Between 18th and 29th of June, the clear blue skies over the Czech Republic made acquaintance with some lethal birds, that are rarely seen in Europe. The F-16 Fighting Falcons of the 182nd FS (149th FW) of the Texas Air National Guard, the famous “Lone Star Gunfighters”, based at JB San Antonio, visited Czechia for the exercise SKY AVENGER 2018. The second US participant of this exercise was the Nebraska Air National Guard with KC-135 Stratotankers from the 173rd ARS (155th ARW), based at Lincoln ANGB.
The Texan and Nebraskan Air National Guards have a long standing relationship with the Czech Air Force since 1993 in the context of the “State Partnership Programm” with the Czech Republik, therefore SKY AVENGER 2018 was held on the basis of years of cooperation between the Czech Air Force and the Nebraska and Texas Air National Guards. After the fall of the Warsaw Pact, this two ANGs helped the Czech Air Force in multiple ways on her way to becoming a modern “western style” Air Force, with the primary objective to help the Czech Air Force and therefore the Czech Army in preparation for her entry in the NATO. The last time the Texas ANG visited the Czech Republik was in 2009.
This year saw the 25th Anniversary of the first contact between this three Air Arms and the exercise SKY AVENGER 2018 was the culmination of this anniversary. Of course, SKY AVENGER 2018 was not only about remembering old times and celebrating the long-term cooperation but was also the opportunity for a modern Air-exercise inside the broader frame of NATO with a high grade of difficulty.
The US participants arrived in the evening of the 15th of June in Caslav, 21st Tactical Air Base, respective Pardubice Airport (the Stratotankers). The Atlantic crossing took about 9 hours with an previous intermediate night stop at JB Andrews. Participating in total were 5x F-16C Block 30, 1x (later increased to 2x) F-16D Block 30 and 2x KC-135R. During the deployment phase, they were supported by 3x C-130 Hercules and 1x C-17 Globemaster III transport aircrafts. One each of the F-16Cs were wearing the markings of the 187th FW of the Alabama Air National Guard respective of the 158th FW of the Vermont Air National Guard.
This two planes also belonged to the 149th FW. They were given to the Texas Air National Guard by the ANGs of Alabama and Vermont because of the future introduction of the F-35 Lighting II into their units and the growing importance of the 149th FW regarding F-16 training, which led to an increase in the number of their Fighting Falcons from 18 to 24.
From the Czech Armed Forces main participants were the air assets of the three Caslav based squadrons (211, 212 and 213. Sqn). In total, participating in the exercise were 4x JAS39C/D Gripen, 4x L-159A ALCA and 1x L-39ZA Albatros. The exercise saw also participation of other units of the Czech Air Force and Czech Army: JTAC teams (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers), Mi-24/35 combat helicopters and Mi-171 transport helicopters from the 22nd Helicopter Air Base at Náměšť nad Oslavou, air command controll surveillance units and special forces.
External assets were NATO and RAF E-3 AWACS early warning aircrafts.
For the purposes of the exercise, about ¼ of the airspace of the Czech Republik was reserved every day. Because of limitations due to the heavy civil air traffic above central Europe, this reservations were each day valid only for the duration of the respective missions (approx. 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon).
The exercise program was planned in two blocks, different for each week. During the first week of the exercise, so called “shadow” missions were flown between 10:00-15:30 LT. They included mainly CAS missions (Close Air Support) from all Czech participants, but also from the 149th FW F-16s. In the second week, COMAO missions (COMbined Air Operations) and DACT missions (Dissimilar Air Combat Training) missions were flown in the mornings (10:30-12:30 LT) and “shadow” missions in the afternoons (14:30-16:30 LT).
Due to the configuration of the participating KC-135R (not equiped with MPRS (Multi-Point Refueling System), the Stratotankers were not able to refuel the Czech Air Force JAS39 Gripen fighters and were limited only to the Texas ANG Fighting Falcons.
For more realism, a complete deployable forward operations center (DFOC) was established for the control of the exercise. It drew on the gained experience from the Czech Afghanistan-mission. The DFOC come together with his own internal internet network, called “SkyNet”. This had no connection to the outside internet, in order to minimise the potential risk of “contamination” from the outside.
