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USA turns Norway into new stronghold, includes F-22

In the wake of Russia’s higher military activity ever since Moscow took the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, Norway is slowly growing into a US stronghold in the defence of Scandinavia. A conclusion drawn by Airheadsfly.com based on recent political and military deals, that include the possible basing of up to four US Air Force F-22 Raptors on the threshold of Oslo.

It seems like reading pages of a Cold War book, but the reinforcement of Norway as a base of US military operations in Scandinavia is slowly progressing for real – on the ground and in the air. Key seems to keep Southern Norway at all times under NATO air, ground, sea and cyberspace control. The area we talk about is roughly 500 square kilometres (320 sq miles) and includes Norway’s primary air force base of Ørland, the nearby reserve air base of Vaernes/Trondheim, NATO’s main tanker and transport reserve base of Sola (Stavanger), the reserve air base of Rygge (Moss) near the capital of Oslo, plus the main civilian airports of Olso-Gardermoen, Sondefjord/Skien and Florø. At the same time, the US is projecting its wings at the Norwegian outpost of Andøya in the Polar Circle.

A bunch of RNoAF marking RNoAF F-16 readiness over Rygge in 2010 (Image © Forsvaret)
A bunch of RNoAF fighters marking RNoAF F-16 readiness over Rygge in 2010 (Image © Forsvaret)

Quite unexpected Washington has asked Norway to make space at the no longer air-active Rygge Airbase/Moss Airport for four of its combat aircraft, and the US is willing to pay for the necessary infrastructure and support. According to Pentagon documents the top military brass wishes to be able to place at least four Lockheed Martin F-22A Raptor stealthy air superiority fighters on Rygge. “Yes, the basing of these aircraft is one possibility, but it can be other types of aircraft as well,” Norwegian Minister of Defence Frank Bakke-Jensen confirmed to the Norwegian newspaper of Aftenposten on June 13th.

Rygge Air Base

Rygge was once a proud operating base for Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) F-16 jets, before 330 (Fighter) Squadron moved to Bodø in the north. For a long time the three RNoAF DA-20 Falcon reconnaissance and intelligence gathering aircraft of 717 Squadron operated from Rygge, before moving to Oslo-Gardermoen.

RNoAF Bell 412SP with serial 167 coming in low, sporting Gatling guns on both sides of the aircraft (Image © Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter)
RNoAF Bell 412SP coming in low, sporting Gatling guns on both sides of the aircraft. (Image © Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter)

Six Bell 412SPs ground support and assault choppers from 720 Squadron and the Westland Sea King SAR detachment of 330 Squadron flew from Rygge until the mother Rygge unit of 137 Air Wing was decommissioned in 2014. With regular air ops gone, the base did not fall asleep. The Air Operations Inspection, the Air Force’s Development and Competence Center, the Armed Forces Logistic Organisation, the Flight School Selection Center, the Oslofjord’s Home Guard (HV-01) and the Defence Infrastructure Organisation are still holding their offices on Rygge. Add the US Air Force with combat aircraft in the near future.

Marines Division in Norwegian caves

Further north the US Marines are progressing on their establishment. A new political deal between Washington and Olso allows the sea soldiers to grow from the current level of 330 to 700 troops at Camp Vaernes. From there they are protecting up to a Marines division (23,000 troops) worth of tanks, armoured and soft vehicles, ammunition, food, water and other supplies stored in caves on at least five locations in the area around Norway’s third largest city in population.

A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy just after take-off from Ramstein AB, Germany (Image © Marcel Burger)
A Lockheed C-5 Galaxy just after take-off (Image © Marcel Burger)

C-5 Galaxy at Vaernes

The marines unit is a semi-permanent one, officially rotating its personnel every few months through the adjacent Vaernes/Trondheim International Airport. The airfield is a main reinforcement hub in case of war and can handle up to six giant Lockheed C-5 Galaxy strategic airlifters plus loads of smaller aircraft at any time. Much of the military infrastructure of Cold War times is still intact and the army/marine barracks of the camp can accommodate up to 1,200 troops, both from the US Marines and the Trøndelag Home Guard (HV-12).

