Atlantic Trident 17 brought together in type and capability the most formidable combination of fighter aircraft ever assembled.

F-35A from Eglin AFB moves towards launch for a vul during Atlantic Trident '17 exercise held at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA.

Atlantic Trident 17 Drives a Higher Level of Integration.

The exercise held April 12 – 28 at Joint Base Langley-Eustice (JBLE) included a “Blue Air” force of USAF F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing (FW) JBLE and F-35 Lightning IIs from Eglin AFB, Typhoons of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Rafales of the French Air Force/Armée de l’Air (FAF).

The adversaries or “Red Air” included USAF F-15E Strike Eagles of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” Mountain Home AFB, ID and T-38A Talons of the 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) “Ironmen” based at JBLE.  Additional assets included the E-3A Sentry from Tinker AFB, OK and a variety of tankers, including a FAF KC-135 and KC-10 of the 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ.

Aside from the primary training objectives the exercise also provided the opportunity to commemorate 100 years of aerial combat cooperation between the French and US stemming back to WWI.

From the outside, looking in the lethal capabilities of Blue Air appeared to be overwhelming, with Red Air offering little challenge.  However, one must consider that the 71st FTS “Ironmen” fly daily as adversaries against the Raptor and possess pilots with Raptor experience.  These factors (along with the sheer numbers of Red Air fielded and their ability to “regenerate” on range) provide Red Air with the best likelihood to exploit any vulnerabilities or errors with Blue Air’s tactics – regardless their impressive platforms.

Towards the end of the exercise The Aviationist sat down with Colonel Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 FW Commander to discuss the exercise and the evolution of air combat in the context of 5th Gen aircraft.

Fesler noted that Atlantic Trident ’17 took integration beyond historical practice. On a tactical level integration historically involved a serial employment of aircraft (such as a Combat Air Patrol of RAF Typhoons) or geographical deconfliction of aircraft (such as FAF assets attacking ground targets in a designated area).  However, as Fesler explained starting with Red Flag 17-1 integration has gone deeper, involving a variety of platforms in the same airspace at the same time.  Integration between platforms also considered the various loiter time and weapons load/type for a given platform over a given vulnerability period (vul – the period of time when an aircraft is vulnerable to harm).

RAF Typhoons on the ramp with Strike Eaglesat Joint Base Langley-Eustis during Atlantic Trident ’17.

While not being specific, it is not difficult to envision a mixed strike package of Rafales and F-35s, a combat air patrol (CAP) of Typhoons and Raptors (or mix and match on any given mission set).  This level of integration leads to big challenges for an adversary who may easily be fixated on attacking a detected Gen 4.5 aircraft, while getting blindsided by a 5th Gen platform or be distracted by a 5th Gen threat “sensed” in the area and get bounced by a very capable Typhoon or Rafale. Hesitation in such air to air combat will most likely be punished with an ending in a ball of flames.

Dassualt Rafales of the Armée de l’air – French Air Force on the ramp at JBLE during Atlantic Trident ’17

The abundance of information available on the battlefield today drives a much higher level of integration.  Fesler noted that multiple people/assets may be involved with the finding, identifying and targeting portion of an air to air encounter. The pilot may take care of the final step and fire the missile that kills the target, but wouldn’t have found their way to that merge unless the assets got them there.

Atlantic Trident ’17 provided an opportunity to demonstrate how the advancement of aircraft, tactics and integration is driving change in the function of the fighter force.  For many years, the F-22 Raptor has utilized its superior sensors and SA to take the role of “quarterback” during a vul.  Given the integration of the F-35 and with the capabilities of the Typhoon and Rafale, the notion of a “single quarterback” is changing.  Frankly, per Fesler, the quarterback notion is starting to become almost a misnomer now in that we have multiple quarterbacks and it’s less about one individual directing everything and more about multiple nodes of information being able to provide the key pieces of information at the right time to influence the fight.  It is a foreboding thought for an adversary who now faces a team, where every position has the intelligence/capability of a hall of fame quarterback, even while performing their specific role at the highest level.

F-22 Raptors of the 1st FW JBLE wait for launch clearance at the EOR during Atlantic Trident ’17.

Performing at a high level is one thing, altering the playing field is another.  The 5th Gen aircraft has done that very thing, altering the classic air to air engagement in a fundamental way.  Fesler noted, the classic approach of shooting ones missiles and turning before the adversary can get a shot is predicated on the fact that the adversary sees you.  In the 4th gen world that is the case.  Ideally the pilot would like to be able to shoot, let their missile do the work and get away before the adversary can get a missile off.  In the 5th Gen world, the adversary doesn’t necessarily know where you are coming from.  The 5th Gen pilot may shoot a missile and monitor to make sure it is effective.  If the missile misses for any number of reasons, they are in good position for a follow-up shot.

