The Evolution of Coalition Airpower: Lessons Learned from the Danish F-16 Experience


2015-04-26 In his introduction to the Copenhagen Airpower Symposium on April 17, 2015 as well in his briefing on his newly released report on the lessons learned from the F-16 experience, Gary Schaub, Jr., the co-host of the Symposium, provided a number of insights with regard to the Danish experience and to the overall evolution of coalition airpower.

In his opening to the Symposium, Schaub provided a number of metrics of change affecting the evolution of coalition airpower.

Put in simple terms, the numbers of assets being flown by the allies is going down and the need to get the kind of mass and capability which one needs from operations can come only from effective coalition aggregation of capabilities.

This is also required because the demand side for operations has been going up as leaders see the utility of airpower as a rapid response capability.

As Secretary Wynne put it in a recent interview with regard to the evolution of the coalition dynamic:

Question: How important is the coalition aspect of operations going to be for the United States?

Secretary Wynne: I think it will be the norm, whether you are following a concept of leading from the front or from behind.

The emphasis on coalition warfare will be the norm and driven by two factors.

The first is the relative equality of the technology across the coalition, as well as the role of bases provided by coalition partners.

The second is the lack of sufficient investment by any of the coalition partners to shape an overall dominant national force structure.

The U.S. and its allies will need to reach out to other nations to have a completely capable dominant force structure.

And over time, the coalition versus US level of activity in coalition airfare has been going up as well.

Schaub presented a very interesting slide, which highlighted this dynamic:


In his formal presentation to the Symposium, Schaub highlighted key findings from the Centre’s report on lessons learned from the F-16 for Denmark.

The full report can be downloaded below, and the overview of the report provides a good highlight of some of its key aspects of the report which Schaub presented to the Symposium.

When Denmark chose to acquire a fleet of 58 F-16 combat aircraft in 1975, it received substantial and disproportionate benefits given the way that investment was made and managed.  Buying a common aircraft type together with allies deepened Denmark’s ties to its Alliance partners, including deploying in multinational formations with those partners. It enabled multinational cooperation to modernize the aircraft at greatly reduced costs over its lifetime. 

Common aircraft also enabled improved training opportunities for Danish pilots and substantial assistance from the United States when pilot shortages threatened to idle 25 percent of Danish F-16s.

Common aircraft did not guarantee that Denmark would be as effective as others in coalition air campaigns, however. This required substantial modernization of the aircraft, acquisition of advanced systems and munitions, reorganization of the Royal Danish Air Force, a change in its organizational culture, and sufficient numbers of pilots.

Once these adaptations occurred, Danish performance in expeditionary air operations garnered Denmark praise from its coalition and Alliance partners.  Danish leaders should cooperate with its allies in a similar way to replicate this experience when they choose a replacement aircraft in 2015.

During his presentation, Schaub highlighted many interesting findings from the report but we will underscore only a few of these points here, and encourage our readers to read the full report.

The Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF) acquired its F-16s at a time when the upsurge in expeditionary activity was being generated.

So this means that the F-16 almost by the nature of these operations would need to be coalition capable, which was enabled as well by the commonality of buys of F-16s among states in the region.

And the Danish F-16s began to operate in a period where precision fires became of increasing importance as well for coalition operations, which meant that the F-16 has been the platform for learning to perform precision-fire operations for the Royal Danish Air Force.

Dr. Gary Schaub, Jr of the Centre of Military Studies. Opening the Danish Airpower Conference. Credit: SLD
Dr. Gary Schaub, Jr of the Centre of Military Studies. Opening the Danish Airpower Conference. Credit: SLD

As Schaub put the acquisition situation for Denmark at the time of acquiring the F-16:

The F-16 program came from the Multinational Fighter Program. The United States, the Belgians, the Norwegians, the Dutch, and the Danes all agreed to come in together to buy the F-16 in 1974 to 1975.

The great thing about this process for a smaller air force is that it was a large buy. Therefore, the unit price for each aircraft was far less than it would’ve been for a small purchase individually made.

The nature of the consortium that bought and operated these common F-16s was known as the EPAF or the European Participating Air Forces.

According to one source:

In the late 1970s, Belgium, Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands started looking for a replacement for the F-104 Starfighter.

