Exercise Frisian Flag 2023

“There’s a warzone at only 1,5 hours flying away from us. Considering the current threats we face it really shows how necessary an exercise like Frisian Flag is.” C-ACC Johan van Deventer.

“Being here again after flying the F-15C Eagle, and now the F-35A Lightning II, is a really good experience. The training is very valuable and great to learn on the new 5th generation platform.” Ltd. Col. Greg “Voodoo” Schroeder, director of operations of the USAFE 493FS “Grim Reapers”.

“With the Belgian Air Force poised to replace the F-16’s with F-35’s soon, it’s an extra element of importance for us here at Frisian Flag this year.” 350 Squadron Commander, Belgian Air Force, 2nd Air Wing Florennes Air Base.

I had the chance to interview the people quoted above and shoot a lot of material of the exercise in full swing on and around Leeuwarden Airbase, the Netherlands.

This year the annual two week exercise Frisian Flag was organised by the RNLAF 323 ‘ACDC’ Squadron. Operations from Leeuwarden saw RNLAF F-35A Lightning II’s from 322 Squadron and 313 Squadron, GAF EF-2000 Eurofighters from TLG 31, BAF F-16AM Fighting Falcons from 350th Squadron FiAF F/A-18C Hornets from ??? Squadron and a Learjet LJ-35 of SkyLine serving as electronic signals combatant, all during both weeks. In the second week two RNLAF AH-64D Apache helicopters and a RNLN NH-90 helicopter were added to the scenario’s.

This edition saw a lot participants fly from surrounding airbases but also many that came over to the airbase in the northern Dutch province of Friesland.
There were DAF F-16AM Fighting Falcons, RNLAF F-16AM’s, RAF F-35B Lightning II’s (operating from the HMS Queen Elizabeth out on the North Sea), a FAF E-3A AWACS and aerial refuelling aircraft from the RNLAF with A-330 MRTT’s and the USAFE with KC-135’s.
But also there were “Ghost 01 and 02” being two F-35 pilots flying from ground based simulators that took part, which was a first.

The Finnish Air Force taking part in the exercise were mainly there to test the cooperation of the F/A-18’s and F-35’s equipment in air operations. “The performance of the F-35 is very impressive, and the snapshot is to support the operation of the Hornets.” Says head of training department, Lieutenant Colonel Juuso Ilkka.

And we shouldn’t forget the role of Top Aces who flew with an Alpha Jet and an A-4 Skyhawk out of RAF Lakenheath in ground attack and aggressor roles.

In all, a fairly large exercise in aerial combat training with many added elements. In a time where the world sees a lot of turmoil, which highlights the importance of this kind of training.

Interview With The Commander

Sitting down with Commander of Air Combat Command Johan van Deventer on the afternoon of day one we had a great talk about this year’s edition of exercise Frisian Flag.

As a Dutch person I had to ask about the weather first, mentioning the exercise had kicked off in a bit inclement weather though the sun was shining again as we spoke.
“The first day is always an important day as we set a benchmark to work our way forward from. And we’re airborne as we speak which is great after months of preparation that have gone into it. As far as any bad weather is concerned we have the option available to train more over land. Something we aim to do anyway in the second week.”

I asked what happened with the command structure as I recall talking with the base commander of Leeuwarden back in 2019:
“so, we’ve changed it to ‘Air Combat Command’ on the 30th of June 2022 to involve airbases Leeuwarden and Volkel and also the Air Operations Control Station in Nieuw Milligen. With this new organisation we join all our F-35’s, f-16’s, MQ-9’s, air battle management, targeting and datalink management under one commander. And I have the privilege to have become that commander.”

Quite impressed by that I then asked about his history in previous editions of Frisian F lag.
“In my current role and rank this is my first time as such. But I’ve seen it as Squadron commander at 323 sqn. about five times I guess, I’ve been a participant, a Mission Commander, Air Boss, young Wingman… Even as a bartender!
So I’ve seen it from many angles. I’ve noticed the growth throughout the years and this time again, we take things a little further. Our fighter pilots are very keen on looking for the next challenge to take on. That’s what I like a lot about this kind of training too.

I then went on about the seriousness aspect of it, considering the unrest in the world around us.
“There’s a warzone at only 1,5 hours flying away from us. Considering the current threats we face it really shows how necessary an exercise like Frisian Flag is. We always have taken our jobs very serious of course, but with the current state of affairs in some parts of the world that does add to our motivation.”

I was wondering about any new developments in the exercise.
“What is interesting are new technological innovations we are implementing like the use of manned simulators that we feed into the fight. The will be live on the radio, live on the network, but not actually there in reality. They’re ‘flying’ here from the airbase as ‘Ghost 01 and 02’.
It’s something we will see in the future more and more, a mix with live and virtual during training.”

I thought that was a bit saddening as I’d rather have actual aircraft in front of my lens, Johan assured me that real life flying ops will remain an import training tool.

As the first jets are coming back in again behind us I lastly asked about how the RNLAF looks upon the ‘Av-Geeks’ (a.k.a. Spotters) that come out in great numbers around the airbase to witness the action.
“I’ve been at the east end of the runway this morning and it was very busy with spectators outside the base. We love it as they are somewhat of our ambassadors. Mainly we have to conduct the exercise and we love doing that, but we also love to give those ambassadors a good time in the process.
If they have a good time as we do our jobs we know they’ll be back. We also host a spottersday next Friday with two groups to go on base with buses.

And also as a sign of goodwill we’ll host a neighbour day next week to show the surrounding inhabitants what we do. That’s also in-line with the noise the jets make, which is a lot more during Frisian Flag in comparison to a regular day with just a handful of F-35’s flying.”

Exercise Frisian Flag was held from Monday October 2nd until Friday October 13th 2023.

Koninklijke Luchtmacht
Vliegbasis Leeuwarden
Air Combat Command
Ilmavoimat Flygvapnet
Belgische Luchtcomponent
USAFE 493 Fighter Squadron “Grim Reapers”
Your’s truly, René Vink