In a few years these pilot views on Ørland Main Air Station will be history, when these F-16s have been replace by the new F-35A Lightning II (Image © David Vo / Luftforsvaret)
In a few years these pilot views on Ørland Main Air Station will be history, when these F-16s have been replace by the new F-35A Lightning II (Image © David Vo / Luftforsvaret)

Ørland Main Operating Base

Vaernes is no longer an active military airbase for many decades, but it is still very well protected even without the USMC on site. It is situated deeply in a fjord, surrounded by mountains and has the Royal Norwegian Air Force’s primary airbase of Ørland just 50 km (43 miles) away. From there the RNoAF not only operates its core F-16 squadron, but also its brand-new Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II stealthy jets.

One of three RNoAF F-35s of the second batch just after landing on Ørland Air Base on 22 May 2018 (Image © Forsvaret)
One of three RNoAF F-35s of the second batch just after landing on Ørland Air Base on 22 May 2018 (Image © Forsvaret)

During the last week of May the F-35s doubled to six aircraft when a new batch of three arrived from the other side of the Atlantic. Another seven RNoAF F-35s are flying training missions from Luke AFB in Arizona, USA, and three more will arrive on Ørland this Autumn. Final plans call for 52 RNoAF Lightning II jets by 2024. Most of them will fly from Ørland, with Evenes near Harstand/Narvik in the north serving as a forward operating base.

A USMC CH-53 flew in to Vaernes by USAF C-5 Galaxy in February 2016 (Image © Cpl Dalton Precht / USMC)
A USMC CH-53 flew in to Vaernes by USAF C-5 Galaxy in February 2016 (Image © Cpl Dalton Precht / USMC)

Andøya Naval Air Base

While Evenes will also be home to the Royal Norwegian Air Force maritime patrol aircraft moving from Andøya, the US Navy is just starting operations from this very northern air base with its new Boeing P-8A Poseidon Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Aircraft. The first of five USN P-8s landed at Andøya on June 8th, from where they will take over the defence and patrol of NATO’s northern flank from the aging six RNoAF P-3 Orion propeller aircraft. Even a USN C-40A Clipper was seen landing there, in support of the operations.

A RNoAF P-3C Orion from 333 squadron during the DV-day under the winter exercise Cold Response 2012 (Image © Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter)
A RNoAF P-3C Orion from 333 squadron (Image © Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvarets mediesenter)

Oslo doesn’t want to say how long the US Navy presence on Andøya will be, but in the near future the RNoAF will fly five similar P-8s from Evenes Airbase further south. Norway ordered the pack to replace its six P-3s and three Dassault DA-20 Falcons in the years 2022 and 2023. The RNoAF 333 Squadron operating the P-3s has huge problems with fulfilling its task, both because the aircraft are not airworthy while repairs and maintenance are being slow, and because there is lack of key and supporting personnel in the unit. According to local newspapers 30 to 50 people quited or will quit working for the unit after the move from Andøya to Evenes was announced.

A USN P-8A Poseidon, a RNoAF P-3C Orion and a RNoAF C-130J Hercules at Andøya Air Station on 24 June 2017, during the 75 years anniversary of the Orion's 333 Squadron (Image © Forsvaret)
A USN P-8A Poseidon, a RNoAF P-3C Orion and a RNoAF C-130J Hercules at Andøya Air Station on 24 June 2017, during the 75 years anniversary of the Orion’s 333 Squadron (Image © Forsvaret)

While Norwegian armed forces readiness is partly failing the US seems eager to step in. Washington is even establishing closer ties with the non-NATO countries of Sweden and Finland, with both the governments in Stockholm and Helsinki signing deals recently for more military cooperation with the USA and more frequent joint military exercises. In case it ever comes to war in Northern Europe, the US seems to be better prepared and better military established than it has been there for 20 years.

