Despite the calender showing 19 June, it’s a gloomy day in northern Germany. It’s perhaps illustrative of the current times of international turmoil. But, at the airbase of Schleswig-Jagel, another sign of the times is visible. French Rafale and German Typhoon fighters share the runway, with Swiss F/A-18C Hornets and Belgian F-16s doing the same. This international cooperation at its best, and it’s a NATO show of force at the same time. This is the NATO Tiger Association’s sharpening its claws during Tiger Meet 2014.
For Polish 6. Eskadra Lotnictwa Taktycznego (ELT) from Poznañ and Hungarian 59.1 squadron from Kecskemét, the current Tiger Meet is the first as full members of the Tiger Association and its ‘Tiger, Tiger, Tiger’-credo. The Polish fly the Lockheed Martin F-16C/D block 52, while the Hungarians fly the Saab JAS 39C/D Gripen. Both squadrons have been participating in the Tiger Meet for quite some years. On Monday 16 June, their full membership was announced.
The sight at Schlewig-Jagel was one that seemed futuristic 15 years ago: 3th, 4th and 4.5th generation fighter aircraft sharing the runway. In the past Rafale and Typhoon battled out their battles on the international defence market, now they fly together with the same cooperative purpose. As German Typhoons lift off, they immediately rocket straight into the vertical, with afterburner flames lighting up the gloom. French Dassault Rafales follow their lead.
Saab Gripens from the Czech Republic also take off for an dissimilar air combat training (DACT) mission against German Typhoons. Swiss Hornets team up with Belgian F-16s and German Tornados. All in all, over fifty fighter aircraft are involved in Tiger Meet 2014. Some of these war machines are adorned with truly beautiful artwork.
The Tiger Meet may be illustrative of joint operations by western air forces, its roots go back quite a long way. The very first unofficial Tiger Meet was held in 1960 in the UK, followed by the first full on Tiger Meet in 1961. The NATO Tiger Association now consists of 23 full member units, 16 of which where present at Schleswig-Jagel, representing Germany, Poland, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Turkey, Czech Republic, UK, the Netherlands, Norway, Hungary and Austria. The current Tiger Meet runs until Friday 27 June.
Fierce wars are fought out daily in a low-key building at Pardubice airbase in the Czech Republic. Yet, inside the guarded building it is quiet. Men in flying suits walk in, only to come out hours later, after being bombarded with knowledge on tactical flying. This is the Tactical Simulation Centre (TSC), where Czech Air Force and other NATO-pilots brush up their skills in blue vs. red scenarios, with up to eight players at one time. It’s done digitally, with interlinked cockpit simulators and the impressive ‘God’s view’. How’s that for multiplayer action?
In the darkened main room of the TSC, four large black half-domes house four tactical simulators. The cockpits represent those of Saab JAS 39C Gripen air superiority fighters or L-159 ALCAs used for ground attack, with potential of future extension to other types of aircraft if requested. Each pilot has all tactical instruments and information laid before him on touch screen displays, and of course he has a stick and throttle identical to those in real aircraft. On the inside of the domes, a digital flying world is created, true to any scenario in any place of the world. This is tactical flying simulation at its best.
Over to the side are four more tactical simulators, simplified versions with slightly less impressive visualization possibilities. Also in the TSC there are two Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) stations and a Forward Air Controller (FAC) station. Elsewhere are briefing rooms, and in those rooms practicing pilots prepare their missions. However, they will never leave the ground while flying those missions. The TSC is a very cost effective solution; for the price of one flying hour in a modern fighter aircraft, dozens of aircrew can be trained for hours and hours.
No wonder other NATO-members are interested in the TSC, which is run by LOM PRAHA and is classified as ‘NATO secret’. Last year, a virtual Tiger Meet was successfully staged here, with air crew from various nations taking part.
Also, Slovak pilots have already trained in Pardubice and Germany and Poland are interested in having their pilots educated there as well. The TSC currently finishes adaption of the cockpit simulators to the L-39 standard, which means TSC can offer tactical training for all jet aircraft in the Czech forces. There are also plans to adapt the cockpit simulators to Lockheed Martin F-16 or MiG-29 standard.