These four nations, known as the European Participating Air Forces (EPAF), became the first international customers for the F-16.

Together with the US, they started a unique multi-national development program for the F-16.

Under the terms of the agreement, F-16 Fighting Falcons for the EPAF nations were to be produced locally.

Belgium was one of two EPAF nations responsible for the European production of F-16s (the other one being the Netherlands).

The primary Belgian contractor in the F-16 program was the Societe Anonyme Belge de Constructions Aeronautiques (SABCA), responsible for the final assembly of F-16s intended for both Belgian and Danish service.

The F100 engines for the F-16s of all four nations in the European consortium were manufactured by the Belgian Fabrique National (now Techspace Aero).

The Belgian company MBLE produced the F-16 radar for three of the four EPAF nations.

The EPAF consortium funded, developed and produced an initial 348 F-16s, with an eventual total of 524, for their respective air forces. SABCA even produced 3 F-16s for the US Air Force.

 The first panel seen left to right, Dr. Gary Schaub, CMS, Dr. Peter Jackobsen, Royal Danish Defence College, and Col. Anders Rex, Royal Danish Air Force
The first panel seen left to right, Dr. Gary Schaub, CMS, Dr. Peter Jakobsen, Royal Danish Defence College, and Col. Anders Rex, Royal Danish Air Force

Schaub emphasized that the commonality in acquiring the aircraft carried with it significant opportunities for common support and modernization of the aircraft as well, or as one might put, coalition-enabled was built into the joint buy and use of the aircraft.

This enabled a lot better fleet management so you could squeeze more flight hours out of the entire air combat fleet.

Over time, a division of labor for maintenance developed whereby the Danes and the Dutch and the Norwegians focused on different types of maintenance.

If you had a particular type of problem or system problem popped up across the fleet, all those aircraft would go to one of those countries specially focused on fixing that problem.

That was a very nice way of taking smaller capabilities or smaller resource bases and to be able to focus and develop expertise that was deep and that allowed the entire consortium to manage their fleet better.

Parts sharing was facilitated as well and shared modernization was possible.

Agreed upon modernization initiatives were paid for by each country in proportion to the number of tail numbers each had in their national fleets.

“This really enabled the smaller Air Forces to go through quick modernization.”

The commonality of the coalition aircraft allowed flexible options for the RDAF as well.

F-35 BF-17 from the F-35 Integrated Test Force in Formation with RAF Typhoons, Edwards AFB, CA April 4, 2014 F-35 test pilot LtCol Jon "Miles" Ohman performs interoperability testing. Credit: USAF
F-35 BF-17 from the F-35 Integrated Test Force in Formation with RAF Typhoons, Edwards AFB, CA April 4, 2014 F-35 test pilot. These are two of the competitors in the Danish replacement aircraft competition. Credit: USAF 

One option was to be able to fly to Red Flag at Nellis and leave the planes at home and to have the Danish pilots fly USAF F-16s.

Another option was when pilot shortages occurred in Denmark, the RDAF could tap into USAF instructor pilots to provide training for the RDAF.

Among the lessons learned by Denmark with the F-16 program with regard to its replacement aircraft include the following:

First of all, and this applies to every candidate in the competition, buy something that everybody else is using.

Partners help significantly.

Secondly, having a big partner helps out an awful lot because you can share parts, modernization and experience and you can get backfills on other things that you might not be thinking of, that are beyond the aircraft itself.

Thirdly, institutionalize that cooperation.

Make sure that there is a structure, a management system in place so that hopefully, at least from the Danish perspective, or from a smaller Air Force perspective, there can be equal say for proportional pay.

That is the key driver that allowed the Danes to have an effective set of combat aircraft today.

Fourthly, managing the pilot cadre is a big issue and having partner pilot training capabilities is important as well.

In short, the acquisition and operation of the F-16 came at an interesting point in Danish history, where expeditionary operations became increasingly important.

And if as Dr. Peter Viggo Jakobsen argues, such operational proclivities continue, obviously the next generation Danish aircraft will be a key enabler for their operations.

For the opening presentation with a number of very interesting slides highlighting the evolution of coalition airpower see the following:

For the formal briefing on Lessons Learned from the F-16 made at the Symposium see the following:

For Schaub’s bio see the following:

For the report on Learning from the F-16, please download here: