L-r: A French Rafale, a British Typhoon, and a US F-35, F-15, and F-22 participate in the training exercise Atlantic Trident 2017. Photos: SSgt. Natasha Stannard
The best fighter aircraft in the world—US Air Force F-22s and F-35s, British Typhoons, and French Rafales—gathered at JB Langley-Eustis, Va., in April to drill on air combat, hone alliance skills, and practice collaborative air supremacy.
Atlantic Trident 2017 was the second trilateral exercise among the countries, focused on preparing for high-end air combat. They flew together against US-supplied “Red Air” to test both the aircraft and their pilots.
“You can have the most capable aircraft in the world,” said Col. Peter M. Fesler, the commander of Langley’s 1st Fighter Wing, but if a pilot can’t perform, “he will be beat.” Speaking with Air Force Magazine as the exercise wound down, Fesler explained, “That’s why training matters; it’s why we have to do things like [this exercise]. You can’t just buy airpower. … Warfare is still a human endeavor.”
Midexercise, on April 21, the F-22 and Typhoon performed aerial demonstrations before assembled VIPs. The French demonstration team, the Patrouille de France, then painted the skies with red, white, and blue smoke. The daylong celebration marked the 100th anniversary of the US entering World War I—on April 6, 1917—a year after US pilots first volunteered for the Franco-American Lafayette Escadrille.
The first Atlantic Trident took place in December 2015, with the same cast of characters, minus the F-35. As the inaugural event, it centered on the logistics of the allied partners getting to Langley and operating at a high tempo. That first exercise was a public event, with air chiefs from all three countries appearing at a press conference in front of their respective jets. Though the three air forces have flown together extensively in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Atlantic Trident provided an opportunity to address the high-end threat.
This second iteration stressed “?‘Night One’ interoperability,” Fesler said.
Langley’s 1st Fighter Wing supplied the F-22s, while the 58th Fighter Squadron at Eglin AFB, Fla., sent F-35s. The UK’s Royal Air Force sent Typhoons from the 1 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth, while France’s Armée de l’Air sent Rafales from its 30th and 4th Wings. The fleet of fourth and fifth generation fighters aimed to refine allied interoperability and develop tactics, techniques, and procedures for how they might fight together in wars of the future.
Tanker support came from the 2nd and 32nd Air Refueling Squadrons from JB McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., while E-3 AWACS from the 552nd Air Control Wing at Tinker AFB, Okla., participated as the airborne command and control element.
Over the course of nearly three weeks, aircraft in the exercise flew about 510 sorties. The jets immediately took to the skies and flew together, executing two training scenarios per day.
Against the most advanced aircraft from three major allied powers, putting up a challenge was tough. For 16 days, the aircraft flew together in offensive operations in the suppression of enemy air defenses role. They also practiced offensive counterair and defensive counterair. Adversaries included F-15Es of the 391st Fighter Squadron visiting from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, and T-38s from the 71st Fighter Squadron at Langley. The adversaries had a single, simple advantage: numbers.
“A big way to challenge fifth generation aircraft is to … put a lot of aircraft in the air,” Fesler said. “You can run Raptors out of munitions and make pilots have to work.”
The F-22s and F-35s used stealth and advanced sensors to coordinate the speed and firepower of the Eurofighters and Rafales in combat against F-15Es and T-38s, which in turn had to develop new tactics to take on the advanced aircraft, said Lt. Col. Brad Bashore, commander of the 58th FS.
While the 50-year-old T-38s can’t offer much of a firepower threat, the small and nimble jets can “sneak up” and fly close to the intruding aircraft and surprise them. The more modern and powerful F-15Es have advanced sensors that can pose a greater threat from a distance, Bashore said.
“Sometimes sheer numbers are more important than the actual technological capabilities of that airframe,” he said.
F-22 Community is Flexed Up
The exercise comes as senior Air Force and Pentagon officials and members of Congress have sounded the alarm on readiness. USAF Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, during a March appearance at a conference in Washington, D.C., said the service can sustain the tempo of today’s fights, but probably wouldn’t be able to fight simultaneous, large-scale wars. This is especially true if the opponent is a near-peer adversary with anti-access, aerial-denial capabilities.
For 1st FW, however, such training has been constant, and “the F-22 community is ready” for what comes next, Fesler said. Despite budget restrictions, funding to keep F-22 pilots trained for the high-end threat—with exercises such as Atlantic Trident—has been steady.
“Some other platforms have been so focused on lower intensity conflict, [that] their skill set in the high end has atrophied,” Fesler said. “They didn’t have the excess capacity to focus on the next war. We’re ready to go. We’re ready for what might come.”
The 1st FW in April split its attention between current operations and high-end training. Even while Atlantic Trident was in full swing, F-22s from Langley’s 27th FS were deployed to the Middle East flying daily missions targeting ISIS for Operation Inherent Resolve.
For the second edition of the exercise, F-22s weren’t enough. The Air Force needed more fifth generation capability and called on Air Education and Training Command’s main F-35 wing to participate. USAF’s only operational F-35s, assigned to Hill AFB, Utah, were in Europe at the time of the exercise. Making the F-35A’s first overseas deployment, jets from Hill flew to RAF Lakenheath, UK, for training with RAF units and with USAF F-15s stationed there. The F-35s made brief visits to Estonia and Bulgaria, to demonstrate their rapid deployability even from an already-deployed location.
Therefore, the “Gorillas” of Eglin’s 58th FS flew up to Langley, but only for part of the exercise. “We couldn’t afford to be away for three weeks,” Bashore said.
The F-35s flew in packages with the F-22 doing both offensive and defensive dogfight missions. The Raptors performed the air superiority mission, while the F-35s took on air-to-ground. The two USAF fifth generation fighters called on the Typhoons and Rafales for additional firepower in these missions, Bashore said.
“When you have these assets all together, it makes us all the more lethal,” he observed.
The F-35 squadron sent instructor pilots to fly in the exercise, to capture lessons about the strengths and limitations of the aircraft, and so they could in turn pass this information on to students. Eglin’s F-35s are flying with the Block 2B software suite. It is more limited than the Block 3I suite on Hill’s operational F-35s.
The Man in the Machine
For the exercise, the jets were held to a top speed of Mach 1.6, a maximum 50 degree angle of attack, and seven G turns. Despite these limits, the F-35s were still able to use stealth and sensors to make a difference, Bashore said. The strike fighters brought an advantage in situations where they could stay on station longer and use sensors to pass along a “common picture” of the battlespace to the other fighter aircraft.
Much of the public attention on Atlantic Trident was on the jets themselves. It marked the first time USAF F-35As have flown in a large exercise with Eurofighter Typhoons and Dassault Rafales and was one of the earliest large-scale integration exercises combining all three with the F-22. It was about more than the exotic iron on the ramp, though.
“There’s been a lot of interest in the machines. ‘Which airplane is better? What are their capabilities? How are you using them?’?” Fesler said. “The thing I think is particularly interesting: The man in the machine matters tremendously.”
For the F-35s from Eglin, Atlantic Trident was a rare opportunity to fly with allied aircraft instead of single-type training sorties on Florida’s Emerald Coast. The human element needs to evolve alongside the aircraft so pilots from individual countries can operate in an alliance and know how to work together.
“All these aircraft have tremendous capabilities, but if we don’t plan them and integrate them and understand each other’s capabilities and limitations, and use them to their full potential, then we could lose in any combat scenario,” Bashore said. “It’s more about the human element.”