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Saudi British Green Flag
RAF Coningsby
Author: Robin Powney
Photography: Author

Should a County Council ever run out of ideas for balancing the books, a good method to bring in extra income would be to call the local RAF base and ask them nicely to host a modestly sized exercise with foreign, out-of-the-ordinary air arm participation. Coningsby and nearby Tattershall have a combined population of about 7,000 people; for a few weeks in late August 2013 through to mid-September, visitors to the area (a fair proportion of those being visitors to the country, never mind the county) could well have outnumbered local inhabitants by a sizeable number.

Exercise Saudi-British Green Flag started at RAF Coningsby on 2nd September and hosted Typhoon and Tornado elements of the Royal Saudi Air Force (al-Quwwāt al-Ğawwiyyah al-Malakiyyah as-Suʿūdiyyah) and, in addition to Coningsby-based Typhoons, temporarily became home to Marham-based Tornados plus a Cobham Falcon 20. The last time the RSAF deployed any jets to the UK was back in 2007 when eight Tornados participated in Saudi Green Flag 07 with 617 Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth. Additionally, some RSAF personnel were embedded with the Ground Control Intercept personnel up at RAF Boulmer. Such an exercise takes some planning and part of that planning was to free up the ramp space by sending ten 29(R) Squadron jets to Akrotiri, Cyprus, on a training exercise.

Events in Syria curtailed those particular plans and, rather than 29(R) Squadron going off to the sunshine, XI(F) Squadron were deployed to Akrotiri on August 29th to provide air defense of British assets should Syria see their threats through.  This was the day after 29(R) Squadron was repositioned to RAF Waddington. Much of the squadron, except five jets, made the short journey “up the road” on August 28th and continued flying pretty much as usual albeit from their temporary home instead. The five jets, plus four XI(F) Squadron jets not in Cyprus, were all operated by 3(F) Squadron during the exercise. Of the six XI(F) Squadron jets (albeit one being in 3(F) Squadron markings) that left for Cyprus, four did so fully “tooled up” with the full anti-air complement of four AIM-132 ASRAAMs and four AIM-120 AMRAAMs whilst the remaining two eschewed the ordnance for a full set of three fuel tanks. Presumably, this was the quickest, easiest and cheapest way of getting the jets, weapons and fuel tanks into theatre.

The RAF Tornado GR4s hailed from RAF Marham and though personnel came from II(AC), IX(B) and 31 Squadron, as is to be expected of the Tornado force now, the markings on the jets were rather redundant  – during the course of the exercise, jets seen included two with II(AC) Squadron markings, one with XV(R) Squadron markings, another with 31 Squadron marks and three were, code atop the tail excepted, unmarked although one did still feature Operation ELLAMY mission marks on the port-side forward fuselage. The initial jets, operated by IX(B) Squadron, arrived at Coningsby on August 30th under MARHAM callsigns. Although the Tornado force is essentially on borrowed time with 12 and 617 Squadrons to disband in March 2014, it would have been quite fair to say that the almost endless number of visitors were there solely for the participants from the largest Arab state in the Middle East, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Prior to the exercise actually starting, supporting a fast jet deployment the best part of 3,000 miles from home meant quite an amount of supplies were required to be flown in from Saudi Arabia. The fact that the exercise provided substantial insights into the deployment of a potent strike detachment to just about anywhere they so pleased clearly wouldn’t have been lost on anybody. With just nine C-130H Hercules’, 8 Wing’s 4 & 16 Squadrons from Prince Abdullah AB near the Red Sea coast city of Jeddah, flew more than twenty-five flights between Saudi Arabia and Coningsby. Flying from King Fahd AB to Heraklion in Greece then onto Coningsby, the volume required was quite visible as piles of supplies outside 29(R) Squadron facilities increased like someone was playing Tetris. After just two hours or so of unloading, refueling and swapping crews, the C-130s were airborne heading for home, to do the same again when they got back to King Fahd AB. Another pre-exercise visitor was a Cessna 550 Citation II which arrived on August 28th and departed for home on the 30th.

