Joint Nordic air surveillance exercise in Iceland
Sweden's contribution to the exercise was seven JAS Gripen fighters, with Norway sending six F-16 planes. Aerial refuelling aircraft from Sweden, the Netherlands and the United States also participated in this training event. NATO deployed an AWACS command and control aircraft for the exercise.
"The exercise fully achieved its objectives. The aim was to provide personnel with training and pilots with flight operations practice in cooperation with the other Nordic countries. Iceland provided support, as befits the host, but was otherwise uninvolved in the content of the exercise," says Major Tuukka Elonheimo, commander of the Finnish contingent, praising the host island nation.
Iceland contributed Coast Guard vessels, helicopters and one aircraft. When at full strength, the personnel participating in the exercise totalled 260 persons. The Finnish detachment comprised two sections of approximately 70 persons, which were rotated half-way through the exercise. This ensured that as many airmen as possible had the opportunity to gain valuable practice.
Iceland provided challenging conditions for the exercise. Demanding weather set the appropriate tone for flight operations: occasionally strong winds and sudden snow flurries reduced visibility to nil, providing both man and machine with an appropriate challenge.
"We had to thoroughly plan our safety measures. How would we rescue aircrew if an emergency arose during the exercise? As the flight training was performed at sea, we had to carefully plan our procedures for rescuing a pilot after a possible ejection seat exit," says Elonheimo.
In training, safety is everything. The NH90 helicopters played a key role in ensuring the safety of the fighter planes.
"We had a NH90 helicopter on permanent standby for rescue operations. This ensured that our fighters could operate with a much wider range than would have been possible without helicopters," says Elonheimo.
In addition to standby readiness for rescue operations, the helicopter crews practised rescue operations over the sea and mountains, in cooperation with the Icelandic Coast Guard.
Despite the conditions, which were challenging at times, only a few operations were cancelled. The fighters managed two or three sorties during the day. Each operation involved ten to twelve fighters. All air missions were flown from the Keflavik air base, located 50 kilometres from Iceland's capital, Reykjavik.
The exercise involved practising defensive air warfare, whereby air cover was provided for aircraft in the air and on the ground. No air-to-ground missions were flown, although the Finnish Air Force's MLU2-upgraded F/A-18 Hornets would have had the required capacity.
Icelandic air policing is a NATO responsibility. Finland is a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace. At the time of the Iceland Air Meet 2014, Norway had responsibility for the surveillance of Icelandic air space. However, the Finnish and Swedish fighters were not engaged in air surveillance.
"The Swedish and Finnish planes did not carry armed weapons. Nor do we have any plans for armed operations. This is not unusual, as even in Finland we mainly train with unarmed aircraft," Elonheimo points out.
The Iceland Air Meet 2014 exercise was one in a series of similar Cross Border exercises, organised in Finnish, Swedish and Norwegian air space on an almost weekly basis. Detachments from the various air forces meet in the air space of the agreed country, then return to their bases.
In April, close training cooperation was continued in the Netherlands, where a flight training exercise involving eight European countries was organised. Finland was the only non-NATO participant.
"We are continuously developing Nordic and international cooperation. The Ministry of Defence has provided us with clear operational guidelines. All measures relevant to the Finnish defence policy are reviewed from a long-term perspective, in which no account is taken of individual crises," declares Tuukka Elonheimo.
This article was published in the Patria magazine in June 2014.