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Saturday, December 9, 2023

PAF’s best pilots: Top gun, indeed

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THE much loved “it’s not the plane, it’s the pilot” line from the Top Gun: Maverick flick proved true after a Philippine Air Force (PAF) FA-50PH “Bulldog” light jet fighter was able to score a “simulated kill” against a fifth-generation American F-22 “Raptor” stealth fighter during the “Cope Thunder Exercise” held in July.

“Fox 2! Killed one Raptor on right turn!” the Fighter’s Journal, the official publication of the 5th Fighter Wing (5FW), Air Defense Command, said in its edition celebrating its 76th founding anniversary.

“This was an unprecedented achievement in history: The lead-in fighter aircraft of the Philippines effectively engaged and defeated a fifth-generation fighter in a simulated air combat scenario over the skies of Luzon as part of the Cope Thunder Exercise,” the journal, released late October, read.

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Cope Thunder 23-1 participants from the PAF and USAF, with FA50 and F16 aircraft in the background.

The F-22 neutralized in the above-mentioned exercise was from the US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).

Observers said the stealth fighter was “downed” in the exercise by an FA-50PH firing a heat-seeking missile.

The publication did not release exact details on how this feat was achieved for security reasons or identify the pilots in the simulated dogfight, but it is sufficient and accurate to say that man-for-man, Filipino fighter pilots are among the best in the world.

PAF’s Cope Thunder participation

THE original Cope Thunder exercises, which provided regular flight training for US pilots and those of allied nations, were first held in 1976 and continued annually in Clark Air Base, Pampanga, until 1990.

However, this training was abruptly cut when Mount Pinatubo erupted in 1991, badly damaging Clark Air Base, and putting the scheduled Cope Thunder exercise for that year on hold.

In 1992, Cope Thunder found a new home in Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, and eventually transformed into what is now known as “Red Flag Alaska.”

The PAF and the United States Air Force (USAF) restarted these aerial exercises in the Philippines after more than three decades of absence with the holding of Cope Thunder 23-1 from May 1 to 12.

This was also known as “CT-Ph 23-1” and the first iteration of the Cope Thunder for 2023.

The second iteration was dubbed “CT-Ph 23-2” and held from July 1 to 23.

PAF spokesperson Col. Ma. Consuelo Castillo said the first iteration was a military exercise aimed at the coordination of different Filipino and American aircraft and various defensive and offensive tactics.

The first iteration focused on air-to-air operations and subject matter expert exchanges, while the second was dedicated to large-scale deployment of military aircraft and related competencies.

Dynamic fighter training exchange

“IN the past few years, training was primarily confined to the wing level where exercises are held only with FA-50PH and aging AS-211 jet trainers. While these exercises are valuable, they [hold] inherent constraints. One of the key limitations stemmed from the absence of a diverse array of aircraft for simulated scenarios,” the journal noted.

“Pilots eagerly anticipated the challenges that dissimilar aircraft, saturated environment, and complex radio transmissions could offer, recognizing these multifaceted challenges could propel our skills to greater heights,” it stressed.

The lack of variety in the 5FW training environment, the journal noted, led to some limitations in the understanding of tactical strategies.

“It was akin to mastering a portion of the puzzle, yet knowing that the complete picture required more pieces. We longed for the opportunity to broaden our tactical horizons, adapt to different adversaries, and to truly grasp the intricacies of air combat,” it pointed out.

The revival of the Cope Thunder exercises helped since it provided both Philippine and US air forces a “unique opportunity” to foster collaboration and interoperability.

“The 5FW’s involvement in this year’s Cope Thunder exercise presented airmen with a super chance to undergo training alongside allied forces, enriching their capabilities within a dynamic combined operational setting. The exercises involved hundreds of PACAF service members and airmen from various PAF units, participating in different subject matter expert exchanges and field training exercises conducted in several PAF air bases,” the journal further read.

It added that the primary role of the 5FW in this exercise centers on air operations.

“Through air combat exercises alongside the formidable F-22 and A-10 aircraft of the 199th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron and the 354th Fighter Squadron, they reached new heights in their expertise. This rigorous and relentless training aimed to push 5FW pilots to adapt swiftly, engage effectively, and execute both offensive and defensive counter-air operations with precision. These exercises not only expanded the tactical repertoire but also reaffirmed the capability to soar as one in a dynamic, real-world operational setting,” the read.

‘Exercise Pitch Black’ 2024 in Australia is next

AS this developed, the PAF also announced that it is looking to have more participation in the next iteration of the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) “Exercise Pitch Black,” which is scheduled for 2024.

It is looking to deploy its FA-50PHs for this military exercise.

The PAF’s FA-50PHs, of which 12 were acquired from 2015 to 2017, is the Air Force’s premier fighter jet in its inventory and is used extensively for air defense, attack, and other support missions.

Exercise Pitch Black, other than its focus on evaluating international air forces’ planning and execution of large-force deployment, offensive counter air, and air interdiction scenarios in a complex environment, further aims to enhance regional security through multinational interoperability. This presents PAF opportunities to strengthen its relationship and cooperation with other air forces,” the PAF earlier said.

Around 21 PAF officers with backgrounds in air battle management and planning participated in the 2022 iteration of “Exercise Pitch Black.”

These personnel are from the Air Force’s 580th Aircraft Control and Warning Wing (ACWW) of the Air Defense Command.

PAF air battle managers have an “active participation” in the exercises as they were deployed there to observe and participate in “air campaign planning and air space and air battle management,” while PAF senior planners observed the exercise to gain “knowledge on how to plan and stage a large-force engagement in exercise scenarios and real-world operations.”

Exercise Pitch Black is a biennial three-week exercise on multinational large-force deployment conducted by the RAAF.

It is the RAAF’s most significant international engagement activity and consists of realistic, simulated threats in a modern battle-space environment.

Image credits: Philippine Air Force, Philippine Air Force

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