Spring Flag Sardinia: Crisis Training – Target Aviation Photography, Philip Stevens reports

Operating under a United Nations mandate the Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare Italiana or AMI) are working with a coalition force of seven countries to resolve a crisis between the neighbouring countries of Carbonium and Esmeralda. It’s the annual Spring Flag (SF08) exercise and this is the scenario for which the AMI started planning, almost as soon as the dust had settled in Sardinia following last years Spring Flag (SF07) held in May 2007.  Organised by the Air Force Operational Command (COFA) in Poggio Renatico (Ferrara), the aim of the AMI’s main training exercise is to test and prove its capabilities to plan and deploy a large ‘expeditionary’ force for peace support. On April 1, 2008 the Joint Force Air Component Command (JFACC) was activated at Poggio Renatico, in place of COFA to control the exercise. A Deployable Combined Air Operations Centre (DCAOC) was also assembled in Bari. During the first week of the three week exercise a ‘Coalition Force’ arrived at a Deployable Operating Base (DOB) at Decimomannu air base in Sardinia (named Carbonium for the exercise). With almost 2,000 people and their equipment to be put into place this is no easy matter. With all the aircraft in position at their various operating bases by the end of the first week, air crew are given a briefing to make sure everyone is aware of the capabilities of the aircraft and systems.

Specially marked Tornado IDS (MM7006 6-31) of 6° Stormo, 154° Gruppo departs Decimo’. 6° Stormo from Ghedi participated with six PA200 Tornado IDS (Interdictor/Strike) deploying from their home base of Ghedi. The Tornado IDS is equipped with the Thomson TRT-Defence CLDP (Convertible Laser Designator Pod) and can be used for day and night reconnaissance and target identification.


For added realism and a change from SF07 when both opposing forces operated from Decimomannu, another DOB was set up for the ‘Opposing Force’ (OpFor) at Trapani air base in Sicily (Esmeralda). Col Luca Capelli, Director of Operations for SF08 set out to run the exercise according to a real situation when a coalition under a United Nations mandate would deploy a force to resolve a crisis. “The first phase is a show of force, then if required the pressure is increased. It’s the same at Spring Flag. During the first three days we have a show of force period, to convince the enemy to stop the hostilities. Unfortunately this does not always work”. On the fourth day the coalition was subject to a simulated hostile act when it is reported that one of aircraft has been shot down. “We then move to an offensive phase and an attack on Esmeralda (Trapani air base) is planned.

The Air Assets Involved
The ‘Coalition Force’ based at Decimo’ comprised of 43 aircraft plus some spares;

  • 4x German Air Force Panavia PA-200 Tornado ECR (JBG 32 from Lechfeld)
  • 5x Hellenic Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcon (330 Mira from Nea Ankhialos)
  • 5x Turkish Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16C/D Fighting Falcon (142 Filo from Akinci)
  • 4x Spanish Air Force McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornet (Ala 46, 462 Esc from Gando)
  • 1x Dassault Falcon 20EW (FR Aviation from UK)

With the AMI and Aviazione dell’ Esercito or AVES (Italian Army) were;

  • 4x Alenia-Aermacchi-EMBRAER AMX (51° Stormo/132° Gruppo from Treviso)
  • 6x Panavia PA200 Tornado IDS (6° Stormo from Ghedi)
  • 4x Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoon (4° Stormo/9° Gruppo from Grosseto)
  • 3x Eurofighter EF2000 Typhoon (36° Stormo/12° Gruppo from Gioia del Colle)
  • 4x AerMacchi MB-339CD (61° Stormo/212° Gruppo from Lecce)
  • 2x Agusta-Bell AB.212AM (9° Stormo/21° Gruppo from Caserta)
  • 2x Sikorsky HH-3F Pelican (15° Stormo from Pratica di Mare)
  • 1x Lockheed C-130J Hercules (46° Brigata Aerea/2° Gruppo from Pisa)
  • 1x Agusta-Boeing CH-47C Chinook (26° Gruppo Esercito from Viterbo)
  • 3x Augusta A.129 Mangusta (5° Reggimento Esercito from Casarza)

A French Air Force Boeing E-3F AWACS of the 36th Airborne Early Warning Squadron flying from its base at Avord flew in support of coalition forces. They have been operating the E-3F since 1990. The E-3F can support packages of up to 80 aircraft which include fighters, tankers, transports and helicopters.

One of two AB.212AM (MM81375) from 9° Stormo/21° Gruppo based at Grazzanise were in operation most days for CASEVAC operations. Under the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, ISAF is based at Kabul and tasked with providing security in Afghanistan.


The A.129C Mangusta is armed with a Lucas chin mounted 12.7mm machine-gun and can carry Sidewinder, Stinger and Hellfire missile systems.