© 2018 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger
Featured image: One of four F-22A Raptors the Pentagon wishes to be able to base on Rygge AB near Olso, Norway (Image © Elmer van Hest)

A NATO Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS leaving Ørland Main Air Station. As Norway doesn't have a flying radar, command and control plane available, NATO often provides one to defend its northern flank (Image © Nils Skipnes / Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
A NATO Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS leaving Ørland Main Air Station. As Norway doesn’t have a flying radar, command and control plane available, NATO often provides one to defend its northern flank (Image © Nils Skipnes / Luftforsvaret / Forsvarets mediesenter)
From the back seat of a RNoAF F-16BM, closing in on an American B-52 training over Norway (Image © 331 SQN / Forsvaret)
From the back seat of a RNoAF F-16BM, closing in on an American B-52 training over Norway (Image © 331 SQN / Forsvaret)

German readiness: only 4 Eurofighters, dozens not available

This is not our first, but hopefully our last report on the deplorable state of the German Armed Forces. Quite likely great reading material for the military headquarters in Moscow, one can only feel sorry for the many German military pilots, who can jump higher themselves then many of their planes can fly.

According to new confidential information made public by German media on 3 May 2018, the Luftwaffe has only a terrifying low number of 4 Eurofighter EF2000s ready to what they have been bought for: to go into combat when needed. True, another 6 are said to be airworthy too, but without the weapons they need to do their job. The aging Tornadoes the EF2000s are to replace are doing better, but with only 16 of the 80 or so Panavia planes ready for take-off one rather wants to cry than to be happy.

Luftwaffe Tornadoes are able to fly in only slightly higher numbers (Image © Marcel Burger)
Luftwaffe Tornadoes are able to fly in only slightly higher numbers (Image © Marcel Burger)

In short, Germany is unable to defend itself and to give its promised contribution to NATO if needed. To the military alliance Berlin has promised to have 60 to 82 EF2000s ready at all times, assets that will be very much needed if it ever comes to war in the Baltics. Right now, “mighty” Germany seems to have to rely on neighbour Poland and wish for the best.

German military helicopter readiness

Taking a look at the helicopter fleet the reports are quite pessimistic too, with 13 of the 58 new NH90s transport and assault and 12 of the 52 Tiger attack helicopters available. Increasing helicopter numbers are very much needed, since only 95 of the 244 Leopard main battle tanks of the army can be deployed.

Faults in money allocation, mismanagement in spare parts deliveries and an overall way to low budget for its needs, Germany is faced with the worst defence crisis in its history. With not much more cash coming in in the foreseeable future, the matters are about to only get worse. If the trend continues soon there will be nothing left to fly in the skies over Europe’s strongest economic power.

© 2018 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger
Featured image: stuck into a hardened aircraft shelter is what many Eurofighters face these days in Germany (Photo © Dennis Spronk)

A look inside Frisian Flag 2018

Fighter jets all around. That simply was the case during April’s excerise Frisian Flag 2018 at Leeuwarden airbase in the  Netherlands. This time, Airheadsfly.com along with our partner Imagingthelight.com, got access to virtually all areas during this increasingly popular and important flying exercise. Enjoy the results with us, starting with a jaw  dropping movie.

For two weeks,  sunrise signalled a hive of activity at Leeuwarden. Over 70 fighter jets from the Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany, Poland and the US took to the air twice a day, practicing complex military scenarios based on recent experiences in global hotspots. Most of these scenarios played over the North Sea, just a few minutes’ flying time from Leeuwarden.

With its realistic wargames and readily available airspace, Frisian Flag remains one of the most prominent combat aviation exercises in Western Europe, says Frisian Flag supervisor Ronald van der Jagt. “The flying part is of course the most visible part of Frisian Flag, but it’s important to recognize that most training actually takes place on the ground. The most important lessons are learned during the debrief after each mission.”

Situational awareness

In the air, situational awareness is what it’s all about. “The challenge is to always know what’s going on and who is doing what. As a pilot, you have to manage all the information from radar, threat warnings, datalinks and your wingmen. It’s a skill that requires practice and you’ll get better at it each time. But it’s only after you land when you get the complete picture of all that went good or bad. That’s where value is added.”

