Once again, the skies over northern Alberta, were filled with various military aircraft types as Maple Flag 50, took place at 4 Wing Cold Lake.
Maple Flag, which is an annual Large Force Employment exercise, run over a 4-week period, during late May through June, 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. This can make Maple Flag very attractive, especially for European air forces, which must work within very limited training spaces. “They like how much space we have”, remarked Colonel Paul Doyle, the Wing Commander at 4 Wing. While speaking to Swiss observers, Doyle noted that the size of the airspace, which is roughly the size of Northern Europe, “just does not really compute into their context”, adding, “how do we leverage that and how do we make that the basis for people coming here.”
Missions flown during Maple Flag are varied. Most missions will be strike missions, but Defensive Counter Air and personnel recovery missions will also be carried out during each two-week period. The strike missions focus on hitting pre-planned targets, with the help of fighters, performing Offensive Counter Air, pushing in front to defend the strike aircraft, which are usually self-escorting. Defensive Counter Air missions are flown once or twice a week, where the focus is on Blue Air, defending their airspace against Red Air assets. Finally, the personnel recovery mission focuses on the recovery of downed aircrew and will usually integrate Special Forces units into the scenario.
One thing about Maple Flag is the level of intensity experienced by all of the participants. “Maple Flag is a very intense exercise for our participants", said Major Christopher Horch, who is the Officer Commanding-Air Force Tactical Training Centre, which is responsible for running Maple Flag. “The schedule is very busy; they go from briefings to mission planning to mass briefs, formation briefs, they fly, land, debrief, debrief some more, it’s a 12 hour day, it’s pretty tiring”. But, to Horch, that intensity pays off by the end of the exercise, stating, “we find this replicates combat”, which is ultimately the goal of Maple Flag.
Period two of Maple Flag saw a very heavy fighter presence. In addition to RCAF CF-188 Hornets on both the Blue Air and Red Air sides, F-16 Fighting Falcons from the United States and Singapore also participated. Discovery Air Defence Services also participated on the Red Air side, flying Dornier Alpha Jets. In addition, air mobility assets came in the form of a CC-130H Hercules, providing Air-to-Air Refuelling assets, a CC-130J Hercules from 426 Squadron and a French Air Force Airbus A400m, flying tactical drop missions and rounding out the participants was a USAF E-3C Sentry.
This would mark the first time that the new A400M has participated in Maple Flag. The aircraft was attached to the Équipe de Marque Avion de Transport Tactique (EM ATT), which is France’s tactical transport aircraft trials team. The team’s goal at Maple Flag was to evaluate things such as tactics, crew sizes and above all, how to best employ the aircraft. Maple Flag and the vast training spaces afforded the EM ATT the best opportunity to do just that.
As mentioned before, the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) made its return to Maple Flag this year. Maj. Horch was very happy to have the RSAF back at Maple Flag, going on to say that the RCAF has a great working relationship with the RSAF. “They bring a lot of professionalism to the fight and their pilots are very skilled and their package commanders have been doing an outstanding job, coming up with sound tactical solutions to putting bombs on target while defending all the assets out there.” The RSAF has also been kind with their feedback with regards to Maple Flag. One point in particular, stuck with Col. Doyle. “It was nice to have ‘weather’”, was the initial thought, conveyed to him by the commander of the 425th Fighter Squadron. Weather had played a factor during period two, with some days being overcast with rain. Weather had scrubbed two morning launches, which can also happen in any combat situation. Doyle continued, “it was nice to have something that just wasn’t clear blue skies, where the guys are just able to take off and execute, and they don’t need to worry about what their levels of a contingencies are.” Doyle went on to talk about the “what-ifs” of warfare, such as weather in the target area and clouds blocking access to certain areas. “That is really where a flight lead and a mission commander will earn their money.” So, it appears that the “every cloud has a silver lining” proverb, certainly applied, as far as the RSAF was concerned.
One word that came up often in briefings was the word validation. How has Maple Flag validated itself over the years? Col. Doyle’s experience with Maple Flag goes back some 15 years, when he was a pilot with 425 TFS, out of Bagotville, Quebec. “I’ve seen Maple Flag go along and seen the validation in what Maple Flag is”, Doyle said of his experience during real world combat deployments with allied nations. He added “tactics, training and procedures that we employ are validated in operations and executed in training and everywhere we’re going to be doing operations, there’s always air above it. Whether it’s overtop northern Alberta or in Afghanistan, air is air and the principles that we use here, are the same, independent of what the mission set is.” Maj. Horch echoed the Wing commanders thoughts by saying “previous aircrew have found Maple Flag to be validating for the combat missions that they have flown in the past. They found that the briefing style, mission-planning style and even the execution has prepared them for what they have seen in theatre.” The only exception has been the air-to-air threat, which is typically presented during Maple Flag.
Overall, feedback was positive regarding Maple Flag 50. “It is a highlight moment for us at Maple Flag, here at 4 Wing, but this is also not just a wing event, this has really taken on the flavour of an air force exercise,” said Col Doyle. “I think the level of engagement that everyone has had, the ability to share best practices, and to see how other people do business, I think has created some energy here. I hope to build on that energy as we look through to Maple Flag 51." Col. Doyle is hopeful that the success of this year’s Maple Flag will pay off in nations returning to Cold Lake next year, and beyond. The USAF and RSAF have already expressed interest in returning. “I’m hoping to be able to convert some of the stuff with Australia, with Germany, with people that have been at this exercise in the past. They’ve seen that it (Maple Flag) is still vibrant, it’s still going,” remarked Doyle, when talking about nations that have participated in past Maple Flag’s and had positive experiences.
So, all in all, Maple Flag still appears to be relevant in today’s mix of international training exercises. Offering flexible training options, a vast training space, as well as a variety of missions, which include both air and ground elements, 4 Wing Cold Lake and Maple Flag should continue to be an important exercise, not only for the RCAF, but for our allied nations, as they prepare for real world combat.
I would like to thank the following for their assistance with getting access to Maple Flag 50. 4 Wing Public Affairs, in particular, Captain Mat Strong and his team, for making all of the arrangements for passes and escorting. I’d also like to thank 4 Wing Commander, Colonel Paul “Puffy” Doyle and Major Christopher Horch, for their informative briefings. Finally, a thank you to 17 Wing Commander, Colonel Andy Cook for approving my flight on board a Hercules tanker and the aircrew of “Oiler 80” for a smooth ride.
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