The unusual Sunday exercise saw the participation of F-16s armed with live air-to-air weapons.
The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Navy performed a joint exercise in the Black Sea on Aug. 2, 2020 focusing on realistic integration, operation and communication between surface and air assets to protect the maritime domain. The drill was not announced in advance, causing some curiosity among online flight trackers who started observing multiple military aircraft (somehow unusually flying a training sortie on a Sunday morning in Europe) on their way to the Black Sea.
The exercise, later confirmed by the U.S. Sixth Fleet, was centered around USS Porter DDG-78, an Aegis BMD-equipped (Ballistic Missile Defense) guided-missile destroyer of the Arleigh Burke class, permanently based at Naval Air Station Rota (Spain) together with other three destroyers as part of the U.S. Sixth Fleet. The ship, which also replaced its Phalanx Close-In Weapon System’s (CIWS) 20mm M61 gun with a SeaRAM (Rolling Airframe Missile) Anti-Ship Missile Defense System in response to the Russian naval threat, was one of the two destroyers that back in 2017 launched 59 Tomahawk missiles against Shayrat Airbase in Syria.
A number of aircraft were involved in the drill, almost all visible on flight tracking websites through ADS-B and MLAT:
- A P-8A Poseidon from NAS Sigonella assigned to Patrol Squadron VP-47 “The Golden Swordsmen”, reportedly Bu.No. 168760, transmitting with Mode-S hex code AE6840;
- Three KC-135R from RAF Mildenhall assigned to the 100th Aerial Refueling Wing, QID943, QID944, QID945 with AF Ser. No. 58-0100, 63-8878 and 57-1440, respectively;
- Four F-16CM-40s from Aviano Air Base assigned to the 510th Fighter Squadron “Buzzards” (actually the photos shows that one of the aircraft was from the 555th FS “Triple Nickel”, maybe on loan to the sister squadron) with callsigns COBRA1X, of which COBRA14 visible through MLAT transmitting with Mode-S hex code 15C4DE;
- An MQ-9 Reaper from Miroslawiec Air Base assigned to the 52nd Expeditionary Operations Group Detachment 2 (not trackable).
KC-135Rs: QID943/58-0100, QID944/63-8878, QID945/57-1440, 943&944 returning to Rota, 945 returning to Mildenhall; At least one F-16 COBRA14/Mode-S hex 15C4DE; P-8A 168760/Mode-S hex AE6840. screens from #planeradar, #RadarBox24, #FlightAware
— Stefano D’Urso (@stedur93) August 2, 2020
Not many details were given about the exercise, except for the fact that it occurred in international waters and airspace and involved tactical maneuvering and communications, differently from the recent Exercise Sea Breeze 2020 where Aviano’s F-16 trained Joint Air-to-Surface Missile (JASSM) cruise missile tactics or the B-1B bombers that trained on Long Range Anti-Ship Missile capability in June.
What was really interesting is the fact that the F-16s were flying with live air-to-air ordnance, which is not usual during training. The live missiles could be identified in the photos by the yellow and brown bands, for the live warhead and the live rocket motor, respectively. More specifically, all four jets were each armed with two AIM-120C/D AMRAAMs, one AIM-9X Sidewinder, two 370-gallon external fuel tanks and the AN/AAQ-33 Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP).
Cmdr. Craig Trent, Commanding Officer of USS Porter, said in the official press release: “The purpose of this training event was to exercise command and control in a joint training environment with our U.S. Air Force brothers and sisters to increase our tactical proficiency, and Porter’s crew did just that. This training enabled us to continue to build on our combined capability to quickly and effectively respond to any threats in the complex maritime environment.”
From what we could gather through online flight tracking, two tankers, QID943 and QID944 departed from Morón Air Base in Spain (where they returned at the end of the drill), executed a Rendez-Vous with the F-16s, departed their homebase at Aviano AB, in the Speedy Area over the Adriatic Sea, then flew over Croatia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. The third tanker, QID945, departed from RAF Mildenhall and executed an RV with the other aircraft over the Black Sea.
The drill possibly took place in front of Romania’s and Bulgaria’s coasts, where the aircraft were tracked circling, possibly performing Air-to-Air Refueling (AAR). The Poseidon was flying its usual ISR patrol (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) west of the Crimean Peninsula, while the Reaper was not publicly visible.
A United States Air Force KC-135R (🇺🇸57-1440 as #QID945) returning to 🇬🇧RAF Mildenhall after refueling 🇮🇹#Aviano-based American F-16s over the Black Sea, spotted over 🇳🇱the Netherlands. https://t.co/APYezIdtL8 pic.twitter.com/JhUcAvFd3T
— Soesterberg Air Base Spotter (@EHSBspotter) August 2, 2020
— nde (@5472_nde) August 2, 2020
As a side note, since we mentioned the Speedy Area, on July 22, 2020 a KC-46A Pegasus from McConnell AFB (which was deployed for a few days in Europe visiting Ramstein AB and RAF Mildenhall) conducted in that area the first AAR mission in support of the USAFE (U.S. Air Force in Europe) command with Aviano’s F-16s. Another similar mission followed a day later.
— The Aviationist (@TheAviationist) July 22, 2020