Italian Air Force F-35A MM7337_03.04.19_LGAD
Copyright: Marcus & Philipp Vallianos

Hellenic Air Force: exercise Iniochos 2019

In April, the Hellenic skies welcomed for the fifth time in row, the multinational participants of exercise INIOCHOS 2019. Storming out of Andravida AFB, in NW-Peloponnese, fighters and personnel from 5 countries performed a multitude of different Air Warfare missions, all over Hellas, from the NE-island of Othonoi to the remote island of Kastellorizo in the SE.

The exercise INIOCHOS has made great steps forward since her establishment in the year 1988 as a Hellenic Air Force (= HAF) small scale Air Warfare exercise without participation of foreign Air Forces. This year saw a significant step forward being taken, with the first participation of 5th generation fighters, in the form of Italian Air Force (= ItAF) F-35A Lightning II.

Something unique to the exercises INIOCHOS is, that the Air Tactics Center (= KEAT) that is planning and controlling the exercises, is always trying to incorporate into the overall scenario the current geopolitical and geostrategic constellation, for an even more realistic exercise. The frame for the 2019 edition was especially interesting, because of the major geopolitical and geostrategic shifts in the Eastern Mediterranean over the last few months, like for example the ongoing and growing dispute between the USA and Turkey about the purchase of the Russian S-400 Surface-to-Air missile system and the pending delivery of the first F-35A to the Turkish Air Force (= TurAF).

Iniochos 2019Not changed over the years, has the ultimate goal of the exercise: To train personnel in the planning and execution of Combined Air Operations (= COMAO) in a realistic environment. During the exercise, a realistic battle environment is being created in order to provide a challenging and demanding high-threat environment for the participating Air Forces, together with the opportunity of using different kinds of target ranges (over land and sea) for absolutely realistic training conditions with the simultaneous inclusion of Hellenic and international Army and Navy exercises.

In her current form, the exercise is specially designed to simulate modern, complex and intensive air operations, day and night, in order to provide realistic training that resembles the early days of a conflict and to maximize the operational use of limited air assets. This gives to all participants an unique opportunity: To exercise inside a layer of multiple, unexpected threats as members of combined strike packages against RED Forces consisting of some of the best pilots in the world and a multitude of different short, medium and long range Surface-to-Air missile systems (Crotale SRAD, MIM-104 Patriot, SA-15 Gauntlet, SA-20 Gargoyle, etc.).

According to Colonel (P) Konstantinos Zolotas, CO of KEATThe participating personnel is exposed to an intensive battle rhythm with realistic attrition rates and challenging scenarios which include multiple modern threats and real time live injects, tailored to produce the fog of war and the friction effect (per Clausewitz), which is expected to dominate the modern battlefield and test both the physical and psychological endurance of the modern fighter.”

Participants this year were again old friends from previous editions of INIOCHOS exercises, in particular the Israeli Air Force (= IAF), the previous mentioned Italian Air Force, the United Arab Emirates Air Force (= UAEAF) and the US Air Forces in Europe (= USAFE). Observers from the following countries were present during the exercise: Canada, Croatia, Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan and Romania. In the 2019 edition of exercise INIOCHOS participated around 2.000 men and women and 77 aircrafts. The total number of sorties was 863. The deployment phase of the forces was between 26th – 28th March and the execution phase between 1st – 12th of April. The training area included the whole of Athens Flight Information Region (Athens FIR).

The participants

The Hellenic Air Force participated with all her fighter and support squadrons. Every fighter squadron brought a detachment of four planes to Andravida AFB. Exceptions were the two Tanagra-based Mirage squadrons (331 & 332 M) because of the increasing need for QRA-duties over the Aegean Sea, due to Turkish Air Force violations of the Hellenic FIR. They brought each two planes to Andravida AFB. The support assets, like AEW&C, transport aircrafts and helicopters flew from their respective home bases. Due to space restrictions in Andravida AFB, the two HAF-squadrons (335 & 336 M) from nearby Araxos AFB flew during the first week from their home base. They relocated to Andravida AFB for the second week of the exercise, after the departure of the Israeli Air Force contingent due to the Israeli elections.

