Maple Flag: Preparing for War

By William Reynish | November 1, 2001
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The ramp at the Cold Lake Airport in northern Canada’s Province of Alberta is packed with airplanes. Canadian, American, British, German, Danish, Dutch, Belgian and many other nations’ aircraft are here. Several have come from as far away as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore.

But none flaunt the bright livery of the airlines. The predominant paint scheme is gray, although a few carry the familiar mottled, light and dark brown camouflage of the Desert Storm conflict. These are military airplanes, gathered at this remote site for Maple Flag, an annual series of exercises hosted by the Canadians and designed to test a pilot’s mettle in the art of electronic warfare, where avionics can mean the difference between life and death.

Green vs. Red

Maple Flag exercises are flown over a roughly 100,000-square mile (259,000-square km) area, where the wooded hills and valleys, reminiscent of northern Europe, offer a wide range of simulated combat scenarios. When Avionics Magazine visited Maple Flag in June, an all-nation "green" team was tasked with low- and medium-level attacks against several essential targets in a mythical "red" nation’s territory. But to reach their targets, the green team’s aircraft faced a layered defense that combined long-range radar, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and the red team’s powerful aircraft defenders.

The green team included Danish, Dutch and Belgian F-16s plus German Mig-29s, which provided protective fighter cover for the strike force of Canadian CF-18 Hornets, British GR-7 Harriers, and parachute-dropping C-130 Hercules from Australia and New Zealand. (A week earlier, the attacking force included two U.S. Air Force B-1 Lancer bombers.) Ahead of the green team’s attacking wave flew U.S. Navy electronic warfare EA-6 Prowlers on suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) duty. They were to detect and then jam the radars at the red nation’s SAM sites; their signals simulated the SAM radars currently used by potentially belligerent nations. And orbiting at high altitudes well outside red airspace was a NATO EC-3 airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft to manage and coordinate the green team’s attack via military UHF data links. The EC-3 also monitored the movements and tactics of the red team’s airborne defense, made up of U.S. Air Force F-15 Strike Eagle fighters. Their powerful radars, capable of tracking multiple targets, and their advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles (AMRAAMs) put the F-15 among the world’s most formidable war planes.

During the ensuing battle, not a gun was fired, missile launched or "smart" bomb dropped. But whenever a pilot "fired" a weapon, that action was time-stamped into the continuous data recorded in the aircraft–along with the aircraft’s position, altitude and other information.

Often, in fact, combatants never saw each other except as identification, friend or foe (IFF) returns on their radar screens. And they would become aware of being tracked by a SAM or enemy fighter or incoming missile only by hearing the rising tones of their radar warning indicators.

Copious Data Recorded

Along with the data recorded in each aircraft, high-accuracy ground radars and the AWACS would continuously record every aircraft’s move in the combat simulation. In addition, most Maple Flag activities have used an Air Combat Maneuvering Range Instrumentation (ACMRI) data recording system in which a wing-mounted electronics pod, attached to each aircraft, transmits down its position, heading, altitude, attitude, mach number, g force and other data to triangulation stations on the ground. The aircraft used to carry ACMRI pods with data link transponders that ground stations rapidly interrogated, but the transponders are being replaced by Global Positioning System (GPS) units that provide more accurate positioning, permit combat simulations in areas outside the ground stations’ range, and allow very low altitude tracking. The GPS compensates for the ground stations’ line-of-sight limitations.

Who won the green-versus-red war? "No one and everyone," explains a Canadian official. "Maple Flag is a training exercise aimed at sharpening each participant’s skills, with the post-flight analysis showing each individual pilot and section leader how successful their tactics were and, if they were shot down or otherwise failed to complete their mission, what they could do to avoid it the next time."

Unlimited Cyber War?

The Maple Flag exercies are conducted to prepare for war. But what kind of war? What threat should nations prepare for?

Recent terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., provide a chilling portrait of an adversary not found on a conventional battlefield. Debates on military preparedness have focused on a concept developed by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), called "unlimited warfare." The document describing this concept, which came into Western hands in 1999, specifies techniques that could disable much stronger opponents without firing a single shot. The document reviews the history of warfare and of weapons development, and concludes that the Gulf War would almost certainly be the last armed conflict involving major powers. Future wars, it contends, will be fought primarily by unconventional means aimed at disabling, rather than destroying, an opponent’s domestic infrastructure. And in such conflicts, the document points out, the open societies of Western industrial nations are at a significant disadvantage.

One threat, cyber warfare, could deny a nation’s use of its space and electronic assets, including its computer networks. Commercial communications satellites, which relay vast amounts of critical data across nations and between continents, could be a target. During the Gulf War, an estimated 90 percent of U.S. military communications were delivered via satcom.

The U.S. military’s Global Positioning System (GPS) could be another target. While GPS satellites are "hardened" against nuclear attack, their very low powered signals can be jammed easily, either locally by cheap, pocket-sized devices or continent-wide by more powerful jammers attached to, say, balloons drifting in the tropopause.

Cyber war could bring mass disruption, even greater than that created by the suicide attacks in the United States on Sept. 11. So could biological and chemical warfare. What Western countries will do to protect against these new means of war has yet to be seen. Meanwhile, allied air forces will continue to hone their still-required fighting skills at exercises like Canada’s Maple Flag.

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