Participants

To no surprise, the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) is the main player in Frisian Flag, sending 16 F-16s from both Leeuwarden and Volkel airbase. In a repeat of previous years, the US Air National Guard sent 12 F-15 Eagles as part of a wider military presence in Europe. France deployed 8 Dassault Rafales and 4 Mirage 2000D’s, while Germany’s contribution consisted of 7 Eurofighters. Perhaps the most welcome participants were 3 MiG-29 Fulcrums from the Polish, who also sent 5 F-16s to Leeuwarden.

F-35 in Frisian Flag

The RNLAF continues to use ageing F-16’s. Van der Jagt: “We are able to keep up, but the fact is that there are other players now with more capable assets. We are looking forward to receiving our first F-35’s here at Leeuwarden next year.” In the meantime, Van der Jagt aims to invite Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35s for the 2019 edition of Frisian Flag. The Norwegian started flying their new jets from home soil late last year.

Of note this year was the unprecedented transparency offered by the RNLAF. Yes, Frisian Flag is know for it’s abudance of noise pollution to coal communities, but the idea to in return offer all sorts of hospitality to those communicties plus other stakeholders, is simply a great one. Out hats are off to that!

© 2018 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest

Sunrise starts a hive of activities during Frisian Flag. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Eight French Rafales in early morning light. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Spain provided F-18 Hornets. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Most training is done on the ground, and that includes training for ground crews. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
French Mirage crews check their  cockpit before strapping in. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Anticipation mounts…. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
… as engines are started. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Taxi time! (Image © Elmer van Hest)
One of 12 Air National Guard F-15 Eagles. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
No words needed! (Image © Elmer van Hest)
RNLAF F-16s are ageing, but they can keep up. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Burners alight! (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Polish Fulcrums were perhaps the most interesting participants. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Skywards in a Mirage. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
A Polish F-16 takes to the skies. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Landing time for this  Rafale. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Not much flare for this Spanish F-18 Hornet. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
Thumbs up to Frisian Flag! (Image © Elmer van Hest)

 

Dark picture shows German Air Assets in deplorable state

The air assets of the German Armed Forces are in a even more deplorable state that before, and is becoming worse and worse. Helicopters, transport aircraft and combat jets are spending so much time on the ground that it hurts the defence capabilities of one of Europe’s biggest countries way too much. Many aircraft are not available for any duties they are so needed for, at home or with the 13 deployments abroad, including the “flashy” new Airbus A400Ms.

A rather dark image of the state of the German Air Force, Naval Aviation and Army Aviation was painted by German Parliamentary Commissioner of the Armed Forces Hans-Peter Bartels during a recent press conference in Berlin. The inspector says units are facing “an overload” with too many deployments that include the Baltic Air Policing mission providing NATO fighter coverage for Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and with the helicopter squadrons of the German Army and Air Force.

The star of current German airlift operations, the C-160 Transall, scores a 50% availiability rate (Image © Marcel Burger)
The star of current German airlift operations, the C-160 Transall, scores a 50% availiability rate (Image © Marcel Burger)
(Image © LAF Air Base)
The current German rotary air lift at full speed: a CH-53 lifting essential needs into a combat zone (Image © Marcel Burger)
The current German rotary air lift at full speed: a CH-53 lifting essential needs into a combat zone (Image © Marcel Burger)

“The German airlift capabilities have become so weak that days of delays and cancellations of (planned) flights into and from areas of deployment are almost a normality,” Bartels says. “The status of materiel is equally bad and in many occasions even worse than during my first inspection visit in 2015. At the end of last year not a single of the 14 newly commissioned A400M transport aircraft was available. Eurofighter, Tornado, Transall, CH-53, Tiger, NH90 … the flying units rightfully complain they fail in having the appropriate flight hours for their crews because too many machines too many days a year are not ready to fly.”

