For the first time ever, Qatar Emiri Air Force Rafales integrated with U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers during a week-long air-to-air refueling exercise at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar.
Exercise Sky Shield brought together members of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing and the QEAF to meet three objectives which would showcase their enduring and resolute partnership, and to demonstrate the promise for future interoperability throughout the U.S. Central Command area of responsibility.
“The U.S.-Qatar relationship is based on a shared commitment to peace,” said U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Dan Tulley, 379th AEW commander. “Working together for refueling, conducting flying training together and sharing capabilities makes us stronger together. We are grateful to Qatar for its continued partnership and hosting of U.S. and coalition forces.”
The first objective called for the 340th Expeditionary Air Refueling Squadron to refuel the Rafales in Qatari airspace.
“We have never done this before,” said exercise director U.S. Air Force Capt. James McCarthy. “The Qataris received their Rafales earlier this year and have been eager to collaborate with U.S. forces and our coalition partners to refine their joint combat capability.”
As the 379th AEW weapons and tactics officer, McCarthy is responsible for the integration of Al Udeid air assets such as the E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), the RC-135 V/W Rivet Joint and the KC-135 throughout the region.
The second objective tested the participants’ ability to engage over the Link-16 communication network. It is a military tactical data link network used by NATO and authorized nations to share their tactical pictures in near-real time.
“We have planned to use Link-16 to pass ground points and send free text messages to the Rafale aircraft and to allow communication to flow between the Rafales and the KC-135s,” said McCarthy. “We rely heavily on the Link for situational awareness. Having the Rafale pilots become proficient in using it would be crucial for any future conflict.”
The third capstone objective challenged the QEAF pilots to perform a Defensive Counter-Air Combat Patrol (DCA CAP) from the two wings of the KC-135. This means they would provide surrounding formation security while the 340th EARS team refueled their fellow Rafales.
“The fact that the Qatari Rafale is defending a U.S. high value asset in the form of a tanker is most definitely historic,” said McCarthy. “It demonstrates the importance of our partnership and our reliance on one another to defend the Gulf against potential threats.”
The 340th EARS is Air Mobility Command’s only enduring air refueling squadron positioned to support this partnership-enhancing mission, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Isaiah Oppelaar, its commander.
“The Qataris have gone above and beyond to provide key resources and support to make this exercise possible,” he said. “Events like this exercise are great experiences for my aircrews. We will continue to look for opportunities to integrate with our QEAF partners and to increase the complexity and realism of our exercise scenarios.”
The Qatar Air Defense Liaison Team senior duty officer for U.S. Air Forces Central, U.S. Air Force Maj. Eric Vanley, facilitated planning between U.S. and Qatari Air Forces for the exercise.
“U.S. personnel across AFCENT and Al Udeid engage with Qataris across a range of capabilities and requirements on a daily basis,” he said. “Our strong bilateral relationship has been tested and demonstrated many times before.”
Vanley highlighted the QEAF-AFCENT Friendship Event in August 2020, which allowed U.S. Air Force pilots and weapons system officers to share their knowledge of the F-15 Eagle, and for the QEAF to demonstrate the capabilities of their own fleet, made up of the Dassault Mirage and Rafale airframes.
“Our F-15s flew in formation over Doha with the QEAF Rafales, which set the stage for this exercise,” he said.
The QEAF also have well-established bonds with other coalition partner nations. The Rafales have previously communicated with Royal Air Force Typhoons via a tactical data link and have conducted extensive training on air-to-air refueling with the French.
“The QEAF named the exercise Sky Shield because we are cooperating to bolster the defense of Qatar and the coalition forces that reside here,” said Vanley.
He said interoperability with U.S. partners and allies is critical to the effectiveness of coalition efforts.
“When we understand how a partner operates and what tactics, techniques and procedures they use, and they gain familiarity with how we operate, we’re able to meet regional security challenges more effectively,” said Vanley.