scramble F-16
@ Ozkan Uner / A2A.photography

“Scramble” training with F-16 jets from Türkiye and Romania

Air superiority is becoming increasingly important after the September 11 attacks, security criteria for civil aviation have been increased and air forces have become a part of the monitoring and implementation process in order to prevent a similar problem, when necessary.

In this context, NATO aims to be always ready to intervene in security problems that may occur in civilian flights as well as border violations in military aviation, both in its training and in its practices.

When a foreign force aircraft approaching NATO airspace or a civilian aircraft that cannot be communicated with due to a problem (COMLOSS) is detected, the NATO Operations Center is alerted and a Scramble (Alarm Reaction) is immediately initiated in order to prevent war or conflict, and in peace for the safety of civilian flights.

In as little as 15 minutes, the jets of one of the NATO member forces engage this unknown aircraft and try to understand its status; if radio communication cannot be established, it is identified visually and contact is established. The way to absolute success in such events is through training and exercises.

On March 6, 2023, at the invitation of NATO, we had the opportunity to observe such an exercise conducted jointly by the Turkish and  Romanian Air Forces. We were traveling in a Romanian Air Force C-27J Spartan with 26 journalists from Bucharest to Borcea, near Fetesti, where Romania’s 86th Air Base is located, where NATO monitors the airspace on the southeastern flank.

Since the end of last year, Turkish fighter pilots have been supporting Enhanced Southern Air Policing, a mission launched to protect the integrity of NATO airspace following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. This year, this mission is being carried out in Romania. In addition, the Romanian Air Force had previously conducted this mission in April and July 2023.

As part of the exercise, the aircraft we were in lost communication with the air traffic controllers, whereupon a scramble was declared and the aircraft immediately took off; first the F-16AM aircraft of the 53rd Squadron Warhawks of the Romanian Air Force, and then the F-16C Block 40 aircraft of the 113th Ceylan Squadron of the Turkish Air Force approached the aircraft we were in, first inspected it, and then escorted us and allowed us to land at the 86th Air Base.

turkish F-16

The procedure followed here was to first establish visual contact with the aircraft with which there was a communication breakdown, examine the condition of the pilots and the interior of the aircraft, try to establish radio contact, and if that failed, to ask for visual tracking and to ensure a safe landing on the ground.

In the interviews that followed, the Major of the Turkish Air Force talked about the ways to approach the target in an emergency: “We can inspect, we can intervene. Or, if it’s an airplane in trouble, we can help it land safely at an airfield”

There was also a French Rafale jet on the base, which we didn’t see in the air, but it was on the base. The Rafales are visiting for five days to train together, but they are not part of the NATO air surveillance mission currently taking place in Romania.

romanian F-16

The French pilot, who identified himself by the pseudonym Max, explains that the nature of a mission depends on the location. “If it’s an international zone, everyone has the right to fly there, whether it’s a plane from Russia or another country,” he says. Half of his face is covered by a black mask. “We only carry out professional checks to make sure that the borders of our countries are secure.”

Romania has the longest border with Ukraine of any NATO member state. While NATO had long focused on Poland and the Baltic states on its eastern flank, after Russia attacked all of Ukraine in February 2022, Romania became the center of attention and the balance of power shifted. A multinational NATO battle group led by France was quickly created and deployed in Romania.

romanian F-16

In addition, the EFTC (European -F-16- Fighter Training Center), which was established in Romania for the training of Romanian and Ukrainian pilots, is also located at this base. Therefore, the Air Policing mission in Romania is very important to protect this region.

Article and images: Ozkan Uner / A2A.photography