The Israeli Air Force participated for the fifth time in row. After the somewhat subdue participation last year with only 4x F-16 Fighting Falcon for internal reasons, this year the IAF returned to Andravida AFB in great strength, with a total of 13x F-16C/D Block 30 Barak 2020 from the 109th (The Valley) and 117th (The first Jet) Squadron, based in Ramat David AFB. Among the IAF participants, was the F-16D with serial 074. This particular jet had suffered a serious accident on 2nd January 2013. Since then, the jet was being repaired and finally putted again in service.

The Italian Air Force participated for the third time in an INIOCHOS exercise. The Italian contingent was doubled in comparison to last year and consisted of 6x F-35A Lightning II from the XIII Gruppo Caccia, based in Amendola AFB and 3x Tornado IDS from the 154o Gruppo CB (Diavoli Rossi) and 3x Tornado ECR from the 155o Gruppo ETS (Pantere Nere), both based in Ghedi AFB. This was the first participation for Italian Air Force F-35A in an exercise, operating from a foreign airbase. The F-35A had achieved the IOC (= Initial Operational Capability) only on 30th November 2018 and are now working towards the FOC (= Full Operational Capability). Before participating at INIOCHOS 2019, they had taken part only in exercises on Italian soil or flying from Italian airbases. The honour to choose Andravida AFB, as the first foreign host for the new Italian fighter, shows the increasing level of mutual friendship, understanding and trust between the Hellenic and the Italian Air Force, a cooperation that is being put in practice every day in the international training centres of Kalamata and Lecce in Hellas and Italy respectively, with the training of new pilots!

The United Arab Emirates Air Force participated for the third time in row this year, and for the second time with Mirage 2000-9DAD/RAD. Five Mirage from the 71st Sq, based in Al Dhafra AFB participated, with the personnel coming from the 86th Sq, based in Al Safran AFB. The Mirage 2000-9 is the main Air-to-Ground platform of the UAEAF using precision guided munition like the MBDA Black Shaheen cruise missile and the Denel Dynamics Umbani/Tawazun Dynamics Al Tariq guided bomb kit. They were upgraded during the last years and brought all to the same DAD/RAD standard, resulting in an enormous increase of their multirole capabilities. A further upgrading has been decided, focusing this time especially on the Air-to-Air capabilities (introduction of the MBDA Meteor BVRAAM) and replacing the DAMOCLES targeting pod with the TALIOS reconnaissance & targeting pod.

The United States Air Forces in Europe participated this time with 6x F-16C Block 50 Fighting Falcons from the 480th FS, Spangdahlem AFB (Germany). It was the first participation of the famous “Warhawks” and the fourth in total for the USAF/USAFE.

The Exercise

The tactical command of the participating Air Forces is assumed by the Commander of the Hellenic Tactical Air Force and it is exercised through a cell established at the KEAT specifically for the exercise. The tactical control is being delegated to the KEAT Commander. In order to achieve the objectives of the exercise, the Fighter Weapons School (= SOT) oversees the missions from scenario planning to debriefing and makes certain that they cover the current full spectrum of modern Air Warfare missions.

This year there was no strict division into BLUE and RED Forces, but every participating squadron changed side, depending on the individual mission or also during a mission, as a further object of surprise for the other participants. Over the period of the two-week exercise, all sorties were executed in two or three (Tuesday, Wednesday) large waves every day (except Saturday). Flying times were from 08:30-13:00 and from 16:00-19:00 during day-time missions and from 22:00 ongoing for night-time missions. Not only the pilots were training together, also the ground crews of all participating nations were cooperating to learn from each other’s procedures. A grand total of almost 100 sorties were generated every day. The Hellenic Air Force supported the exercise with EMB-145H AEW&C of 380 MASEPE, Elefsina AFB equipped with the Erickson Microwave Systems Erieye AESA radar for Early Warning & Control duties, F-16C/D Block 52+ Advanced from 335 M, Araxos AFB with Goodrich DB-110 reconnaissance pods and Pegasus II UAV of MMEA/F, Larissa AFB for Battle Damage Assessment (BDA) missions.

