Maple Flag

Mark Ayton, assisted by Paul Ridgway, visited CFB Cold Lake in Alberta for the annual Maple Flag exercise, which continues to attract nations from around the world.

IN 1977, at Nellis AFB, Nevada, Canada took part in Exercise Red Flag for the first time, gaining valuable air combat training. The following year, the Commander of the Canadian Air Command staged a similar four-week exercise — Maple Flag — at CFB Cold Lake, Alberta, 170 miles (270km) northeast of Edmonton. This continued for nine years, with the exercise being held twice annually — until 1987 when it was re-scheduled as a six-week exercise held each spring. Each annual exercise is numbered sequentially: this year CFB Cold Lake hosted Maple Flag 38.

Staging Maple Flag

Maple Flag is run by the Air Force Tactical Training Centre (AFTTC), which is assigned to resident 4 Wing Operations. The AFTTC is currently commanded by Major Shaun Hartzell, the Maple Flag commander and the standards officer, who is responsible for all the tactical evaluations and testing of pilots assigned to 4 Wing. During Maple Flag, Major Hartzell’s work is almost entirely devoted to exercise operations. He and his deputy provide a tactical overview and approve each mission to ensure all aspects of flight safety are adhered to, on behalf of 4 Wing’s commander Col ‘Duff Sullivan.

Major Hartzell has eleven full-time staff permanently assigned to run Maple Flag, augmented by a further 150 Canadian Forces personnel during the exercise. These range from cooks to military police and are deployed to Cold Lake from other bases around the country. A civilian contractor has a team of 12 personnel at AFTTC to run Electronic Warfare systems and the Air Combat Manoeuvring Instrumentation (ACMI) system.

Cold Lake is the largest air base in Canada; its ramp areas can accommodate approximately 250 aircraft of all types. Stadium-sized hangars are large enough to house virtually any type of aircraft in the world (the exceptions being the C-5 Galaxy and the An-124), which gives the base great operational capability. Around 150 aircraft were on base during Maple Flag 38, 85 of them deployed as participants from the air forces of Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Republic of Singapore, Sweden, the UK and the United States. CFB Cold Lake has the capability to re-fuel and re-arm all participating aircraft twice a day in accordance with the exercise schedule — an incredible support and logistics capability which is part of 4 Wing’s mission.

Maple Flag is a large force exercise involving a coalition of forces: some participating nations are not necessarily members of NATO. The idea is for participants to come together to learn about each other’s aircraft and capabilities, and be able to apply the training in a real-world event. It gives all of them an opportunity to fight a simulated battle against a simulated enemy in a scenario similar to recent conflicts in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Cold Lake’s Jewel

Despite its sheer size and operational capability, the base’s primary training asset is the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR), just a few miles north amidst airspace that stretches from the foothills of the Rocky Mountains across the prairies into Manitoba, and from the Arctic Circle in the Northern territories right down to the US border. The CLAWR is a unique training location: according to Col Sullivan, it is «the jewel of the Cold Lake crown». A piece of territory assigned to the Canadian military in perpetuity, controlled by CFB Cold Lake.

The range measures 100 miles (220km) east to west and 40 miles (75km) north to south. Within that area, the airspace is unrestricted from ground level to infinity (in theory), exclusively for military use; all aircraft can fly supersonically and conduct any type of operation required. It contains 90 different target complexes, with multiple DMPIs (Designated Mean Point of Impact) within each; amounting to over 640 individual targets, including vehicles, radar sites. APCs (Armoured Personnel Carriers) and tanks. There are seven full-scale airfields, with aircraft hulks positioned around the field so that pilots rolling in to attack a target actually see infrastructure, vehicles, radar dishes and aircraft, which creates a very realistic environment. Northern Alberta has a large oil industry; some production and processing facilities are located within the range and are used for simulated strikes. Other urban area target complexes contain churches and hospitals.

The CLAWR has weapons ranges available, right on the doorstep. Two and a half minutes flying time from Cold Lake, a pilot or aircrew can go full combat without restriction, speed or height. Pilots can deliver practice, inert and live heavy weapons with warheads — a great training opportunity.

