Maple Flag 51 was held at 4 Wing Cold Lake, once again. Usually a 4 week exercise, the limited number of participants reduced this year’s Maple Flag to just 2 weeks.
Maple Flag, which is an annual Large Force Employment exercise, focuses on state vs. state conflict with similar capabilities (ie: fighters, air defence systems). Maple Flag also provides junior wingmen their first taste of combat operations, but under a safe training environment, as well as preparing then for working with allied forces, during real combat operations. The exercise takes place over one of the larger training areas in North America, the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR). The CLAWR combines tactical ranges, with a low flying area that extends from the Rockies to Manitoba and as far north as the Northwest Territories. The CLAWR offers a vast array of air-to-ground targets, simulating everything from enemy airfields to air defence batteries. The range offers great flexibility for training in both air-to-air and air-to-ground, with little to no altitude restrictions.
“We are proud to once again host Exercise Maple Flag in support of Canadian and international partners and allies,” remarked 4 Wing Commander, Col Paul Doyle.
Missions flown during Maple Flag 51 concentrated on command and control, air-to-air and air-to-surface tactics, weapons employment and air-to-air refuelling on a large scale. During the two week exercise, two missions are flown each day, for five days a week. Mass and element briefings are coordinated by both Maple Flag staff and participating air crews. Mass briefings include range and weather briefings, divert options, safety protocols, while the smaller elemental briefings held on both the Blue and Red Air sides, concentrate on training objectives and the tactics that each side will employ. More often than not, briefings and debriefings will take up more time than the actual flying portion of the day. Debriefs will usually entail playing back mission tapes from each aircraft and information gathered through the Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation system. Missile shots against other aircraft are validated and the overall execution of the mission is evaluated, with adjustments in tactics being employed for follow-on missions, so that mission and training objectives are achieved.
Col Doyle talked about the length of time needed to prepare such an exercise, which usually included a planning conference, held in the New Year, where representatives come together from the RCAF and allied nations, to determine the training needs of all participants. “The personnel of 4 Wing and CFB Cold Lake have been working hard over the past year to plan this immersive training opportunity, “said Doyle. Col Doyle went on to explain that training at Maple Flag is centered around being able to “prepare ourselves for real world operations,” such as operations that took place in Iraq and Libya. “We must practice our combined capabilities in training exercises such as Exercise Maple Flag,” Doyle concluded.
Maple Flag 51’s entire focus for the single two week period was centered on fighter aircraft. In addition to RCAF CF-188 Hornets on both the Blue Air and Red Air sides, Hornets from the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) joined F-16 Fighting Falcons from the Belgian Air Component. Making its first appearance at Maple Flag were US Navy EA-18G Growlers, which provided electronic jamming and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD). Discovery Air Defence Services also participated on the Red Air side, flying Dornier Alpha Jets. In addition, tanker assets came in the form of a CC-130H Hercules from 435 Squadron and a CC-150 Polaris from 437 Squadron. A NATO E-3 Sentry AWACS was also on hand to provide airborne control.
VAQ-134 “Garudas” brought 4 EA-18G Growlers to Maple Flag for the type’s first visit and participation. The Growler is the successor to the venerable EA-6B Prowler and based on the F/A-18 Super Hornet airframe. Although a US Navy squadron, VAQ-134 does not normally deploy on aircraft carriers, but is one of four Joint Expeditionary electronic attack squadrons, which will deploy to land bases, in support of coalition operations.
With further downsizing to just two weeks, Maple Flag appears to be in a state of flux. Six week Maple Flag exercises were commonplace for many years, but recently, the Air Force Tactical Training Centre, the body that plans and executes all Maple Flag exercises, has recommended annual adjustments to the duration of Maple Flag, based on the training requirements of participating nations and overall number of aircraft. RCAF spokesman, Maj Scott Spurr has indicated that the “duration of future Maple Flag exercises will continue to be determined on a year-by-year basis as required to ensure the best use of resources and optimizing training value.”
The RCAF continues to bill Maple Flag as an important part of its training and touts it as being on par with simulating “real-world” operations. However, with military budgets shrinking and nations looking for more bang for their buck, other exercises such as Red Flag in the US and Frisian Flag in Europe, do offer a bit of competition when it comes to attracting nations to take advantage of Cold Lake and its vast training areas. Time will certainly tell if Maple Flag will continue to provide the valuable training that it offers or if the skies above 4 Wing will be decidedly quieter in the near future.
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