Beside the changing airborne assets, as RED Forces were also acting ground-based air defence systems of the Hellenic Army and ships of the Hellenic Navy. The RED Forces were supported by ground based radar stations of the HAF, while the BLUE Forces were supported by HAF, IAF and NATO AWACS planes.

The main types of missions flown during the exercise were:

  • Airfield Attack
  • Anti-Surface Warfare
  • Battlefield Air Interdiction
  • Close Air Support
  • Combat Search & Rescue
  • Counter Surface Force Operations including Air Power Contribution to Land Operations & Maritime Operations
  • Escort-Sweep
  • High Value Airborne & Ground Asset Protect/Attack Operations and Defensive Counter-Air Operations
  • Non Traditional Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance
  • Offensive Counter-Air Operations against Integrated Air Defence Systems
  • Slow Mover Protection
  • Strike/Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance
  • Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defences
  • Time Sensitive/Dynamic Targeting

This year, special emphasis was given to Joint Terminal Attack Controller (= JTAC) missions and to low level, long-range Suppression of Enemy Air Defences/Destruction of Enemy Air Defences (= SEAD/DEAD) missions with the support of IAF KC-707 and USAFE KC-135 tankers. A special focus was also laid on night flying missions. During the first week of the exercise, the main goals of the missions were the neutralization of the enemy air defence, the degrade of the operational capabilities of enemy airfields and subsequently the destroying of important infrastructure objects, like for example bridges, electric power plants, etc. During the second week, the main goals of the missions were maritime operations. This proved to be a challenging task for many participants because of their lack of corresponding experience. In recent years, most Air Forces around the globe shifted their main focus of Air-to-Ground training to Close-Air-Support (= CAS) missions and combat training against maritime targets was neglected.

F-35A at INIOCHOS 2019

During INIOCHOS 2019, the ItAF F-35A was the indisputable star of the exercise. All sides learned a lot of valuable lessons, from this first participation of a 5th generation fighter in an INIOCHOS exercise.

Italian Air Force F-35A

For the ItAF it was the first real test, under almost warlike conditions, in terms of support requirements for continuous operations from a foreign airbase, without local F-35 support. As is well known, the F-35 is supported throughout the range of support processes by the Autonomous Logistics Integrated System (= ALIS). Each F-35 sends data to the system before landing, so that technicians have an immediate overview of the status of all systems and prepare for whatever work is required right after it arrives. At the same time, the system communicates with logistics support bases at home and in the USA for delivering supplies of the necessary spare parts and updates a database about the availability of each aircraft that is being shipped directly to Lockheed-Martin as the manufacturer of the plane. To solve such problems from the earliest possible moment, the ItAF established an almost daily “flight bridge” between Amendola AFB and Andravida AFB in order to transport staff and materials and to avoid any problems with the availability of the F-35A during their deployment to Hellas. Benefiting from this is also the ItAF Support Command, which can now develop new and fine-tuning already existent F-35 support structures.

Several interesting comments and conclusions about the performance of all participating fighters and especially the F-35A have come already to the surface. As ever in the case of multinational exercises, and especially this time with the first participation of the F-35A Lightning II in such an exercise in Europe, most of this comments and conclusions are “under the table”. One of the few official comments about the F-35 was made during the short briefing about the exercise, on the Media day “The F-35 is a first-day strike plane. For the second, third, etc. day of the war, you still need a bomb-truck, like the Tornado or F-15E. The F-35 cannot win a war alone. It reduces only your risk during the beginning of a war!

The overall estimate of the HAF is that the F-35A is a very competent fighter and justifies fully the classification as a true “game changer” regarding modern Air Warfare. Highly praised was the real time data collection and management (sensor fusion) capability of the F-35A. “This (the capability) is light years ahead of everything else available“, was often heard.

