One of the premier integrated air warfare exercise in the world would be Red Flag. Red Flag is a realistic combat training exercise involving the air, space, and cyber forces of the United States of America (USA) and its allies. Its purpose is to train the participating pilots and crew members for real air combat situations. Today, the exercise Frisian Flag, which is organized by the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) and held from Leeuwarden Air Base (AB) in the Netherlands, is comparable with the American Flag exercises. This year's edition took place from the 11th until the 22nd of April. During the same period the third European Air-to-Air Refueling Training (EART) was held by the European Defense Agency (EDA) in cooperation with the European Air Transport Command (EATC) and the Movement Coordination Center Europe (MCCE). The tanker aircraft exercise was flown from Eindhoven AB and supported Frisian Flag by refueling its participants.


The origin of Flag exercises was the unacceptable performance of the United States Air Force (USAF) in air combat maneuvering during the Vietnam War in comparison to previous wars. Too many USAF aircraft were shot down in comparison with the enemies losses. Evaluations led to a simple conclusion: USAF fighter pilots and weapons systems officers lacked training in realistic air combat maneuvering. This led to the creation of the Red Flag exercise in 1975. The exercise since then offers the participants the opportunity to fly realistically simulated combat missions with measurable results. Besides four Red Flag each year also about 10 Green Flags (specifically aimed at providing close air support to the US Army) and one Maple Flag (operated by the Royal Canadian Air Force) are held.
The RNLAFs equivalent Frisian Flag dates back to 1992, when the first edition was held. At first the objective was the same as Red Flag's objective. But, lessons learned from successful missions in Yugoslavia (1993), Afghanistan (2002 – 2014), Libya (2011) and also the RNLAFs Quick Reaction Alert tasks showed that it is eminent to be able to work closely together with other air forces. The interest from other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to participate in Frisian Flag therefor increased over the years, starting from 1998. Today, the Frisian Flag exercise provides the opportunity to the participating air forces and their personnel (airmen as well as ground crews) to practice realistic and complex missions within international context and cooperation, ultimately speaking the same language within coordinated procedures. This makes it possible to face modern threats and conflicts, working together with NATO-allies. Besides air forces also the Royal Netherlands Army (RNLA), the Royal Netherlands Navy (RNLN), the National Datalink Management Cell (NDMC) and the Air Operations Control Station (AOCS) participate.

The basics

During Frisian Flag large scale Composite Air Operation (COMAO) missions are planned, executed and evaluated. The missions are practiced in realistic scenarios and circumstances. These scenarios can variate in detail, but in origin Frisian Flag knows two kinds of operations. Red Air's flying Defensive Counter Air (DCA) operations and Blue Air has Offensive Counter Air (OCA) operations. The base will be attacked by Red Air and defended by Blue Air in cooperation with ground based Air Defense Systems, navy frigates, the NDMC and the AOCS. The missions are build up during the exercise in difficulty. Captain-pilot Remco is this year's project manager. He explains: "Frisian Flag has several objectives. Besides training in realistic circumstances, we combine large scale air operations with ground based and airborne electronic threats. We promote leadership, initiative and self-discipline and provide a forum for tactics development and validation. And last but not least, we combine the air exercises with ground based forces. The overall use of Frisian Flag is that the participants can practice their lessons learned during missions all over the world, such as in Iraq and Eastern Syria, where also is flown with different airplanes from different nations."
He continues: "Frisian Flag works with a 12 hour cycle, starting daily at 07.00 AM. For each mission, planning takes about six hours. Therefore, pilots cannot fly both the morning as well as the afternoon mission on the same day, but they fly every day. Planning starts with making up scenarios. The mission commanders brief all flight leads about the scenarios of the mission, a briefing which can take up to five hours. After this the scenarios are presented to the participating aircrew during a mass briefing. Also variables like weather circumstances and the holding plan will be presented." This results in the so called coordination card, which provides an overview of the operations and times of the entire day.
After this, all participating aircrew will fly their aircraft to the designated Temporary Reserved Airspace (TRA) to start the mission from there. Several will meet with a tanker aircraft to be refueled in the air within reserved tracks. Blue Air uses the so called Shell track (north to the island of Texel), Red Air uses Esso (north to the island of Ameland). The Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR) aircraft support the Frisian Fag exercise but fly their own exercise in the meantime, called EART. After recovery of all aircraft the crew attend the mass debriefing. Based on the information retrieved from the GPS-tracker device each airplane carries, the whole mission will be analyzed and debriefed. The debriefing can take up to three hours because every detail will be discussed to learn from them. This debriefing is actually the most important moment of a mission and of Frisian Flag. Units participating in the exercise but not actually present at Leeuwarden AB will forward the lessons learned through liaisons.

