OCEAN SKY 2020
Report and images by George Karavantos
January 12, 2021
The exercise Ocean Sky 2020, formerly known as DACT (Dissimilar Air Combat Training), led by the Ejército del Aire (Spanish Air Force), took place at Gando Air Base at Canary Islands from 17 – 30 October 2020. During that period Spanish and French fighter aircraft trained together to increase their operational readiness, simulating various scenarios in the Canarian archipelago.
Despite the negative effect of the Covid-19 to all the major aviation events of the year necessitating the cancelation of almost all exercises and trainings, this year’s Ocean Sky 2020 did take place at the end of October offering a unique opportunity for some action before the end of the year. Each year Gando Air Base (as the military part of the airfield is known), located at the Gran Canaria island, plays host to a large number of aircraft from various Spanish Air Force units from the mainland, together with invited nations, to participate in this exercise.
The Spanish Air Force base at Gando, at the international airport of Gran Canaria, is the home of the Ala 46 (46 Wing), equipped with a single squadron of McDonnell-Douglas FA-18A+ Hornets, together with a Search and Rescue (SAR) squadron equipped with the CN-235 and Eurocopter AS332 Super Puma.
The first ever DACT exercise was held in 2004 and it started initially as an exercise involving Spanish Air Force units only, but over the years it has seen participation from the Spanish Navy, Belgian Air Component, French Air Force, German Air Force, United States Air Force and the NATO Airborne Early Warning Force. Of course the involvement of foreign nations operating types not in the Spanish inventory means that the DACT theme becomes even more realistic. DACT 2017 saw the participation of the Italian Air Force while the 2019 event saw the participation of 12 F-15C/D Eagles from USAFE along with F-16Cs from Turkey.
The only foreign participation in Ocean Sky 2020 exercise was from France, but considering this year’s global crisis, it’s still an achievement! The Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) was participating with a C-135FR Stratotanker and thirteen Rafales. The Rafale units were from Escadre de Chasse 30 at Mont-de-Marsan with the Rafale C and Escadre de Chasse 4 at Saint Dizier/Robinson with the Rafale B.
Spain of course deployed all its current jet fighter inventory comprised of EF-18M Hornets, Eurofighters along with the EAV-8B+Harrier of the Spanish Navy. The Hornets were supplied by both mainland Spain based units, Ala (Wing) 12 from Torrejon and Ala 15 from Zaragoza. Of course, Gando’s own Hornets from Escuadron 462 from Ala 46 also took part. The Eurofighters came from both Ala 11 at Moron de la Frontera, as well as from the newly formed Ala 14 from Albacete.
Apart from the fighters, a French E-3F Sentry took part in the exercise coordinating all the air assets along with an A400M from the 31th Wing which had the role of the refueller aircraft. Of course the local based aircraft were contributing in the SAR cover.
The principle aims of Ocean Sky exercise are to increase interoperability between different types of aircraft, as well as evaluate and improve the tactics, techniques and procedures.
Missions initially commence on a 1v1 basis involving basic Air Combat Manoeuvres (ACM). As the exercise evolves, the missions become more complex, with more aircraft involved, allowing 6v6 and 6v8 scenarios, which include offensive counter-air, defensive counter-air and beyond visual range missions involving up to 25 aircraft. The missions are also flown in conjunction with high value assets such as aerial refuellers, airborne early warning aircraft and other ‘slow movers’. Search & rescue (SAR) aircraft, both fixed-wing and rotary-wing also participate in the exercise. Thus, the tempo is very high, two waves of 20+ planes are being launched twice a day, but since Gando is equipped with two parallel runways, the aircraft are able to conduct missions almost unhindered by the civilian traffic operating into and out of the airport.
This year’s exercise had also another special aspect. In the vast area of the Archipelago, the Spanish Air Force had the chance to test and check along with the French Rafales the capabilities of the recently acquired missile Meteor, which is going to equip the Spanish Eurofighters.
Whilst it may seem strange to conduct such an exercise from a chain of islands located some 1,700 km away from the Spanish mainland, the Canarian archipelago provides ideal circumstances for fast-jet operations. Low commercial traffic levels at Gando, during that period of time, combined with a large area south of the Islands with unrestricted air space, enables the aircraft to fly at supersonic speeds, at any altitude, without the fear of incursions from civilian traffic. Combined with its good climate with small variations throughout the year, it’s the perfect place for large scale exercises like this one.
The Combat Air Command (El Mando Aéreo de Combate/MACOM) is responsible for the planning, direction and execution of the exercise, as well as its subsequent evaluation. The purpose of the exercise is to test the command and control structure of MACOM and the means available to NATO for the defence of the Canaries; providing advanced training in a variety of missions, with a gradual increase in both the number of participating aircraft and the difficulty of the mission, in the most realistic possible environment. For the Air Force, leader of the exercise, it represents a challenge in which it involves almost its entire operational structure, from MACOM, the host Gando Air Base in Gran Canaria and the Guacimeta Military Aerodrome in Lanzarote dependent on the Air Command de Canarias, MACAN, RCC Canarias, Gando Alert and Control Group, GRUALERCON, Second Squadron to Support the Air Deployment SEADA of Tablada (Seville), EADA of Zaragoza, Mobile Group of Air Control, GRUMOCA, Computer Centre of Management, CIGES, in addition to a representation of the Tactical Leadership Program, TLP de Albacete.
