Fighter Weapons Instructor Course
Nov 15, 2014

Humble, credible, approachable. These three words embody the characteristics of those who have undergone, and surpassed, the trials of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s fighter weapons instructor course (FWIC), held at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta.

Within the international fighter pilot community, completing a weapons instructor course is considered the pinnacle of tactical air power employment. The course is designed to offer the most intense flying the selected candidates will ever experience, while at the same time being their greatest academic challenge. If successful, at the end of six arduous months of flying, briefings, debriefings, exams, and criticisms on the way they walk, talk and present themselves, they will finally be able to call themselves Canadian fighter weapons instructors (FWIs).

Course selection begins when a CF-188 Hornet pilot shows up at their first operational squadron. Throughout the early combat readiness upgrade (CRUG) process the pilot becomes a competent wingman, learning how to safely remain in formation while ­effectively employing the jet’s many sensors and weapons.

Six months after completing CRUG, they move on to the element lead upgrade (ELUG). There, the pilot learns, through both academics and flying phases, how to effectively brief, debrief, and lead two CF-188s in a tactical environment.

A selected few are then placed on a ­section lead upgrade (SLUG), where they learn how to lead four CF-188s in tactical scenarios. Throughout this entire process, which can take up to two years, current and qualified FWIs are active participants in the upgrade process. They are constantly assessing, grading, and evaluating all of the unit’s aviators, to include the next generation of potential FWIs.

FWIC’s raison d’être has always been to produce and maintain a selected few fighter pilots with the highest level of tactical proficiency, instructional ability, and intimate knowledge of CF-188 systems and weapons. They are the experts at tactical instruction within the RCAF, and ensure all who pass through CRUG, ELUG and SLUG meet the standard established by the Fighter Standardization and Evaluations Team.

“Fighter weapons instructors are looked upon as not only the tactical leaders on the operational squadrons, but also as mentors and experts in a very complex, three-dimensional battle space,” said Captain Stephen Latwaitis, Fighter Standards and Evaluation Officer. “They are the holders of the standard; the one whose peers and superiors will turn to when ­tactical advice and recommendations are required.”

FWIC has traditionally been run every year, beginning in January and ending during the culmination of the candidate’s training in a “large force employment” scenario, typically at an event such Exercise Maple Flag, six months later. Candidates are identified in the late summer of the preceding year to give them time to prepare for the upcoming challenge. Of approximately 80 to 90 combat-ready fighter pilots in Canada, only four are typically selected to attend FWIC each year, due to the difficult tactical nature of the syllabus and the high demands put on assets, aircraft and support staff.

On day one of the course, the candidates are immediately expected to complete a threshold knowledge exam based on one of the many CF-188 fleet manuals. From that point forward, for the three weeks, the candidates undergo intense ground-based training and academic scenarios focusing on instructional fundamentals, instructional techniques, air-to-air tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), CF-188 air-to-air weapons systems, CF-188 defensive electronics suite systems, threat surface-to-air missile systems, threat air-to-air systems, and threat TTPs.

Interwoven throughout the initial three weeks of academics are many exams and exercises to ensure the candidates are duly engaged. During this period, they will also deliver their minor projects to a cadre of past graduates.

These comprise a 45-minute briefing on a CF-188 system or tactic, designed to have the candidate properly prepare and deliver an instructional lecture. They are evaluated, not only on pure content, but also on the efficacy of the delivery, style in which they present, all mannerisms and gestures during the briefing, overall tone, and how well they react and respond to questions from the audience.

After the initial intense three weeks of academics, the flying phases begin.

November 2013 – Captains Andrew Scarpino (left) and Shamus Allen (right), both CF-18 pilots from 409 Squadron at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, prepare for the day’s missions during Exercise Serpentex 2013 at Solenzara Air Force Base in Corsica, France. (Photo: Master Seaman Steeve Picard)

The candidates will fly basic fighter manœuvres (one versus one), air combat manoeuvring (two versus one) and air combat tactics (up to eight versus an unknown number of adversaries), as well as air-to-air gunnery versus a towed target.

Each mission, within each phase, has a tailored objective for the candidate to brief, fly and debrief. The missions get progressively more complex, requiring the candidate to rely on experience, academics, and cognitive reasoning to come up with a tactically appropriate solution to the problem presented.

The issues and challenges can be as diverse as going up against an unknown adversary in a one-versus-one engagement, to having a known number of threats or undisclosed type of threats appear during a mission. It could also be as simple as removing a capability of the CF-188 from the candidate’s normal repertoire to see how they adapt.

As an example, the instructors may remove the capability of Link 16 (data link) to force certain tactical problems during the mission. In these scenarios, the candidates are expected to rise to the occasion to effect an appropriate solution. If they are unable to solve the tactical problem, it falls to them, in the debriefing, to figure out what went wrong tactically and how to fix it so it not recur.

