TLP 18-4 saw the participation of the F-35 Lightning II for the very first time.
From Nov. 21 to Dec. 14, more than 900 military from 5 different nations and 50 assets took part in TLP 18-4, the 4th Flying Course organized this year by the TLP (Tactical Leadership Programme) at Amendola Air Base, Italy.
Headquartered in Albacete, Spain, where flying courses are usually held, TLP is an international military organization gathering military from 10 countries (Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Great Britain and the United States) and representing NATO’s benchmark in training and development of leadership skills required to face the modern operational scenarios.
The purpose of the four Flying Courses (FCs) organized every year by TLP staff is to train future MCs (Mission Commanders) through a specific training in complex aerial operations that involve multinational air, naval and land forces. Indeed, TLP is where they learn to lead coalition force air strike packages, instruct allied flying and non-flying personnel in matters related to tactical composite air operations, and provide tactical air expertise to NATO agencies.
The tactical scenario of TLP FCs include COMAO (Combined Air Operations) conducted by large attack packages that have to face pretty aggressive Red Forces as well as simulated threats (SA-10 and SA-17) and real emitters. “We have also conducted CSAR missions, with Italian helos and PJs from Aviano,” TLP Commandant, Andrés E. Maldonado García told media representatives during TLP. “This gives pilots an excellent preparation: after taking part in such a complex mission, pilots are prepared for a real CSAR operation”.
As said, the latest iteration moved from Albacete to Amendola, in Italy, Europe’s first operational F-35 airbase: indeed, TLP 18-4 marked the first time a 5th Gen. aircraft took part in the course with the purpose of developing a proper integration of the latest generation aircraft with 4th Gen. assets; “a unique opportunity not only to promote the standardization of tactics, techniques and procedures, but above all to exercise interoperability between different systems, even non-homogeneous, ie the ability of a system to cooperate, exchange or re-use information or services produced by others.”
“This TLP course has been excellent,” Maldonado García said. “Infrastructures, base, support from the Italian Air Force, support from the base Commander and from the Italian TLP team who has been preparing for this course, have been great.” Moving the FC to Amendola was not too difficult: “We didn’t move everything: we mainly brought software we use for briefings with us from Albacete. The rest (hardware, NATO-restricted net, unrestricted net etc.) was available on site. We had some initial issues (not real problems) that we promptly solved”.
Interestingly, on Nov. 30, 2018, during the media day of TLP 18-4 the Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force, ItAF) declared Initial Operating Capability with the F-35A Lightning II, ratifying that the first Italian unit flying the Joint Strike Fighter, the 13° Gruppo (Squadron) belonging to the 32° Stormo (Wing) based at Amendola, is the first in Europe (flying the F-35) to be ready for allied operations.
Several aircraft took part in the Italian TLP session: the Italian Air Force committed Eurofighter Typhoons, T-346A Master, G-550 CAEW, KC-767A (that operated from its homebase at Pratica di Mare), P-72A, HH-101 and HH-212 (the latter deployed to Gioia del Colle) and MQ-1C and MQ-9A drones, as well as the IT-DARS mobile control and command system, the SIRIUS Surface Based Air Defence (SBAD) and Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). The Italian Navy deployed the AV-8B+ Harrier jets whereas the U.S. Air Force moved 12 F-15C and 1 F-15D to Amendola where 8x German Air Force F-2000 and 2x Tornado ECR were also deployed alongside 6x Belgian Air Force and 4x Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s. External support to the daily TLP missions (usually one wave including Blue and Red Forces launched in the afternoon) was provided by a 100th ARW KC-135 from RAF Mildenhall and NATO AWACS from Trapani Birgi airbase.
Talking to the press during the Media Day, one of the U.S. Air Force F-15 pilots commented:
“We specialise in air superiority, including BVR (Beyond Visual Range) engagements. It’s been illuminating to see the capabilities the F-35s are bringing. We are practicing to hopefully be able to target and see the F-35 and there are air-to-air capabilities that we have against 5th gen. but for sure they are bringing new things to the fight and new challenges that we will have to overcome from the 4th gen. standpoint.”