Op Reassurance Air Task Force-Romania
© 2018 FrontLine (Vol 15, No 6)

The 135 Royal Canadian Air Force personnel deployed with NATO’s Air Task Force-Romania (ATF-R) won’t be singing “I’ll be home for Christmas,” but they are planning to wind up their 4-month mission on December 31st, with a view to returning to Bagotville, Quebec in January.

Lieutenant-Colonel Tim Woods, commanding officer of 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron at 3 Wing Bagotville and commander of the ATF-R for the RCAF’s enhanced air policing mission, spoke with FrontLine on December 18th from the Romanian Air Force (RoAF) base. It’s co-located with Mihail Kogălniceanu International Airport at Constanţa, a southeastern coastal city on the Black Sea not far from the borders with Bulgaria and Ukraine.

The Romanian mission is “enhanced” in that, unlike other NATO air policing in the region, where the host country may not have its own air assets, the six RCAF pilots on this deployment work with RoAF fighters – a mix of Soviet-era Mikoyan Mig-21s and US-built General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons.

“We train with them a lot,” said Woods, a native of Dundas, Ontario. “When we’re doing the air policing role, we are under their control and guidance. We’re totally integrated with their alert response here.” All joint operations are conducted in English.

Sept 2018 –  LCol Tim Woods, Commander Air Task Force - Romania, in a media scrum after the NATO Certification Parade for Operation Reassurance at Mihail Air Force Base Kogalniceanu in Romania. (Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu)

A Boeing CF-18 Hornet driver with “just shy of 3,000 hours” on the aircraft, Woods has two other high-hour pilots in his group while the three others are combat-ready “wingmen”, the so-called “junior crew” with less than 500 hours each.

RCAF pilots are routinely called some of the best in the world, but even their skills can be enhanced through working with other air forces. “When you go on operations, you are taking qualified guys and focusing on execution. It’s always a balance, trying to determine the requirement to regenerate operations, and that’s certainly above my pay grade to determine when we do that but, as a Squadron commander, that’s something I always focus on, being able to generate the next group of fighter pilots so that we can continue on to our next fighter," he explains.

Oct 2018 – CF-188 Hornet before takeoff at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania during Operation Reassurance. (Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu)

“We’re certainly proud to help out with the NATO mission. It’s neat for us to work with NATO every so often; we don’t it as much as we work with NORAD but it’s good to meet up with NATO allies and make sure that we’re singing off the same song sheet once in a while.”

Asked how he is not “flying a desk”, given his seniority, Woods pointed to the recent report to Parliament by Auditor General Michael Ferguson.

“One of the things that was highlighted […] was that we have a bit of an experience gap in the fighter force right now.” he said. “Commanders are having to fly more to train the new guys, more than we would have perhaps in the past. […] It certainly makes my days busier, but I’m not complaining about flying, that’s for sure.”

Among other things, the Auditor General noted that the RCAF has admitted it has less than two-thirds the number of CF-18 Hornet pilots needed to fulfill assigned missions, and he warned that the problem is likely to increase because current flight training cannot even keep up with retirements.

Nov 2018 – Corporal Bérubé, weapons systems technician, and Cpl Lapalme and Master Corporal Guerra, aeronautical technicians from 425 Tactical Fighter Squadron (CFB Bagotville), maintain a CF-18 Hornet at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania during Operation Reassurance. (Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu)

“Between April 2016 and March 2018, the RCAF lost 40 trained fighter pilots and produced only 30 new ones,” Henderson said, adding that 17 more have since left or stated their intention to leave. “If CF-18 pilots continue to leave at the current rate, there will not be enough experienced pilots to train the next generation of fighter pilots, and National Defence will not have enough pilots to be able to meet […] the new operational requirement for many years.”

Oct 2018 – Three CF-188 Hornets on the runway of Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania during Operation Reassurance.
(Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu)

Meanwhile, in addition to operating with the RoAF, Woods and his crews work with other NATO allies, including Boeing F-15 eagles flown by US Air National Guard pilots “for a bit” as well as NATO E-3A Sentry airborne warning and control system aircraft (the alliance has 16 of these Boeing 707 platforms), and Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters flown by the US Air Force.

The 425 Squadron presence – supported by 2 Air Expeditionary Wing, also based in Bagotville, and 17 Wing personnel out of Winnipeg – is a key element of Operation Reassurance, Canada’s military contribution to security in Central and Eastern Europe since early 2014. Other air, army and naval resources have been, or still are, working with NATO allies in and around the region, where Russia has increasingly been flexing its muscles.

Oct 2018 – Canadian Firefighters from Operation Reassurance on a familiarization tour of a CF-188 Hornet with US Army firefighters at Mihail Kogalniceanu in Romania. (Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu)

The RCAF focus is mainly on training and interoperability. The current deployment to Romania is the second. The first, April-August 2014 at an RoAF base near Câmpia Turzii in central Romania, involved four Boeing CF-18 Hornets from 405 Tactical Fighter Squadron at Cold Lake, Alta. Details of a third deployment are still being worked out. “We are tracking that it will be the same time next year although I don’t think that’s fully been determined yet,” Woods said. Meanwhile, Italian Air Force F2000 Eurofighters will be partnering with the RoAF.

“We’re going to pull out in waves in January,” he said. “The fighters are some of the first to back and then you start flying back […] parts, tools and support crews. “We’re leaving behind some resources that can be used by the Italians.” The route home for the Hornets is likely to be the reverse of when they were deployed by way of the Azores, Spain and southern Italy.

The additional CF-18 this time around has reflected the RCAF’s experience on the first deployment. “Because of the distances involved, it can take some time to ship parts out here,” Woods explained. We’ve been flying Hornets deployed for 35 years so we pretty well know what components are going to go and need to be changed. But every once and a while something surprises us and we have to ship. We do that either by airlift – we had a (Lockheed Martin Hercules) C130J in today, but if the security classification of the component is low enough, we can sometimes ship it commercially but then it has to clear customs and so on. The fifth jet gives us a spare […] if there are delays.”

The RCAF Hornets are kept on standby in fabric-covered metal-framed shelters. Once an alert is sounded, they can be airborne quickly but Woods demurred when asked how long that takes. “I won’t say how long it takes but everything’s ready to go and it’s very rapid,” he replied.

Nov 2018 – CF-188 Hornet pilot gives "thumbs up"at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base in Romania during Operation Reassurance. (Photo: Cpl Dominic Duchesne-Beaulieu)

One recent alert resulted from the approach to Romanian airspace at 30,000 feet by a Russian Sukhoi Su-27 (NATO code name Flanker), a formidable twin-engine fighter from a base in Crimea (annexed from Ukraine by Russia in 2014). It’s part of a hemispheric pattern by Russia as it continues to test NATO and NORAD response times on its western flank and eastern flanks, the latter most notably near Alaska. Exchanges with western aircraft are generally polite but the underlying message is that Canada and its allies are watching.

“We’ve certainly been much busier in our alert operations here than we normally are at home,” Woods said. “Aside from that, it’s been regular training. We integrate with the Romanians to practice operations together – now and for future NATO operations. We’ve been getting some good tips from them on how they do business, and we’ve also been working with their F-16 crews to help them with moving from the former Soviet Union aircraft to western fighters.”

As for relations on the ground with Romania’s civilian population, an important aspect of any country’s military presence abroad, Woods had nothing but good things to say. “Excellent,” he replied. “They’re great people, really proud, with a similar sense of humour to Canadians,” he said. “We really get on well.”

– Ken Pole
20 Dec 2018