Wings over Romania: NATO operation bolsters expeditionary concept
It’s a rare quiet moment in a day that begins at 6 AM with a wakeup call from local dogs, doves, cows or roosters – no need for an alarm clock – and often extends 14 to 16 hours into the late evening. The roar of CF-188s, MiG21 Lancers and other NATO aircraft has momentarily subsided on the nearby runway, so Lieutenant-Colonel David Pletz has time to talk.
Pletz is in the midst of conducting a training mission with the Romanian Air Force while also preparing to transition his task force to a Baltic air policing mission in Lithuania that begins in just a few weeks. So demands on his time are high. But the chaos one might expect under such circumstances is rarely evident.
Pletz is commanding Canadian Air Task Force (ATF) Romania, the Royal Canadian Air Force contribution to Operation Reassurance, which also includes Royal Canadian Navy and Canadian Army operations: HMCS Toronto recently replaced Regina on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea while the army continues to conduct exercises primarily with Polish forces in Eastern Europe.
The ATF, located at the Romanian Air Force 71st Air Base in Campia Turzii, is an important symbol of Canada’s commitment to NATO’s response to Russian annexation of Crimea and ongoing operations along the border of eastern Ukraine. But it is also an important marker in the development of the RCAF’s air expeditionary capability.
Stood up at 2 Wing Bagotville, the Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) has been in development since 2008, adapting the lessons of Libya, Afghanistan and Haiti to provide a flexible and scalable construct that can be rapidly deployed to any austere or semi-austere environment, at home or abroad.
While a portion of the AEW was deployed along with the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) to the Philippines in November 2013 in response to the destruction of typhoon Haiyan, Op Reassurance marks the first time the air wing’s full complement of resources has been utilized: a command and control (C2) element for tactical-level command support; a mission support element; an operational support element of enablers; and an air movements detachment that is now coordinating the ATF’s transition to Lithuania.
As Lieutenant-General André Deschamps, then commander RCAF, explained in 2012, lessons from Libya in particular had pointed to the need for a more robust C2 capability and people with the right skill sets to plug into coalition networks, which are rarely exactly the same from mission to mission. “With the air expeditionary wing, we are putting into the box the flexibility to adjust to any given environment,” he said in an interview. “If there is not robust infrastructure or communications architecture, we will bring kit to enable us to connect so we can operate quickly. We rely on our people to be innovative and find solutions, but it would be nice to give them a stronger starting point when they get on the ground.”
For Pletz, the assimilation of those lessons was evident from day one. From initial deployment on April 29, led by 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron from 3 Wing Bagotville, through to the AEW portion of 2 Wing just days later, the six CF-18s and the ATF were set up and supported and conducting missions with the Romanian Air Force by May 12.
Capturing lessons learned is fundamental to every operation, and Pletz has been cognizant of that as the mission has progressed. While his team has encountered the usual assortment of unexpected challenges, nothing has threatened operations. “To me, that means that on exercises and everything we have been conducting since this concept was first thought of, we have actually been doing a very good job of implementing those lessons learned,” he said. His former chief of staff, the deputy commander of 2 Wing, called the deployment “the smoothest they have seen to date in all of their other exercises and endeavours. To me, as the commander and knowing what we have in terms of a mandate, it was seamless.”
Op Reassurance is an opportunity to continue refining the concept, which can be quickly scaled up or down depending on the type and number of aircraft involved and the nature of the mission. Pletz says the C2 and networking challenges of Libya that prompted LGen Deschamps’s directives to the AEW have largely been resolved, so much so that he is able to share CF-18 and NATO AWAC data with 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg.
“I have an incredibly robust system considering the semi-austere environment we are working in,” he said. “I’m not missing anything.”
The general’s intent to give his people a “stronger starting point” is also playing out. The ATF comprises almost 200 personnel, with recent replacements for some positions arriving in June from 17 Wing in Winnipeg and 8 Wing in Trenton. Pletz says the plug-and-play construct has allowed them to resolve any issue. “One of the key enablers for us is the quality of our people and their ability, resourcefulness and creativity to surmount so many of the little challenges. During exercises and deployments, there are things you can’t predict that are going to happen and our folks have been able to navigate through that. Between all the networking and various types of communications that we require, they were able to get that up and running in very short order.”