A German Army NH90 in the field. (Image © Dennis Spronk)
No stopping however for this Tornado. Wings fully back, low, fast and loud - as seen at Laage airbase in 2005. (Image © Elmer van Hest)
No stopping this German Tornado. Wings fully back, low, fast and loud – as seen at Laage airbase in 2005. (Image © Elmer van Hest)

Even the operation platforms of the German Navy helicopter fleet of Westland Sea Lynxes and in the future NH90 Sea Lion are far less than the German Ministry of Defence has promised to be available. Of the planned 15 frigates only 9 are in use and even they are often not able to sail with longer maintenance times in the shipyard for the aging vessels. Of the 220,000 job positions in the German Armed Forces, a massive 21,000 are vacant. Many troops lack winter uniforms or flack jackets.

© 2018 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger

Belgium Sea King still rules the waves

Forty years old the Westland Sea King Mk 48 flown by the Belgian Air Component of its armed forces is still very much ruling the waves when it comes down to search and rescue operations.

The already delivered four new NH90 helicopters are not managing well, meaning that the dinosaur Sea Kings are somewhat strange still the most reliable rotary wing for whoever gets lost at sea in front of the Belgian coast – where one of the busiest shipping lanes of the world passes through the English Channel and North Sea.

The Ministry of Defence in Brussels confirmed it has a tremendous amount of difficulties in providing the nation with an adequate air rescue at sea. The Grey Cayman, as the Belgians have nicknamed their new navy NH90s, has too many issues during its operations – including a radar that sometimes doesn’t work.

One of three Sea Kings that will have to soldier on in Belgian SAR service 2019 at least. (Image © Marcel Burger)
One of three Sea Kings that will have to soldier on in Belgian SAR service 2019 at least. (Image © Marcel Burger)

Neighbours help out

The Sea Kings – suffering from their age – already have to soldier on till 2019, four years later than planned. NHIndustries/Airbus needs at least one and a half years more to update and repair all four NH90s delivered for navy tasks – taking about 6 months per aircraft at a time. According to a ministry spokesperson Belgium will ask its European neighbours – the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom – to help out and back up the Sea King. It may still rule the waves, but increased maintenance and lack of spare parts will likely put the Sea King on the ground at times as well, meaning there will be no single dedicated SAR helicopter on Belgian soil available for helping out stranded sea man, unfortunate swimmers and downed pilots.

Crown jewel

Envisaging the coming new kid on the block, Belgium already retired its first Sea King (RS-01) on almost a decade ago, in the 33rd year of its service life. It left the 40 Squadron at homebase Koksijde on 17 December 2008 and has been a crown jewel of the Royal Museum of Army and War History of the nation ever since. Some black pages in its operational history: the crew had to ditch it into the North Sea in April 1981 due to engine problems and in 2005 it was suffering from severe hydraulic problems.

RS-01 was one of five Sea Kings delivered to the Belgian Air Component, sporting a for European waters rather rare ochre yellow and green camo scheme as the machines were originally built by British Westland for the Egyptian armed forces, but that delivery was cancelled in 1975. The Belgian Armed Forces started operations with the Sea King on 1 April 1976. During the years modernisations were implemented to keep the aircraft aloft. They included a protection plate for the engine intake, a FLIR camera and a new all-weather radar.

The camo scheme of the Belgian Sea King is a rare sight in European skies. (Image © Marcel Burger)
The camo scheme of the Belgian Sea King is a rare sight in European skies. (Image © Marcel Burger)

Sixth Sea King

The second Sea King (RS-03) was taken out of service in August 2013, leaving only three machines available. However, even with a sixth Sea King bought in the UK to provide the remaining machines with spare parts, Brussels has said it will be very very complicated to keep the SAR going without the support if its NATO partner nations.

Problems with the NH90 are also bad news for the effectiveness of the Belgian Navy’s frigates. The Navy NH90s were supposed to increase their fighting capabilities, a task never done by the Sea Kings, but the MoD now says the first NH90s are now likely to operate from the combat vessels in 2025 at the earliest.

For those who love the Sea King in its Belgian special colour scheme, there is at least another year or two left to enjoy them above North Sea waves and in European skies.

© 2018 Airheadsfly.com editor Marcel Burger