Range Threats

AFTTC owns and operates five ground-based threat emitters located on the range, and these can reproduce any ground-based weapon system in the world, including the SA-3 Goa, SA-6 Gainful, SA-8 Gecko, SA-11 Gadfly missiles and the ZSU 23-4 Shilka self-propelled anti-aircraft gun. Three of them can be packed up and moved within 24 hours, and two are mobile on HUMVEE (High Mobility Multi-purpose Wheeled Vehicle) vehicles. AFTTC can move them around the range and re-programme each to emulate a different threat, providing a realistic uncertain threat to the strike aircraft.

A mobile remotely-controlled Canadian-built ADAT (Air Defence Anti Tank) provides simulated surface-to-air and surface-to-surface anti-aircraft missile and anti-tank missile threats.

Range Instrumentation

Cold Lake’s range infrastructure allows large force coalition training in a very realistic simulated environment replicating real world operations, such as those undertaken in the Balkans and Iraq. The system in operation with 4 Wing uses an un-tethered GPS-based ACMI system consisting of pods carried by each aircraft and a full debrief display console developed by the Cubic Corporation. Known as a ‘Rangeless’ system, it allows pilots to train autonomously in airspace without a ‘tethered’ range, using Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The pod is a regular Cubic P4 style ACMI pod carried on a wing-tip rail or wing station, distinguishable by four ‘coat-hanger’ GPS antennas. Though integrated with the aircraft’s navigational systems, it keeps track of its own position using the GPS satellite.

The pod communicates with satellites, which relay information back to Cold Lake, tracking an aircraft’s position from ground level to infinity: previous systems sent the information back via a series of ground stations surrounding the range. Pods also communicate with each other. Any pod is aware of the position of all other aircraft and detects when it is being engaged by another pod. Furthermore, if an aircraft enters the range without a pod, it can still be tracked as a secondary track, with less detailed and more intermittent information.

The GPS-based instrumentation pods and display systems were delivered to the Canadian Forces in February 2001 and first used at Cold Lake for Maple Flag in 2002.

Cold Lake’s ACMI system has the capability to track (in theory) virtually unlimited numbers of aircraft in real-time and at longer ranges than the one previously in use there. AFTTC has 80 pods in operation and limits the number of primary aircraft tracks (aircraft carrying a pod) on the range to 110. Some air forces deploy to Maple Flag with their own pods, hence with all 80 in use the range maintains more capacity. Secondary aircraft tracks (aircraft not carrying a pod) are unlimited.

The system allows exercise directors and staff to watch the live portion of the air battle from a variety of views on the IMAX screen in the tactical theatre inside the Maple Flag building, the exercise’s control centre. Each mission is briefed and debriefed using the screen to project a full replay of the air war.

Range control

One of the main non-flying units assigned to 4 Wing at CFB Cold Lake is 42 Radar, a tactical radar squadron with an operational mandate to deploy anywhere in Canada within 72 hours and anywhere in the world within 30 days in support of fighter operations.

It plays a critical part in Maple Flag, controlling all Red Air (enemy) aircraft. On the coalition side, an E-3 AWACS operating from Cold Lake generally controls aircraft assigned to Blue Air. If the E-3 AWACS becomes unserviceable, 42 Radar carries the day by providing all radar control for the whole air war on the range.

Evolution to Maple Flag 38

When Maple Flag was first conceived, the Cold War was the threat. The original scenario for the exercise was based on the concept of attacking the Eastern Bloc beyond the FLOT (Forward Line of Own Troops) and FEBA (Forward Edge of Battle), a situation in which NATO and the Eastern Bloc would ‘slog it out’ as they moved back and forth across central and northern Europe. Conflicts since the Cold War ended have been contingency-type operations, such as Allied Force and Enduring Freedom, and demand a different type of training. Since 2003, the Maple Flag directors have tried to adapt the exercise scenario to fit into contingency operations. They now replicate small pockets of insurgents located around disputed territory who carry out terrorist activity, ethnic cleansing and border disputes in a simulation of real-world situations.

The political scenario of Maple Flag 38 involved four notional nations — Loafland, Sparkistan, Woodland and Duffland. Loafland is a disputed country where war has broken out. Sparkistan is a country with a big splinter group (similar to the Taliban) consisting largely of foreign fighters (not necessarily Sparkistanis), the Sparkistan splinter group is fighting Loafland in an attempt to take control of territory and change borders. Woodland is a country slightly sympathetic to Sparkistan, which is thought to be supplying weapons to the Sparkistani splinter group. Despite the weapons issue, Woodland wants to stay out of the war. Duffland is a neutral country.

