The rumble started early Tuesday, as one fighter jet after another ascended from a runway here near the Atlantic Ocean and into a bright, clear sky.
19-12-2015 - JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS
The mission: Prepare for war against potential adversaries like Russia, which is now patrolling the same skies as the United States over Syria and flexing its muscles in eastern Europe.
The first-ever Trilateral Exercise among the United States, France and Britain has been in planning for several years, but began Dec. 2 over coastal Virginia with a decidedly real-world feel. The US Air Force's F-22 Raptor, the British Royal Air Force Typhoon and the French air force Dassault Rafale have flown dozens of missions each day since the operation started.
Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles and T-38 Talons are flying against them as so-called "Red Air," providing a notional adversary in training. Tanker planes and an E-3 Sentry, a command-and-control plane commonly known as the AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) provide support.
It marks the first time that the Raptor, Typhoon and Dassault Rafale -- all of which have flown combat sorties over the Middle East this year -- have trained together in an environment with such a large number of aircraft and troops, senior Air Force officials said. The exercise, which concludes Friday, is focused heavily on making sure the different aircraft operate well together, even when facing enemy fighters, anti-aircraft ground weapons and electronic warfare that can take out communications equipment -- what the military calls an anti-aircraft, area-denial environment. The fighters represent the most advanced jets in each nation.
"The same kind of deconfliction, the same kind of communication process, is in place here that is in places in the Middle East," said Gen. Mark Welsh, the US Air Force's top officer. "Our air forces there do a lot of work to try to stay in communication so that there is less chance for miscommunication, for mistakes, or for confusion that leads to mistakes or bad decisions. And, it's happening every day in the Middle East just like it is in this exercise."
But a panel of senior officers from the three nations were quick to draw a distinction this week between current operations in Iraq and Syria and what the allies could face in the future. While Syria and Russia both have some anti-aircraft weapons in Syria now, much of the country has uncontested airspace, allowing the US-led military coalition to strike the Islamic State militant group as it identifies targets.
Recent events have raised concerns about whether that will remain the case. US officials say that the Russian military has worked to make sure their operations over Syria don't conflict with those of the US-led military coalition, but Russian operations also have proven unpredictable. Last month, a Russian Sukhoi Su-24M bomber briefly crossed into Turkey, prompting a Turkish F-16 to shoot it down.