Alongside the Royal Australian Air Force, United Arab Emirates Air Force and our own Royal Air Force, the RSAF is one of just four operators of the A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) but this club could be bolstered by Qatar, India and France. Saudi Arabia initially placed an order for three in very early 2008 with a further three being ordered about eighteen months later. By the time of the exercise, three had been delivered to the RSAF; the first of which became operational with 24 Squadron at Prince Sultan AB in February 2013. Whilst being the first occasion that the RSAF had trailed aircraft with them, it was additionally the first time anybody had operationally trailed aircraft with the type.  With the A330 support, the Typhoons flew directly to Coningsby from their home base at King Fahd AB near Taif in Western Saudi Arabia, a trip of more than 2,500nm. Putting that into some form of perspective, for Green Flag 07, the Tornados were refuelled in Saudi airspace by KC-130Hs then made fuel stops in Greece (Souda), Italy (Trapani) and even in the UK (Marham). Taking away the requirement for other nations’ facilities ensures they aren’t needed or relied upon if putting formidable air power on somebody else’s doorstep is required. Two A330 MRTTs were involved, one providing the Typhoons with fuel en-route, whilst the other carried much required ground crews, support personnel and probably additional Typhoon and Tornado aircrew. Upon nearing the UK, the Typhoons were left to their own devices and the MRTTs headed west for an overnight stay at RAF Brize Norton. It would be reasonable to assume that their experiences were shared with RAF Voyager personnel.

As the Typhoons were trailed by the A330, all four arrived at Coningsby together on August 27th and were arrived under the callsigns MASTER01-04. Three of the four were single seat FGR.54s with a two-seater T.53 being the fourth. Although all were operated by 2 Wing’s 3 Squadron at King Fahd AB near Taif in Western Saudi Arabia, only the T.53 carried squadron markings. Unlike the Typhoons, the Tornados weren’t brought over behind a tanker and made do with the “old fashioned” solution of hopping across the continents – they left King Abdul Aziz AB in Dharhan out in the east of the country and made a stop at Grosseto AB, Italy although for this first leg they did refuel from an MRTT which went on to Brize Norton for a night-stop. The first pair arrived on August 27th as GREEN01 & 02 whilst the second pair followed a day later due to technical issues, also as GREEN01 & 02. Though all four were operated by 75 Squadron, two had 75 Squadron marks whilst the other two had 83 Squadron marks. Both 75 & 83 Squadrons are, however, part of 11 Wing.

The Royal Saudi Air Force became the sole export sale for the Tornado when a deal, “al-Yamamah”, was agreed between the UK and Saudi Arabia in September 1985 – the deal initially included, amongst other items, forty-eight Tornado IDSs and twenty-four Tornado ADVs plus munitions such as the JP233, Sea Eagle, ALARM and Skyflash to hang off them. At least twenty-five IDSs (twenty-two with 7 Squadron and three with the fledgling 66 Squadron) and all twenty-four ADVs (twelve each with 29 Squadron and 34 Squadron) from this initial deal saw action in DESERT SHIELD / DESERT STORM in 1990-1991 and obviously somebody liked what they saw as this deal was subsequently followed up with the 1993 signing of “al-Yamamah II” which saw the RSAF take delivery of a further 48 IDSs over the course of the next few years.

A further deal, al-Salam, which was finally signed in September 2007, saw the Saudis join the Eurofighter club with an order for seventy-two jets. Part of this deal was that the ADVs acquired under al-Yamamah would be bought back by the UK government but the overall al-Salam contract has an expected cost of about £10 billion. The first twenty-four jets, built by BAE at Warton, are Tranche 2 standard and were originally intended for RAF service – the remaining forty-eight are to be built under license at at Taif AB by Alsalam Aircraft Company. Of the initial batch of twenty-four, the first pair left Warton on 23 June 2009 for their new home of Taif with stops en-route in France, Malta and Egypt and by the time of Green Flag 07, Taif would have been home to nearly 30 aircraft.

The four deployed Tornados had all been through the £2.5 billion “Tornado Sustainment Programme” (TSP) which means most of the Saudi IDS fleet is now roughly equivalent to the RAF’s GR4s in terms of avionics fit and are capable of employing the latest targeting and precision guided munitions systems such as Brimstone and even Storm Shadow. The Saudi jets are, however, a little different in that the Saudi’s are more cosmopolitan in terms of where they source their defence products and, historically, they come from all over the place. For instance, whilst the RAF employs Northrop/Rafael LITENING III RD targeting pods, the Saudis use the Thales Damocles pod and where a GR4 could be fitted with MBDA AIM-132 ASRAAMs for self-defence, a RSAF IDS could wield the Diehl AIM-2000 IRIS-T instead. One other difference was also quite easily picked up by the crowds of people and was much more obvious – the RSAF IDSs were just plain noisier than their GR4 cousins.

