The Aviationist visits the 4th FW at Seymour Johnson AFB to report on “Razor Talon,” a monthly large force exercise sponsored by the USAF.
Razor Talon is a monthly aerial warfare exercise that represents a tremendous “win” for the USAF both in terms of cost efficiencies and proficiency gains. The exercise has been primarily designed for three core Wings, the 4th FW F-15E Strike Eagles of Seymour Johnson AFB, the 1st FW F-22A Raptors of Langley AFB and the 20th FW F-16CM Vipers of Shaw AFB. The September Razor Talon also included the T-38C from Langley AFB, the RC-135, E-3 AWACS, and E-8 JSTARS platforms from their associated bases.
Notable historical contributions of the 4th FW 335th FS “Chiefs” include the role they executed as the primary group tasked to search for and destroy Iraq’s module Scud missiles utilized in the Gulf War. As a result of their ultimate success they were nicknamed “SCUD BUSTERS,” though they also made aerial warfare history by downing an Iraqi helicopter in the air using a laser-guided bomb! (USAF Fact Sheet) The F-22A Raptors, the most advanced air superiority fighter in service are becoming much more visible internationally as they are being deployed globally in response to events in a number of theaters. The 20th FW F-16CMs have consistently been involved in critical domestic and global US operations in a variety of roles, though they are primarily known for their expertise in the Wild Weasel mission of SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses).
“Razor Talon represents a natural progression from unit training towards the broader platform integration that takes place in a campaign”
F-15E 4th FW 335 FS sliding up for fuel during Razor Talon
Given the proximity of the participating bases, Razor Talon provides units the opportunity to participate in a tailored large force exercise (LFE) with no distant travel. The monthly frequency of the exercise ensures the units are able to focus on a wide variety of mission types that are likely to be executed in a larger campaign.
Razor Talon typically involves 50-60 aircraft, with 35-40 on Blue Air and 20-25 on Red Air. Given the location and scope, the exercise offers tremendous flexibility and opportunity, often including units from the Marines, Navy, Army, Special Operations Forces, Coast Guard, and Interagency assets.
Razor Talon represents a natural progression from unit training towards the broader platform integration that takes place in a campaign, or at the ultimate LFE, “Red Flag” held on the Nevada Test and Training Range (NTTR). The 2 or 3 week long Red Flag exercise integrates 70 – 100 aircraft and includes a broader variety of platforms in an environment that realistically reflects an aerial warfare campaign against a very capable enemy. Razor Talon includes all the core aspects of Red Flag (albeit on a smaller scale), including real-time monitoring by command and control systems with air to air, air to ground and SAM kills called.
F-15E 4th FW 335 FS “Squadron Jet” breaks away after taking on fuel during Razor Talon.
Primary missions tasked during Razor Talon include air superiority, interdiction/deep strike, SEAD, close air support, sea control, defensive counter air, and offensive counter air. Between the nearby Dare County range and other sites there are hundreds of potential targets available for the exercise, including “active” surface to air missile (SAM) sites, and naval targets. Razor Talon provides the additional benefit of the realism of a coastal environment, representative of likely scenario in a future campaign.
F-15E 4th FW 335 FS sliding up for fuel during Razor Talon
During Razor Talon the F-22A and bulk of F-15Es and F-16CMs typically fly as Blue Air. T-38C Talon adversary aircraft from Langley AFB fly Red Air in conjunction with designated F-16s and F-15s. The Talons reflect a suitable adversary for the beyond visual range (BVR) fight as they have a low radar cross-section and generate low electromagnetic emissions. The T-38s are regularly flown by Raptor pilots. Tasked to defeat the platform they have tremendous expertise in ultimately strengthens the pilots performance when back in the Raptor. The Raptors are charged with ensuring air dominance as the Blue Air F-15Es (interdiction) and F-16CMs (SEAD) press their missions. Targeting active SAM emitters featuring advanced capabilities the “Vipers” of the 20th FW are well-known as “Wild Weasels,” and fly armed with the AGM-88 HARM (high-speed anti-radiation) missile.
However, the massive mushroom cloud left in our wake immediately alerted Red Air – ‘strikers low and hot!’
While not specifically a Razor Talon mission, Captain Eichel of the 335 FS shared a training experience that is reflective of what Strike Eagle pilots are tasked with achieving in real world scenarios; “I was fulfilling a critical requirement of graduation from weapons school (at Nellis AFB & the NTTR) – the live drop. It was the first time I realized a jet the size of a tennis court could be invisible. Dropping into the NTTR on its eastern edge we ingress west fast and low, and in spite of the high threat environment we made it undetected to our target on the west side of the range.
Per mission planning we released a full complement of live 2000 lb Mk 84 high drag bombs on target from only 200 ft. By design, the bombs exploded just behind us and we were glad escape the blast pattern in one piece. However, the massive mushroom cloud left in our wake immediately alerted Red Air – ‘strikers low and hot!’ Red Air now knew exactly where we were. With contrails converging on us we throttled up and exited the range at 100 ft AGL traveling Mach 1.1. Even though Red Air knew exactly where we were they did not get a missile shot, and we made it home successfully. The mission validated not only the flight techniques, but the avionics and weapons systems effectiveness in a high threat environment.”
