Trilateral Exercise, 2015: Operating as an Integrated Air Combat Team in Contested Airspace


2015-12-17 By Murielle Delaporte

“The Royal Air Force, the French Air Force and the United States Air Force are three little brothers, pioneers in the history of military aviation and born some fifteen years apart of each other –- respectively in 1918, 1934 and 1947 –We are to this day continuing to learn together…”

This is how General Mark Welsh, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force, referred to the unprecedented level of cooperation displayed during the ongoing inaugural Trilateral exercise (TEI or Trilateral Exercise Initiative) taking place at the Air Combat Command Headquarters (ACC) located at Langley Air Force Base in Langley, Virginia. [ref] Press conference, Langley AFB, December 15th, 2015. For General Walsh’s biography:[/ref]


An exercise which was considered by those engaged in the exercise as the “start of something new”– as the ACC Commander, General Hawk Carlisle put it – and meant to be repeated probably on a rotational basis in the United States, the United Kingdom and France in the years to come. [ref]Ibid., but for Carlisle’s biography see the following:[/ref]

As the two-week exercise concludes on December 18th, this is exactly the kind of follow up the Chiefs are currently discussing.

In the words of the UK Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, “we need to operate together as one team, especially in contested air space, a reality which we must face after a decade of flying in permissive airspace.” [ref]Ibid., see Pulford’s biography,[/ref]

Given the timing of this very first one-of–a-kind exercise with a whole new ballgame currently going-on in the skies above Syria, the meaning of the exercise is even more powerful.

The exercise in planning for some time has certainly proved the planners right.

The need for fully interoperable air power at the high end for future contingencies against adversaries and systems, which would contest the presence of allied airpower, is a clear requirement going forward.

Addressing The Growing Complexity of Threats to Allied Airpower

The increasing complexity of threats contemporary Air Forces face –- whether in their degree of sophistication, such as evolving missile threat, or in the diversification of the type of developing threats, such as the cyber challenge –- have lead the Air Chiefs to work together to optimize a joint response.

As Colonel Michel Friedling, Chief of the Air Force planning bureau within the French ministry of defense and in charge of the Trilateral Strategic Initiative (TSI) – from which this first exercise is born stressed:

“The goal is to think beyond the current events to be able to work together in contested environments, (…) looking at ways to operate together and gain the necessary trust to do so no matter what the environment is.” [ref] Colonel Friedling was Commander of the FrAF Base Saint-Dizier (from which part of the Rafale present in Langley came) during the operation in Libya in 2011. Panel of TEI’s planners, Langley AFB, December 15th, 2015 [/ref]


The threat environment specifically chosen for this exercise is an anti-access/area-denial scenario, or the A2/AD threat air planners initially worried about for the Pacific theater, but which is rapidly extending to all theaters of operation.

The threat is that of A2/AD but the capabilities being worked are an ability to operate in an expanded battlespace with a more effective integrated high-end allied force.

“In the wake of the 2010 Trilateral Strategic Initiative initiated by the three Air Forces, we wanted to go further by proposing in 2013 to train with the new generation fighters in a very specific mission, i.e. early entry in a non-permissive environment.

Such a requirement is a real need, as our current missions mostly rely on close air support (CAS).

A whole set of our capabilities (…) hence needs to be trained to operate together to operate in a contested environment.”

General Philippe Lavigne, Commander of the Fighter Brigade in Bordeaux and director of the French side of this exercise, provided this explanation in an interview conducted prior to the exercise.

These sets of competences are all the more urgent to practice, since, as the RAF Chief pointed out, they have been steadily declining in the past ten years: “we have to resuscitate these baseline skills and this exercise is the first step of the journey to get there.”

Integrating the High End Air Allied Combat Forces

Beyond the double-edge sword of a changing threat environment returning us to some of the worst Cold War moments and of insufficient joint training on specific air skills, there is another challenge this exercise addresses as well, and that is the one of integrating rapidly evolving technologies into a common air game.

The choice of these three fighters reflects the state-of-the-art technology available in the air power world for the alies and the fact that they are just beginning to operate jointly in operation.

If Typhoons and Raptors on the one hand, Typhoons and Rafales on the other hand, have been flying together, this was not the case of Raptors and Rafales until this exercise.

Integrating what is generally referred as 4th and 5th generation fighters is of course in the mind of the three Air Forces’ pilots, so they can jointly operate in any contingency.


This starts with setting up and practicing TTPs (Tactics, Techniques and Procedures) to be able to communicate, especially as today’s fighters not only maneuver in large operating areas at greater distance from each other, but also are able to shift missions while in flight.