F-22 Raptor of the 1st Fighter Wing JBLE taxis towards launch during Atlantic Trident ’17.

That is one of the fundamental difference between 4th Gen fighters and 5th Gen fighters.  In general, in the 5th Gen world the adversary doesn’t really know where you are coming from.  They may have a general idea but not a lot of specifics.  For 5th Gen pilots it’s a good place to be, to be able to roam around the battlefield faster than the speed of sound in an airplane that is largely undetectable all while your airplane is building a 3 dimensional picture of everything within a couple hundred miles of you. Ouch.

F-35A from Eglin AFB moves towards launch for a vul during Atlantic Trident ’17 exercise held at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA.

Aside from the exceptional technical aspects that fascinate and draw attention, Felser ultimately notes that his takeaways from Atlantic Trident ‘17 fall back to the human aspect; “fighter pilots are fighter pilots regardless of what their uniforms look like.  Aircraft maintainers are aircraft maintainers regardless of what their uniforms look like.  There are some universal experiences, beliefs and cultures that transcend the national boundaries in this and that’s one of the things I have enjoyed out of both Tri-lateral exercises (2015 & AT ‘17) that we’ve had.  The man in the machine still makes a difference. You can have the most lethal fighter in the world but if you make a mistake a far inferior aircraft can shoot you out of the sky. Training still matters.  If that were not the case, we’d buy the machines, park them and never fly them and when war kicked off jump in them and go and fly. That in fact is not the case and you can lose a war with the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it right, if your tactics aren’t sound, if your skills aren’t automatic, you can still lose.”

F-15E of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” Mountain Home AFB, ID launches from JBLE for Red Air Vul during Atlantic Trident ’17

Atlantic Trident ‘17 reveals the way forward; advanced integration, people making a difference, and high level training.  This rationale drives the Air Force ensuring it is ready with the highest capability for the next conflict on day 1.

Fourth and fifth-generation aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, French air force and Royal air force fly in a training airspace during ATLANTIC TRIDENT 17 near Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., April 26, 2017. The F-35 Lightning II was incorporated in the exercise, along with the F-22 Raptor and fourth-generation assets to develop tactics, techniques and procedures that can be used during future coalition fights. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to Jeffrey Hood 633 ABW PA and the entire 633 ABW Public Affairs Team who were instrumental and exceptional with their support; Col. Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 Fighter Wing Commanding Officer, and the entire 1 FW; the entire team at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, professional and gracious throughout the visit.  You set the bar, our service people are the finest.

Image credit: Todd Miller, unless otherwise stated.



  1. My God! The world has never seen such devastating air firepower all in one place. Ever! But I have one complaint, and as I am sure the USAF monitors this website let’s make sure AF brass corrects this oversight.

    I understand that Dave Majumdar was allowed to fly (backseat observer in a Red Air twin-seat T-38 Talon) on this exercise. He said of the F-22 and F-35’s performance:

    “Flying back to Langley, the experience was an eye-opener. I have been covering the Raptor and the F-35 since beginning of both programs. It is one thing to intellectually grasp the power of stealth, but seeing it in action makes one a believer—our flight had no idea, no warning from the AWACS or GCI that we were about to be hit until it was all over. It’s nearly impossible to fight an enemy you can’t see.”

    First as I have been saying, nothing comes close to matching the air fighting (A-A and A-G) of F-22 and F-35, especially when they are mated with some 4th gen aircraft like F-15 or F-16. Typhoon. Others. But my complaint is this …

    Why was Majumdar invited but David Cenciotti was not? I read both their works and Mr. Cenciotti is far better in his reporting (in my opinion) then the other David and his absence from this event (I assume he didn’t receive an invite) was an almost unforgivable oversight. So Majumdar Yes and Cenciotti No? What gives???

    Give David C. the survival training, medical exams and flight suit, have him sign the appropriate waivers and next time make sure he gets to report to the world on this very important air exercise. Pay for his flight and accommodations. Hell give him a seat on a U.S. military aircraft and put him up in the BOQ. I assume he’d say “yes” to the invitation.

    PS. F-35 haters, note the Lightning II’s performance. Note its overwhelming display of unmatched air superiority. Note it and if you are honest you will finally move on. Admit defeat and find another aircraft to (incorrectly) comment on. Both the performance and price make this the Western fighter to beat. As a matter of fact I’d have to posit that the F-35 is near unbeatable. Certainly not matched by any Russian fighter. Not even the moribund PAK FA/T-50 (India has told us about how crappy that 4th gen – it is – fighter is). I’m glad a number of NATO allies are wisely purchasing it.

    • Thanks, but don’t worry, our contributor there, Todd Miller, who wrote this story, has flown in the T-38 as well. Stay tuned for the report!!