While the F-15E is purpose-built for interdiction or deep strike well behind enemy lines, the success of a mission in the real world often has different measure.
Captain Martin of the 335 FS shared, “I was 2-3 months into my first deployment. A Strike Eagle mission success typically means bombs on target, and missile kills if required. With that perspective I am flying a pretty straightforward mission putting in time on station – but have dropped no bombs, launched no missiles. After some time I receive a call to support ground troops. A relatively small group of our ground troops is on their way back to a forward operating base (FOB) and a hostile crowd is starting to gather around them – to the point that their progress is impeded and they feel an imminent threat. I drop out of the skies in the Strike Eagle, and overfly the threatening crowd at bruising speed and low-level. The crowd disperses quickly, shrinking back to the shadows from where they came. A few moments later when the troops reach their FOB, I receive a heartfelt radio message, ‘Thanks for being there, for helping get us home safely.’ A simple show of force can make a huge difference to what takes place on the ground.” No shots fired, no bombs dropped, nonetheless, a very successful, and personally gratifying mission. As Captain Martin continued, “I can think of doing nothing more personally satisfying than serving my country and protecting our guys on the ground.”
While the preferred outcome of such a well prepared force is deterrence, if tasked the USAF will bring the full force of the Strike Eagle, Wild Weasel Vipers, Raptor and much more to the fight. Weapons school, daily training cycles, Razor Talon, and Red Flag, ensure the USAF remains “razor sharp” and ready to act on short notice.
Special thanks to TSgt. Phillip Butterfield USAF ACC 4 FW/PA, MSgt. Wendy Lopedote USAFR Superintendent Public Affairs, the 916 ARW KC135R with crew from the 911 ARS and F-15E crews from the 4th FW, 335 FS “Chiefs.”
F-22A 1st FW, 94th FS Langley AFB joins on the tanker after taking on fuel during Razor Talon
Todd Miller is an avid photographer and contributor to a number of Aviation media groups. Utilizing www.flyfastandlow.com as a personal “runway” it is Todd’s goal to reflect the intensity and realism of the military aviation mission, as well as the character and commitment of the military aviation professional.
Exercise “Blue Flag”, taking place over a vast area of southern Israel from Nov. 24 to 28 and involving about 100 aircraft from the host nation, U.S., Italy and Greece, is the largest joint-military exercise in Israel’s history.
Its aim is to improve cooperation among the participating air forces and train together in a wide range of missions, including Defensive, Offensive Counter-Air and Close Air Support.
Part of the 57th Wing, U.S. Air Force’s largest composite wing (that oversees all flying ops at Nellis AFB, Nevada, including the Red Flag and Green Flag exercises), the USAF Weapons School teaches graduate-level instructor courses to officers of the combat and mobility air forces.
It is made of 17 squadrons, 10 of those based at Nellis and seven geographically separated: the ten USAFWS squadrons based at Nellis are the 8 WPS (Command and Control Operations), 16 WPS (F-16), 17 WPS (F-15E), 19 WPS (Intelligence), 26 WPS (MQ-1/MQ-9), 34 WPS (HH-60), 57 WPSS (Operational Support), 66 WPS (A-10), 328 WPS (Space/ICBM), and 433 WPS (F-15C/F-22). The remaining seven units not located at Nellis include the 14 WPS at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (AC-130/MC-130/U-28); 29 WPS at Little Rock AFB, Ark. (C-130); 57 WPS at McGuire AFB, N.J. (C-17); 77 WPS at Dyess AFB, Texas (B-1); 325 WPS at Whiteman AFB, Mo. (B-2); 340 WPS at Barksdale AFB, La. (B-52); and the 509 WPS at Fairchild AFB, Wash. (KC-135).
The School produces approximately 80 graduates every six months: expert instructors on weapons, weapons systems, and air and space integration trained through a course including an average of 400 hours of lessons and a two-week air campaign/battle staged over the Nevada Test and Training Range.
Since the Aggressors’ F-15s and F-16s are the most famous and very well known planes of the 57th Wing (see the related articles at the bottom of this post to find the previous posts dealing with the 64 AGRS and 65 AGRS), I asked Tony Lovelock, The Aviationist’s special correspondent at Red Flag 12-2 and 12-3, to take some pictures of the less known 17 WPS (Weapons Squadron) F-15E Strike Eagles at work.
Here’s a selection of the most interesting photographs he brought back from Nellis AFB.
Although the U.S. involvement in Libya was scaled down few days after NATO took control over the air campaign on Mar. 31, 2011, American tactical aircraft (“tacair”) played an important role during the opening stages of the Washington-led Operation Odyssey Dawn (for more details I suggest you reading the first debriefs of my Libya Air War series).
Even if U.S. planes also operated from other deployment base (RAF Mildenhall, Moron, Souda Bay, Istres), Aviano airbase, in northeast Italy, and Sigonella, in Sicily, were the two main hubs used by the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps assets. In particular, Aviano was mainly used by the tacair component, while “Saigon” was used by support planes (PSYOPS, tankers, etc.) and drones (both Reapers and Global Hawks).
