UK, North Sea: Large force exercise with USAF’s F-15, F-16, and KC-135s

U.S. Air Force F-15s assigned to the 48th Fighter Wing at Royal Air Force Lakenheath, England; F-16s assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing at Aviano Air Base, Italy; F-16s assigned to the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany; KC-135s assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing at Royal Air Force Mildenhall, England and NATO Airborne Warning And Control System aircraft from Geilenkirchen Air Base, Germany, participated in a large force exercise in the United Kingdom’s North Sea airspace.

Exercises of this nature are not new for the units assigned to U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa, but with the COVID-19 crisis, participating units have identified a way to integrate multiple assets and ensure combat readiness for the collective defense of the NATO alliance.

During the large force exercise, aircrews conducted dissimilar air combat training to enhance combat readiness and increase tactical proficiency needed to maintain a ready and capable combat force. The purpose of the exercise was to continue high-end training with U.S. Air Forces in Europe and NATO partners to counter near-peer threats in the area of responsibility, according to Air Force Capt. Nathan Hartoin, a pilot with the 493rd Fighter Squadron and the chief of weapons for the 48th Fighter Wing.

“Large force exercises allow us to validate and enforce important tactics that are tested at many of the major exercises that occur around Europe and the United States,” he said. “The North Sea airspace allows fourth-to-fourth-generation fighter integration on a large scale and is one of the best around for simulated air-to-air engagements.”

Hartoin said the planning process for such an exercise is complex and begins when commanders determine the need for a training event. Once interest in an exercise is established, a date is set based on tanker availability, unit and base training phases and airspace availability.

After projecting a date, exercise planners focus on the finer points, such as the exercise scenario, fuel requests and the exercise timeline, he said.

“The aerial refueling provided by the 100th Air Refueling Wing was vital in showing the capability to execute long range Defensive Counter Air,” Hartoin said. “With this in mind, the tanker plan was the primary detail that was constantly adapted all the way through execution. For this exercise, each unit was given specific tasks to complete, and the 48th Fighter Wing coordinated the effort.