Frisian Flag 2019


Between April 1st and 12th the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (Royal Netherlands Air Force) organized a new edition of the 'Frisian Flag' exercise. Air assets from six NATO and Partnership for Peace nations gathered at Leeuwarden airbase to participate in this exercise in order to train close collaboration in possible future conflicts.

Throughout the year pilots train and develop their skills on a local level, but an exercise like Frisian Flag gives them the opportunity to even develop these further on a larger scale and in an international context. The focus lies on the development of leadership skills with all participants, they get the opportunity to develop, execute and finally evaluate missions on a large scale. The daily training missions are planned by another participant and then briefed to the other participants.


Apart from the locals the largest detachment for this exercise came from the United States Air Force. The 148th Wing - 179th Fighter Squadron 'Bulldogs' based at Duluth International Airport in Minnesota deployed 10 of its Lockheed-Martin F16C Fighting Falcons especially for the exercise to Leeuwarden. This unit is part of the Air National Guard, a reserve unit that in peace time falls under the command of the local governor, but in times of crisis it moves under the normal United States Air Force command structure and can be deployed overseas as was already the case in recent years when ANG units were active in the Middle East. In the past these ANG men and women were known as the 'weekend warriors', but in recent years many of them are full time servicemen and this due to the increased complexity of the weapon systems they use.

Apart from good leadership current operations are all about precision. According to international law attacking a target is only acceptable when the risk of collateral damage is avoided as much as possible. Frisian Flag aims for a highest possible precision in the application of the so-called Rules of Engagement (ROE), an international agreed set of rules that determine what a military force can and can't do.


Second country to participate in the exercise was the Polish that deployed 8 Lockheed-Martin F16C/D Fighting Falcons from 31.Baza Lotnicza Taktycznego Poznan/Krzesiny. One of the units at 31.BLT is the 6. Eskadra Lotnicwa Tactycznego (6.elt) 'Tigers' and this was very clearly visible as they brought over their specially painted 'Tiger' bird. The Polish F16s were all equipped with the Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFT) to increase their range. This doesn't mean that the other were only able to fly shorter missions as Frisian Flag was organized simultaneously with the European Air Refuelling Training (EART) exercise that was held at Eindhoven. We will pay a closer look at this exercise in an upcoming article.

During the exercise various types of missions are flown: Air Defense missions, offensive missions, missions to protect other aircraft and the destruction of static and moving targets on the ground or at sea. During Air Defense missions it is the aim to keep hostile fighters out of a specific area and during the missions to destroy targets on the ground the aircraft were either independently or in collaboration with units of the Army or Navy, the so-called Forward Air Controllers. A number of additional Air Defense systems are deployed to Leeuwarden airbase, the NATO-gunnery range 'de Vliehors' and a 'secret' location somewhere in the province of Friesland, where Leeuwarden is located. This all to make the exercise as realistic as possible.


Third participant in this years' edition was the German Luftwaffe who deployed a number of Eurofighter Typhoons coming from Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 (TLG31) based at Nörvenich. The Typhoon has become the standard fighter of the Luftwaffe in recent years and was developed jointly with the United Kingdom, Italy and Spain.

Recent events have shown the importance of international collaboration during military operations. In 2011 a NATO-led coalition began a military intervention in Libya with the aim to implement a United Nations resolution to implement an immediate ceasefire in the country. During this operation no less than 14 NATO-countries worked together with four additional countries. Also this collaboration between NATO and other countries was reflected in Frisian Flag 2019 with the presence of a detachment coming from Switzerland, one of the Partnership of Peace countries.


This program of practical bilateral collaboration started in 1994 and has for aim the building of a partnership between the traditional NATO countries and a number of individual countries, Switzerland joined in 1996. For Frisian Flag 2019 the Swiss Air Force deployed four McDonnell Douglas F/A18C Hornets from Fliegerstaffel 11 based at Meiringen. Also this unit is part of the NATO Tiger community and brought over their specially painted 'Tiger-bird' to Leeuwarden.

The next country that send over aircraft to Leeuwarden was France. A total of four Dassault Mirage 2000D from Escadron de Chasse 3 based at Base Aérienne 133 Nancy-Ochey deployed to Leeuwarden. The Mirage 2000D is the conventional attack version of the Mirage 2000-family and was developed from the 2000N nuclear attack variant. It made its first flight in 1991 and a total of 86 2000Ds were delivered to the Armée de l'Air, with the last entering service in 2001. Although the 2000N was withdrawn from service in 2018, the 2000D will remain in service for the foreseeable future.

Largest participant in Frisian Flag 2019 was off course the organizing country, the Netherlands. Lockheed-Martin F16AM Fighting Falcons from all operational squadrons took part in the daily missions. The fleet of Dutch F16AM/BMs is split over two operational bases, Leeuwarden and Volkel, and a number of aircraft of this last base were on temporary deployment at Leeuwarden for the exercise. The F16 entered service in the Netherlands in 1979 and is celebrating its 40th Anniversary of operational use in 2019, but its days are numbered as later this year the first Lockheed-Martin F35A Lightning IIs will start arriving at Leeuwarden airbase and gradually will take over the duties of the F16s.

To add to the realism of the exercise Frisian Flag 2019, also a Dassault Falcon 20 from Cobham Aviation Services was used. This aircraft simulates an electronic attack and threat during the various missions. Over the two weeks also several support aircraft from the participating countries visited Leeuwarden. We saw for example a Swiss Dassault Falcon 900EX-EASy from the Swiss Air Force and a couple of CASA C295Ms from Poland.

Over the years Frisian Flag has grown to one of the major international exercises in Europe with a nice mix of international participants and we hope that this success can continue for many years to come as the introduction of the Lightning II will be a very challenging process and this not only for the Royal Netherlands Air Force, but also for the countries who have not (yet) selected this new aircraft. As Laurent already mentioned in the heads up that we published on the Low Approach Aviation Photography Facebook page in early April 2019 several of our members spend time at Leeuwarden both outside and inside the base and we want to thank all who made this possible, first of all the Public Affairs Office at Leeuwarden for granting us access to the press day on the first day of the exercise, but also to all the volunteers of Aviation Group Leeuwarden for organizing the 'events' outside the base at the various spotter locations.


Text : Laurent Heyligen

Photography : Laurent Heyligen, Dirk Geuns, Andy Patzelt, Edwin Huskens, Alain Meykens