U.S. Air Force and Navy Perform Joint Exercise over the Black Sea (With Live Weapons)

An F-16 Fighting Falcon, assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing, peels away from a KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, after receiving fuel near the Black Sea, Aug. 2, 2020. The Stratotanker provided aerial refueling support to F-16s enabling them to integrate into training missions alongside the USS Porter in the Black Sea. These missions were designed to train U.S. forces to operate together while executing multi-domain operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper) Author’s note: the yellow and brown bands identifying the live missile are visible.

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:

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.

Four F-16 Fighting Falcons, assigned to the 31st Fighter Wing, fly in formation behind a KC-135 Stratotanker, assigned to the 100th Air Refueling Wing, near the Black Sea Aug. 2, 2020. The Stratotanker provided aerial refueling support to F-16s enabling them to integrate into training missions alongside the USS Porter in the Black Sea. These missions were designed to train U.S. forces to operate together while executing multi-domain operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Benjamin Cooper)

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.

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.



About Stefano D'Urso 133 Articles
Stefano D'Urso is a contributor for TheAviationist based in Lecce, Italy. He's a full-time engineering student and aspiring pilot. In his spare time he's also an amateur aviation photographer and flight simulation enthusiast.