Nine C-130J transports and thirteen crews from six nations came to RAF Kinloss, Scotland, in May to participate in Exercise Combined Strength, held as part of the regular meeting of the worldwide C-130J Joint User Group, or JUG. The exercise provides an opportunity for C-130J operators to display key tenets put forward in the charter for the JUG Operations Working Group: identify areas of common operation, share information on procedures, and investigate areas for cooperation.
The first Exercise Combined Strength was held in 2004 at the home of the Royal Air Force’s C-130J fleet, RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire, England. The second Combined Strength was held in 2009 at RAAF Richmond near Sydney, although in greatly reduced form. Between the first and second exercises, C-130J operators tended to real-world operations in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and at home.
Combined Strength was held at RAF Kinloss because the base in northern Scotland offers large areas of uncongested airspace. RAF Squadron Leader Simon Brewis, chairman of the JUG Operations Working Group and director of Exercise Combined Strength 2010, noted that “RAF Kinloss has great facilities in terms of being close to unrestricted airspace, a situation clearly different from RAF Lyneham. Because of the many busy civil airfields and the two major London airports not that far away, the airspace at Lyneham is more congested.”
Another reason the exercise was moved to Scotland was to accommodate all participants. “This exercise is the largest Combined Strength ever,” continued Brewis, “so we needed a location where we could operate with relative ease and with more freedom than we have at Lyneham. Besides, RAF Kinloss is also the home of the RAF’s maritime patrol fleet, and we could learn a lot from them.”
The C-130J units at RAF Lyneham (XXIV and 30 Squadrons) led the exercise with an additional seven aircraft from other international operators, including the Royal Norwegian Air Force, the Royal Danish Air Force, and the Italian Air Force.
Operators from the United States included a first-time delegation from the US Coast Guard at CGAS Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Other US participants included the 143rd Airlift Wing, the Rhode Island Air National Guard unit at Quonset Point; and the 37th Airlift Squadron, the United States Air Forces in Europe C-130J squadron at Ramstein AB, Germany. The 37th AS only recently converted fully to the C-130J.
The Royal Australian Air Force was set to be the final participant, but their C-130J was stranded in North America because ash spewing from the Icelandic volcano restricted airspace over the Atlantic Ocean and Europe. The newest C-130J operator, Canada, sent observers to Combined Strength 2010.
The exercise lasted five days, with the aircraft and crews arriving on the Friday preceding the start of the exercise. Briefings were carried out during the weekend on low level flight rules, UK air traffic control procedures, and the overall aims of the exercise. The first sorties were single aircraft familiarization flights to allow non-UK crews an opportunity to get used to local air traffic control procedures, as well as to get used to the Scottish terrain with its many valleys and glens.
The training objectives of the exercise were comprehensive with both day and night missions planned and carried out. Each mission had a qualified UK Low Flying System pilot on board to ensure flight safety considerations and to ensure that the crews got as much as possible out of each mission.
The day-to-day coordination of the exercise was the responsibility of the RAF, with Flight Lt. Matt Compton, an aircraft commander with 30 Squadron, leading the flying schedule and mission coordination. The other RAF pilots from XXIV and 30 Squadrons planned each mission route on a mobile version of their planning software, the J Advanced Mission Planning Aid, or JAMPA.
JAMPA is the C-130J-specific version of the RAF’s main mission planning software program developed for the RAF’s Harrier and Tornado forces. JAMPA simplifies mission planning and emulates the computers on board the C-130J. The software allows the crews to easily transfer the mission data straight into the C-130J computers via a data transfer card.
Once the route and timings were planned, the route was briefed to the other crews to allow them to plan their missions. RAF pilots noted that these routes were not rigid, but rather flexible enough to give crews a point at which to start their missions. Once under way, crews could make realtime changes to the route if needed.
Each mission was planned to last approximately two hours and encompassed a significant part of Scotland and its mountainous terrain. This allowed C-130J crews from participating nations a chance to fly in unfamiliar terrain. All participating nations conducted low level missions through the Scottish low flying area. Only the US Coast Guard was exempted from low level tactical routes missions because it does not normally fly those types of missions. Two drop zones were identified in the route to allow simulated drops by a number of the participants. The RAF conducted a simulated drop using 75 kg loads. Practice drops were also conducted to simulate procedures without releasing cargo.
The Coast Guard crew in their missionized HC-130J conducted missions over the sea range north of RAF Kinloss and close to RAF Lossiemouth. The Elizabeth City crew’s specific search and rescue, or SAR, tasking was of particular interest to the British crews. The RAF C-130J crews have recently taken over long-range SAR coverage following the early retirement of the Nimrod MR2 maritime patrol aircraft previously used to perform this mission.
The HC-130J crew provided capability demonstrations both in the air and on the ground to enable foreign crews to collect pointers on how the Coast Guard crews conduct SAR. The learning opportunity was appreciated by the other crews attending the exercise.
In total, participating crews flew thirty sorties over the course of the exercise. Combined Strength provided an ideal scenario for participating nations to exchange ideas and to discuss recent experiences gained through operating the C-130J. The RAF C-130J crews, for example, have racked up experiences as part of 901 and 904 Expeditionary Air Wings in the Middle East, airlifting troops and supplies into main airfields and forward operating locations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their lessons learned and the procedures and tactics gathered through their operational experience will benefit all operators through such exercises as Combined Strength.
“The purpose of the Operations Working Group and the key area that we are trying to exploit with Exercise Combined Strength is to identify any areas that we operate in common with the other C-130J users,” noted Brewis. “We then share any information we may have on procedures, tactics, and techniques and then look at ways to make our areas of operation better by collaborating and cooperating with other operators. We try to get as many crews as possible to fly with other nations so that all crews can share their experiences.”
The final part of Exercise Combined Strength was to have been a friendly spot landing and airdrop accuracy competition. But because of the volcanic ash-induced airspace restrictions, officials felt competitor departures could be severely delayed. Rather than take that risk, the competition was cancelled, and the teams were sent home a day early. Because the Australians were the winner of the airdrop competition at Combined Strength 2004, the trophy will remain at their base at RAAF Richmond until the next Exercise Combined Strength.
JUG leadership for the Operations Working Group rotates each year. The Royal Norwegian Air Force will host Exercise Combined Strength 2011 next spring at Bodø AS, Norway.
Andrew Beaumont is a freelance aerospace journalist and photographer. Berry Vissers is a director of Squadron Prints Ltd., in addition to being a freelance aerospace journalist and artist. Both live in the United Kingdom.