Under Scottish Skies – Air Superiority

While the Typhoon so far has seen combat solely in the air-to-ground role, there is no mistaking in that the primary role of RAF Lossiemouth lies elsewhere. The base is the northern of RAF’s two quick-reaction alert bases, abbreviated as QRA(N). As such, a pair of armed Typhoons stand guard around the clock, year round. These are airborne within ten minutes of the scramble, often with time to spare. While the usual ‘bogey’ for QRA(S) down at RAF Coningsby is an airliner gone silent (usually due to having the wrong radio frequency), RAF Lossiemouth handles the classic North Sea intercept of any Russian bombers coming down round Norway. This includes “Bears in different versions”, presumably meaning that both the Tu-95 bomber version and the Tu-142 maritime patrol versions has been sighted, as well as the Tu-160 Blackjack. The latter is something of a newcomer in the area, starting to make appearances only post-Crimea. By the time any bomber approaches the British isles, they are always escorted by Norwegian F-16s, which hand over the mission to the Typhoons. Notably, the Typhoons has been on station and escorted the Tu-160 during the strikes in Syria which have been flown along the western route, circumnavigating the UK.

Scottish mountains

“Deliver QRA(I)N and prepare for global operations”
RAF Lossiemouth mission statement

All QRA flights are armed with a mix of four ASRAAM short-range IR-missiles and four AMRAAM medium-range missiles, of which two ASRAAM would be traded for another two AMRAAM in case of a ‘wartime load’. In addition, the aircraft are sporting two supersonic drop tanks and a full load of 27 mm ammunition for the internal Mauser gun. While RAF’s QRA flights haven’t had to open fire upon intercepted aircrafts in modern times, the risk is always there. And nowhere is this more evident than in the Baltics, where the Typhoon face the most modern fighters that Russia has to offer.

Wing Commander Billy Cooper is the officer commanding 6 Squadron, and an experienced fighter pilot who has logged over 1,300 hours on the Typhoon after transitioning to it from the Tornado F.3, RAF’s earlier QRA jet. Before joining the Lossiemouth based squadron, he took part in a Baltic Air Policing tour with the Coningsby based 3(F) Squadron, being deployed to Šiauliai in Lithuania. The detachment brought some interesting challenges to the RAF, as the facilities of the old Soviet base were overcrowded. A number of portable cabins were shipped out for the personnel to live in, while the Typhoons were allocated unheated soft-skin hangars throughout the stay. While these did offer a measure of protection from the wind and precipitation, this still meant that all maintenance work on the planes were performed in whatever the outside temperature happened to be. While the detachment had “relatively small issues with the climate”, as Cooper put it, a more unexpected issue appeared. Soon after arrival, the British airmen spotted a “large, elk-like creature” towards the far end of the base. Large mammals was not something that RAF was used to operating around, but with the proper procedures in place, air operations could continue.

If the QRA(N) gets scrambled once every few months, BAP is another issue completely. The latest tour by 2(AC) Squadron to Ämari air base in Estonia resulted in 42 intercepted aircraft during their 4 month long stay. In addition to the normal weaponry a targeting pod was often carried, being particularly useful in the identification of ships. Some targets are trickier than others, with Cooper mentioning one of his personal highlights being the intercept of a Kamov Ka-27 helicopter launched from a Russian frigate. After he had intercepted the helicopter, the Finnish Air Force also appeared and closed in to take a look on it.

