Exercise Maple Flag has returned to the skies over 4 Wing CFB Cold Lake after overseas operations came to a close earlier this year. Having originated in 1977, EX Maple Flag has focused on fighter operations and airframe support, all of which were key during Large Force Deployments, as witnessed during Operation Desert Storm and Operation Impact, the RCAF's most recent deployment to Iraq.
“We are pleased to once again host Exercise Maple Flag in Cold Lake,” said Colonel Eric Kenny, Wing Commander at 4 Wing Cold Lake. “The Personnel of 4 Wing and CFB Cold Lake have been working hard over the past several months planning this incredible, fully immersive training opportunity for not only the Royal Canadian Air Force, but for our international allies and partners,” In speaking of the desired result from EX Maple Flag, Col. Kenny commented that “the outcomes of this exercise will undoubtedly provide those involved with the skills and expertise to operate effectively against any adversary.”
Over the years, Maple Flag has transformed from focusing solely on tactical air elements, such as fighters, bombers, and AWACS, to also include tactical airlift and electronic warfare aircraft profiles while coordinating with helicopters and ground forces. As well, training scenarios have changed over the years in response to real-world operations, advances in technology, and the sharing of knowledge and training techniques between allied nations.
According to Major-General David Wheeler, the Commander of 1 Canadian Air Division, “Exercise Maple Flag is a direct contributor to the RCAF’s success in generating world-class air power. This exercise is a great opportunity to enhance our agility, reach, and power, while integrating with our domestic joint partners and allies,” That integration with domestic joint partners is highlighted by the fusing of elements of EX Maple Flag with the Canadian Army-led Exercise Maple Resolve.
This year, EX Maple Flag also supported elements from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. These nations provided different aircraft types, while Belgium and Germany provided ground assets including paratroopers and forward air controllers. Divided into two, two-week periods, participants use fictitious scenarios where they faced simulated threats, all of which mirrored the latest in enemy tactics, weapons and technology. The ultimate goal of EX Maple Flag is to hone the skills of participating aircrews in a challenging operating environment which is as realistic as possible.
Providing this realistic training is the mandate of the Air Force Tactical Training Centre (AFTTC), which is located at 4 Wing Cold Lake, which hosts and directs EX Maple Flag. Heading up the AFTTC is Officer Commanding Major Andrew “Hazno” Faith. When asked how allied units are brought to Maple Flag, Major Faith noted that allied nations are invited a year in advance. “Invitations are already going out for 2017,” remarked Maj. Faith.
When allied nations accept the invitation to attend EX Maple Flag, they are guaranteed to be participants in an exercise which offers flexibility based on the tailoring of training scenarios to meet specific training requests. However, typical scenarios include offensive and defensive counter air, interdiction missions, and, in light of recent world events, a downed pilot rescue scenario.
Training for EX Maple Flag takes place over the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR). Covering 1.17 million hectares, the CLAWR is located approximately 70KM north of 4 Wing Cold Lake and is a restricted operating zone, closed to all civilian air traffic. The CLAWR offers up to 90 different target complexes and threat simulators, all of which are used during Maple Flag. These complexes include mock airfields, simulated military infrastructure, and simulated surface-to-air threats including surface-to-air missiles and gun systems.
EX Maple Flag makes extensive use of Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) systems during training. The ACMI system is overseen by CUBIC, who provides support for all of the ACMI systems in use during the exercise. The ACMI system transmits data, in real time, to ground evaluators and participating aircraft during the simulated war. While the ACMI system gives evaluators a “god’s eye view” of the simulated war, the system can zoom in on specific aircraft which enables evaluators review a specific engagement by using more detailed information which includes both airspeeds and altitudes.
