Mid-May marked the beginning of some very busy weeks for most Air Forces in Europe. A series of overlapping exercises were conducted in this time frame. One of these exercises was Adriatic Strike 2019. It was held between the 2nd and 8th of June all over the territory of the Republic of Slovenia, in the beautiful surroundings of the North-eastern Alps. It was the eight-consecutive exercise of this type, planned and performed by and under the supervision of the small, but highly professional working, Slovenian Armed Forces.
Adriatic Strike is one of only a handful dedicated CAS (= Close Air Support), JTAC (= Joint Terminal Attack Controller) and FAC (= Forward Air Controller) training exercises being performed on an annual basis in Europe. For better understanding, the mission of a JTAC-team is to give advice before the execution of a combat mission about the right use of air-based and other types of fire support such as sea-based systems, mortars and/or artillery. JTAC-teams control these support operations and coordinate the continuous fire support in form of reconnaissance, convoy escorting and control of the surroundings, in order to provide a comprehensive protection of the friendly forces.
Despite the fact that in the last decades CAS-missions are the majority of missions being flown at the various armed conflicts and wars around the globe with a simultaneous sharp rising of the JTAC-importance, most Air Forces tend to not give enough importance and seriousness to this kind of missions, with the result that they neglect the corresponding training. The possibility to offer a different kind of exercise, beside the “mainstream”, and the opportunities arising from this, were seen by the Slovenian Armed Forces and in 2012 the first “Adriatic Strike” exercise was held. Since then, with every year passing by, the exercise details are being fine-tuned and more and more participants wishes to participate with beneficial results for all sides.
The main goal of Adriatic Strike 2019 was JTAC- and FAC-training in the broader frame of dedicated CAS-missions. To achieve this goal, the exercise was supported by rotary and fixed wing assets of 11 countries and by the Deployable Air Command and Control Centre from Poggio Renatico in Italy. The task of the DAC&CC was to provide mentors for the corresponding Slovenian Control and Reporting Centre and air liaison officers for the different units on the ground.
The missions were strictly following a pre-scripted scenario. The geographical relief of Slovenia was helpful, providing plenty of opportunities for a realistic training. Of course, likewise of high value, was the chance to increase the collaboration, to maintain the interoperability, to share common values and the opportunity to lift the spirit of cooperation among the participating Air Forces, to support the productive exchange of ideas among them and to produce synergy effects.
The JTAC-training was conducted on the new JTAC-simulator at the Cerklje ob Krki Air Base, as well as at five other field locations around Slovenia. At the main Slovenian Armed Forces training range in Postojna, aircrafts, tanks, and artillery provided live fire support for realistic training scenarios, while in the municipalities of Radeče, Novo Mesto, Vipava and in the wider surroundings of the Kamniško Savinjske Alps, the aviation assets performed simulated air support missions, without the use of live fire.
In total around 700 soldiers from 26 countries participated in the exercise, with half of them coming from the host country, Slovenia. The other countries participating were: NATO members Belgium, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States of America and NATO partner members Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Ireland. Some of them participated with aviation assets, some with ground teams and others send only observers.
Regarding the aviation assets, the Slovenian Armed Forces participated with almost all of their inventory. Aérospatiale AS.532, Bell 206, Bell 412 and Pilatus PC-9M. The AS.532 and B412 were used mainly for the insertion and extraction of the JTAC-teams from “hostile” areas and for general transport duties. The SAF has gained valued experience in such tasks in the last two decades, due to their participation in the KFOR-mission in Kosovo. The Slovenian PC-9M “Hudournik” are, after their upgrade in Israel, among the most heavily armed versions of this type. They were used during the exercise for close air support missions, armed with canon- and rocket-pods. The B206 were used for reconnaissance and general duty missions.