Training takes place based on a range of scenarios, complete with radar threats, air defence systems, jamming. Air-to-air combat in simulated in beyond visual range (BVR) and within visual range (WVR) situations. Sit in one of the cockpit simulators and suddenly a Su-27 can pop up at long range inside your head up display (HUD), or even at your immediate 3 o’clock, too close for comfort. The GCI controller is guiding you via your headset. Maybe your wingman in the dome next to you will help you out, while you’re busy flying evasive maneuvers over a mountainous landscape. It gets exciting!
After the execution of the mission comes the debrief and 3D After Action Review (AAR). On large screens in the middle of the building, the mission is played back from all possible angles. The movements of each of up to eight ‘players’ are closely scrutinized, but there’s also the big picture (God’s view) of all the action. Each mission is thoroughly debriefed, evaluated and analyzed. And then, it’s lessons learned.
In the Tactical Simulation Centre it has been going on like this since November 2011, when the first courses started. Dozens and dozens of NATO combat pilots have been cost effectively trained on tactics. The centre has also attracted attention from fellow Air Combat Simulation Centre in Sweden, and a real-time connection to a similar installation in Sweden is on the cards. It’s good already at the TSC in Pardubice, and it will only get better.
Sahara sand. It’s not what you’d expect to hear at 07:45hrs on a February morning at the Czech Republic’s airbase of Čáslav. Yet, it’s exactly what the assembled Gripen pilots are told during their morning briefing. The airbase is covered by a fine layer of Sahara sand, brought by yesterday’s rain. The crew smile, because they know their equipment will have no problem with a bit of sand. Nearing a decade of flying the Gripen, the Czech are confident but also looking for further ways to get the maximum out of their prize fighter.
In fact, in some ways the Czech are already getting the max out of their twelve Saab JAS 39C single seaters and two JAS 39D dual-seat Gripens. The Czech Air Force (Vzdušné síly Armády České republiky) has proven to be the type’s most extensive user. The leased aircraft spend more hours in the air than their Swedish brethren.
“We took the lead last year with some of our aircraft passing 1,400 hours of flying time”, says major Jaroslav Tomaňa (38), commander of 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron) during an exclusive interview with AIRheads↑FLY. “We are at the forefront of JAS 39C/D Gripen operations. In 2015 we’ll celebrate ten years of flying this aircraft.” Up to now, the Čáslav Gripens spent 16,840 hours in the air in total.
The Czech have had a steep learning curve behind them, says Tomaňa, who himself has 1,100 hours on the type. Last year, he took command of 211 ‘Gripen’ squadron. “I first flew the JAS 39A Gripen in Sweden in 2005, flying the L-159 ALCA before that. The Gripen immediately proved an amazing, smooth aircraft to fly. But transitioning from the JAS 39A to the C-model was initially quite hard, since we had no two-seat operational trainer available at the time. However, it all worked out.”
The military airfield of Čáslav is
officially known as the 21st Tactical Air Force Base Zvolenská.
It is located just north of the city of Čáslav, about an hour drive (45 mls / 75 km)
east of the Czech capital of Prague. Čáslav is home to the Czech Republic’s only
frontline multi-role fighter unit: 211. taktické letky (tactical squadron)
flying the Swedish made SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen.
The Czech Air Force is now an almost independent user, with only three staff personnel of the Swedish Armed Forces Materiel Agency (Försvarets Materielverk; FMV) still present at Čáslav. “We have gained a lot of experience over the years, flying and maintaining this machine”, says Tomaňa while just outside the squadron building, preparations for the first sorties of the day are ongoing. Usually during this time of year, an old, truck mounted L-29 Delfin engine is used to clear the runway of ice. Now it is used for clearing the apron of Sahara sand.