The main targets of the exercise for the Nebraska and the Texas Air National Guard was deployment training, therefore improving their readiness and functionality regarding oversea deployments, operating with foreign Air Forces inside NATO frame and to learn about the capabilities of previously unknown air assets for better interoperability during possible common air operations in the future. Also, the chance for Air-to-Ground training over unknown territory was not waste.
According to the Texas Air National Guard detachment leader, Col. Timothy Madden, commander 149th FW, “it was a real pleasure to be in the Czech Republic and to work together with our friends and partners of the Czech Air Force. The huge benefit of SKY AVENGER 2018 for the 149th FW was the immense gaining of experience for our pilots, the opportunity to fly with different airplanes like the Gripen and the ALCA and generally the opportunity to work together with the Czech Air Force, so, that next time, will not be the first time. All the huge experience gained, will be brought back to San Antonio and given to our new student pilots, so they can also benefit from it. The role of the 149th FW inside the Air National Guard is to train new pilots, regardless if they are active duty, Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve. San Antonio is one of only three F-16 Fighting Falcon training centers and it is the most experienced training wing because of the high number of ex-active duty pilots/instructors. This is a big benefit for the new student pilots”.
For the Czech Air Force, the overall purpose of the exercise was to offer a realistic training for different NATO Air Forces. The main targets were respectively to improve her ability to host large scale training exercises with participation of foreign Air Arms, to plan and execute complex COMAO missions inspired by real situations and to train dissimilar Air-to-Air combat and CAS missions. Another very welcomed aspect of the exercise, was the given opportunity to train new, fresh, pilots in combat scenarios with foreign participants.
Col. Peter Tomanek, Commander 21st Tactical Air Base, Caslav, said that “it was a privilege to host the Texas Air National Guard in Caslav AFB, to train with them, to learn from them and to teach them something from our experience and (different) style to do certain things”.
Something that was not to be expected in such a degree, was the remarkable good results of the L-159A ALCA in Air-to-Air missions against the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
Exercise SKY AVENGER 2018 was also the first “real” test for the JAS39 Gripen fighters of the Czech Air Force in the Air-to-Ground role, after receiving the MS20 software upgrade in March of this year. The main novelties this software standard brought are:
- Compatibility with Night Vision Goggles (NVGs)
- Improvement of the communication system
- Increase of the radar range
- Integration of new weapons, like GBU-12 Paveway II laser guided bombs
- Integration of the Northrop Grumman/Rafael LITENING 4i targeting pod
- Introduction of a Ground Collision Avoidance System (GCAS)
- Introduction of Link 16 capability
- Simplified maintenance requirements
The first results were very satisfied and the Czech Air Force is working now rapidly towards the achievement of full Air-to-Ground capabilities for the Gripen.
According to all participants, SKY AVENGER 2018 was a huge success in all aspects. The exercise was the opportunity to increase the collaboration between the participating units, to maintain interoperability, to share common values, to send a strong message of stability and protection of peace in Central and East Europe in this difficult times and to support the productive exchange of ideas. This was supported by crew exchanges during the missions, meaning that Czech pilots got the chance to fly in the backseat of Texan F-16D and ANG-pilots in the backseat of JAS39D two-seaters.
Col. Jaroslav Mika, chief of Combat Training, Czech Air Force, told that “the big advantage of SKY AVENGER was, that is was designed here, on base in Caslav. So, we were able to incorporate into the exercise our own training ideas, scenarios and syllabus. Also the very planing of the whole exercise had a very strong positive effect on many aspects of the Czech Air Force regarding future common missions. It was all about to know each other, to understand each other and to show the commitment of the Czech Air Force”.
The number of personal participating at SKY AVENGER 2018 was 500 from the Czech Air Force, 250 from other branches of the Czech Armed Forces and 107 from the Air National Guards. In total, 215 flight hours during 153 missions were flown by all participants.
Article and images: Marcus Vallianos & Philipp Vallianos
The authors would like to thank wholeheartedly kapitán Ing. Tomáš Maruščák, for his invaluable help by the preparation of this article.