Building new links
In addition to launching the full AEW, Op Reassurance is also the furthest into Eastern Europe Canadians have been deployed since the Second World War and the first time the RCAF has conducted a mission of this nature with an Eastern European ally.
As a force well versed in coalition operations, integrating with new partners is common practice. But it still requires adjustments. Learning the nuances of Romanian tactics and procedures and of the iconic MiG21 were an experience, Pletz said.
“We are very used to working with the western Europeans but this is the first time that we have conducted anything like this with a former Eastern bloc country. It’s exceeding all of my expectations. It has gone so much more beyond just the aircrew exchanges. Every aspect of flight operations support has had excellent exchanges of best practices: for example our firefighters, maintenance crews, medical personnel, air traffic controllers. It has been extremely valuable for all of us.”
While the usually language barriers were prevalent at first, French proved to be a useful workaround. (RAF pilots speak English but on occasion will revert to Romanian, which the Canadian pilots jokingly refer to as “going classified.”)
Much of the mission has been centred on bilateral air-to-air training with the RAF, performing air defense, air superiority and tactical support missions. But it soon expanded into joint bilateral air-to-ground training with Joint Tactical Air Controllers from the Romanian army and special forces, and, in the last months, into multilateral training with NATO partners, introducing NATO AWACS and other NATO aircraft.
Primarily, however, the focus has been on knowledge transfer. Last October, Romania closed a deal to acquire 12 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters from Portugal. The MiG, which Pletz calls a tank-like aircraft, is far less susceptible to foreign object damage, among other things, then its newer generation counterparts and thus requires a different approach to aircraft and airfield maintenance.
For the Romanians, the operation has been an opportunity to work with Link 16 data exchange networking and understand the infrastructure required as they prepare to transition to the newer fleet of F-16s, which will be Link 16 capable. The knowledge and infrastructure is also a necessity as the U.S. and other NATO partners deploy and exercise with the Romanians more frequently.
“We have some Link 16 expertise in our task force,” Pletz said. “Interoperability is one of the keys to success that we want to focus on, to identify any issues and improve. We are looking more long term to provide what we can for the Romanians.”
For the Canadians, it has been an opportunity to further refine NATO’s flying doctrine and hone mutual skills, especially those applicable to air policing practices in the Baltic (Romania has previously provided aircrews to the Baltic Air Policing [BAP] mission).
“Being able to integrated some of these nuances into a coalition type of package has been very interesting,” he said. “Seeing what radios they have, what capabilities, and how we can best optimize their capabilities when operating with the CF-18s and other newer generation fighters has been fascinating.”
The experience has also encouraged the RCAF to begin promoting the vast Romanian air space – a rare feature in Europe – to NATO allies for future training exercises.
All the training, of course, is happening against a political backdrop. Whether the exercises of Canadian and Romanian fighter jets have any impact on Russian actions Pletz leaves to higher authorities. But he says the RCAF presence is making a difference in Romania.
“Working with the Canadian embassy in Bucharest, seeing the Canadian whole-of-government approach that is being used, reassuring our allies and Romanians that Canada is committed to NATO and helping reinforce security and stability – that is where I see an effect.”
Lieutenant-General Yvan Blondin, commander of the RCAF, has lauded the Air Expeditionary Wing as a sign of the RCAF’s versatility and flexibility to deal with security challenges of the 21st century. As ATF prepares to transition to air policing in the Baltic on September 1 – the BAP mission has been conducted over Lithuanian, Latvia and Estonia for the last 10 years – that adaptability will once again be on display as it scales down to meet new mission requirements.
“The whole ATF concept is designed to be deployed anywhere,” Pletz said. “We can have this set up and scaled up from 50 people to 280 plus. This has been proof of concept for us and it has worked very well.”
While both countries have benefited from sharing best practices, the Canadians have learned one hard lessons: pick your partners carefully when it comes to sports – or at least pick your sport carefully. A soccer game between the two resulted in a resounding Romanian victory, prompting Pletz to try and keep the score hidden from superiors. “I think after they scored the fifth or sixth goal, they started to take it easy on us,” he said. “It was crystal clear that their national sport is indeed soccer. The sportsmanship, however, was outstanding.”
He’s now working on getting hockey equipment into theatre to host a rematch – in ball hockey.