The task of air refuelling is also essential. In this vast airspace of 470km x 300km area, the aircraft require extra fuel to stay inside the training zone for an extra period of time. This task was always fulfilled by the KC-130Hs of the 31st Wing of the Spanish Air Force, but this year the aircraft was the gigantic A400M. Spain is intending to sell 10 C-130 of its Hercules fleet, (1C-130H-30, 4 C-130H and 5 KC-130H). These Spanish cargo aircraft are going to be released for sale by the end of the year, when Spanish Air Force will receive another 2 A400M.
The Hercules fleet started its service with the Spanish Air Force in 1973, while all of them have completed an upgrade program. Currently the Spanish Air Force utilizes 10 A400M, which are going to become 14 by 2022.
The future of Hornets and Eurofighters:
Nowadays the first line of defence of the Spanish air force is comprised of Eurofighter Typhoons and EF-18M Hornets. The current EF-18M version came from a mid-life upgrade (MLU) program made by CASA to 67 of the original 72 EF-18s. The upgrade began in 2000 and ended in 2009.
The main modernization consisted of a new tactical computer, known as Tactical Pilot Awareness Computer (TPAC) and the addition of new colour cockpit screens, enhanced friend or enemy identification (IFF), a new communication system that includes Have Quick II radios and an updated GPS navigation system. Added internal/external lighting compatible with night vision goggles (NVG), along with a four-channel video data recorder. Provisions were made for the introduction of the Multifunctional Information Distribution System (MIDS), and a new initial control panel.
This was the main upgrade, but over the next few years, some new smaller elements have been added: the most important in 2010, with the introduction of gun control and MIDS upgrades, plus the SPAI-900 EW suite, comprising AN/ALR, the 400, AN/ALQ-500 and AN/ALE-47 subsystems, and the long-range Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile.
Taurus KEPD 350 is a German/Swedish Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) that is manufactured by Taurus Systems GmbH, a partnership between MBDA Germany and Saab Dynamics. The missile has a range of +500 kilometres (300 mi), a speed of Mach 0.8-0.9 and stealth features. It is optimized for attacking deep buried bunkers and infrastructure even in anti-access and area denied environments.
The latest upgrade, which took place in 2017, included the helmet-mounted Thales Scorpion display and a ROVER data link for the targeting and targeting pod. The Thales Scorpion provides dynamic full-colour flight and mission data in a day/night viewfinder on the HGU-55 helmet.
Spain is the latest European country which decided to buy more Eurofighter multirole fighter jets to bolster its air force. The manufacturer announced the previous month that it is now in negotiations with the Spanish government for the replacement of its 20 F-18A/B+ Hornets under the so-called “Project Halcón” (Project Hawk).
These Hornet jets are the survivors from the last batch of 24 delivered from U.S. stocks. Although they have been modernized to the A/B+ standards, which essentially brought them up to a standard comparable with the U.S. Navy’s F/A-18C/D, the airframes are old and now require replacement as a matter of priority.
The 20 new Typhoons that will be delivered will be according to the “latest standard,” including the Captor-E Mk 1 active electronically- scanned array (AESA) radar. The Spanish Air Force has received all 73 Typhoons from its initial order, which comprised of 59 single-seaters and 14 two-seaters. The last Spanish Air Force Typhoon from the original order was delivered in the beginning of 2020, when the final Tranche 3 jet arrived at Albacete-Los Llanos Air Base on January 9. Three of these fighters have been lost in accidents, but the remaining 70 are all still active, forming a modern and highly capable fleet alongside with the EF-18M multirole fighters.
Spanish Typhoons, like those for the other European core customers – Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom – were delivered in three different “tranches” with significant differences in terms of avionics and capabilities. Airbus Defence and Space is also currently undertaking a program at Getafe to upgrade the 17 surviving Spanish Tranche 1 aircraft to incorporate later Tranche 2 and Tranche 3 equipment, which would confer a full multirole capability and aims to complete the program in 2023.
While Spain is making efforts to ensure its Typhoon fleet remains capable, and to replace the oldest F/A-18A+s, there is still a question over the future of the remaining Hornet fleet. Spain may yet buy even more new Typhoons as it looks to replace the entire EF-18 fleet between 2025 and 2030, although exactly how many extra Eurofighters may be required is unclear and the future of this effort will likely be influenced by the progress made on the European Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which involves France, Germany, and Spain. The FCAS initiative plans to field a sixth-generation stealthy manned fighter and accompanying unmanned platforms by 2040.