Other participating units

Besides the crews flying and maintaining the aircraft operating from Leeuwarden AB also other units participate. The airmen of participating partners provide support to the Special Forces of the RNLA and to the RNLN. To do so, during Frisian Flag they work together with so called Forward Air Controllers (FAC). The FACs guide and direct the airmen by radio to the exact location of the objectives which have to be either engaged or protected. Several air defense systems are present on the ground as well as inflatable targets, which are moved from one location to another within the exercise area throughout the whole exercise.
The NDMC is a Dutch unit of the Royal Netherlands Armed Forces, consisting of personnel of the air force, army and navy. NDMC is based at the RNLAF base Nieuw Milligen. NDMC controls and facilitates the use of the international communications network Link-16 and also participates in its development. Link-16 is a network which makes it possible for different weapon platforms and units to communicate with each other in real time. With this datalink for example airplanes, Patriot air defense systems, navy frigates, army artillery and E-3A AWACS airplanes can exchange strategical information. The equipment can be loaded into containers to be used from any location in the world, such as at Leeuwarden AB during the Frisian Flag exercise.
Besides the NDMC also the AOCS operates from Nieuw Milligen. As guard of the Dutch parts of NATOs airspace, including parts of the North Sea, AOCS plays a big role during the Frisian Flag exercise. Performing its tasks properly and efficiently means that the AOCS has to cooperate with all users of this airspace, military as well as civilian. An exercise like Frisian Flag provides the personnel of all the previously mentioned units the same exercising opportunities as for the airmen and ground crews taking part at Leeuwarden AB.


The exercise is flown in an airspace of 74,000 km2 covering the northern parts of the Netherlands, northern parts of Germany, Denmark and a large of the North Sea. Remco: "One mission takes about two hours of flying time." This and the basics of the exercise don't change much with every edition. "But", he says, "the world changes every year. Therefor we change and adapt the contents of the missions of Frisian Flag to the actual events in the world today. Therefor almost each edition the participating air forces and aircraft change compared to the previous one."


Just like the first two editions, the general purpose of the EART 2016 is to create a realistic training environment to exchange information and practice among tanker- and aircrews to improve effectiveness and efficiency as well as to harmonize procedures between tankers and receiving aircraft. The EDA initiative is one important measure in an amount of different working strands to overcome European Union's shortfall on tanker capabilities. Training concepts are created and conducted by the EATC, tanker missions are planned and coordinated by the MCCE and the training itself is executed by the host nation.
Colonel Jurgen van der Biezen, Head of the EATCs Functional Division and EATCs Exercise Director explains: "During EART 2016 various air forces work together from a central location to refuel a complete fleet in the air within - although staged but - very realistic training conditions. The Netherlands executed the training from Eindhoven AB and supported the exercise Frisian Flag. From the first two EART editions the EDA, EATC and Frisian Flag organization concluded that combining training goals is a win-win situation. Continuation of the multinational AAR exercise which simultaneously offers more AAR capacity for Frisian Flag is a perfect way to do so."
The MCCE, stationed at Eindhoven AB, is responsible for coordination of strategic lift (air and surface) and AAR operations of the MCCEs 27 participating members. Captain Edward Blaauw explains: "The MCCE was officially established in 2007 to address the recognized shortage of strategic lift and refueling capabilities. The main purpose of the MCCE is to provide cost saving alternatives by utilizing air, land and sea transport assets. These can be owned or leased by national militaries, MCCEs members or supporting agencies." During Frisian Flag the mission commanders decide whether they need tanker capacity. But the actual planning and assignment comes from the MCCE. Blaauw continues: "I work as an Airspace Management Officer with the AAR Cell of the MCCE. My daily job is to focus on coordinating the refueling capacity needed by our members, mostly in Europe but also on locations in the rest of the world. During the period of the Frisian Flag and EART exercises however, I focus on planning and coordinating the daily AAR missions flown, working from Leeuwarden AB."


Obviously the RNLAF participated again in EART 2016 with one of their two KDC10s. Also returning to the exercise were a German Airbus A310, a French C-135FR and an Italian Boeing KC-767A. There were differences however. Blaauw: "The first two editions the German Airbus was deployed to Eindhoven AB. But this edition the German Air Force decided to fly from their home base at Köln-Bonn International Air Port, due to deployment abroad of the other A310 MRTT aircraft in the inventory of German AF."
Captain Eric van Osch, flight engineer of the RNLAF KDC10, adds: "There were also extra training objectives added to this year's edition. One striking example was that we trained accompanied letdowns. Simulating all kinds of technical problems, we were accompanied one time by a RNLAF F-16 and one time by the French tanker to guide us back to Eindhoven AB. We also practiced close tanker formations, which of course is not a daily maneuver but could be necessary during large scale air operations."


Both interviewed project managers each concluded 'their' exercises were successful once again. Captain-pilot Remco: "During Frisian Flag the missions were successfully missions flown according to plan and all objectives were achieved. This doesn't apply to the exercise's objectives only. Each participating had its own learning goals which they obviously also want to achieve. Everyone participated to learn and to get more experienced in flying in a Large Flying Exercises such as Frisian Flag is. Not only new wingman, but also experienced mission commanders who lead a mission in which 45 aircraft participated. Frisian Flag again was very realistic end very successful."
Colonel Van der Biezen concludes about EART: "Overall the EART proved its necessity over the last three editions. The big advantage of this exercise is that we have organized it in a way that we can hook up this exercise to any other big exercise held in Europe, like the NATO Tiger Meet. Possibly also with exercises held outside of Europe in the years to come."
For an overall conclusion of this article, the authors would like to quote retired RNLAF F-16 pilot 'Sexy' Schoenmaker. He participated in a 1984 Red Flag exercise and at the time said for Dutch television: "Train like you fight, fight like you train." This certainly and still applies for all units and people involved in the Frisian Flag and EART exercises today.

This article was also published in Lotnictwo Aviation International 6/2016.