      • That’s good and I’m certain Todd Miller will give us a great report, but I think Europeans, and especially Italian whose country is buying 100 or so JSFs, would like to hear about the plane they are buying from an Italian (European) reporter. They would probably more closely identify with the report. And the AF would be wise to pick up your entire tab. How much is Italy alone paying for their F-35s?

        Lots of European Partner Nations are buying the JSF, so it seems to me just good headwork to let a European reporter get a ride during an air combat evolution like Atlantic Trident and then report back to people in NATO/EU/European nations. That said, I look forward to Mr. Miller’s report, and hope he had a great time and informative learning experience.

        F-35 is the real deal, and it’s good to hear voices like mine (and others) finally being vindicated by exercises like this and Red Flag. Since this plane can obviously overwhelm an enemy perhaps it will help us to avoid war. If I were Moscow I’d think twice about invading a NATO nation with U.S. stealth ready to be called into action. The RuAF would definitely NOT fare well. Believe me the Russian military understands this with extreme acuity.

    • Cool Leroy…. “For many years, the F-22 Raptor has utilized its superior sensors and SA to take the role of “quarterback” during a vul. Given the integration of the F-35 and with the capabilities of the Typhoon and Rafale, the notion of a “single quarterback” is changing’. Seems the unmatched F-35 is not the only quaterback

    • Agreed Leroy. Dave Majumdar has always struck me as someone who had no idea about aviation even after a few years of being the “aviation reporter.” After years of decrying the F-35 as an inferior replacement, the USAF has handed him a clue and he’s wrote several pieces gushing about not the F-35 after getting “shot down” one time in a T-38.

      He’s written that the USAF should increase the T-X buy because the T-38 is an affordable cheap trainer and decent stand-in as an aggressor. Then he argues that the T-X should receive a radar to make is a more effective aggressor. Okay, yes it would; but radar would also make the T-X no longer cheap and affordable which sort of defeats the thesis of the article. It seems that Mr. Majumdar does not know that a radar emulator would do the job of an actual radar at a fraction of the cost.

      He’s decried the inferior kinematic performance of the F-35, but his analysis is based only on simple wing loading and excludes that the F-35 uses maneuverability aides plus greater thrust to match F-16’s clean performance (as the original specifications required).

      In my mind, the valid criticisms of the F-35 are: combining three very different versions into one airframe where commonality compromises impacted performance of each version; the unit cost; the program management especially buying production airplanes that are immature and known to have performance and capability deficiencies that will require expensive retrofitting; and the inability for the F-35 to keep up with electronics that are currently provided to legacy aircraft via external pods (sniper, lightening, etc.). Performance, capability, and stealth are not valid criticisms.

      • I agree with many things you said, but tried not to be too critical of Mr. Majumdar, a click-bait artist (in my opinion) who has condemned the F-35 around every corner. Now he loves it? Quite the nirvana! That said …

        “He’s decried the inferior kinematic performance of the F-35”

        Yes, and wrongly so, as the Heritage Foundation report by John Venable so aptly pointed out:

        And remember, these F-35s are flying with/limited by 3i software. 3f will open up the full flight envelope … open it to it’s full 9g capability. As for deficiencies like EOTS and weapons availability, Block 4f will well address those issues. Cost is no longer a concern because it is quickly dropping to its predicted (by the SAR) $80m unit cost (for the “A”) at full rate production.

        ” … buying production airplanes that are immature and known to have performance and capability deficiencies.”

        That’s a concurrency issue, and we’ll have to make a decision about whether we follow that acquisition model again. It has advantages and disadvantages. Too long to discuss here.

        “Combining three very different versions into one airframe where commonality compromises impacted performance of each version.”

        As General Bogdan stated, “I’m not saying they’re bad. I’m not saying they’re good. I’m just saying they’re hard. You ought to think really hard about what you really need out of the sixth-generation fighter and how much overlap is there between what the Navy and the Air Force really need.” Who can argue with that?

  2. As I have been saying – F-22 and F-35 are simply unmatched by any other fighter in the world. I wouldn’t want to be the enemy strapping into my Mig or Sukhoi knowing I’m going up to fight it. With almost 100% certainty I will not be coming home. That psychological impact alone would devastate an enemy’s morale. As Sun Tsu so aptly stated:

    “Supreme excellence consists of breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting. If the mind is willing, the flesh could go on and on without many things. Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”

    I hear you Sun. I would have said the exact same thing had you not said it before me. I yield this wisdom to you. If only you were alive to hear mine! : )

  3. Is there a particular reason why all Rafales in your photos are double-seaters, while all Typhoons seem to be single-seaters? Does the exercice reserve certain roles to each kind of aircraft requiring the Rafales to be double-seaters, or is it just that the French AdlA chose to operate only the Rafale B ?
    Thanks in advance for your input.

  4. The F-15Es are carrying Sniper targeting pods on the left chin station. What is the pod carried on the right chin station?

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