OpFor consisted of a combined force of 32 aircraft mostly operating from Trapani air base;

  • Lockheed Martin (General Dynamics) F-16ADF Fighting Falcon (Air Defence Fighter) 5° Stormo from Cervia and 37° Stormo based at Trapani.
  • 6x PA200 Tornado ECR (50° Stormo from Picenza)
  • 3x McDonnell Douglas-British Aerospace AV-8B Harrier II of Gruppo Aereo di Grottaglie of the Marina Militare (Italian Navy)
  • 1x Fiat G-222VS (14° Stormo from Pratica di Mare) in the signals intelligence (ELINT/SIGINT) role.
  • 1x NATO Boeing E-3A Sentry AWACS and a 14° Stormo/71° Gruppo) operating from Geilenkirchen in Germany.
  • A United States Air Force Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from 100ARW normally based at RAF Mildenhall was operating from Sigonella on Sicily due to the availability of support staff, is utilised for air to air refuelling.
  • 3x Aermacchi SF-260EA (70° Stormo from Latina) were operating from Alghero.

Five Hellenic Air Force (HAF) Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcons of 330 Mira from Nea Ankhialos air to air and air to ground role. 330 Mira was formed in 1989 for the arrival of the first Greek F-16.


Events Escalate
A Composite Air Operation (COMAO) is scheduled for each morning, they depart in waves to the precise times of their tasking. The COMAO’s can take up to three hours for all aircraft to be airborne with sorties lasting up to four hours in duration. Eight days of aerial sorties are planned starting in the second week on Monday April 8 (day 1). A COMAO involving increasing numbers of aircraft is planned for each day.

24 hours before each mission pilots are given their Air Tasking Order (ATO) as part of their briefing for the following day’s scenario. Mission planning using the sophisticated computer software enables pilots to plan their sorties quickly and effectively. Pilots are able to print off aerial maps with the Airspace Control Order (ACO) already marked, saving them at least 40 minutes of planning time.

Pilots on day 1 use their flying time to familiarise themselves with the operational areas. It is also used for show of force missions, as part of the strategy to resolve the crisis between the two opposing nations.

On day 2 and a Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC) takes place. It is planned in co-operation with the AMI, Italian Army (Aviazione Dell’ Esercito or AVES), Red Cross and Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministero degli Affari Esteri). Three pairs of HH-3F, AB.212AM and A.129 helicopters all take part in an operation over Sardinia to rescue simulated civilian casualties, embassy officials with media representatives.

By day 4 and despite poor weather causing a COMAO to be cancelled, the scenario ‘hots’ up. Mission planners and aircrew have to respond to a ‘shooting down’ of a coalition aircraft. An AMI Tornado is tasked to fly a reconnaissance mission to gather intelligence for an air-to-ground ‘attack’ on OpFor forces at Trapani. Up against Ground Based Air Defences (GBAD) using Hawk, Stinger and Skyguard air defence systems with up to 32 fighter aircraft, this is now a very challenging scenario.
As with all conflicts a number of events are occurring simultaneously and multiple operations have to be tasked. If a pilot is shot down a Combat Search And Rescue (CSAR) mission should follow, in reality these can be put in to operation from between 30 minutes to three days. During Spring Flag frequent CSAR operations were tasked and flown by two HH-3F’s, one in CSAR configuration the other with a medical team, with two A.129 Mangusta’s for force protection. The injured are carried by AB.212 back to base where a C-130J of the AMI’s 46° Air Brigade (Brigata Aerea), is waiting to transfer them to Rome for hospital treatment.

A Slow Mover Interception (SMI) mission was flown using a SF-260EA of 70° Stormo which is normally based at Latina but was operating from Alghero in North Western Sardinia. Two 61° Stormo MB-339CD’s were tasked for this interception mission.

Each national force had a detachment commander whose role was to coordinate its team to make sure each individual force were properly integrated in to the whole. The Hellenic Air Force detachment commander Major G Marinopoulos had a team of 47 personnel, including eleven pilots for the five F-16C’s at SF08. Having no complaints, “everything is going well” Maj Marinopoulos was happy with the results of his pilot’s sorties and how the exercise was progressing. By day 5 they had flown Combat Air Patrols (CAP) with Italian Typhoons, as well flying missions in the Defensive Counter Air (DCA) role and as Offensive Air Assets (OAA) in the COMAO. “We have provided force protection, sweep and escort”. The following day they were tasked to aerial refuel with a USAFE KC-135R during the days COMAO.

In the third and final week, from day 6 to day 8, the COMAO’s were all conducted at night. The sorties were flown from between approximately 19:30 and 23:30 local time. As events escalated the numbers of aircraft flown increased, the final COMAO involved around 60 aircraft.

The AMX has only recently returned to service following a grounding order in December 2007. The AMX has had a series of problems associated with the cockpit canopy, which has detached in flight. In October 2005 an AMX crashed at Decimo’ during landing which was attributed to a faulty canopy, the pilot ejected safely.


