MS&T’s Dim Jones participates in a Red Force sortie in one of the series Exercise Carbon Copy, in which a force of friendly Typhoons takes on a composite enemy force.
On a ramp a few hundred yards from the passenger terminal at Durham Tees Valley International Airport (DTVA), near Middlesbrough on England’s north-east coast, sit 6 aircraft which, to the casual observer, appear to be bizjets. They are, indeed, Dassault Falcon 20s, but closer inspection reveals a variety of underwing pods and fairings which mark them out as something very different.
Operated by Cobham Aviation Services, these aircraft play a vital support role for the front line of both the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. They are part of a fleet of 14 aircraft, 6 more of which are based at Cobham’s headquarters at Bournemouth, on England’s south coast, with the remaining 2 in reserve. The primary role of the Teesside flight is support of the RAF’s fast-jet squadrons, which are based along the east coast of England and Scotland, and the airfield is ideally placed for this purpose at roughly the mid-point. Similarly, the Bournemouth flight’s primary role is support of the fleet, although, as I saw when I had the opportunity to fly with them, the 2 flights support each other with both crews and aircraft when the task demands it.
Cobham is under contract to the MoD to provide 6500 hours flying per year, of which 3500 is earmarked for the RN and 2500 for the RAF, leaving 500 for contingencies. There is also a separate small contract with NATO. The Joint Services Air Tasking Organisation (JSATO), based at RNAS Yeovilton, tasks the aircraft. The DA-20s have been based at DTVA since 1994, originally as Flight Refuelling Ltd and subsequently as FR Aviation. Their original role was Electronic Warfare training, and this task they assumed on the disbandment of No 360 Squadron, a joint RAF/RN unit which had operated the Canberra for many years. However, since that time, some creative thinking on the part of the operators has broadened the spectrum of roles that the DA-20 can accomplish, such that it has remained a key part of the training system. On the demise of the Tornado F3, to be replaced by Typhoon with its sophisticated radar and Defensive Aids Sub-System (DASS), it was thought in some quarters that the role of the DA-20 would become irrelevant. However, properly employed EW can affect any radar, no matter how sophisticated, and degrade the situational awareness of any aviator, no matter how competent.
The old techniques of range gate and velocity gate stealing against Doppler and pulse radars respectively can still cause trouble, as can repeater and false target generators. The jammer’s aim is to compress the timeline in which an opposing aircraft has to formulate and execute his tactics and, if possible, confuse his radar at the ‘moment critique’, when it is sending information to an air-to-air missile just prior to launch. Furthermore, by use of appropriate coding in the Pre-Flight Messages (PFM) sent to the DASS, the DA-20 can simulate to its opponents just about any threat aircraft, and its representative armament. True, its performance means that it cannot emulate the high speed and high rates of climb and descent of the true adversary, but it has a good turning performance and, in conjunction with other aircraft which are better suited to close combat, it can play an important role as a part of a coherent threat package; when closely co-ordinated, the DA-20 and the Hawk make a particularly effective combination. At a fraction of the operating cost of a Typhoon, the DA-20 is also a very cost-effective solution.
Although Cobham’s main customers are fast-jet aircraft and ships, training support is also provided for helicopters and tactical transport aircraft. For the Tornado GR4 in the ground-attack role, the DA-20s can provide comms jamming and threat simulation (from both air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles), and ‘picture-building’ comm, simulating an AWACS commentary. They can also jam the E-3 and GCI radars, and act as threats to high-value targets. Lastly, they play a major role in major periodic national and international exercises, such as the Combined Qualified Weapons Instructor (CQWI) courses, and Exercise Joint Warrior.
The DA-20 can carry up to 4 pods: an Air Threat Radar Simulator (ATRS) pod, which does what it says on the tin; a I/J Band jamming pod which operates across the frequency spectrum used by modern air intercept radars; an E-Band pod, which targets the AWACS radar; and a RAIDS (Rangeless Airborne Instrumented Debriefing System) pod, which transmits combat data from individual aircraft for accurate mission debrief. A fairing underneath the fuselage houses an ESM aerial which, when linked to the onboard spectrum analyser, acts as a sophisticated radar warning receiver. Also under the fuselage are ALE-40 chaff dispensers. Lastly, some aircraft are equipped with a Real Time Monitoring System (RTMS), which takes real-time RAIDS information from all equipped players and displays it on a screen in the rear cabin; this, in conjunction with monitoring of the appropriate radio frequencies, allows the DA-20 crew to act as Range Training Officer (RTO) – of which more later. The normal crew is 3 – Captain, First Officer and Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO). The Captains and EWOs are predominantly (although not exclusively) ex-military, most with EW and Weapons Instructor qualifications; the First Officers have predominantly civil aviation backgrounds, and many are ‘self-improvers’. All are kept busy, and can expect to log around 500 flying hours per year – not as many as some airline crews but, given the extra time spent in mission planning, briefing and debriefing, impressive enough.
The sortie in which I was privileged to participate was one of a series of Exercise Carbon Copy, in which a force of friendly Typhoons took on a composite enemy force, comprising Typhoon, Hawk and DA-20. The Blue Force comprised 10 Typhoons from RAF Coningsby, who were required to man a Combat Air Patrol (CAP) for a specified period, against a Red Force, which comprised a Typhoon (Callsign Razor 51) as Red Air Lead, 3 DA-20s and 4 Hawks. My Captain, Fred Grundy, I had last seen when we served together on an F-4 squadron in the late 70s, and the EWO, Ted Threapleton – also Cobham’s Teesside Head of Operations - much more recently when we were both reservists at RAF Leeming. Ted was a Weapons Instructor on No XI(F) Squadron, equipped with Tornado F3, and I was flying on No 100 Squadron, which was contributing the Hawks to today’s Red Force.
