JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. — The rumble started early Tuesday, as one fighter jet after another ascended from a runway here near the Atlantic Ocean and into a bright, clear sky. The mission: Prepare for war against potential adversaries like Russia, which is now patrolling the same skies as the United States over Syria and flexing its muscles in eastern Europe.
The first-ever Trilateral Exercise between the United States, France and Britain has been in planning for several years, but began Dec. 2 over coastal Virginia with a decidedly real-world feel. The U.S Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, the British Royal Air Force Typhoon and the French air force Dassault Rafale have flown dozens of missions each day since the operation started.
Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles and T-38 Talons are flying against them as so-called “Red Air,” providing a notional adversary in training. Tanker planes and an E-3 Sentry, a command-and-control plane commonly known as the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) provide support.
It marks the first time that the Raptor, Typhoon and Dassault Rafale — all of which have flown combat sorties over the Middle East this year — have trained together in an environment with such a large number of aircraft and troops, senior Air Force officials said. The exercise, which concludes Friday, is focused heavily on making sure the different aircraft operate well together, even when facing enemy fighters, anti-aircraft ground weapons and electronic warfare that can take out communications equipment — what the military calls an anti-aircraft, area-denial environment. The fighters represent the most advanced jets in each nation.
“The same kind of deconfliction, the same kind of communication process, is in place here that is in places in the Middle East,” said Gen. Mark Welsh, the U.S. Air Force’s top officer. “Our air forces there do a lot of work to try to stay in communication so that there is less chance for miscommunication, for mistakes, or for confusion that leads to mistakes or bad decisions. And, it’s happening every day in the Middle East just like it is in this exercise.”
But a panel of senior officers from the three nations were quick to draw a distinction this week between current operations in Iraq and Syria and what the allies could face in the future. While Syria and Russia both have some anti-aircraft weapons in Syria now, much of the country has uncontested airspace, allowing the U.S.-led military coalition to strike the Islamic State militant group as it identifies targets.
Recent events have raised concerns about whether that will remain the case. U.S. officials say that the Russian military has worked to make sure their operations over Syria don’t conflict with those of the U.S.-led military coalition, but Russian operations also have proven unpredictable. Last month, a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber briefly crossed into Turkey, prompting a Turkish F-16 to shoot it down.
“For over 10 years or more now, we have been necessarily concentrated on counterinsurgency operations in a relatively benign air environment for our aircraft and our crews,” said British Air Chief Sir Andrew Pulford. “This is a fantastic opportunity to get back into that higher end to concentrate on the contested environment that we have not seen… but is now becoming a far more of a concern and far more of a threat to our air forces.”
Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Combat Command at Langley, said that the exercise this week has allowed the air forces to each understand how their partner nation’s most advanced fighter jets work. Flying at hundreds of miles an hour in combat, the pilots must share information about their maneuvers and what information they are gathering through sophisticated sensors, even as they shift from air-to-air missions to air-to-ground combat.
For the time being, that is both helped and complicated by technology. The U.S. F-22 is the only so-called “fifth-generation” fighter now flying combat missions. The designation means it has advanced — and highly classified — sensors and computers that allow its pilot to collect more information on the battlefield than a fourth-generation jet like the Typhoon, Rafale or American F-15s. But the F-22 cannot send encrypted messages to them, said Maj. Justin Anhalt, an F-22 pilot at Langley who focuses on the plane’s future requirements.
The F-22’s communication suite was built that way originally because there was supposed to be a large fleet of them that could send encrypted messages only to each other to help it remain stealthy. But the number of Raptors was cut back from several hundred to 187 by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates as part of budget cuts in 2009, all but assuring that the Raptor will need to fly alongside older fighter jets in the future.
The service now wants Raptor pilots to be able to send encrypted messages to fourth-generation fighters through a system known as “Link 16,” and has tested a way to do so with Lockheed Martin. For now, though, Raptor pilots must communicate through voice communication on radios — a problem when trying to remain off radar.
Carlisle, without elaborating, said that one of the things covered by training at Langley this week is how the different aircraft can communicate through a variety of means, and what to do when flying in an environment when using voice communication over radios might prove difficult. Air-to-air missiles, ground-to-air missiles and electronic warfare that can jam communication signals all are concern.
“Electronic warfare in many of the other nations and potential adversaries, they spend a lot of time and money to try to figure out how to work through the electronic environment and cause problems,” Carlisle said.
Different aircraft integrated with the F-22 also offer more weapons. Depending on its weapons configuration, the Raptor can carry either eight air-to-air missiles, or two air-to-ground bombs and four missiles, according to Air Force specification sheets. The French and British fighter jets — and other American jets like the F-15 — can carry significantly more, creating a scenario in a contested environment where the stealthy F-22 might be able strike first, before giving way to older jets carrying more ordnance.
“It’s understanding each other’s tactics, and then overlapping those tactics to better influence the fight,” said Anhalt. “When we go up there with Raptors, I will influence a portion of the fight so I can bring the fourth-gen in and get them to use their weapons.”