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Canada’s CF-188 fighter jets will begin the long flight home to Cold Lake, Alta., from Romania in early January, marking the end of an operation that might provide a template for further engagements in the region.
The four Hornets are part of Air Task Force (ATF) Romania, a four-month air policing and training mission that began on Sept. 1 and will conclude on Dec. 31.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has twice previously deployed air task forces to train alongside the Romanian Air Force and other allies in Eastern Europe, first in 2014 and again in 2016. This year, however, the mission included an additional assignment–enhanced air policing as part of NATO’s reassurance response to Russian interference in Ukraine.
Since mid-August, fighter aircrews and maintainers from 409 Tactical Fighter Squadron (TFS) at 4 Wing Cold Lake, as well as support elements from 2 Wing Bagotville, Que., and across the RCAF, have maintained a quick reaction posture at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base near Constanta, ready to respond and interdict any incursions into Romanian air space.
To protect operational security, the RCAF would not disclose whether task force fighters had intercepted Russian aircraft, but pilots are always on alert, even in training exercises, said LCol Mark ‘Buk’ Hickey, the ATF commander and the commanding officer of 409 Squadron.
“When we fly, we make sure we are always ready to exercise that option should it be required. And we’ve flown in as many of the different air spaces in Romania as possible to show our presence,” he said.
With each deployment to Romania, the RCAF has strengthened its relationship with a new ally, sharing best practices and learning new approaches to operations in a theatre Canada has only recently returned to in the past three years. It’s also been able to train and reinforce tactics, techniques and procedures with U.S. and other NATO allies conducting similar missions nearby.
Exactly when the Canadian Armed Forces will next return to Romania has yet to be determined, but the mission has yielded several lessons for the RCAF on command and control connectivity, how it deploys forces, and the challenge of maintaining an 8,000-kilometre supply chain, especially for aircraft parts for the aging Hornets, all of which will be contained in an after-action report, said Hickey.
“We knew before we got here that the supply chain was going to be [a challenge], and we practised for that,” he said. “I think overall we did a really good job. There are obviously some improvements we can make, not only for shipping parts into theatre, but also the way we deploy into theatre and the way we redeploy out of theatre–those are actually very difficult things to do for any military force.”
One thing he won’t recommend changing is the dual nature of the mission. Working with an ally on training exercises while simultaneously providing NATO air policing “is the ideal format,” he said.
“We found it was an excellent way to scratch a couple of itches. You get to do everything you can for the alliance by providing collective defence, regional stability and protecting airspace, but you also have the opportunity to engage with allies in a range of force generation activities.
“The ability to do both enhanced the experience for everyone. We got much higher training value and proficiency for everybody here; not just the pilots and ground crews, but also our military police, firefighters and medical teams.”
During the final two months of the mission, Canadian and Romanian aircrews advanced from basic fighter manoeuvres, air combat manoeuvres, one-on-one and two-on-one aerial combat, offensive and defensive counter air, and close air support to air-to-air interdiction and large-scale manoeuvres involving Romania’s newly acquired F-16 Falcons and legacy MiG-21s, as well as Portuguese F-16s and a NATO Boeing E-3A Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS).
The Canadians, Romanians and Americans also conducted an emergency response crash exercise, simulating the downing of an aircraft and pilot and the military and civil search and rescue response capabilities.
“We all learned a lot from it,” said Hickey. “There are many stakeholders involved in something like that, so it was important to me that we saw how it would go and how we would all work together.”
Though the members of 409 Squadron are due some well-deserved rest after the lengthy deployment, training will resume in March, said Hickey.
“Although we did a lot of training here, there are some scenarios that we would only do in Canada. We’ll focus on those to make sure that, force generation wise, the squadron is as ready as possible to respond to any type of mission.”