Cooper

“We were briefed quite closely to not interact with them too much”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON

The behavior of the Russian pilots varied widely, and while the British pilots where briefed to maintain their cool, Cooper was under the impression that their Russian colleagues were more free to engage their adversaries as they saw fit. This included aggressively turning against any intercepting fighters trying to take pictures of them, and while no-one tries to cause a mid-air collision, the short distances between the aircrafts (Typhoons often closing to within 65 meters of their targets) meant that the risk certainly was there. This kind of behavior was more common if the Russian fighters were flying escort for transport or attack/bomber aircraft, and apparently also depended on the personal style of the pilots. “Sometimes you closed in and thought for yourself ‘isn’t that the one from last week’, and sure enough he starts doing the same kind of things this time around as well,” Cooper explained. When asked whether he had experienced the kind of aggressive flare dumping described by the Swedish Air Force, he commented that he hadn’t personally seen it, “but it wouldn’t surprise me”. Both sides carry flares on a regular basis, and in addition to being defensive countermeasures, their purpose does include (stern) signalling. Some Russian pilots did use other means of less-than-friendly communication, while RAF’s pilots stuck to smiles and occasional waves.

Cooperation with the Finnish Air Force is not uncommon for the BAP, with Finnish Air Force and BAP sharing a common recognised air picture and sharing data over Link 16. During intercepts over the Gulf of Finland, it was not uncommon to have a pair of BAP fighters shadowing a Russian target from the south, with a pair of Finnish F/A-18C Hornets doing the same from the north. Operating together in this manner is no problem, as both the RAF and Finnish Air Force share the same doctrine and has the ability to use the same data link. “It is the same as operating with a NATO-country”, Cooper sums up. In addition to chance encounters on intercepts, the two air forces regularly do schedule joint training missions.

Cooper and media

“You need something that can fight long-range and dominate short-range”
WING COMMANDER BILLY COOPER, OFFICER COMMANDING 6 SQUADRON

The nature of aerial combat also was also something which came up. With the advent of a new generation of long-range missiles and sensors, many have concluded that the classic within-visual-range dogfight is (finally) dead. Cooper wasn’t as sure, noting that he could see quite a few scenarios where a fighter would find itself uncomfortably close to its target before being able to open fire. The main question was to what extent the rules of engagement would allow for firing at targets beyond visual range, or if a visual confirmation will be required first. In any case, RAF has taken their Typhoons on exercises against both Indian Sukhoi Su-30MKI and Malaysian Su-30MKM, and contrary to some Indian reports, the “Typhoon did extremely well” against the Su-30MKI at close range, while long range engagements were a matter of “clubbing seals” (an expression BAE was quick to explain is fighter pilot jargon for easy air-to-air kills, in case someone would have misunderstood its use…). In the end, “the Indians weren’t happy”, despite their pilots spending much of their time practicing within visual range combat according to Cooper.

It is no secret that while the Finnish Air Force is looking for a fighter able to handle a range of missions in a full-scale conventional war, the main mission during peacetime is QRA and air policing in the crowded airspace over the Baltic Sea. This is also a point which BAE likes to push, and certainly one of the better selling points of the Typhoon. That isn’t to say that BAE is trying to sell the fighter with its peacetime mission as the argument (arguably not a great idea…), as they are clear with that they think the Typhoon is a great multirole fighter all around. It just happens to be very good at what the Finnish Air Force does in their everyday line of work. At least according to the sales pitch.

The speed is well-known, with the Eurofighter being able to supercruise (though the exact prestanda in supercruise mode is somewhat controversial, with anything between Mach 1.1 to 1.5 being quoted depending on the source and load conditions), but Cooper was also keen to point out the range of the aircraft. Operating alongside the Polish MiG-29’s in BAP, the importance of endurance quickly became evident. While Cooper noted that the Polish Air Force pilots were professional and eager to do a good job, at the same time they did suffer problems due to the notorious short range of their aircraft. At the time these were early production MiG-29 9.12 from ex-DDR stocks, while the Polish detachment which took up the BAP-mission this week is flying F-16’s instead of MiG-29’s. The Typhoon, usually operating with twin supersonic drop tanks, were able to stay on target, despite what appeared to be efforts to shake them off. “Sometimes when the Russian flight came to Kaliningrad, instead of landing they just turned around and headed back north, probably thinking we would have to break off,” Cooper remembered. “We didn’t.”

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