the US. It covers over 11,000 acres, and pilots have a training range with around 15,000 square miles of airspace to get to grips with.
The exercise features up to 80 aircraft taking to the skies in wave after wave. It’s a regular drumbeat of activity that’s unrelenting. Such a punishing day and night schedule puts every person and every aircraft involved under strain.
Just down the road in nearby Las Vegas, gamblers play for high stakes but for their first visit to Nellis with their Typhoon aircraft the Spanish Air Force left absolutely nothing to chance. Preparations were seriously meticulous.
Morón Air Base Commander Col Ysasi, flew one of the Red Flag bombing runs, and during the same mission the former Spanish Air Combat Commander Maj General Eugenio Ferrer took a flight in NTTR. Col Ysasi puts his force’s Red Flag success down to one factor above anything else — planning.
From a flying, logistics and maintenance perspective, the whole deployment was epic.
It’s a theme emphasised by everyone who was involved. Maj Barranco says: “From a flying, logistics and maintenance perspective, the whole deployment was epic. At Nellis we sometimes had all eight of our aircraft flying at the same time. We didn’t have that kind of experience even when we were on Baltic Air Patrol in Estonia in 2015. Being able to recover the aircraft and have them all available to fly in the next wave (just a few hours later) without a break that was, well … pretty interesting.
It's is 9,000 km from Morón Air Base in Spain to Nellis Air Base near Las Vegas. Air to air refuelling was crucial.
“In fact, on some days with our eight aircraft we were able to complete our planned missions and carry out extra flights.”
All of which speaks volumes about the professionalism and dedication of the men and women who are often the unsung heroes of these deployments — the crews on the ground. Like the pilots, the engineers and maintenance teams started their detailed planning for the operation three months before the trans-Atlantic trip.
“First, we had to select the right aircraft from our fleet — taking those that did not have any major planned maintenance scheduled because we wanted to minimise the risk of maintenance events during the deployment,” explains Lieutenant (OF-1) Jesús Jiménez Ruiz who heads up the maintenance. That careful selection combined with the hard work of the teams at Nellis paid off.
We had almost 100 percent reliability throughout the entire exercise and all the aircraft were full mission capable each day
“We had almost 100 percent reliability throughout the entire exercise. All the aircraft were full mission capable each day and we were the only group in Red Flag that operated as either full mission capable or partial mission capable. That was only achieved because we prepared for the deployment. We had the right aircraft and the right equipment.”
Indeed it was planning and preparation on a heroic scale. The unit took 90 tonnes of equipment, 51 containers and more than 150 people. “We had 131 maintenance people – engineers, people working at workshops and people working on the flight line. It was a huge deployment for us – the biggest for the Spanish Air Force — and it worked.”
- The unit took 90 tonnes of equipment
- 51 containers and more than 150 people
- There were 131 maintenance people
- The biggest single Spanish Air Force deployment
Nothing Left To Chance
The two weeks of the exercise weren’t the only consideration. The total distance between Morón Air Base and Nellis Air Base near Las Vegas is 9,000 km. It’s a journey that crosses oceans and a continent and getting the aircraft, equipment and people there represented a serious undertaking.
“Obviously, this wasn’t the first time we had flown overseas but it was the furthest distance deployment we had made with the Eurofighter,” says Maj Barranco.
Says Capt Ducay: “There’s far more planning involved than most people would ever believe. Every time we dealt with something it would lead to another question and another smaller detail that needed taking care of. We’re not just talking about the route, the aircraft, the equipment, or the refuelling requirements but also down to the smallest detail, like what kind of equipment would we be taking in our ejection seat other than what would not normally be needed.”
The crews had different kit for each phase of the trip. For the Atlantic crossing it meant taking sea survival kits with a dinghy built into the seat. And for each of the 16 pilots every item of clothing and piece of equipment had to be tailor-made. But it wasn’t simply a case of the pilots being issued with kit and aircraft fitted out. The crews undertook several days of refresher training ahead of the crossing to ensure they were familiar with each element of the flight kit. “We took part in a survival on the sea exercise on the Eastern Coast of Spain specifically with our rescue teams who would be part of the deployment. This included parachute jumpers from Air Force Special Operations Services, who would be flying ahead of us in case we had an ejection,” adds Capt Ducay.
“All that training and planning was simply for one single aspect of the deployment, the trip, so you can imagine what it was all like for the other elements — the route planning, weather planning, all alternates and so on.
