Exercise Maple Flag

Backgrounder / December 12, 2018

The RCAF has decided to not conduct Exercise Maple Flag in 2019. The RCAF will use the opportunity to re-focus its resources to update the exercise’s mandate and to modernize the infrastructure used during the exercise. The RCAF will thereby ensure that Maple Flag remains focused and relevant to fighter operations in a dynamic and fluid battlespace, now and into the future. In past years, Exercise Maple Flag took place at 4 Wing Cold Lake, Alberta, in the June time period.

Maple Flag aims to prepare both the Royal Canadian Air Force and international aircrew, maintenance and support personnel for the rigours of operations in the modern aerial battlespace.

Participants use a fictitious scenario, which pits them against live and simulated threats. The goal is to hone their skills within a realistic, evolving and challenging operational environment. Specific training activities generally include command and control; air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons and tactics employment; as well as air-to-air refueling. Activities are primarily conducted inside the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR), a vast airspace complex to the north of 4 Wing.

The Air Force Tactical Training Centre (AFTTC), located at 4 Wing, plans, directs and hosts Exercise Maple Flag. AFTTC’s fundamental mandate is to provide realistic training to participants in order to simulate modern air combat operations.

In past years, exercise participants have come from Canada, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Colombia, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Republic of Singapore, the United Kingdom, the United States and more. 

International Observer Program

The International Observer Program provides potential future participants of Exercise Maple Flag the opportunity to experience the exercise up close, without committing large amounts of resources. The aim of this program is to secure other nations’ future participation in Exercise Maple Flag. In 2018, program participants came from a variety of allied and partner nations, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Jordan, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Morocco, Oman, Philippines, Qatar, Republic of Korea and the United Arab Emirates.

History of Exercise Maple Flag                        

Exercise Maple Flag is the Canadian variation of the United States Air Force’s Exercise Red Flag, which is held several times a year at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, and Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The Flag series of exercises were developed in response to observations made during the Vietnam War. During this conflict, it was noticed the majority of aircraft losses occurred during an aircrew’s first ten combat missions.

Those who survived these critical first ten missions were deemed more likely to survive the remainder of their combat tour and beyond. Flag exercises were designed to provide junior aircrews with these critical first ten missions. Over the years, Exercise Maple Flag has evolved to meet the needs of the RCAF and its partners and allies but, in many ways, this structure still exists today.

Initially conceived as Exercise Red Flag North in 1977, the Canadian version was later renamed Exercise Maple Flag in 1978. Two four-week exercises were held each year until 1987. After that time, it became a single annual event lasting from four to six weeks, broken into two or three self-contained, two-week periods.

Traditionally, the main focus of the exercise was fighter operations and supporting airframes, with a primary focus on the Large Force Employment of those entities.

Over the years, the exercise has evolved and transformed in response to real-world operations and advances in technology, expertise and techniques. The exercise used to almost exclusively involve fighters, large bombers, fighter-interceptor-bombers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft and airborne warning and control systems.

Today, many of those same airframes are still involved, but now include integration with various Air Force elements such as tactical airlift, helicopters and electronic warfare, as well as the Army. From year to year however, the scope of the exercise differs, customized first to the training requirements of the RCAF and then to those of participating nations.

Since 1987, Exercise Maple Flag has only been cancelled on four occasions. Cancellations occurred in 1991 due to Gulf War I, in 1999 due to the Kosovo conflict, in 2011 due to Operation MOBILE and finally in 2015 due to Operations IMPACT and REASSURANCE. These cancellations all occurred as a result of real-world RCAF operational commitments, and in response to mandates set forth by the Government of Canada.

The real-world training achieved during Exercise Maple Flag can only be matched and exceeded by actual real-world operations. The motto ‘train like you fight so you can fight like you train’ rings true for the participants of Exercise Maple Flag.

The Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR)

The CLAWR is part of a vast group of three airspaces which include the Air Combat Maneuvering (ACM) area and a low-level flying area, all of which are controlled and managed by 4 Wing’s Operational Support Squadron.

In its entirety, the airspace group spans from British Columbia to Manitoba, and from the Northwest Territories to central Alberta. In total, it is the size of central Europe.

The CLAWR is 1.17 million hectares in size and is located approximately 70 kilometres north of 4 Wing Cold Lake. This specific piece of land is a restricted operating zone, and is the airspace that contains the more than 90 target complexes (over 640 individual targets) and threat simulators that are used during Exercise Maple Flag.

The available target sets may include seven full-scale mock military airfields, simulated military infrastructure, and simulated surface-to-air threats. Nearly all targets inside the CLAWR permit the use of inert conventional and precision laser and/or GPS guided munitions. Several surface targets can be defended by systems which simulate the signals sent from common surface to air threats.

Rounding out the already robust set of training aids inside the CLAWR are several live-fire areas, including air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery ranges, where pilots can practice with live munitions against both surface and airborne targets.


 

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