Coupled with the ACMI system is an ACMI pod, which not only transmits the information, but also stores it on a “brick” located inside the pod. Upon returning from a mission, the brick is downloaded and used for a detailed debrief of the scenario that has just been flown. The only participating aircraft that do not have the ACMI capability are the “heavies”, which include transports, tankers, and AWACS. In the near future, the ACMI capability will be added not with an external pod, but an internal box. In addition to the training advantages of the ACMI system, safety will be enhanced for all of the participating aircraft on the range.
In addition to threats on the ground, EX Maple Flag also provides simulated airborne threats. This years Red Air force was made up of CF-18’s from 410 “Cougar” (Operational Training) Tactical Fighter Squadron, and Discovery Air Defence Services (DADS) who were flying their fleet of Dornier Alpha Jet’s.
Started as Top Aces back in 2000, DADS provides Contracted Airborne Training Services (CATS) to the Canadian Armed Forces. During EX Maple Flag, DADS used their Alpha Jets to provide realistic air-to-air threats by simulating enemy aircraft that allied air forces may encounter in a real world operation. Adding to the realism, the Alpha Jets also employed Electronic Warfare Officers (EWOs) who flew in the backseat of the aircraft, where they utilized electronic jamming equipment which was carried in external pods.
Taking advantage of all of these training assets were nations representing Blue Air, who flew the following aircraft:
1 Wing - 2 x CH-146 Griffon Helicopters
401, 409, 425 and 433 Tactical Fighter Squadrons - 24 x CF-18 Hornets
405 and 407 Long Range Patrol Squadron - 1 x CP-140 Aurora
429 Transport Squadron - 1 x CC-177 Globemaster III
435 Transport and Rescue Squadron -1 x CC-130H (T) Hercules tanker
426 and 436 Transport Squadrons - 2 x CC-130J Hercules
42 Radar Squadron-Ground Based Radar
94th Airlift Wing - 2 x C-130H Hercules
165th Airlift Wing - 2 x C-130H Hercules
960th Airborne Control Squadron - 1 x E-3C Sentry
964th Airborne Control Squadron - 1 x E-3C Sentry
Escadron de Chasse 1/2 “Cigognes” - 4 x Mirage 2000-5
Escadron de Chasse 1/91 “Gascogne” - 4 x Rafale B
#8 Squadron RAF - 1 x E-3D Sentry AEW1
In addition to nations that are participating in the exercise itself, there were ten other nations present in Cold Lake which were a part of the International Observer Program. The International Observer Program allows nations who may be interested in participating in future Maple Flag exercises to experience the exercise closely without the need to commit large amounts of resources.
While the number of participating nations in EX Maple Flag is small, the number of observing nations has grown, which could bode well for future exercises. This year’s observing nations included Australia, Chile, Germany, India, Israel, Philippines, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Republic of South Korea and Sweden, all of whom took the opportunity to visit 4 Wing and learn more about EX Maple Flag.
All in all, it was great to see EX Maple Flag being held once again. Major Faith summed up the importance of the training received during EX Maple Flag in this way; “It’s very important to arrive in theatre, being able to operate with your allies, having those details hashed out beforehand,” As for what Cold Lake and 4 Wing bring to the table, Maj. Faith noted that Cold Lake “is an exceptional location for air combat training because of its vast resources on the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range.”
Thanks to participating nations and the International Observer Program, Maple Flag 49 had a record number of countries involved this year, according to Maple Flag Exercise Director Captain Yuri Mokievsky-Zubok.
“We hope to get even more for Maple Flag 50,” he stated.
I would like to thank the following for their assistance with getting access to Maple Flag 49; 4 Wing Public Affairs, in particular, Captain Mat Strong and Captain Sandy Bourne, for making all of the arrangements. I would also like to thank Colonel Andy Cook, Wing Commander of 17 Wing Winnipeg, for approval to fly aboard a Hercules tanker during the exercise, as well as aircrew from 435 Transport Squadron. Also, many thanks to Paul “Pitch” Molnar and Heidi Cave with Discovery Air Defence Services for arranging my visit with them.
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