Foreign rotary wing assets came from Austria, Hungary and Montenegro. The Austrian Air Force send to Cerklje ob Krki 3x Bell OH-58B Kiowas (3C-OC, 3C-OH and 3H-OK). The Kiowas were used in combined teams together with the Slovenian Bells and Cougars for reconnaissance and transport missions. The “stars“ of the exercise were, without any doubt, the Hungarian Air Force Mil Mi-24 Hinds and the Montenegrin Air Force Aérospatiale Gazelles. The HunAF did literally build up from scratch during last year their combat helicopter fleet, by reactivating eight of their stored Mi-24P/V. Since then, they are using every opportunity to take part in exercises, for example Dark Blade 2019, in order to build up their combat capabilities and gain valued experience in combined air operations and close air support missions. Participating in Adriatic Strike 2019 were 2x Mi-24P (335 and 338). They were used for armed reconnaissance and escort missions of the transport helicopters, during the “hot“ phases of the missions (insertion-extraction).
The Montenegrin Air Force send 2x Gazelle helicopters to Slovenia. One belonged to the reconnaissance subtype HO-42 (SA.341H build by SOKO under licence), serial number 12671 and one to the attack subtype HN-45M (SA.342L build also by SOKO under licence), serial number 12943. Montenegrin Air Force personnel told Aviation Report that the Montenegrin Air Force is currently in a major restructuring phase. Last year, three Bell 412 were added to the inventory. Two Bell 412EPi (new build) and one Bell 412EP (previously operating with the New York Police Department). These helicopters enhanced the overall transport and multi-mission capabilities of the Montenegrin Armed Forces. In addition to transport duties, they are being used very successfully for various types of medical evacuation, search and rescue and firefighting missions.
After the smooth negotiations with Bell, the achieved low price and the quick delivery (only 8 months from signing the contract until delivery!), one of the most promising candidates for the future Gazelle replacement program is the Bell 505. During April of this year, Bell presented the helicopter to the Montenegrin Air Force at Golubovci Air Base. The comments from the Montenegrin side were very favourable. Especially praised were the agility and flexibility of the Jet Ranger X and it looks like Bell will make the race for the Gazelle replacement in due course.
The foreign fixed wing assets consisted mainly of Pilatus PC-7 and PC-9 together with various jet fighters. The Austrian Air Force send 3x PC-7 (3H-FA, 3H-FB and 3H-FO) to Cerklje ob Krki which were used together with Slovenian and Croatian Air Force PC-9M for air-to-ground support and armed reconnaissance missions. The Croatian PC-9M flew from their home base in Zagreb. All jet fighters flow from their respective home bases, with exception of the 3x Czech Air Forces ALCAS (6057 (L-159A), 6065 (L-159A) and 6077 (L-159T1+)). The other participating jet fighters included Italian Air Force AMX and Tornados flew from Istrana AB and Ghedi AB respectively, as well as Hungarian Air Force JAS 39 Gripen flew from Kecskemet AB. They were used for precision strike missions with the support of JTAC-teams, as well as for CAS-missions regarding the Czech ALCAS.
The “Adriatic Strike” series of exercises is somewhat overshadowed by other, larger exercises such as Iniochos or Frisian Flag, but for most of the participating countries it is by far the most important exercise in their annual schedule. Many smaller countries, especially in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, lack the financial skills and technical experience to send planes and helicopters to exercises, far away from their home bases. So, being able to participate in an international exercise near at home, is a great opportunity for them, in order to maintain close ties with their allied Air Forces and to learn about new techniques and capabilities in modern air warfare.
Also, the fact that many of these countries don’t face the same need for training certain military aviation aspects, should not be underestimated, something that is often neglected at larger exercises where emphasis is being given to the needs of the “big” actors! For smaller Air Forces it is a great advantage to come together and exchange ideas about similar aviation tactics and missions. Beside the value of the military training, Adriatic Strike includes also a strong political message. It is the only exercise in which almost all of the former socialist republics of Yugoslavia (except Serbia which is not a NATO or NATO partner member) come together regularly to cooperate towards a common target. In this region of Europe, which has had such an instable history in recent decades, this is a very important step towards a new era of mutual understanding and trust!
Aviation Report and the authors would like to thank the Spokespersons of the Slovenian Armed Forces, Jani Krošl and Simon Korez as well as the Montenegrin Air Force personnel, for their invaluable help in preparing this article.
Article and images: Marcus & Philipp Vallianos