Next-generation fighter jets, simulated aerial combat, and some of the best pilots from the US, British, and French air forces – no, this isn’t a scene from the next Hollywood blockbuster. It’s the latest combined exercise testing pilots’ ability to operate, communicate and dominate in a combat environment.
Called “Atlantic Trident,” this month-long exercise at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, focused on anti-access and aerial-denial missions, which were meant to place the US, British, and French pilots in situations that tested their limits and capabilities.
“This exercise is great because it brings our best and some of our allies best fighters together to train and learn from each other in a very challenging environment,” said Col. Pete Fesler, 1st Fighter Wing commander. “It’s also a great way to test the capabilities of these advanced aircraft.”
The advanced aircraft participating included the F-22 Raptor, the F-35 Lightning II, the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the Dassault Rafale – all of which bring a lot of capabilities to the fight. The aircraft were supported by USAF Air Combat Command E-3 Sentry airborne early warning and control aircraft and Air Mobility Command KC-10 Extender refueling aircraft.
The F-35, meanwhile, is no slouch, either. The F-35 combines fifth generation fighter aircraft characteristics — advanced stealth, integrated avionics, sensor fusion and superior logistics support — with the most powerful and comprehensive integrated sensor package of any fighter aircraft in history. This means the Lightning II can collect and share battlespace data with other friendly aircraft and commanders on the ground and at sea.
“The F-35 brings an unprecedented combination of lethality, survivability, and adaptability to joint and combined operations,” said Maj. Mike Krestyn, an F-35 pilot with the 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.
Pilots of both the F-22 and F-35 refer to their jets as aerial “quarterbacks,” capable of controlling an airspace by locating, identifying and sharing the location of enemy threats within a battlespace.
Then, allied aircraft like the Typhoon and Rafale can use their advanced weaponry to eliminate these threats.
All of these advanced aircraft provide lethality never before seen in aerial combat, and their pilots training and flying together enhances tactics, ensures coalition teams are on the same page and strengthens relationships.
“The Air Force and our partners must seek opportunities to develop, expand and sustain relationships wherever possible,” said Heidi Grant, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for International Affairs. “This enables us to amplify our collective strengths and improves our ability to confront shared challenges.”
From the pilots’ viewpoint, this is also a matter of “training like we fight.”
“We won’t go to war without our allies,” said Capt. Nichole Stilwell, a T-38 pilot with the 71st Fighter Training Squadron. “So we have to train together to make sure we get the most out of our capabilities.”
The Human Element
But, none of these capabilities mean anything without one crucial component.
“People,” Fesler said. “It doesn’t matter how advanced an aircraft is if we don’t have quality people flying and fixing them.”
It’s easy to get distracted by the sleek aircraft and their state-of-the-art capabilities, but this shouldn’t take away from how important the human element still is to air operations, he added.
“There is so much more to this than simply flying an advanced jet and shooting stuff,” Fesler said. “There are people on the ground making sure these planes fly, people in support functions making sure missions happen and go smoothly, and there are people making sure pilots receive the training they need to be effective.”
So, exercises like this are really all about people – training them, developing them, testing them – and relationship building, he added.
Throughout the exercise, US, British and French pilots planned, flew and evaluated missions together, working side-by-side to develop tactics and talk about lessons learned from each day’s flights.
“This type of training is invaluable,” said Royal Air Force Wing Cmdr. Chris Hoyle, 1 (Fighter) Squadron. “It really places a premium on people and relationships, which both are very important to our success as allies.”
These bonds and friendships made at Atlantic Trident can also carry over into other operations.
“This is a great foundation for us to build on,” Hoyle said. “Some of the US or French people I’ve met, or some my guys have met, can really create great opportunities in the future. If I need something, I can pick up the phone and call … and then the relationships we started here can really pay off down the road.”
Still, as pilots of each aircraft are quick to point out, a conversation about people can’t happen without talking about maintainers.
“We simply borrow the jets for a little while, the maintainers own them,” said Krestyn. “They fix them and care for them and then they let us use them.” This sentiment is echoed by Hoyle.
“As pilots, we have the easy part,” he said. “We fly the plane, but it’s the maintainers and support personnel who make everything happen. It doesn’t matter how advanced a jet is, if no one fixes it or makes sure it’s able to take off and accomplish the mission, then it’s a useless piece of equipment.”
Sharpening the Sword
Once these advanced fighters do get in the air, testing them and their pilots is still important. This is where the adversary squadrons come in.
Made up of T-38s from Langley and F-15E Strike Eagles from Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, these “adversaries” acted as enemy combatants during the exercise to test friendly force’s air-to-air abilities.
Flying outdated, past-their-prime trainer jets against the most technologically superior fighters in the world may seem futile, but the adversary pilots have a different outlook.
“I think of it as our sword is very sharp, we just help make it sharper,” Stilwell said. “We make pilots adapt their tactics, we make them think and we try to test them as much as possible.”
At the end of the day, though, exercises like Atlantic Trident do more than give pilots time behind the stick. These exercises are providing relevant, realistic training so that when pilots do experience stressful combat situations for the first time, they are prepared.
“Air superiority is not an American birthright,” said Gen. David Goldfien, Air Force Chief of Staff. “It’s actually something you have to fight for and maintain.”
Air superiority doesn’t just mean having the most technologically sophisticated aircraft in the world. It also means having highly trained and experienced pilots to fly them.
Working together also helps each of the players learn to speak the same language – that of winning.
“Really, the goal of exercises like this is to train and learn together so that on day one of a future conflict, we dominate,” Fesler said.