The power of two

Following its participation in Exercise Blue Shield in Sudan and Exercise Red Flag in the USA, the Royal Saudi Air Force undertook a further major training exercise, Faisal-11, in Egypt. Jon Lake reports.

In recent years, the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) has dramatically expanded the scope and extent of training with allied air forces, and has seen its capabilities and credibility grow almost exponentially as a result.
The RSAF certainly bears little resemblance to the pre Desert Storm force, which had limited operational capabilities and relied heavily on contractors and on personnel seconded from friendly nations’ air forces. Today’s RSAF has gained extensive operational experience in Yemen and over Syria and Iraq, and has participated in, and led, a number of international coalition operations.
The latest Faisal exercise marked the 11th edition in a series of joint air force training exercises between the RSAF and the Egyptian Air Force. These have usually been held annually, though ‘Faisal-10’ took place at King Fahd Air Base in June 2013.
Intended to enhance and improve cooperation and ties between the air forces, the exercise involved Saudi F-15C/D and Egyptian F-16C/D fighters, and included live weapons firing.
The Saudi F-15Cs (and at least one two-seat F-15D) were drawn from the 2nd Squadron, part of the 7th Wing at King Faisal Air Base, Tabuk. The Egyptian F-16s are understood to have been drawn from the squadrons assigned to the 272nd TFB at Jiyanklis AB.
Egyptian Defence Minister, Sedqi Sobhi, and Air Force commander, Pilot Lieutenant General Younis Al-Sayed Al-Masri, greeted the participants during a formal welcome ceremony. General Al-Masri stressed that Egypt’s military forces were eager to bolster cooperation in joint exercises with what he called “brotherly and friendly countries” and emphasised the importance of such exercises in developing the combat abilities of the air force in order to equip it to better protect Egyptian national security. He stressed the vital importance of cooperation in countering terrorism and maintaining regional development and stability.
An official Egyptian Air Force spokesman said: “The joint training aims to support the capabilities of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the coalition countries to form a common Arab defence force and to unify our plans and combat current regional challenges.”
These thoughts were echoed by Major General Mohammed bin Saleh Al-Otaibi, the RSAF acting commander, who welcomed this opportunity for his force to demonstrate its preparedness and expertise and who expressed pride and satisfaction in what he called “the stunning performance of all participants in the manoeuvres”. He said that this “reflected the professionalism and the strength of harmony of the two brotherly countries’ air forces”.
Finally, he praised Egypt’s efforts to uproot terrorism and its role in maintaining regional stability and security.
Saudi-Egyptian relations have grown progressively closer since the removal of Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian Armed Forces on July 3 2013, which gained the backing of most of the Gulf states.
Within days of toppling Morsi, Saudi Arabia pledged $5 billion in grants, deposits, and petroleum products to boost the ailing Egyptian economy.
Saudi Arabia congratulated President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi after his victory in the June 2014 presidential elections and called for “a conference for donor brothers and friends of Egypt to help Egypt overcome its economic crisis”.
Egyptian and Saudi aircraft have participated in air operations against Daesh in Syria, and the RSAF is believed to have provided unspecified assistance to Egypt in its own war against insurgents on the Libyan border and in the wider Sinai, fighting against the jihadi terrorist group Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.
Since then, Egypt has supported Saudi Arabia in its military campaign in Yemen, which was intended to re-establish the government of President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, and to strike a decisive blow against Houthi rebels and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Egypt has denied that any Egyptian troops have been involved on the ground, but has admitted the participation of naval units (deploying four warships to secure the Gulf of Aden), and there also seems to have been some Egyptian participation in the Saudi-led air campaign.
In fact, at least 800 Egyptian soldiers were deployed to Yemen initially, and the Egyptian Rapid Intervention Force’s paratroops have also been involved.
The Egyptian Air Force is also believed to have played a significant part in air operations against Houthi targets, though in October 2016 it was reported that the Egyptian Air Force had withdrawn from the Saudi-led coalition of countries attacking Yemen after 12 months of operations.
While the 7th Wing at Tabuk deployed F-15C/D interceptors to Egypt, the RSAF’s Typhoon force (part of the 2nd Wing at King Fahd Air Base at Taif) made its first Red Flag deployment. A reported total of 11 tranche 2 and tranche 3 Typhoons made the 9,000nm journey to Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to participate in Exercise Red Flag 17-4, between August 14 and 25.
Though the aircraft involved wore the markings of the Third, 10th and 80th Squadrons, the pilots were reportedly all drawn from the 10th Squadron (the 80th has yet to stand up).
An initial eight-ship formation of RSAF Typhoons left King Fahd AFB on August 1, supported by Airbus Military A330 MRTT tankers from the 24th Squadron, part of the 6th Wing at Prince Sultan Air Base, Al Kharj.
The RSAF Typhoons participated in both Red Flag and Green Flag exercises in the US, and flew swing-role missions by both day and night, flying against stationary and mobile targets and using electronic warfare to defeat a range of threats.
Major General Mohammed al-Otaibi, the RSAF commander, said these exercises had contributed to raising the combat readiness and morale of air and ground crews, and praising the support received from the government of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. He said that the exercise had demonstrated that the RSAF was “comparable to other worldwide air forces in terms of processing and keeping pace with the latest air force systems”.
The deployment commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Khalid al-Yousef, proudly agreed, saying that Red Flag would maximise the RSAF’s readiness for real air combat situations, enhancing survivability and operational effectiveness. He also suggested that the fact that the RSAF was the only Middle Eastern air force to participate in Red and Green flag exercises six times in a row represented proof that it was one of the best air forces in the Middle East and worldwide!
The Typhoons transited back to Saudi Arabia via Albacete Air Base in Spain, where there was some opportunity for Saudi and Spanish Typhoon pilots to compare notes. One Saudi Typhoon pilot was delighted to find that the RSAF was “some steps ahead”!
Both Typhoons and F-15s were involved in the first major international exercise for the RSAF in 2017.
The RSAF deployed four F-15C Eagles and four Eurofighter Typhoons, all drawn from the 2nd Wing at King Fahd Air Base, to Sudan for Exercise Blue Shield 1. The 12-day exercise, held at Merowe Air Base, about 300km north of Khartoum, saw the Saudi aircraft flying alongside Sudanese MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ fighters, Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’ fighter-bombers and Su-24 ‘Fencer’ attack aircraft.
The exercise followed Sudanese participation in the Saudi-led air operations against Houthi targets in Yemen, during which Sudanese Su-24 strike fighters have been deployed to Saudi air bases.
Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir said the exercise demonstrated the Sudanese military was playing a key role in improving Khartoum’s ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, and noted “relations between Sudan and Saudi Arabia are progressing”.