Exercise FALCON EYE-1: Saudi Eagles at Souda

Exercise FALCON EYE-1

“Saudi Eagles at Souda”

Report and photos by George Karavantos

May 25, 2021

In mid-March, the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) deployed six F-15 fighters to Souda Air Base on the Greek island of Crete to take part in a joint exercise with the Hellenic Air Force (HAF). The exercise, called Falcon Eye-1, marked the first major joint air drill between the two nations. George Karavantos reports.

THE EXERCISE:

From 16 until 26 of March, the Hellenic Air Force hosted the bilateral exercise named Falcon Eye-1 at the base of 115 Combat Wing in Souda, home of the Greek F-16s Block 52+ which operate from two squadrons: 340Sq (Fox) and 343Sq (Star).

The Saudi Eagles landed in Souda on 13 March and departed on the 28th. There were 5 F-15C (209, 210, 213 and 214) plus 1 F-15D (231). All six F-15 Eagles were coming from the 2nd Squadron of the 7th Wing based at King Faisal Air Base in Tabuk.

Before and after the exercise a big number of supporting aircraft visited the base to bring and extract necessary equipment and personnel. Most of them were C-130Hs belonging to the 4th Squadron and 16th Squadron of the 8th Wing based at Prince Abdullah Air Base in Jeddah. An A330MRTT, belonging to the 24th Squadron of the 6th Wing based at Prince Sultan Air Base in Al Kharj, was also utilised for their long trip to Greece and back.

Each day there were two waves of fighters that were launched, one during the morning and one in the afternoon. Each time both Greek squadrons were launching 4-5 fighters each along with 4 Saudi F-15s.

The exercise’s scenarios were focused mainly in air-air engagements like Air Superiority / Supremacy missions, since these specific fighters of the RSAF are specialized in this role, but some strike missions were also planned and performed against some high value ground targets. The HAF cooperated also with the Hellenic Navy and some of the missions included striking frigates as high-value asset targets.

During the exercise the Saudi aircraft were not only trained with the F-16s of 115 Combat Wing, but with other aircraft of the Hellenic inventory. Greek F-16s from other bases of Greece along with Mirage 2000s and F-4 Phantoms II fighters were involved in different scenarios of air defence, close air support and ground attack activities over mainland and the Aegean Sea.

Col. Abdulrahman Al-Shehri, commander of the RSAF detachment said the exercise was exceptional and unique of its kind. “The Hellenic Air Force was able to refine and develop the technical skills of our air crews who exchanged experiences in all available fields”, he added.

Greece is the perfect place for hosting such exercises since its rough terrain in combination with the Aegean Sea offers a great landscape for mission planners and crews to simulate different kinds of scenarios. Also, there are no densely populated areas and no competing air traffic to compromise the realism and the quality of training. Another encouraging factor is the excellent weather of Greece which offers the ability to fly and train at all altitudes.

On the 19th of March, a “Distinguished Visitors” (DV) Day took place which was honoured by the presence of Greek and Saudi Chiefs of National Defence General Staff, General Konstantinos Floros and General Fayyad bin Hamed Al-Ruwaili, who visited Greece for the first time.

It is no secret that the Hellenic Government is seeking for this kind of military cooperation with other countries of the region like Israel, Egypt, United Arab Emirates in order to show a unanimous position towards its intense neighbouring country, Turkey. It was not a coincidence that HAF had similar exercises with UAE Air Force last October (again in Souda), with French Air Force in February and while the exercise Falcon Eye-1 was taking place, Greek fighters were also flying training sorties with F/A-18Es from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower which was deployed at the Aegean Sea. In fact during the final day of the exercise, the aircraft carrier visited Souda Bay and stayed there for a few days.

Relevant to the above was a statement that General Konstantinos Floros made: “The important presence of the Saudi Armed Forces in Souda is added to, among others, those of the United Arab Emirates, France, the USA and Cyprus and highlights the important role of Crete in consolidating security and stability in the wider region of the Central and Eastern Mediterranean as well as the Middle East”.

Saudi F-15s:

Since the early 80s, Saudi Arabia has received more than 220 F-15 fighters becoming the third largest operator of the type after the United States and Japan. The Saudi Arabian government at Riyadh initially ordered 47 F-15Cs and 15 F-15Ds under the Foreign Military Sales project Peace Sun as replacements for the BAC Lightning interceptor. The first deliveries provided 46 F-15Cs and 16 F-15Ds, for a total of 62 aircraft; the US Congress had initially specified that the Saudis should have no more than 60 Eagles, but two were lost in accidents, and replacements were provided.