We must always consider that there are limitations in the use of the radar and the electronic warfare systems of the F-35, imposed upon the users by the US-Government, in case of exercises with allies without F-35 in their inventory and/or with non-NATO allies. For example, based on available photographs, it seems that the ItAF F-35A carried always radar reflectors (the so called “Luneberg Lens Radar Reflector”), which are increasing the Radar Cross Section (= RCS) of the planes. There were also ambiguous statements about the use or not of the Northrop-Grumman AN/AAQ-37 electro-optical Distributed Aperture System (= DAS). Another persistent rumour was, that the F-35A used during Air-to-Air missions not all their capabilities, because of restrictions imposed by the US-Government regarding the full use of the Northrop-Grumman AN/APG-81 AESA radar in the Air-to-Air mode.

ItAF is currently in the familiarization phase with the F-35A. The time that has passed since achieving the IOC has been very short, and it is a statement for the abilities and skills of the ItAF personnel and for the F-35A itself, that they were able to participate already an exercise with such complex scenarios, like INIOCHOS 2019. This was also one of the main reason to bring the F-35A to INIOCHOS 2019, to seek high quality Air Warfare Training and gaining valuable experience against top Air Forces, similar to no others in Europe!

Regarding operations, the F-35A were accompanied during their missions from the Tornado ECR. According to statements, this will be the way the F-35A will be used by the ItAF until the achievement of the full capabilities and full weapons spectrum. The Tornado ECR preceded and opened the way for the following F-35A. During Composite Air Operation (= COMAO) missions, the F-35A flow together with 3rd (F-4) and 4th generations fighters (F-16, Mirage 2000). This is made possible thanks to the existence of both the MADL (= Multifunction Advanced Data Link) and Link 16. The latter allows the F-35A to communicate with “older”, 3rd and 4th generation aircrafts and other weapon systems, like, for example, land based Air Defence Systems and to perform the, so called, Air-to-Surface Integration (= ATOSI), with the aim to improve the integration between different generations of weapon systems.

Beside this, the unique capabilities of the F-35A made able the introduction of new types of missions into the INIOCHOS mission inventory, like Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (= ISR) and Electronic Strike missions. During this missions, the F-35A played actually the role of “mini” AWACS/EW aircrafts and “opened electronically” the way for the strike aircrafts. In total, the Italian contingent flow 145 sorties with approx. 250 flight hours.

According to the Commander of the Italian Air Force Operational Forces Command, Gen. F. GiancottiThe training opportunities provided by the exercise INIOCHOS are excellent. The multinational context has offered us a high level of learning. Working with the participating countries has allowed us to improve collaboration and promote the exchange of experience. It is essential to better work together in the frequent complex scenarios. Furthermore, we have had the possibility to use our 5th generation assets in an international exercise, concretely promoting the interoperability between Tornado and F-35 and their integration with the air assets of the other participating countries“.

Lessons learned & future

The KEAT who is planning the whole exercise and has the control over it, managed again to increase the grade of difficulty of the missions and in combination with new, more sophisticated and innovative tactics, succeeded to place INIOCHOS 2019 again at the tip of the spearhead of modern Air Warfare exercises. A US representative saidThis is the way exercises will be conducted in the future!” and the IAF pilots saidThe training is at an incredibly high level!

Hellenic Air Force F-4 Phantom

There were a lot of lessons learned for all participants from this year’s INIOCHOS exercise. Of course, like in every similar kind of exercise, not many detailed official words came to the surface, but nevertheless, it is understood that all participants praised the realistic simulation of combat scenarios and the multitude of unexpected real time threats that the KEAT incorporated in to the exercise to keep the participants always on alert, like for example the presence of A/A-units in expected “free” zones.

Air Forces like the USAFE welcomed the inclusion of maritime missions against surface targets, because usually they train very little in this regard. Many of this missions were flown over the Eastern Aegean Sea and in the area between the Greek islands of Rhodes and Kastellorizo, a very symbolic gesture considering the current Turkish rhetoric against the NATO and in particular the USA and the diplomatic problems regarding the exploration of the huge under water oil fields inside the Cypriot Exclusive Economic Zone. All partner nations emphasized how big an advantage it was, that they could operate without most of the restrictions compromising in terms of realism and training quality many northern and central European exercises.

