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Ready for air policing missions

From 31 December 2020, two armed fighter jets will be on 24/7 standby for deployment within 15 minutes, if required. To be optimally prepared for round-the-clock operational readiness, the Swiss Air Force spent nearly four weeks in the North of England practising aerial manoeuvres by night.

18.12.2020 | Defence Communications, Eve Hug

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The exercise «Yorknite» is a key element of the Swiss Armed Force’s night flying training. © VBS/DDPS, Aldo Wicki

From 24 November to 18 December 2020, a training exercise was carried out in the county of Yorkshire, in the North of England, with 40 pilots, 70 ground crew and 10 F/A-18 aircraft from the Swiss Air Force. The exercise, dubbed «Yorknite», was conducted in close collaboration with the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the RAF Leeming airbase. The night flying exercises are crucially important for Switzerland’s air policing missions, which will be extended around the clock from 2021.

Learning from each other

The Swiss pilots and their British colleagues were able to practise flight manoeuvres over the North Sea during darkness, without night flight restrictions. For a fighter jet to take off, however, it needs not only a pilot but also trained ground personnel and skilled technicians; they ensure the aircraft are permanently ready for deployment. The Swiss team learnt from their British colleagues what matters most when flying at night.

Mutual benefit

Joint training exercises are based on an agreement between the United Kingdom and Switzerland. The Swiss Air Force would like to thank its British counterpart, the RAF, for this invaluable cooperation. Yorknite commander, Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Wicki, reflects on the night training exercises in England.

Interview with Lieutenant Colonel Aldo Wicki, commander of the Yorknite exercise

 

How important is the Yorknite exercise for the Swiss Air Force?

The four-week Yorknite exercise in North England is extremely important for the Swiss Air Force because it helps us to achieve international standards for modern aerial warfare at night. RAF Leeming provides excellent conditions for conducting basic night flying training and practising tactical night manoeuvres more effectively than in Switzerland. During the four-week exercise, the F/A-18 crews complete around 50% of their total annual night flying training. Thanks to this excellent training opportunity abroad, the Swiss Air Force is fully prepared with two armed F/A fighter jets for QRA air policing missions to protect Swiss airspace 24/7 from 2021. 

 

What challenges did you face during the preparations?

The coronavirus pandemic posed a completely new challenge. After months of preparation, we did not know until shortly before Yorknite was due to begin whether the UK Ministry of Defence would authorise the exercise because of quarantine and lockdown measures. Together with the Armed Forces Staff, the Aeromedical Institute, the UK Ministry of Defence and our partners at RAF Leeming, we compiled a comprehensive COVID-19 safety plan to provide both the Swiss delegation and our British hosts with a maximum level of protection against infection.     

 

How would you sum up the four-week exercise in England and what key experience did you gain personally?

Despite the difficult circumstances due to the pandemic and poor weather at times, the extremely favourable conditions at RAF Leeming enabled us to make impressive training progress at all levels and achieve our goals. I was very impressed how, even under difficult circumstances, such a challenging and complex operation was carried off so smoothly through pragmatic and efficient teamwork, and comprehensive and solid preparation that included every conceivable precautionary measure. The Swiss Air Force demonstrated that it can perform its tasks successfully, even under exceptional circumstances. This awareness gives us total confidence that it can be deployed in future extraordinary crises with success.

 

What are the benefits of this kind of military cooperation, in particular for Switzerland, which is not a member of NATO?

Switzerland is a small country and does not have the resources necessary for achieving international standards in modern aerial warfare on its own; we need to cooperate with competent partners who have the operational experience. It is particularly important for the Swiss Air Force to enhance and develop its skills and expertise with respect to interoperability and cooperation with other European partners, and to use joint exercises with other experienced air forces to review its own training programme. This what we call ‘benchmarking’, i.e. regularly testing our own knowledge and ability at international level with experienced partners and making improvements where necessary. Exercises like these also boost the credibility of the Swiss Air Force and the country’s defence capabilities.

Yorknite 2020

Yorknite 2020

From 24 November to 18 December, 40 pilots and 70 ground crew from the Swiss Air Force conducted joint training exercises with the Royal Air Force (RAF) at the RAF Leeming airbase in the North of England. The exercise, known as ‘Yorknite’, is a key element of the Swiss Armed Force’s night flying training. The large geographical flying sectors over the North Sea provide an effective training area, with practically no restrictions, for all kinds of operations, air policing missions, tactical night flying and ultrasonic flights. Equivalent night flying training is not possible in Switzerland owing to altitudes, speed limits, restrictions on flight operating times and the number of aircraft movements, dense civil aviation traffic and out of consideration for the population with respect to noise pollution. For those reasons, the Swiss Air Force conducts nearly half of its night flying training abroad. These joint training exercises are based on bilateral agreements. 

AP24

Air Police Service 24 (AP24)

Air Police Service 24 protects the security and sovereignty of Swiss airspace and is on permanent stand-by with two armed fighter jets that can deployed within 15 minutes. Since the beginning of 2019, the aircraft have been in operational readiness from 6am to 10pm. From 31 December, they will be on stand-by around the clock, for 365 days a year.  

The aircraft used for the permanent air policing missions are located at the military airfield in Payerne, with alternative accommodation available at Emmen or Meiringen. The operational readiness of the Air Police Service was extended under a project called LP24 and is known in technical jargon as Quick Reaction Alert (QRA). The Air Defence Operations Centre in Dübendorf, which has carried out 24/7 air surveillance for around 15 years, is responsible for deciding whether the aircraft are to be deployed and for initiating, leading and overseeing QRA missions. The introduction of QRA means that the Swiss Air Force now has a greater ability to intervene in Swiss airspace.

QRA missions mean that in the future fighter jets will fly outside of the usual military operating hours and, if required, at ultrasonic speed. This is necessary to ensure the protection of Switzerland’s airspace and territorial sovereignty at all times.