Among the aircraft on temporary deployment to Aviano (that is the permanent base of the 31st FW’s F-16s) there were: VAQ-132 EA-18G Growlers, VAQ-140 and VMAQ-1 EA-6B Prowlers, 494FS F-15E, 81FS A-10s and 480FS F-16CJs. A Jordanian Air Force detachment operated from Aviano throughout the duration of Operation Unified Protector.
The following pictures, taken by Simone Gazzola, show some of the most interesting aircraft taking off or landing at Aviano.
Note also the “heart” shape on the background of some pictures. It’s a land-art project called Lumacuore (an Italian word formed by combining the words lumaca= snail and cuore = heart) and made between 2009 and 2010 on the side of Piancavallo mountain by the Italian artist Laura Trevisan with the aim of “spreading a cultural message on human rights, love and respect for nature as well as the environmentally friendly development of the territory.”
The two crew members from the 48th Fighter Wing based at RAF Lakenheath UK have recently told CNN’s Barbara Starr of the night they found themselves separated and on the ground behind enemy lines in Libya.
The U.S. aerial bombing campaign over Libya was just two days old last March when F-15 pilot Maj. Kenneth Harney and Capt. Tyler Stark got their mission – conduct airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi’s forces near Benghazi.
Capt Stark was on his first combat mission and said to Starr “There’s obviously a little bit of nerves in the back of the stomach – it’s kind of like you’re going out for that big football or basketball game and you’re like, wow, this is it. This is the big leagues and I’m going to be flying in combat tonight.”
Harney and Stark took off from their temporary forward operating base at Aviano (Italy) and headed south out over the Med towards Libya and into the Benghazi area, they soon found targets and after releasing their final weapon of the sortie, they turned for Italy when, suddenly, Harney lost control of the Eagle which he described “very much like if you were driving you’re car down the road and you hit a patch of ice and your car starts spinning. That’s exactly what our aircraft at that point was doing.”
Capt. Stark sat in the back described his thoughts at that point as “This is really happening?”
The aircraft falling Stark made his May Day calls and both pilots ejected which was described as s”carey but a life or death decision” once the survival instincts kick in the lever is pulled and the pilots are out of the aircraft.
The two men got separated once under the parachute and landed in different locations neither knowing if they had landed amongst Ghadaffi’s forces they had only moments ago been bombing, Harney described his feelings once on the ground “I was scared. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was terrified”.
He spent the next several hours hiding trying not to be found by hostile forces whilst trying to contact friendly forces on his radio that is part of the survival kit all pilots take into combat. Harney was lucky and made contact, an Osprey from USS Kearsarge touched down to rescue the pilot, Harney ran towards the aircraft hands raised high so that the Marines knew he posed no threat. After being bundled into the Osprey rather unceremoniously the Osprey dusted off and returned with Harney back to the carrier.
Stark however was not so lucky, he found himself in a field with two vehicles heading to wards his location, shining lights in his hiding place, with little or no chance of escape, stark heard a voice in English saying: “American come out – we are here to help.” Stark described his actions as so “I get up and put my hands up and start walking to the voice” he said. “Once I get there, my impression is, OK you have to assume that they are the bad guys.” He was driven to a near by building still not knowing if the forces were friendly or not.
Stark was taken into the building and found himself in front of a half circle of local people, he described his thoughts at that moment as “Either this is where the beatings are going to start or this is where I am going to get a lot of help. Fortunately I walked into the room and got a round of applause.”
He was safe, due to the stress and shear terror of the previous hour or so Stark couldn’t remember the number to call for help and with cell phones available the only number he could think of was that of his parents “So I called him up, spoke with my dad and said, ‘Hey, I need you to make a call for me.'” the Libyan people sheltered Stark until an Italian boat arrived to pick him up and take him back to safety.
This article raises a few questions of what could have happened to the Eagle. From photos released by media outlets soon after the jet crashed it was obvious there was little or no forward movement of the aircraft and appeared to have landed vertically. This is what made analysts think it was in a flat spin as the crew bailed out and was at some good altitude as they had time to send a may day call and spend time under the chute.
Also what becomes apparent is there is no damage to the jet nozzles at the rear therefore eliminating damage from a MANPAD missile or a heat seeking missile. A radar guided missile however wouldn’t strike the aircraft necessarily at the rear, and the photo’s from the Guardian article above reminded of the crashed hulks of the Mig 29’s shot down during the Balkan conflict during the 90’s victims of AMRAAM’s.
According to the investigation report the Eagle was lost when the pilot performed a manoeuvre outside of the aircrafts flight envelope (whilst unbalanced) which sent it into an un-recoverable spin (during a jinking manover after weapons release).
Above images: Richard Clements
The crews from Lakenheath regularly undertake intense training in very difficult terrain and certainly handle this beast of a jet with the highest degree of skill. Hence, the issue over Libya must have been catastrophic. And the tension inside the cockpit much higher than in a normal training flight, increasing the risk of pilot error.