The IAF participation was very welcomed by the HAF because of the opportunity to train with colleagues flying similar planes (-> F-16) and with experience against “stealth” fighters (-> see future TurAF F-35A) and by the ItAF due to the Israeli experience with their own F-35I.

Israeli Air Force F-16 Fightning Falcon

The growing and very close cooperation between the HAF and the IAF is getting evident through the following comment from the Commander of the Israeli contingent, Lt. Col. “A.”:This exercise is very significant for us (the IAF). The Israeli Air Force showed its capabilities according to the theatres at hand, as well as the capability to improve along the exercise. The threats were challenging, and the complex missions required tight cooperation between aircrews from different countries, unaccustomed to flying together. We acted as both BLUE and RED Forces at the same time. Each side is unaware of the others plans. Every day, each side takes a whole day to come up with the best possible plan, and the results are then examined during the debriefing. The copious threats and mountainous topography require that we plan our mission as precisely as possible and try to avoid encountering the RED Forces. During INIOCHOS 2019, we focused on low-level missions and airstrikes on hostile-laden areas. This made for an exercise which cannot normally be held in Israel. We have the capability to take off from Israel with a large amount of aircrafts and deploy in a foreign country for a week. Not many Air Forces in the world have this sort of air power. In addition, we tighten our cooperation with international militaries, from maintenance crews and planning on the ground to mutual flight, thus proving our place as a significant, powerful Air Force. Flying together is not simple, because each Air Force has combat doctrines and procedures of her own. Our countries are different – we fight differently, and base our modes of operation on different mentalities. We then have five hours to understand each other, plan together and work together successfully. It isn’t simple, but we try. We pilot the same aircraft, which means we have a lot to learn from each other, and we continue to learn more and more with every year that passes. I didn’t expect the exercise to go this smoothly. It’s operationally beneficial, and I expect it to be diplomatically beneficial as well. The terrain was unfamiliar, the threats were different to what we were used to and we had to face great uncertainty. A large amount of aircraft in the air – both RED and BLUE – makes for a mess in the airspace, and communicating in English makes everything more difficult. This made everything feel like a sort of “Tower of Babylon”, where we have squadrons from many nations utilizing various different aircraft, with each flight formation focusing on a different mission and utilizing different munitions. The way I see it, the main difference between this exercise and other exercises is that this time we’re fighting against aircraft identical to ours. This makes everything harder than it usually is. In addition, unfamiliar forces and work methods makes a high-quality puzzle, preparing us successfully for wartime“.

According to the Commander of the IAF Technical Department during the exercise, Maj. L. Yafim:Such a large fighter jet deployment would not be possible without the Technical Department, and many of the deploying IAF personnel handled the field of aircraft maintenance. The main challenge in maintenance is doing it far from home, when we don’t have all our tools with us and our logistical support is limited. All we have is what we take with us, and we have to use that in order to succeed in our mission and help the aircraft take off safely. The exercises main goal was establishing a high-quality training for the aircrew members. Naturally, we’re very curious regarding the ways other Air Forces maintain their aircraft, which are identical to ours“.

Tornado Italian Air Force

According to the Commander of the Italian contingent, Lt. Col. G. LodatoIt was really an amazing experience to participate in INIOCHOS 2019, because we had the unique opportunity to use for the first time under almost 100 % realistic war conditions all capabilities of our new F-35A, performing a multitude of complex Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground missions. The exercise INIOCHOS 2019 provided to the ItAF some exceptionally training opportunities, unlike any other until now. The number and variety of involved weapon systems (RED Forces, A/A-Units, Naval Ships, etc.) is naturally, not so common during our daily training, so, it was a great chance for us to see where we are and what we must still do in the future to achieve our objectives. Also, not to be underestimated, was the opportunity to interact with the other participating countries and try to learn something new from them“.

