“In order to assure an adequate national defense, it is necessary — and sufficient — to be in a position in case of war to conquer the command of the air.” – Italian General Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air
Early on in the age of the airplane, convincing leaders air power was key to the future of warfare was an uphill struggle. Many notable commanders dismissed the notion of the aircraft having its place in any sort of military engagement. Nowadays, it is easy for us to consider such a viewpoint incredibly short-sighted; but, imagine yourself in the early 1900s when the airplane was new-fangled technology in its infancy. How could such a fragile machine of wood and fabric revolutionize the way wars are fought?
What would have become of the tactical aircraft if not for the likes of the French-born American William “Billy” Mitchell, or the British General Hugh “Boom” Trenchard?
The two World War I contemporaries met while fighting in France, and both argued in favor of air power as a key strategy for winning wars. To prove his point, in 1921, and after having served as the commander of French-based American flying units, Mitchell orchestrated a demonstration of how air power could be utilized to sink ships. The combined flying force–known as the 1st Provisional Air Brigade–trained and flew their missions from Langley Field in Virginia, where they successfully sent several captured German ships and decommissioned US vessels to watery graves.
Revolutionaries as they were, both military officers were committed to seeing their respective countries develop airborne arsenals and, along with France, each to this day field some of the most formidable air forces in the world – especially when they operate together. All three nations operated together in the heat of conflict almost 100 years ago while the airplane was still in its infancy, but our shared history could be traced back for centuries. More recently though, a collective agreement known as the trilateral strategic initiative (TSI) was formed in 2010 to expound upon the long-established relationships and tradition of partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.
Five years later, and in the spirit of enhancing combined operations, the first Trilateral Exercise was held during the first two weeks of December 2015, appropriately at the home of the USAF’s Air Combat Command and the 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis. The over-arching theme of the exercise was a focus on the anti-access/area denial (A2AD) scenario, a relatively new buzz-word that essentially means contested airspace, from integrated air defense networks (IADS) or a fighter force or any combination thereof.
“For the last 15 years, we’ve been focused on an environment that is very permissive,” says USAF Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh of the service’s recent combat operations. “Our adversaries know what we can do when we own the air and have superiority so they are doing everything they can to deny it with aircraft and weapons and electronic warfare.”
The Royal Air Force has been confronted with a similar situation, primarily conducting counter-insurgency operations alongside the US for the past decade. “We’ve got to bring our baseline capability up, and after 10 years of Afghanistan and Iraq before it, some of those high-end skills have actually drifted away from us. They’re now coming back, and this exercise is an important part of that journey of recovering our high-end capabilities,” says Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, RAF Chief of the Air Staff.
History has since proven Mitchell and Trenchard correct: air power is a fundamental part of war–a veritable game changer. “In today’s warfare, without air power, you lose,” says General Frank Gorenc, the commander of the United States Air Forces in Europe. And as Welsh added, warfare will not stand still.
The Trilateral exercise sought to re-establish that essential truth and reverse the atrophy of skills and the survivability of our airborne warfighters in a contested battlespace. The British and French both brought their newest tactical, swing/multi-role aircraft to Langley for the exercise, with the RAF deploying Eurofighter Typhoons and France’s Armée de l’Air bringing Dassault’s Rafale to work alongside the USAF’s premier 5th-Generation fighter, the Lockheed-Martin F-22A Raptor.
Fighter integration and interoperability was a primary objective for the exercise, with the 4th-Generation European assets combining with the Langley-based Raptors against a ‘Red’ force of F-15E Strike Eagles and T-38 Talons. Each aircraft being “incredibly capable” in its own right, when operated together the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts… when you put these three great airplanes together you can do so much more than individually because they bring strengths that compliment each other that make the whole force that much better,” says General Welsh.
Lieutenant Colonel Scott “Barney” Hoffman, Deputy Division Chief at ACC and project officer for the Trilateral exercise, elaborates on the benefits of having all three fighter types and services operating together: “Each nation brings something important and unique to the fight, but when you add the 5th-Generation platform, there’s a synergistic effect that really expands what you can do in the air beyond a tactical level… by learning how these assets interoperate and interact with other allies, it increases the strategic value when you deploy together and serves as an exponential force multiplier.”
An added benefit of crossing the Atlantic for the Trilateral exercise is the expeditionary aspect – proving a force’s combat units can pick up and deploy elsewhere in the world. Not only that, but to sustain and even elevate combat operations. “We’re generating about 55-58 sorties per day,” says Lieutenant Colonel Hoffman, “and the first several days the sorties mostly involved Basic Fighter Maneuvers (BFM) and local area orientation sorties. Then with each day, we built upon that through more advanced defensive and offensive counter-air sorties. Our scenarios progressively became larger and more complex, ultimately culminating in a large-force exercise and through this approach, the desired level of integration of the various assets was achieved.”
The efficiencies and relationships built and solidified between the three forces will undoubtedly carry over into ongoing and potential operations in the future. But the focus is not just about the aircraft themselves, explains General Gorenc, “the most important thing the aircraft bring is the pilot, or aircrew. The equipment is interesting, learning how to employ them is important, as is learning how to share their capabilities, but getting the pilots and aircrews together to train in order to better understand each other and develop tactics we can use, and to build friendships and trust which is the fabric that holds these coalitions together which makes them successful, that’s what this exercise is really all about.”
While the US has largely enjoyed several decades of air supremacy, if not dominance, air chiefs from all three Trilateral nations foresee the number of A2AD zones increasing in the years to come, creating a major challenge to overcome. Case in point, just look at the tedious picture in Syria, where a host of nations are conducting a wide range of operations within a finite amount airspace, all while some fearsome weaponry is on display on all sides, and where effective communication and deconfliction is essential to saving lives.
Perhaps the most arduous opposition the USAF faces lies here at home, where the most contested environment is the Defense budget. General Welsh speaks adamantly about the need to modernize the USAF’s high-end capability to guarantee that US air power remains uneclipsed in the future. As our own Tyson Wetzel points out, “the USAF has refused to accept a fair fight,” and exercises like the Trilateral event are imperative to ensuring that the US and its allies are able to operate across the full spectrum of combat operations wherever and whenever needed.
The author would like to thank the following for their contributions to this article: General Mark A. Welsh III CSAF; General Frank Gorenc USAFE/CC; General Herbert Carlisle ACC/CC; RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford; FAF General Antoine Creux Deputy CSAF; Lieutenant Colonel Scott Hoffman, ACC/A3O Operations; Captain Kevin Whitlatch JBLE/PA; 2nd Lieutenant Mahalia Frost 633ABW/PA; and Technical Sergeant Katie Ward, 633ABW/PA. (Featured photo by Jonathan Derden)