A dozen or so complex missions, tens of hours spent in the air – Polish F-16 fighter pilots trained in Spain.
It is said that this training changes the pilot. “Although the course is attended by experienced pilots, they finish it with a much greater awareness of their skills,” explains Bert, an F-16 pilot from the 32nd Tactical Aviation Base in Łasek, a participant of the Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP), which was completed in June. During the three-week training, together with three other Polish F-16 pilots (from the 31 and 32 Tactical Air Force Bases), they performed as many as 40 training missions; their air raid lasted approximately 100 hours. The Polish pilots cooperated with airmen from NATO states, including Americans, the French, Germans, Italians, the British, and the Dutch. Three Polish navigators also took part in the training.
The course takes place in Albacete, Southeastern Spain. “Not only has the base itself been created especially for TLP, but the weather there is always almost perfect, so the planned missions are not cancelled due to clouds or rainfall. The whole time we enjoyed a beautiful weather that was great for flying,” says “Bert”.
Close to Reality
The specificity of the TLP course is that each mission is a surprise for the soldiers in training. There is no continuity in the scenario that would allow to predict what pilots would face another day. The appointment of the mission commander, and the commanders of individual teams, is also a surprise. “I was thrown deep into the water because I became a mission commander during my first real mission,” says Bert. The commanding officer is assigned a task by the course instructors. “I had a tactical scenario, crew and aircraft that I could have involved in the operation, and then... You’re on your own,” recalls the pilot.
The mission plan is drawn up by the mission commander but is supported by all the pilots involved in the operation. It is then decided which aircraft will take part in the mission, what the formations will look like, what weapons they will use and what tasks they will be given. Every minute of action is carefully planned and everyone knows what to do. Only that usually at the very beginning there are situations, which make impossible the completion of intentions without any obstacles (for example it turns out that a part of aeroplanes is unable to complete the task), so the mission commander must also have a plan B.
Only three hours are scheduled for the preparation of an operation plan. “This is very little time for such a complicated process. Everyone in the team is a specialist in their field, so it is necessary to utilize the knowledge and experience of others. We have to trust each other. However, it is up to the commander to make decisions on the scale of the entire mission. We couldn’t consult anyone else from the outside during the planning process,” explains the airman.
The details of training missions are not transparent, as they are usually based on real threats, situations that have already occurred or may occur. “These scenarios are not detached from reality. But in short, it’s usually about a conflict breaking out and our job is to defend an allied country that will be attacked in the next few hours,” explains Bert. “In order to render a state inoperable, it is necessary to destroy its key facilities. Usually we have to do it in a certain time with as little effort and resources as possible,” adds the pilot.
Pilots receive information about their goals: data, as well as coordinates and photos of objects. Some of them come from ISR and AWACS aircraft (early warning and control aircraft) as well as from air reconnaissance soldiers. Some of this information is received by the mission commander before or during the planning process, while others are received during the mission itself, in the air, using the Link 16 system, for example.
To the Castaways’ Rescue
Each subsequent mission on the TLP course is more complicated. “Bert” claims that one of the most interesting was the one involving the navy ships of Spain. They were supposed to protect objects that the air force had to destroy. “The ships were equipped with anti-aircraft combat systems, so they worked like mobile platforms from which fire was led to us,” says the Polish pilot. Their crews also collected information on our air force and passed it on to the enemy air force. “No element on today’s battlefield works separately; they’re all part of a single, integrated system,” explains Bert. The pilot says that during the training they flew at a low altitude and above the mountains to confuse the enemy. “We used the mountainous terrain in order to hide in such a way that, firstly, nobody shot us down and, secondly, as little information about us as possible would reach the enemy,” he adds.
However, the pilots did not only perform typical combat tasks during the course. An extremely complicated mission was to recover personnel from the enemy area – CSAR (combat search and rescue). “The script assumed that an ally plane had been shot down. The crew was in enemy territory. The place where they waited for the evacuation was miles away from our base,” says “Bert”. In this operation, helicopters of the Italian air force were engaged with a combat take-back group from enemy territory. They were supposed to transport the survivors to a safe place. There were special forces soldiers on board the machines, who were responsible for taking in the survivors. Polish F-16 planes flew over helicopters to cover them at low altitudes. The Eurofighters did so at medium altitudes. The whole operation was supervised by American F-35s, whose crews saw the most and sent the information to other aircraft. “The difficulty in such a mission is to integrate all the elements of the operation. The flight profile of the fighter is quite specific. We need to be very close to helicopters, which is low enough for us to be able to protect them from danger both in the air and on land,” explains Bert. Nearly does not mean, however, that helicopter pilots can see the fighters protecting them. “They know we are there. They have a very important job to do, they can’t focus attention on the shields and wonder if we really are there. They need to be 100% confident,” adds the pilot. But how do you match the speed of the fighters with the speed of the helicopters? “It’s impossible to even out, but of course we have our own ways of doing it. It usually happens that we fly around the circle over helicopters”, says “Bert”. Each mission was conducted under the supervision of TLP instructors. These are experienced pilots from the NATO countries, with many missions and combat tasks behind them. “But what is equally important is that they are willing to share their experience and are able to pass on knowledge,” admits Bert. When planning or executing missions, however, they do not interfere with the decisions of trained pilots, unless safety is at risk. Errors are indicated in the debriefing after the flights. “They are extremely detailed,” explains the pilot. “The individual stages of the mission are broken down into minutes, sometimes into seconds, and each decision is discussed. It is characteristic for TLP to make decisions in time deficit. If one of them is wrong, we are looking for reasons not to make such mistakes in the future.”
How important is this training for pilots? “Huge. It is always important for us to be able to practice with our allies. The TLP course approach is comprehensive and integrated, responding to the real-world situation. It is no secret, after all, that when NATO states send their pilots to hot spots, they always perform tasks as allies and not as a separate element,” says Bert. He adds that cooperation can be trained in this course. “This is the time when we work on integration and trust. We prove to each other that we can rely on each other and that together we can achieve a lot.”
autor zdjęć: arch. 32 BLT