USAFE Maj. A. Harding, 480th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron detachment Commander said that “This training is important because it allows us to operate with our partner nations and build the capabilities for future participation in other exercises or any other type of operations. We get to learn from each other and share knowledge that we don’t normally get at home station training. Participation in multinational exercises builds professional relationships and improves overall coordination with allies and partner militaries during times of crisis. Forward locations enable collective defence capabilities and provide the U.S. and NATO the strategic and operational breadth needed to deter threats and assure allies and partners. There is no substitute for being able to be down here and be forward deployed and get the advance experience with other nations while we are in Greece. The exercise has been valuable based on the integration between countries we normally don’t operate with. Additionally, our pilots and maintainers have had many opportunities to lead and gain experience in a unique location. As the exercise comes to a close, many friendships and partnerships have developed and strengthened. The HAF has been very a gracious host and has been more than accommodating for any requests that we have made. They have been proactive in providing support to us, which has been very helpful“.

They (allies and partner nations) come to an excellent environment for training with large air space and excellent weather said HAF Lt. Col. A. Gkioles, Hellenic Fighter Weapons School Director of Operations. But more than that they get to see how we operate in a very strenuous environment. The participants get to find ways to corporate with each other under pressure.

The US-Ambassador to Hellas, Mr. G. Pyatt said during a meeting with the Hellenic Defence Minister E. ApostolakisFirst of all, I want to say that it is a great pleasure to return to Andravida AFB for the third exercise INIOHOS I attend. I really want to congratulate Defence Minister Apostolakis, Chief of the Hellenic National Defence General Staff Christodoulou, all of the pilots and technicians who took part in it. It is very, very impressive to see how INIOCHOS has evolved. It is a stunning illustration of the unique role that Hellas can play because of the geography, the unique opportunities to fly over the water, the high mountains, to a very large airspace and to develop cooperation and security capability. So we are all very proud to be here. I also want to thank the 480th Fighter Squadron, our pilots from the USAFE who are here. I had a chance to meet some of them, and they were all happy to welcome them here in Greece“.

The Hellenic Defence Minister, Admiral (ret.) E. Apostolakis said “Once again, we are here, present, to attend the exercise INIOCHOS 2019, which is evolving successfully. As you know, it is a multinational exercise that is organized by the HAF. We invite allied states and states from NATO. At the moment there are 5 states with aircrafts, Israel, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, the United States of America and Greece. We have 77 aircrafts taking part in the exercise. The exercise is quite advanced, with rather difficult scenarios, evolving in the entire Hellenic airspace. The important thing is that, in principle, the exercise is progressing with great success. All participants have something to gain from this participation. What is essential is that one step that is progressing rapidly, is the cooperation between the allies and the NATO states. We are passing the message that cooperation, synergy and good relations are those that ensure peace and security in the region. In this direction we move, this message is passed, by all those who have the same view and face the same threats“.

Regarding the gains of the exercise for the HAF, they were many, especially associated with the presence of the F-35A and their possible future use by the TurAF. The footprint of the F-35A on the radars of the F-16 and Mirage 2000 interceptors, as well as on the ground based radars, AEW&C aircrafts and other anti-aircraft elements, even with the radar reflectors in use, was certainly something of high interest to the HAF. But, much more interesting was the trace of the F-35A on the seekers of Air-to-Air Infra-red missiles, like the IRIS-T and the MICA-IR, which are perhaps the only weapon in the current HAF arsenal with a realistic chance against the F-35.

The exercise INIOCHOS is steady becoming the main, medium scale air-exercise in Europe and the Middle East, covering the whole spectrum of modern Air Operations, from Air-to-Air through Air-to-Ground, to Maritime Operations. A testament to this, is the growing number of countries wishing to take part and the return of former participating countries.

Also, in this times of financial austerity for almost all Air Forces around the globe, the exercise INIOCHOS has a huge benefit in comparison to other similar exercises like Red Flag or Maple Flag: It is much more cost effective! You don’t have to overfly the Atlantic Ocean and any failure or shortage can be treated in a few hours. Apart from these, the geographical environment in Greece offers great terrain either for terrain masking flying in mountainous areas or unlimited air combat over a deep blue sea environment, providing a unique experience to any participant.

Aviation Report and the authors wishes to thanks Col. (P) K. Zolotas, Commanding Officer KEAT and Lt. Col. (P) I. Tsitoumis, HAFGS Spokesman, for their invaluable help by the preparation of this article.

Article and images: Marcus & Philipp Vallianos