Maple Flag’s coalition air force is operating from Duffland, in support of Loafland targeting the Sparkistan splinter group, but is not at war with Woodland.

Air Campaign

Maple Flag is split into three two-week periods. In each, the coalition flies a ten-day air campaign against the Sparkistani splinter group targets, with two missions per day — one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

On the first day, the coalition launches strikes against strategic targets deep inside Sparkistan. This is a slightly unrealistic start in comparison to real campaigns, but is undertaken to give participants familiarisation of the CLAWR range. The scenario then develops, with small groups taking over parts of the Sparkistan-Loafland border, and pushing into sovereign Loafland territory. Consequently, days two and three focus on striking those groups.

As the fighting becomes more aggressive, the coalition strikes deep inside Sparkistan to prevent strategic advantage to the splinter group, denying them the ability to establish a logistical system or to operate from an airfield. As the splinter group forces attempt to take over Loafland, the coalition tries to push them back.

Day-to-day evolution of the scenario is prepared by the AFTTC intelligence department and is established before participants arrive at Cold Lake. Each day of the air war progresses in accordance with the planned scenario evolution — no matter how ineffective the previous day’s strikes might have been. Maple Flag’s plan must evolve within the time constraint of the exercise, so the planned events of every day are set.

Major Hartzell explained: «The intelligence department controls the scenario. I asked the department to look at all the different conflicts that have happened in the last 15 years and try to develop our scenario to take into account little bits and pieces from those conflicts. The intelligence department produced a ten-page document that set out the background for the Maple Flag 38 air war. It provides an account of why the situation is happening and what is going on. Each day’s events builds on the day before, so as the exercise moves along, more SAMs (Surface-to-Air Missiles) get activated, more ground troops get’moved around, the MiG caps are manned for longer and with better aircraft. Every day it changes based on that scenario, not based on the results of strikes.»

New Missions

Time Sensitive Targeting (TST) was introduced to Maple Flag 38 for the first time, to keep the exercise relevant to operational requirements around the world. Targets in Afghanistan and Iraq are highly mobile and move around considerably: planned strikes against them are difficult. During Operation Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, some strike aircraft were dedicated to TST and tasked to strike targets that only become available for minutes at a time. In an operational theatre, Intelligence Surveillance And Reconnaissance aircraft, such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint and E-8 Joint STARS, identify targets and datalink the information to the Combined Air Operations Centre, which forwards the details to strike aircraft via the AWACS. At Maple Flag 38, only the AWACS was available, so the procedure had to be scripted.

Maj Hartzell explained: «We simulate that somebody has just gone into a building and is going to come out in five minutes. We have a script that we hand to the AWACS controllers, pretending that it was received via datalink from the CAOC, which gives details of the target. This is passed on to the strikers, usually by radio, as no players at Maple Flag 38 are equipped with Link 16 datalink. Essentially, the strike aircraft crew receive unassigned airborne targeting. They do not know what the target is until they are airborne and they will either be tasked to identify the target, to stay above in orbit waiting for a confirmation, or tasked to destroy it.»

Both TST and Close Air Support (CAS) have been ‘tacked on’ to the missions. Pilots strike their assigned targets, and on their egress from the range complex, get re-rolled into a TST or CAS mission. If a pilot has already dropped all weapons, he or she simulates TST or CAS weapon releases, thereby gaining two types of training (Strike and CAS or TST) from the one mission. AFTTC uses Forward Air Controllers to call CAS aircraft onto targets in kill boxes on the range to provide a very realistic type of CAS training.

Force Packages

All Maple Flag missions have two opposing air forces, Red and Blue Air. Each day the Blue Air force package has a different commander assigned, usually from a strike unit. The various participating air forces rotate different commanders to the role, so all the units get experience of being King of Blue Air.

Each year, Maple Flag is supported by the US Air Force 64th Aggressor Squadron (AGRS) based at Nellis AFB, Nevada, which deploys between six and ten F-16s to Cold Lake. Six aircraft were present during period two of Maple Flag 38, not enough for Red Air operations. As a result, ten F-16Cs from the 113th Wing, District of Columbia ANG, based at Andrews AFB, Maryland, deployed to Cold Lake to complete the Red Air force package. Red Air is always led by one of the qualified 64th AGRS pilots who will assume the title of MiG 1 — this is because fit is a full-time adversary squadron and, as such, kan provide the latest adversary tactics available. MiG 1 will also undertake all Red Air briefings and debriefings.

