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Springing the Flag over Sardinia

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Bob Archer reports on Exercise 'Spring Flag', held between 1-18 April

During the first two weeks of April, open warfare raged across the islands to the west of the Italian mainland. Combat operations between rival factions took place, as a coalition force was formed to defend innocent civilians and prevent a humanitarian crisis. However, the warfare was fictitious, and the combat operations a scenario played out on computer screens - Exercise 'Spring Flag' 2008 took place across Sardinia and the Tirreno Sea in the area between Corsica and Sicily in April.

The exercise is the largest and most important hosted by the Italian Air Force, and is designed to evaluate the effectiveness of all branches of their armed forces. In addition to the Air Force, aviation assets from the Army and Navy were involved, along with invited guests from overseas including Germany, Greece, Spain, Turkey, UK, USA, as well as observers from France and Romania. The event was staged between 1-18 April, with familiarisation flying taking place during the first week, followed by day time operations between 7-11 April. The exercise proper took place on 14-17 April, and consisted of night sorties.

The exercise was organised by the Comando Operativo Forze Aeree (COFA) from Poggio Renatico to verify the effectiveness to plan and execute complex multi-tasking operations, both nationally and out of the area. In addition to the traditional Combined Air Operations (COMAO) and Tactical Air Support to Maritime Operations (TASMO), Spring Flag was tailored to include a Combat Search and Rescue element as well as Special Forces involvement.

The majority of assets were located at Decimomannu Air Base in Sardinia, including eight Typhoons from 4 and 36 Stormo, five Tornado IDS from 6 Stormo, five AMX from 51 Stormo (first week only), four MB339CDs (including two armed versions), the sole G222VS SIGINT platform from 14 Stormo, together with an assortment of rotary-winged assets. The overseas contingent consisted of five F-16C/Ds of 142 Filo from Akinci, Turkey, five F-16Cs from 330 Mira at Nea Anghialos, Greece, four EF-18A+ of Ala 46 at Gando Air Base, Las Palmas, Spain, and four Tornado ECRs from JaboG-32 at Lechfeld, Germany, although the latter two units were only participants for the first week. Collectively these formed the 'coalition party' - the 'opposition forces party' were located at Trapani Air Base, Sicily, and were composed entirely of Italian assets, including six F-16A/B of the resident 37 Stormo, and three Navy McDonnell-Douglas AV-8B+ Harrier IIs of 1 Gruppo Aerei from Grottaglie-Taranto. Aerial refuelling was provided by a 100th ARW Boeing KC-135R Stratotanker from Mildenhall deployed to Sigonella, while a NATO E-3A Sentry together with a French Air Force E-3F both flew from Trapani for command and control. Many other Italian flying units participated, with most flying from their home stations.

The scenario followed the now familiar format of tension between two neighbouring states, which escalates into warfare. To bring about a speedy end to hostilities, and to minimise civilian casualties, the United Nations had passed a resolution to enable a coalition force to bring about an end to conflict through coercion. The first few days were devoted to familiarisation and procedures. Flight operations commenced on 7 April with day sorties, although mixed weather conditions contrived to hamper and even curtail some missions. The exercise itself began on 14 April with all the participants launching from Decimomannu as darkness fell. The following two days involved each package beginning their sorties a little earlier, but still continuing well into the hours of darkness. Many were flown to the Capo Perdasdefogu range, in eastern Sardinia, while other missions, including air to air engagements took place over the sea. The full spectrum of combat operations were included, commencing with helicopter sorties to infiltrate special forces, and conventional troops into the combat zone, backed up by close air support tasks by fighters such as the F-16 and Tornado.

Combat air patrol of the fighter packages was performed by the Typhoons. Throughout each mission, the E-3 Sentries monitored all flight activities. A challenging scenario was organised for each mission, formed into a COMAO which was planned and implemented by a different squadron each day. Decimomannu has a dedicated Advanced Warfare Training Instrumentation facility, with the entire infrastructure necessary to fully debrief complex aerial activities to a large number of participants, as well as to small groups of aircrew. Many of the aircraft were fitted with ACMI pods to record aerial manoeuvres for subsequent analysis, while others, such as the Typhoon, have this capability fitted internally as a standard feature.

The exercise finished on 18 April when all the participants returned home. The successful completion of Spring Flag 2008 has enabled all aviation components of the Italian Ministry of Defence to verify their readiness to respond to humanitarian requests both within Italy and overseas. However, weather problems encountered this year will likely see the 2009 event taking place in May.


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