With the exception of the initial orientation flights in the first couple of days flying (which might have been little more than a refresher for some of the Typhoon pilots who went through training at Coningsby; for instance, Brigadier General Mohammed al-Shahrani, the RSAF detachment commander with hours on the IDS and F-15, underwent training at Coningsby in 2008), a typical mission would last for 1-2 hours and constituted four RAF Typhoons, four RSAF Typhoons, four RAF Tornados, four RSAF Tornados and a Falcon 20 with two missions being flown daily; one mid-morning at about 10am and one in the afternoon at about 2pm. Departures basically saw the Falcon 20 depart first then RSAF aircraft paired up with their RAF opposite numbers with the RAF jets essentially ‘leading’ the RSAF jets. However, other assets were involved – E-3D Sentry AEW.1s flew out of Waddington whilst 100 Squadron Hawks flying out of Leeming provided “red air” aggressors. Somewhat interestingly, ignoring the Cobham Falcon 20s using Vader and Zodiac, both Typhoons and Tornados used what have been predominantly Typhoon callsigns – Chaos, Getsum, Nightmare, Rampage, Zenith (all 3(F) Squadron), Gringo, Razor (both XI(F) Squadron) & Cobra (29(R) Squadron) – plus 31 Squadron’s “Monster”. Eight Typhoons followed out by eight Tornados is an impressive thing to witness. With the RAF due to retire the Tornado by 2019, the chances are slim that the same will ever be seen again.

Details of what mission profiles were flown are scant but assumptions can be made based on observations. For instance, no Typhoons were seen with any targeting pods or air to ground munitions – the RAF jets flew in the commonly seen fit of two wing tanks, a Rangeless Airborne Instrumented Debriefing System (RAIDS) pod and some with an ASRAAM; the RSAF jets flew with two wing tanks, the centre line belly tank, a RAIDS pod and an IRIS-T. It’s quite reasonable, then, to assume that they flew air superiority type missions, doubtless both with and against the Tornados. During Operation ELLAMY, the RAF flew mixed formations of Typhoon and Tornado on some missions as the Typhoon provided the situational awareness lacking in the Tornado. It is therefore possible, or even extremely likely, that such lessons were reproduced in the exercise.

The RSAF Tornados flew missions with and without Carrier Bomb Light Stores (CBLS) which is an aerodynamic fairing to carry up to four practice bombs per unit and whilst the RAF Tornados didn’t change their “offensive” mission fit, the electronic defensive fit of various aircraft were different - the RSAF IDSs carried the fairly typical BOZ-107 chaff/flare pod on the outer starboard pylon and Sky Shadow 2 ECM pod on the outer port pylon; some RAF Tornados were seen with that same fit, some with a pair of BOZ-107 pods and at least one with a BOZ-107 pod together with a different, yet very similar, BOZ-107 pod. The practice bombs are small, lightweight at about 12-13kg and inert yet they are designed such that, when released, they behave exactly like larger bombs like the Mk82 and have a spotting charge to release a cloud of smoke on impact. Considering the two belly rails on a Tornado can mount sixteen practice bombs in four CBLS, they provide for comparatively cheap training. The practice bombs were standard types and not Laser Guided Training Rounds (LGTRs) so the LITENING and Damocles pods could have been used for target ID but not actually for precision targeting or ‘lasing’. The electronic warfare range at Spadeadam was featured during the exercise so, when the CBLS was not fitted, it might be reasonable to assume that this range formed part of the mission.

The last day of flying was Friday 13th September which afforded an opportunity for photos. Four jets were arranged on the ASP - 3(F) Squadron Typhoon and a 31 Squadron-marked GR4 along with Saudi equivalents – together with all Coningsby-based personnel involved forming the rough shape of a Typhoon. That afternoon the base went into full PR mode which saw a Typhoon FGR.4, with Flt Lt Jamie “Noz” Norris at the helm, and Spitfire PR.XIX perform a handful of flypasts before the Typhoon and Spitfire performed single displays which were then followed up by a Lancaster display.  No doubt after a few goodbyes, the six GR4s at Coningsby left for Marham and home with five leaving under the II(AC) and 31 Squadron callsigns of Deathray and Monster with the sixth using Marham. The remaining visitors would see out the weekend in Lincolnshire and leave for home on Monday 16th.

That also meant everything they did to get equipment into the UK had to be done all over again, backwards, and that afternoon a 4 Squadron C-130H dropped in to kickstart the proceedings. Over the weekend, a 24 Squadron A330 MRTT that arrived at Brize on Friday left on Sunday morning but a further two 4 Squadron A330 MRTTs later arrived to trail the Typhoons and Tornados home. First out of Coningsby on Monday 16th were the four Tornados as Green 01 Flight at a relatively early 0900 followed by the four Typhoons as Master 01 Flight at 1000. Whilst the C-130Hs were in and out of Coningsby numerous times for the rest of the week, 29(R) Squadron were also making a homeward trip and came back from Waddington on the 17th.

We can but hope the Saudis are once again seen at RAF Coningsby at some point in the future.