Exercise directors aim to strike a balance between the number of Blue Air OCA (Offensive Counter Air) fighters and the Red Air DCA (Defensive Counter Air) ‘MiGs», so that Red Air does not out-number Blue Air. In the first period, Red Air flew six jets per mission; in period two, eight; and in period three, six. Generally, the exercise directors like to see 75% of the Blue Air OCA force matched by Red Air; 12 OCA v 8 DCA.

In period two, a standard mission comprised 12 OCA fighters sweeping the range ahead of the strike package consisting of 40 or more aircraft. In support of the fast jets was a tanker (for the IDF/AF only, reportedly because of system limitations), an E-3 AWACS, SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defences) aircraft and five transports. The transport aircraft have two main tasks — both are for re-supply to troops either air-landing at Kirby Lake airfield to simulate dropping off or picking up Special Forces troops; or the airdrop of a cargo bundle to Special Forces within a specific drop zone. Kirby Lake is a large strip on the northwest area of the range, which is used by the oil companies.

The OCA package has to protect the transport aircraft on ingress to the drop zones with a roving CAP (Combat Air Patrol). These aircraft fly into the SAM belts, which should have been suppressed by the SEAD aircraft. In period two, RAF Tornado GR.4s flown by 14 Squadron used the ALARM 2 missile to provide SEAD capability. In a training environment like Maple Flag, the transport aircrew actually want to be illuminated or ‘lit up’ by the SAM belts, in order to practise their reaction and see how the chaff and flares work.

Mission Duration

Each Maple Flag mission has a standard vulnerability (or VUL) time over the range of 90 minutes; the package has to be in and out of the airspace in that time, whatever the mission. Within the VUL time, all strike aircrew have a ‘time on target’ window. At the start of the exercise, the window is big, but is progressively narrowed down, requiring more aircraft to get across the targets in less time. In general, all aircraft will be airborne for 75 minutes.

The Israel Defence Force/Air Force (IDF/AF) Boeing 707 tanker departed Cold Lake each day well in advance of the VUL time start. Because of the close proximity of the CLAWR to Cold Lake, no aircraft involved in the exercise needed to undertake air refuelling. The IDF/AF opted to do so to provide training and have more fuel at the VUL time start. After completing the strike, the IDF/AF F-16s re-rolled to either CAS or TST, using the additional fuel to undertake a second task. During period two, the IDF/AF flew four F-16Cs in the OCA sweep role and a second four-ship in the strike role.

Future Evolution and Participants

In the future, a full CAOC is scheduled to be set up at Cold Lake. This will mean further evolution for Maple Flag, including new systems a CAOC requires in order to run, such as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and intelligence aircraft to feed back information in real-time. Canadian Forces’ UAVs are due to be based at Cold Lake and will be involved in future exercises. Additionally, ‘real’ Special Forces troops will be flown into the range, as opposed to the current simulation.

Major Hartzell said: «That is where we are likely to take Maple Flag,» adding: «We are trying to build a runway out on the range owned solely by the military (the current strips are shared with oil companies) to launch UAVs from and to land transport aircraft. We want to incorporate more jamming of communications and radar and introduce more sophisticated threats».

Maple Flag is unclassified, which allows non-NATO nations such as Sweden and Israel to participate. The exercise is billed as ‘a coalition of the willing’ rather than one formed by NATO or the UN. As it is a tactical level exercise rather than a political exercise, the Canadian Forces are likely to maintain it in this form as far as is possible and to limit the involvement of classified systems in the future.

The unclassified status of Maple Flag means that nations which have not previously taken part will do so in the future. Sweden has participated for a number of years with a single Tp84 Hercules, and in 2006, its Air Force is expected to deploy the JAS 39 Gripen for the first time. Observers from Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Greece, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates were present at Maple Flag 38 to gain a clear overview of the exercise, as part of the International Observer Program. Officers of the Hellenic Air Force told us that they were keen to participate with the Block 52 F-16.

All the pilots and aircrew to whom we spoke at Maple Flag 38 said that the facilities, training opportunities and flying were of the highest standard. Their praise is testament to Canadian Forces’ capability, management, diplomacy and leadership in bringing non-NATO nations together at Maple Flag, which remains without question one of the world’s best air combat exercises.

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