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“You’re only as good as your last success.”
This saying has never rung more true than for the Royal Canadian Air Force’s CF-188 Hornet fighter community. From air and ground crews to all support personnel–no matter their stage of development, the entire team works tirelessly to develop and maintain their skills and to find new opportunities to improve and develop over time.
After all, credibility, reputation and–even more importantly–lives can be on the line.
And this is what Exercises Combat Archer and Combat Hammer are about: Taking what has been learned, perfecting it and then building on it as much as possible.
The backdrop for this period of growth and development, from Jan. 16 to Feb. 10, 2017, was Tyndall Air Force Base in northern Florida.
Members of 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alta.’s 401 Tactical Fighter Squadron, plus others from the RCAF’s fighter and transport communities, worked alongside their United States Air Force counterparts to hone and develop their air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons employment capabilities. They carried out the training across the entire spectrum of operations: from storage and transportation of their weapons, to preparation and, finally, to employment on a target.
“These exercises are a tremendous opportunity for not only the members of 401 Squadron, but the RCAF’s fighter force as a whole,” said LCol Joe Mullins, 401 Squadron’s commanding officer.
“It isn’t every day we have the chance to practice our live weapons capabilities, across all stages of the operation.”
He noted the magnitude of executing a deployment of this size, pointing out the long hours of preparation and planning put in by everyone involved, and the willingness of the various support units to provide solutions to a variety of obstacles.
“Any and all successes from this deployment are a result of our commitment to supporting each other as a team as we grow and develop,” he added.
The team approach is the key to success
As the exercise first got underway, the focus was on standard defensive counter-air missions, and basic fighter manoeuvres, allowing participants to ease into the training and confirm already-established capabilities. As things started to ramp up, and boundaries began to be pushed, it was all hands on deck.
The team approach is always a critical factor to the RCAF’s mission success. This time around, it wasn’t just operational units making up the team, but also specialists from other organizations within RCAF Headquarters.
The office of the Director General Aerospace Equipment Program Management, Fighters and Trainers (part of the Assistant Deputy Minister (Materiel) group), oversaw the exercise from a technical perspective as part of the Systems Effectiveness Monitoring Program, or SEMP.
Their focus is on the long-term development and evaluation of the Hornet’s weapons systems as well as the way in which the entire aircraft functions across its spectrum of capabilities.
According to Tom Gale, the CF-188’s weapons systems effectiveness program manager, the SEMP has evolved over the years in tandem with the new tactics and capabilities of the Hornet.
“As new technology has been integrated into the Hornet, it is our team who first evaluate and, if feasible, then ensure the long-term success of that system, to make sure the RCAF has a viable capability for as long required,” he explained.
Exercises Combat Archer and Combat Hammer are opportunities to put into practice the tactics and procedures developed academically.
“Alongside the entire RCAF fighter community, our office has been planning this exercise for several months, not to mention the team from the USAF hosting us–who have been working six months to make this as worthwhile as possible for us all,” said Gale.
“The entire team has put a lot of time and resources into these exercises, and it shows in the tremendous success we are seeing.”
Location is everything
But why Florida you might ask? Despite the RCAF’s best efforts, creating and maintaining the facilities to carry out live air-to-air and dynamic air-to-ground weapons training is neither practical nor feasible.
The RCAF’s partners in the 53d Weapons Evaluation Group (WEG) have the solution. They are a highly specialized group of units whose sole focus is on planning and executing training opportunities that are as unrestricted and as close to the real thing as possible.
Exercise Combat Archer is planned by the 83d Fighter Weapons Squadron (FWS). Together with the 53d Test Support Squadron, the 81st Range Control Squadron and the 82d Aerial Targets Squadron, they provide a one-of-a-kind venue to allow for the live employment of a variety of CF-188 Hornet air-to-air weapons systems, including the AIM-7, AIM-9 and AIM-120.
Exercise Combat Hammer, which follows Combat Archer, is planned by the 86th FWS. Although they are also supported by the same units as the 83d FWS, their focus is on providing a venue for the dynamic employment of CF-188 Hornet air-to-ground weapons systems, such as the GBU-12 laser guided bomb.
“By dynamic targets, we mean moving targets,” said Maj Josh Kutryk, the officer commanding the Fighter Operational Test and Evaluation Flight, and a participant in the two exercises.
“Back home in Cold Lake, our range has an outstanding array of targets to practice on, but they are all stationary, things like airfields and building complexes,” he said. “Up at Eglin Air Force Base for example, where Combat Hammer takes place, they have vehicle targets that move slowly along a track, at various speeds. Having this type of training aid is both extremely unique and beneficial.”
And it isn’t just the RCAF use the services of the 53d WEG. Throughout the year the American units support an Exercise Combat Archer or Combat Hammer once per month. Each exercise requires up to six months of preparation for hundreds of people.
For the American personnel, the team approach is also what enables success.
“Everyone involved has a piece of the puzzle to manage. In the case of Combat Archer, there are a million small miracles that have to happen for a single missile to launch against a single drone,” said Cdr Michael Mitchell, the F/A-18 program manager for the United States Navy Weapon System Evaluation Program.
“It requires months of work and a lot of people.”
The result is always the same for participants of the Combat Archer and Combat Hammer series of exercises: an increase in existing capabilities, which can be put to the test in a real theatre of operations when the call to do so comes.
Gale says he knows when all the hard work pays off. “I hear from maintainers all the time, either when they email from overseas or call me from Cold Lake or Bagotville. Each time, they say the things they learned while on Combat Archer and Combat Hammer, they use in the real world, at their operational units. That for me is what makes this so important.”