Being able to speak to each other is the first key to successful interoperability.

The first good news that is coming out so far from this exercise is the fact that, thanks to NATO standardization, the three Air Forces use very similar tactics and were therefore able to fly immediately in a very smooth manner.

What is being worked on are the means of communications and common situational awareness.

Working with the F22 is even more of an interoperability challenge than it will be the case eventually with the F35, since the former can receive Link16 data, but cannot send them out (the F35 can do both).

Such an opportunity to train for two full weeks in a totally embedded manner is unprecedented and is allowing pilots to leapfrog on learning fifth generation warfare TTPs.

(It should be noted that the USAF was conducting a parallel exercise in Florida in which the F-35 operated with the F-22 and the USAF legacy fleet as well.)

Sustaining Expeditionary Operations

The mere ability to cross the Atlantic and train together is already an achievement on its own.

For example, for the French Air Force Rafales, the distance is akin to flying from FrAB Saint Dizier to Northern Mali.

Preparing the support of such a large-scale exercise is also something both the RAF and the FrAF are accustomed to thanks to exercises regularly hosted by the USAF, such as Redflag.

What is different however is the way it was done in a joint manner between the two European Air Forces and was considered as such by many participants as an “expeditionary opportunity” on its own.

All French personnel (about 110) –- besides the fighters and KC-135s pilots –- were flown first from France to the UK with French transport means, but then were taken onboard British C17 and KC-30A Voyager (British A330 MRTT). [ref]The French Air Force will receive the first of their nine new A330MRTT tankers in 2018. [/ref]

This fits the philosophy set by the Lancaster agreements signed, in the wake of the operation in Libya, the same year as the Trilateral Strategic Initiative.

“France and the UK agreed in November 2010 to set up a combined joint expeditionary force (CJEF). Our operation in Libya has proved the relevance of this work. Today we took additional steps to make the CJEF a real asset for our military operations in the future.

(…) We agreed the level of ambition for the CJEF: an early entry force capable of facing multiple threats up to the highest intensity, available for bilateral, NATO, European Union, United Nations or other operations. A 5-year exercise framework is in place to achieve full operating capability in 2016.”

Five years have passed since the Agreement was signed and progress towards the then-envisioned Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF) and a strong air component enabling it, are becoming real. 

As French minister of Defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, stressed last month as he and his British counterpart, Michael Fallon, were celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Lancaster agreement:

“Together, we are engaged in sky policing missions in NATO skies.

The United Kingdom provided airborne strategic transport and surveillance means in support of French operations in Mali and Central Africa. France reciprocated by supporting the British Tornado detachment deployed in the fight against Boko Haram.

In a similar spirit of cooperation, the RAF Lossiemouth base in Scotland hosted French Atlantique 2 maritime patrol aircrafts.

Since 2010, we have continuously worked to enhance our capability to jointly deploy on a very short notice up to 10.000 men and operate via the Combined Joint Expeditionary Force.”

Translated from

If power projection is crucial, it is however not enough to succeed in this expeditionary world, and this exercise has also been an opportunity to work staying power as well.

It is not just about showing up; it is about prevailing in the battlespace.

As General Carlisle pointed out, access denial does not only take place in the air, but also on the ground. Hence the desire to be interoperable in the use of support capabilities, staff and infrastructure, and give each other’s access to a common pool of available airfields, refueling, but also maintainers and engineers among other things.


“There is an acknowledgement that in today’s operations Air Power is needed. Without Air Power, you loose… “, noted General Welsh.

Air Power is indeed crucial to enable each phase and element of a successful military intervention in the XXIst Century, i.e. the ability to enter, project and sustain power.

If this exercise has been planned for many months, its timing with the current news cycle makes it even more relevant, while, as FrAF General Creux highlighted, “it sends a deterrence message to our foes that we can jointly fight and train at the same time on different fronts.” [ref] Press conference, Langley AFB, December 15th, 2015[/ref]

This article is based on two press conferences held during the December 15th, 2015 Media Day organized at Langley’s AFB: the first panel gathered each Mod’s TSI officer, while the second gathered the Chiefs, i.e. USAF Chief General Welsh, RAF Chief Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, Inspector General General Creux speaking on behalf of French Air Chief General Lanata, as well as ACC Commander General Carlisle and US Armed Forces In Europe Commander, General Gorenc.

The information presented in the panels has been complimented by a number of interviews conducted separately as well and to appear in later pieces.

This article appeared originally on our strategic partner’s website, Operationnels:

For related Second Line of Defense pieces see the following:

Photo Credits to Second Line of Defense with the exception of the flying photo of F-22, Rafale and Typhoon which is credited to the USAF.