The delivery of these 62 Peace Sun F-15C/Ds lasted from January 1982 to May 1983 and were supplied to the 5th Squadron at King Fahad AFB in Taif, the 6th Squadron at King Khaled AFB in Khamis Mushayt, and to the 13th Squadron at King Abdul Aziz AFB at Dharan. In October 1987 a supplementary order of 12 more F-15s (nine C, three D) under Peace Sun VI was signed and the deliveries took place in late 1991 until February 1992. During the Gulf War, the limitation that had originally given by the Congress was lifted and another 24 F-15C/Ds were transferred from the USAF in Europe to build up the Saudi fighting strength. Some sensitive countermeasures gear was removed from these aircraft before delivery.

After the Gulf War, the Saudis were looking for some extra F-15 fighters. McDonnell Douglas proposed several versions of the Strike Eagle (the F-15F or the F-15H) which were rejected by the Congress. At the end the Congress gave the green light to another version, designated as F-15XP, which first flew on 10 May 1993 and became the F-15S (Saudi).

The F-15S was two-seat aircraft based on the F-15E airframe, with downgraded avionics and simplified Hughes APG-70 radar without computerised radar aperture. Still the new fighter was highly capable in air­-to-ground capability comparable to that already possessed by the Saudi Air Force. The F-15S also had a downgraded self-defence suite. The Saudis did obtain 48 sets of a simplified version of the LANTIRN pod system, featuring the AN/AAQ-19 Sharpshooter targeting pod and the AN/AAQ-20 Pathfinder navigation pod.

The F-15S Eagles started to be delivered in 1995 and in 10 November 1999, the last of 72 F-15S aircraft was delivered to Saudi Arabia. In 2009, the Saudis ordered Lockheed Martin Sniper Advanced Targeting Pods to replace the LANTIRN targeting pods used on the F-15S.

In 29 December 2011 the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that it had reached an agreement to purchase from the US government 84 new Boeing F-15 fighter aircraft and to upgrade 68 of its existing F-15s, which were later on reduced to 66 due to losses.

The new F-15 aircraft for Saudi Arabia was designated F-15SA (Saudi Advanced). It had a new fly-by-wire flight control system in place of the hybrid electronic/mechanical system used by previous F-15s. The F-15SA included the APG-63(V)3 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, digital electronic warfare systems (DEWS), and infrared search and track (IRST) systems. The aircraft had two additional wing stations for increased payload and capability. It also had a redesigned cockpit once intended for the F-15SE Silent Eagle. The F-15SE was a proposed fifth generation stealth fighter variant, which featured internal weapons carriage and radar-absorbent material for some potential customers like Saudi Arabia, Israel, Japan, and South Korea.

The Silent Eagle featured Conformal Weapons Bays (CWB) to hold weapons internally instead of fuel tanks. The twin vertical tailfins were canted 15 degrees outward to reduce its radar cross section. The first production F-15E (s/n 86-0183), was modified to become the Silent Eagle demonstrator. It first flew in July 2010 with a left-side conformal weapons bay and successfully launched an AMRAAM missile from the CWB in July 2010. However the project was abandoned since the Saudis chose to procure the F-15SA, while Israel, Japan and South Korea selected the F-35 instead.

The first of 150 Boeing F-15SA Eagle fighters arrived in the Kingdom on 13 December 2016. The initial four aircraft, comprised of two remanufactured F-15S (93-0857 and 93-0899) and two new build F-15SA platforms (12-1006 and 12-1010), arrived at King Khalid Air Base (KKAB) in Saudi Arabia. Deliveries of the 84 new build and 66 remanufactured F-15SAs were originally schedule from 2015 through to 2019, but development problems pushed this schedule back by about 12 months, from 2016 until 2020.

For more than four decades the F-15 Eagle has been the mainstay in the inventory of the Royal Saudi Air Force. The Air Force operates not only some older, but still capable F-15C/Ds, which are now facing the sunset of their careers but also a huge number of highly capable modern fighters with many years of service to offer. These aircraft will definitely bring the RSAF to the doorstep of the selection of its 5th generation fighter aircraft.

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George Karavantos
Photojournalist at Aviation Photography Digest
George Karavantos is from Athens, Greece. His love with military aviation started at the age of 10 when he accidentally read a Greek aviation magazine. Since then, he never stopped reading about fighter aircraft and taking photos of them. He was too tall to become a fighter pilot, so he became an airline pilot. Nowadays he is a Captain and a Flight Instructor on the A320 aircraft. Despite his profession, military aviation will always be his obsession.
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