15 Squadron RAF Regiment, based at RAF Marham, have just returned from Exercise Red Flag (Alaska). In the exercise scenario 15 Squadron were tasked with securing a remote gravel landing strip defended by enemy forces in order to enable transport aircraft to land and deliver supplies.
With a sniper team providing advance reconnaissance, RAF Regiment Gunners were flown by US Army Chinook helicopters, supported by Apache gunships, to seize and secure the airstrip. Once complete specialist RAF Tactical Air Traffic Controllers (TacATC) established a functioning airfield enabling both C-130 and C-17 aircraft to land on what had hitherto been an airstrip unsuitable for such operations.
“Tac Air Traffic enables temporary landing zones worldwide, we put a runway where there isn’t a runway. Here we’ve had quite a lot of challenges given to us by the environment; we’ve had six-foot banks of snow and ice to remove and the TLZ had to be graded to ensure it was fit for use, which hasn’t been helped by more rain and more snow. We have very strict criteria – is it long enough, big enough, wide enough, what obstacles exist, what type of surface is it – is it hard enough, is it smooth enough, is it contaminated with water or snow. There’s a lot of assessments that go into it and the controllers must have done those assessments and checks prior to giving the aircraft clearance to land."
TacATC Controller Sergeant Chris,
embedded within 15 Squadron to set up, survey and assess the Temporary Landing Zone (TLZ).
The TacATC team also conducted cross-training with US counterparts, working with a USAF Combat Control Team Officer to exchange best practise.
15 Squadron also secured helicopter landing sites for US Special Forces, embedded a sniper section with US Army Green Beret teams, and simulated the extraction of pilots shot down behind enemy lines. This involved a Ground Extraction Force Team fast-roping from a hovering Pave Hawk helicopter into otherwise inaccessible locations.
Fast roping, one element of the Troop Insertion and Extraction System (TIES) which also includes abseiling and ladder extraction, is the quickest method of inserting personnel safely and effectively when the conventional landing of the aircraft is not possible. Equipped with heat-resistant gloves, once on the ground the Gunners provided protection to the helicopter and the colleague providing urgent medical treatment to the injured pilot before both he and the casualty were hoisted into the 210th Rescue Squadron helicopter.
“As a fighter pilot, knowing that there are people whose mission is entirely dedicated to take care of us in the event that we have to get out of our aircraft and be positioned in more hostiles environments is a great comfort” “It allows us to focus on our job without the distraction of having to fear the potential of having to eject and what it will be like on the ground.”
F-16 pilot Captain John ‘Kong’ Remien,
Exercise Team Chief.
For Officer Commanding 15 Squadron RAF Regiment, Squadron Leader Woodcock, the opportunity to train in an unfamiliar environment with other forces was welcome.
He said: “For 15 Squadron this level of training has been absolutely invaluable for me as a squadron commander to test the troops and the flight commanders, and the environment has placed everyone outside of their comfort zones.
He added: “Surrounded by mountain ranges, the environmental conditions here have at times been arduous, and I’ve been really impressed by how the Gunners have demonstrated both mental and physical resilience over the past two weeks. Many are fresh out of training and have attacked the challenges head on. We return to RAF Marham at the top of our game and ready for our deployment this year.”
One of the new challenges the Gunners faced were the threats posed by local wildlife including bears and moose. Before deploying into the field survival training was provided by the USAF and bear repellent spray was issued to personnel.
“The survival training we received before we rolled out onto the ground gave us good actions on procedures on what to look for. When they weren’t scanning for enemy forces activity they were also scanning for wildlife activity for real-life safety measures. It soon became apparent that the training was required, a pack of wolves passed through the training area on a number of occasions."
Sqn Ldr Woodcock
Officer Commanding 15 Squadron RAF Regiment
“The RAF Regiment is uniquely qualified to provide Air and Space power force protection and this type of training is fundamentally important in allowing us to face the adversaries of today and of the future. The opportunity for 3 Force Protection Wing, 15 Squadron and supporting elements to come out here to Exercise Red Flag Alaska is key to the development of next generation Force Protection. The complexity of the exercise, the opportunity to work with coalition forces, and some unfamiliar environmental conditions have provided personnel with a good replication of the challenges of real-world operations.”
Air Commodore Jamie Thompson
Force Commander, RAF Force Protection Force
A C-130J aircraft and four crews from 47 Squadron, RAF Brize Norton, also participated, operating from Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson near Anchorage. Flying up to 11 hours each day the Hercules initially air dropped supplies of food, water, and ammunition to the RAF Regiment.
“47 Squadron are very privileged to participate in Exercise Red Flag Alaska and we are grateful to the USAF for the world class-training they have provided. The exercise has hammered home the lesson that fighting a modern air war is about team-work and cooperation within a large package of aircraft, and with partners on the ground and domains like cyber.”
Wing Commander James Sjoberg
Officer Commanding 47 Squadron
The Exercise demonstrated the RAFs commitment to train to operate in the most complex environments alongside coalition partners to best meet any future contingency, in particular the role of UK RAF Force Protection alongside deployed RAF and Coalition forces.
Over 100 aircraft including F-35 Lightning stealth fighters, gathered from across the United States, Pacific and Canada for the two-week exercise.
Alaska, known as the last frontier, covers an area a fifth of the size of the land mass of the United States which affords the exercise airspace 10 times larger than that of the Red Flag exercise based at Nellis Air Force Base.