“We had a very detailed decision matrix that went deep into various ‘What If’ scenarios ensuring we each knew exactly what to do in any eventuality — mission refuelling, an emergency and so on. We went into the smallest possible detail. The navigation planning conducted by the Morón mission planning team started four or five months in advance.”
The planning extended to the use of simulators. The crews used the ASTA simulators at Morón to get used to the topography at Nellis Air Base and to work on key tactical aspects. “It was a really important part of the preparation and was a great help.”
Lieutenant Ruiz says the transport, tactics, logistics and maintenance people required to secure the trip were all provided by the Spanish Air Force. The whole team had to travel in step with the Eurofighter aircraft. This included small working teams assigned to each aircraft for short term programmed maintenance.
“Of course the Eurofighter is faster than the support aircraft so they have to depart in advance to ensure they were in place at the right moment. That demands a great deal of planning and resources,” says Lieutenant Ruiz.
For their first trans-oceanic trail the Spanish Typhoons were supported by two KC 767A from the Italian Air Force, who were tasked by EATC (European Air Transport Command) for airborne refuelling. They also enlisted the support of a French Air Force A400 to carry the 48 GBU-16 bombs and the 90 tonnes of maintenance equipment.
The first leg was the 1,887 km stage from Morón to Lajes Air Field in the Azores. From there the unit flew to Norfolk, Virginia on the Eastern side of the United States some 4,271 km away. Maj Barranco says: “My flight was 6 hours 30 minutes and we refuelled five times.”
The standard schedule for pilots and maintenance teams often meant 14 hour days. The unit found themselves flying with and against F-15Cs, F-15 Strik Eagle, F-16s and several others but contrary to some reports they did not fly with or against any F-35s.
The action was followed very closely. The Control Room’s multiple screens allowed commanders to see exactly what each aircraft was doing in real time (each was equipped with an Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation pod which records the in-flight data). The data was streamed back to the base allowing instructors, staff and command people to watch the missions as they unfolded in real time. When crews returned from sorties they’d often head straight there before the debrief to gain feedback on kills and so on.
The Typhoon’s performance envelope is impressive, and that allied to its suite of sensors helped the pilots build a good picture of what was happening around them — especially useful in such a frenetic workout — ensuring impressive results.
“Red Flag is a high workload environment but fortunately this aircraft is really easy to fly,” says Capt Ducay. “But what the pilot needs to do is learn how to process all the information that comes at you. It’s really about learning to exploit all the potential the aircraft has and when you become proficient you make far better, more tactical decisions.
“When every single system of the aircraft is working — the Litening pod, the MIDS, the radar, and flare — the Eurofighter gives you so much situational awareness. It shows you everything that’s going on in the battle space and that means you can make way better decisions. Of course it requires a lot of training before you can master all that.
“Seeing exactly what is going on, and taking decisions based on what is actually happening, is especially useful if you have to execute something that’s not planned. The aircraft allows you to be flexible and that’s all because of the systems and the technology. At Red Flag there’s a degree of information saturation initially because of the high density airspace compared to what we are used to but that’s part of the point of going there. You very quickly get used to it.”
A Tactical Approach
For their home base in Andalucía, the fighter wing’s primary missions are QRA and multi-role training for the 111 SQN and OCU for the 113 SQN. In addition, it is preparing for the integration of future capabilities like Meteor. But ahead of the exercise the unit spent time developing a new set of tactics specifically to be tested at Red Flag — these were devised and planned ahead of the deployment by Capt Ducay.
We always look to develop new moves that nobody has considered previously. It is something that is secret to our Unit and releasable only to the Spanish Air Force
“We cannot go into the specifics but we worked on several things,” he says. “Sometimes you can tend to think that everything there is to know about tactics has already been written but we do not feel that and we do not operate that way. We always look to develop new moves that nobody has considered previously. It is something that is secret to our Unit and releasable only to the Spanish Air Force.
“Naturally during a big exercise like Red Flag you interact with other pilots from other air forces and they were very curious about what we were doing. Some had never even seen the aircraft and weren’t familiar with its performance envelope.”
Maj Barranco says: “All the people in the squadron at Morón are aware of air-to-air scenarios but when you are carrying bombs the main objective is to drop them. You have to identify your target and track it. One of the main tactical takeaways for me was that, even if you have to perform some manoeuvres before reaching the target, you have to keep a focus on the main mission.
“We looked at things like threat reactions and formation manoeuvres that help keep your mutual support group intact. It was a great experience because we were expected to fly in mixed formations, at night, in different flight levels.”
Maj Victor Barranco at Nelis Air Base.