The debriefing is where the FWI earns his patch. Typical pre-flight briefings on FWIC missions last one and a half hours, a flight will last two hours, and the debrief will take as long as necessary in order to properly identify the root cause of any errors. This can be upwards of three hours, depending on the effectiveness of the candidate. Once the candidate’s debrief and assessment of the mission is complete, the instructor pilot debriefs the candidates on their performance.

Historically, there are 20 to 25 missions during the air-to-air portion of FWIC. During this time, the candidates are exposed to an increasingly complex threat environment; and academically, they are exposed to all the air-to-air weapons systems the CF-188 can employ. As tactical and weapons subject matter experts, they will be afforded the opportunity to employ most, if not all, of the CF-188’s air-to-air weaponry on a controlled, academic range, against unmanned targets.

Once the air-to-air portion is complete (typically two to three months), the air-to-surface portion begins. This phase will begin with a cessation of flying activities and a refocus on instructional techniques, air-to-surface tactics and weapons in an academic environment. The candidates will attend lectures on targeting and delivery against fixed and mobile targets. They learn to design attacks for given effects versus on specific targets. They receive expanded academic instruction on the capabilities of the CF-188’s air-to-surface sensors and weapons systems; advanced close air support procedures; integration with special operations forces; attend lectures on topics such as threat, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; and learn combat search and rescue techniques.

Candidates are also required to deliver major projects during this timeframe. By this point in the course, they are expected to have produced a thesis-level argument with a written paper and presentation on a given topic. These topics are varied in an attempt to expand known tactics to new or unproven weapons systems. This is a very important part of the course, as these presentations are often used for the development of future tactics, techniques and procedures.

Once the air-to-surface academics have been completed, candidates begin the formal air-to-surface flying phase. The focus of these missions remains primarily on instructional technique and employment. Initially, the candidates will be flying academic air-to-surface attacks at Jimmy Lake Range at 4 Wing Cold Lake, in Alberta, where they can refine their brief/debrief techniques, as well as hone their air-to-surface dive deliveries and systems employment in a controlled environment.

After this, students move on to the close air support phase, typically working hand-in-hand with Canadian Special Operations Force and joint terminal air controllers. The pilots are exposed to highly dynamic scenarios in which they are expected to employ the CF-188’s sensors and weapons in close proximity to friendly forces engaged in a ground conflict. They act as air support for the ground forces’ commander.

After this phase, they move on to the air interdiction phase, which constitutes the final portion of the course.

(Photo: Cpl Pierre Habib, 3 Wing Bagotville)

Exercise and Engage
Up to this point, the candidates will have been exposed to a high level and high tempo of both air-to-air and surface-to-air threats. They have seen multi-axis threats, been exposed to hours of briefings and debriefings, long days and short nights. They will now be expected to lead progressively more complex missions with a four-aircraft formation against an increasingly smart and capable threat. These missions will draw on all facets of what the CF-188 was designed to do: engage threats in the air-to-air environment, deliver ordinance on a given target in a hostile territory and then fight its way home.

The students begin this phase in what is called a four-versus-unknown scenario, where the candidates are given an assigned target and potential surface-to-air threat locations. They are expected to lead their formation to the target, engage it successfully, and then get home.

These missions will slowly progress from the four aircraft to the mission commanding (MC) portion. This occurs during a large force employment exercise (LFE), such as Maple Flag, held annually at 4 Wing Cold Lake. In these missions, candidates are responsible for leading a package of aircraft, including multiple formations of allied fighter, transport, helicopter, air-to-air refuelling, and airborne early warning aircraft. It will be the candidates’ ultimate responsibility to plan a safe and efficient flow for more than 100 allied assets to a holding area, ingress into a hostile nation’s airspace, and successful egress with – ideally – minimal losses.

They are also responsible for the airborne execution of the entire package flow and, of course, the overall package debriefing, which covers off any big picture lessons learned and ways to improve.

During these events, students are not only responsible for the entire package, but also for the briefing/debriefing and execution of their own four or eight ship formations of CF-188s, within the package flow.

At the successful completion of this LFE phase, they are awarded the designation of Fighter Weapons Instructor.

Each graduate FWI personifies the mantra “humble, credible, approachable”. In fact, all graduates of the United States Navy’s Fighter Weapons School (known as Top Gun), the United States Air Force Weapons School, and Canada’s Fighter Weapons Instructor Course are world-renowned for their tactical ability, knowledge and skill in a cockpit. More importantly, they maintain the standard within their respective fighter forces. Graduates are seen to be the yardstick against which others must measure themselves.

“FWIC is designed to test knowledge and push the candidates to a point they never thought they could achieve,” notes Captain Latwaitis. “The training is designed to keep the candidates at the leading edge of instructional techniques, tactics development, and core fighter pilot skills.”

Being able to openly and honestly answer questions, identify problems, and self-analyze are all essential elements of the fighter pilot. Through FWIC, candidates develop their advanced analytical skills to take their squadrons and peers into combat and provide commanders with the tactical insight they require to make effective, sound decisions in times of both peace and conflict.

Major Lawrence Golja is the RCAF officer currently commanding the Fighter Standards and Evaluation Team. This article provided by RCAF News / Public Affairs.
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