Our aircraft was to be the tactical lead of the DA-20s, Callsigns Vader and Zodiac, 2 of which were simulating Su-27 Flanker, armed with AA-10 Alamo, and the third Su-30MKI (Flanker-H) with the new PL-12; we were also equipped with RTMS and were to act as RTO. The sequence started with a telephone conference call, involving the Blue Air Mission Commander, Cobham and the Red Air GCI (Callsign Hotspur). Having established clearances appropriate to a non-secure telephone line, the brief covered such items as NOTAMs, Training Rules and Special Instructions (SpIns), Rules of Combat (above 5000ft) and Evasion Grades below. Safe separation would be maintained throughout by geography and the use of height blocks, which were carefully briefed. The exercise was to take place in Training Area 323, which essentially covers the North Sea inside the London FIR between The Wash in the south, and abeam Newcastle in the north.
Red Air Lead had faxed down some information on the target profiles to be used by the Red Air package, from which Fred extracted navigational and other data to be used in the DA-20 internal brief. I should emphasise at this point that, no matter how orderly and relaxed the intended timeline for briefing and getting airborne might have been, no plan survives first contact with the enemy, in this case in the form of late information and changes from Coningsby. Our brief was short and sharp, but thoroughly covering pertinent points for the benefit of one of the Bournemouth crews who were supporting us, and were more used to Type 45s than Typhoons. The normal procedure would have been to mix Teesside and Bournemouth personnel within the crews; however, in this case, the Bournemouth aircraft had to recover there direct from the training area. Following a last-minute visit to the essential facilities – the Cobham DA-20 is not equipped with a ‘comfort station’ - start-up and taxi were accomplished in quick time. Although DTVA is a civilian airport, there is a good understanding between ATC and Cobham, assisted by maximum use of VFR departures and recoveries. For this exercise, the airfield’s convenient situation, near the Red Force start and finish point, meant that the absolute maximum of airborne time could be spent on task.
The sortie was planned for 3 runs; in the event, we had the fuel, time and opposition for a fourth. Information on the position and threat of Blue aircraft was passed, with reference to a Bullseye, to Red by Hotspur (GCI) and the reverse by Magic (AWACS). In our aircraft, operation of the RMTS was a full-time job for Ted and, therefore, we were not doing any active jamming. Although Ted could see in his display the position, height speed and heading of any RAIDS-equipped aircraft, it did not tell him when, and against whom, shots were being taken. For that, monitoring of both Blue and Red frequencies was necessary, and constant passage of information between the back of the aircraft and the front, where Fred and his First Officer, John Oratis (JonO), were using the TCAS display in their glass cockpit to generate their situational awareness, to monitor the positions of Blue threat aircraft such that we could react appropriately, and also to take shots of our own if the opportunity presented itself. Additionally, as the DA-20 tactical lead, Fred had to keep tabs on the position of the other 2 aircraft, and direct them as required. Meanwhile all shots were logged and evaluated, Kill Probability (PK) applied, and successful shots reported to the hapless victim on the relevant frequency to effect kill removal. My own contribution to this effort, apart from monitoring events and witnessing three one-armed paper-hangers working together as a crew, was to dispense chaff when called, and ‘spike’ to activate the ATRS pod and simulate a shot on another aircraft. By the time we recovered for an uneventful landing, we had been airborne nearly 2 hours and it seemed like about 20 minutes.
The debrief took place once we had all caught our breath, and centred around how the DA-20s had done their job, and how they could do it better. Fred’s view was that combining the role of RTO with being an active member of the Red formation – especially as tactical lead – was extremely demanding, and the RTO could do a better job remaining behind the start line; on the other hand, there was no doubt that we had contributed to the threat by being in the engagement area and, therefore, to the overall value of the sortie from Blue’s perspective. Ted emphasised that the Cobham crews exist only to serve the customer, have no training aims or requirements of their own, and nothing to prove. Cobham may be a civilian operator, but unsurprisingly it works with very much a military ethos, and a can-do attitude, which, while immensely helpful to the customer, can bring its own pitfalls. In attempting to react to customer requests, sometimes made with an imperfect knowledge of the capabilities of the DA-20 and its crew, there can be a danger of overstretching oneself, albeit in a good cause, for which the sovereign remedy must be a mixture of education of the customer, and a large helping of common sense. On the evidence of my very limited exposure to their work, there is certainly no lack of professionalism; indeed, I have seen front-line organisations with far less operational focus.
So what of the future? Cobham Aviation Services operates in the UK and Australia, and is a small part of a global and diverse organisation. Like other elements of the company it remains a commercial operation, committed to making a profit for its shareholders. The EW training organisation, in turn, needs to cut operating costs to the minimum commensurate with safety, in order to demonstrate value for money. In truth, in this specialist role, there is probably no credible competition to Cobham from other companies; the challenge, in an environment of severe budgetary constraint, is to establish that their role is needed at all. From my perspective and limited knowledge, that it is needed seems self-evident; moreover, every effort should be made to ensure that the maximum benefit is derived from the resources available. But what do I know?