The 211 squadron consists of 127 professionals, including 17 qualified Gripen pilots. A further five Czech Gripen pilots are stationed elsewhere – like with the general staff in Prague. 211’s mission is to protect the airspace of the Czech Republic and its NATO allies. Tomaňa: “We have two aircraft on a constant Quick Reaction Alert or QRA, ready to be in the air within 15 minutes. A third aircraft is on standby. This puts quite a lot of stress on the rest of the fleet. Usually we have seven to eight aircraft ready to fly, including those on QRA. The other 4 to 5 aircraft are available for our regular flying program, which should give each pilot 120 hours in the air yearly. They also spend another 40 hours on the simulator.”
But the most fun part is spending time up high above the Czech countryside, practising defensive counter air (DCA) or offensive counter air (OCA) manoeuvres. Sometimes, a bit of dissimilar air combat tactics (DACT) is needed, with L-159 ALCAs acting as opponents, or even better, German EF2000 Eurofighters. Tomaňa: “We occasionally meet up with them somewhere over Germany, because the temporarily reserved airspaces (TRAs) over our country are somewhat limited. It’s good training, and despite the Typhoons better thrust-to-weight ratio, our Gripen performs well. Its smaller size is an advantage in close range air combat. I’m not afraid of the Typhoon”, smiles the squadron boss.
Hooking up with various tankers such as French C-135s or a Swedish tanker C-130 equipped with an in-flight refueling system, is another thing that keeps 211 squadron busy. Fueling up in mid-air requires careful planning and a lot of verification and certification before hook-ups can actually take place.
“It involves a serious amount of work, as tankers are high value assets in peacetime as well”, says Tomaňa, who himself was actually the first Czech pilot ever to perform air-to-air refueling (AAR). “We have to be creative in our planning. For example, last year we flew several AAR-sorties with a Swedish Hercules that visited a Czech airshow. The French tankers we usually meet over France, making these 3.5 hour missions the longest we fly. If along the way we have to land somewhere, it’s no problem because our pilots know how to cross service their own aircraft. It’s a perfect example of the flexibility of Saab Gripen.”
During the traditional Tiger Meet, the yearly gathering of NATO member squadrons that fly the big cat emblem, the Czechs show their flexibility even more. In 2010, number 211 squadron became a full member and immediately took home the silver trophy for best overall tiger squadron. Next June, the Czech will meet their fellow tigers at Schleswig-Jagel in northern Germany. In the not-to-distant future, Czech Gripen pilots will further enhance their performance during these large scale exercise with the addition of real-time data exchange option Link 16.
Thoughts of organizing a Tiger Meet back home at Čáslav are cut short by a lack of funds. Major Tomaňa: “Our resources don’t allow this, but we have come up with a innovative alternative in the shape of a virtual Tiger Meet. This exercise was first held last autumn and proved to be very successful.” Several Tiger squadrons sent delegations to LOM Praha‘s hi-tech Tactical Simulation Centre (TSC) in Pardubice, where pilots and Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) operators practised tactical simulations with the help of eight interlinked cockpit simulators and two GCI stations. The TSC provides full NATO standard briefing and debriefing facilities.
During AIRheads↑FLY’s visit at Čáslav, the daily program had several training flights, a tango (training) scramble – with squadron boss Tomaňa himself taking part – and a display practice for the upcoming airshow season. “We have a busy schedule this year. Apart from the QRA task here at Čáslav, we will take on the Iceland Air Policing mission in the second half of 2014. That means running two QRA operations at a time, stretching our resources. In 2016 we will provide the Iceland Air Policing mission once more. We are also planning the Baltic Air Policing mission in 2019, like we did in 2009 and 2012.”
Gripen User Group
Besides the Czech meeting NATO obligations, they contribute to the Gripen User Group (GuG). This co-operation of air forces currently flying the JAS 39 fighter is aimed at sharing logistics and experiences. The GuG’s member nations are Sweden, the Czech Republic, Hungary, South Africa and Thailand. The number of flying hours give the Czech an experience advantage, which they share with the other Gripen users.
The Saab aircraft is bound to serve the Czech Air Force for another 14 years, although finalization of the lease extension has been delayed somewhat by a change of government. Major Tomaňa is confident: “It’s a matter of time. The Gripen was and still is the best choice for our country.”