36° Stormo were attending Spring Flag for the first time with their ‘new’ Typhoons. EF2000 Typhoon (MM7276 36-01) one of three 36° Stormo/12° Gruppo aircraft from Gioia del Colle where they are tasked with in the Air Defence role including QRA.


In Conclusion
Col Capelli, Director of Operations was based at Decimo’ for the exercise, “My role, with my staff, is to coordinate all the activities. We plan the whole exercise, we set up the meetings and prepare all the documents”. Planning started nine months ago with the initial planning conference. He was clearly pleased with all aspects of the exercise. “There have been no major problems with the exception of the weather, which has caused some COMAO’s to be cancelled for safety reasons”.

This year Spring Flag was held a month earlier than in previous years making it more vulnerable to poor weather. Out of the 373 missions planned from Decimo’ only 212 (63%) were flown due to adverse weather conditions in the operational areas. The poor sea state due to high winds was also a factor. This would have it made it very difficult to rescue a pilot who was forced to eject over the sea. OpFor at Trapani fared a little better being able to fly 87% of its planned 137 missions.

Despite the cancellation of some COMAO’s it did not stop pilots from continuing to train. Detachment commanders from each nation would after or in place of a cancelled COMAO’s, meet to organise small scale aerial battles. SF08 was an ideal opportunity for Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT), where pilots of different types of aircraft can fly against each other in one versus one or two versus two scenarios.

Following completion of the exercise on April 17 a VIP and media day was scheduled with over 100 journalists invited. Lt Col Alessandro Alfonsi, Press Officer and Chief of Media Operation Centre (MOC) was very keen to utilise the media in all its forms, including TV, to demonstrate to the Italian people the value and necessity for such exercises. No live weapons are used and the disruption to civilian life in Sardinia is kept to a minimum, “We have nothing to hide”, said Lt Col Alfonsi. Last year there were some small protests at Decimo’ air base this year none were reported, which is testimony showing how MOC staff had successfully proven their case.

The exercise did not only come under the scrutiny of the media. Official observers from; Algeria, Brazil, United Arab Emerates, Finland, Jordan, India, Kuwait and Romania attended to similarly learn how large scale aerial exercises are run.

Spring Flag 2008 was once again deemed to have been a success. Personnel from all participating nations were able to test their methods and skills in an environment that came as close to a live situation as is possible and without a live weapon being fired. With the updating of technology, methods have to change and lessons learned. Consequently on-going training for those directly involved in peace keeping or peace making operations is essential. The AMI’s Spring Flag exercise remains perfect for procedures and standards to be developed and maintained.

Four Turkish Air Force Lockheed Martin F-16C Fighting Falcons and a two-seat F-16D from 142 Filo based at Akinci participated in Spring Flag.They arrived with 51 personnel and worked closely with the Hellenic and Italian Air Force in the close air protection and sweep role.. When their job was done ground crew lined up to see their planes off.


Decimomannu, a perfect location to hold a large scale exercise.
Decimo’ air base has been utilised by NATO forces for many years. In 1970 it became known as the Air Weapon Training Installation (AWTI). It has now an Air Combat Manoeuvring Installation (ACMI) for aircraft fitted with an Airborne Instrumentation Sub-system (AIS) Pod, which is essentially an electronic pod that transmits a package of information regarding the flight of the aircraft, such as altitude, speed, heading, G and angle of attack etc. All these data are received on the ground for analysis. It is possible to follow air to air combat in real time very accurately within 15 feet (4.6m) and when the flight has ended the data is used extensively during debriefing.
Also situated in Sardinia are some air-to-ground ranges. The Electronic Warfare Instrumented Training Range (EWITR) system is situated at the Poligono Interforze Salto di Quirra (PISQ) aircrew training range at Perdasdefogu. Built in 2005 this range has the latest generation of threat radar simulators and master control stations for aircrew training and tactics development. There are other military ranges situated at Capo Teulada and Capo Frasca in Sardinia. The air to air aerial battles are flown in a military training area over the sea to the east of the island.

The four Spanish Air Force McDonnell Douglas F/A-18A Hornets of Ala 46, 462 Esc took part in all the COMAO’s from day 1 to day 5 of the air war only. Their role in the COMAO’s were both offensive and defensive. Eight Spanish aircrew took part in SF08. The pilots that were not flying on the day participated in support roles at the Exercise Planning Cell in the Deployable Air Operation Centre. The Spanish contingent returned to their home base of Gando in the Canary Islands before the night operations started. Ala 46 have been operating the F/A-18A since 1999.


A special thank you for their direct assistance in the preparation of the article to;

  • Col Luca Capelli, Director of Operations
  • Lt Col Alessandro Alfonsi, Press Officer and Chief of Media Operation Centre
  • Cap Filippo Conti, Media Operation Centre
  • Lt Col Riccardo Bartoln (Chief Safety Officer) and the Media Operation Centre staff who were perfect escorts making sure we were kept safe which being afforded access to a many locations as possible around the air base.


Source: Target Aviation Photography - Philip Stevens
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