A Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) F-15C Eagle pilot looks outside his cockpit. He sees not the familiar sandy surroundings of Tabuk King Faisal Airbase in the Saudi desert, but the green scenery of Nancy Airbase in France. To his right is a green, delta shaped local bird. It’s an Armée de l’air Dassault Mirage 2000D, ready for take-off and for the combat search and rescue (CSAR) mission that follows. But the Saudi pilot is not alone, his wingman in another F-15C is readying himself for the same mission. This is exercise Green Shield 2014 in progress.
On Monday 14 April it takes only a quick look at the fighter filled flightline of Base Aérienne 133 Nancy (Ochey) to notice the two participating countries in Green Shield 2014. Next to about a dozen French Dassult Mirages and Rafales stand six Royal Saudi Air Force F-15 Eagles. Four of the Saudis are C-model one-seaters, two being D-model two-seaters. Nearby, a group of Saudi personnel keeps watch over the aircraft, while they wait for pilots to show up for the next mission. Despite reasonable spring weather, the ground crew jokes about the cold. Judging by their clothing, they may actually mean it.
“It’s a big operation for them”, says Nancy based Mirage 2000D pilot Pascal Leroux, involved in organizing Green Shield 2014. “The Saudi’s brought their fighters to Nancy together with 200 personnel, using their new Airbus A330 MRTT tanker/transport aircraft. A lot of planning was involved on their side, and ours as well. Nancy is not really suited for large exercises, but we made it work.”
There was luckily some experience to lean on. It’s the fourth time the French and Saudi’s train together. Earlier exercises were held in 2007 (Saudi Arabia), 2009 (Dijon, France) and 2012 (Saudi Arabia again). Leroux: “The goal is to train together and share experience in combined air operations. When the F-15s arrived here two weeks ago, we started training one-versus-one scenarios, using our Mirage 2000-5Fs as opponents. Gradually missions grew larger, as did the mission packages. Today, we fly a Combat Search and Rescue mission.”
Indeed, in the afternoon the sound of jet engines starting up is heard at Nancy. Two CSAR specialized EC-725 Caracal helicopters take off first. They are followed by several Mirage 2000Ds which have been calling Nancy ‘home’ for years. Then, two Saudi F-15s claim the 7,874 feet long runway, throttle up to 50,000 lbs of thrust and depart with full afterburner. A second pair does the same some time later. Meanwhile, Rafales and Mirage 2000 air defense fighters go airborne as well.
Two weeks into the exercise, the Saudis have grown into the Nancy environment and are giving the French a hard time. Camille Jolly, a weapons systems officer (‘wizzo’) from Nancy, flew against the Saudi pilots in the backseat of a Dassault Rafale B in the morning. “We were actually killed by them, but we did take out some of their aircraft too. I think the score was an equal 3-3.” According to Jolly the general goal of a Green Shield mission is to force a hole in air defenses by using offensive air, so that Mirage 2000D strike aircraft can move through to hit their targets.
The RSAF has used the F-15C/D Eagles as an air defence fighter for years, acquiring 60 aircraft in the eighties and ordering nine more after that. The United States hastily supplied an additional 24 F-15Cs in 1990, after Iraq invaded neighbouring Kuwait. Some of those aircraft were seen at Nancy.
Saudi Arabia has become a big user of the F-15, also buying 72 of the F-15S Strike Eagle version in 1993. Deliveries of another 84 new-build F-15SAs (Saudi Advanced) are set to run from 2015 until 2019. The SA-order is worth US$ 29.4 billion, making it one of the largest foreign military sales ever in US history.
The ‘old’ F-15C/Ds performed well during Green Shield, Mirage pilot Pascal Leroux tells after the CSAR mission returns to base and the roar of aircraft engines has gone. “Green Shield was a success for everybody involved.”
Over the last two weeks, fierce air wars have been fought out over Nancy, but it also sounds like friend were made. On Wednesday 16 April, dignitaries of both the French Air Force and the Royal Saudi Air Force will talk about a follow-up exercise. Leroux: “There will likely be another Green Shield in 2016, but then it will be us heading for Saudi Arabia.”
© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Elmer van Hest