preparing to go down to Italy as part of FL02 - "Flygvapnet Libyen 02" (Air Force Libya 2:nd unit), the Swedish task force taking part in NATO mission Unified Protector over Libya. The Swedish political decision to prolong the mission came very close to the date when the unit needed to be ready for transport down to Italy. So this is a very good test of how well prepared the Swedish Armed Forces are today.
By January 1, 2011 the new employment contract was introduced in the Swedish Armed Forces. This new contract makes it mandatory for all personnel (military and civilian) working in the Armed Forces to when needed be sent to international operations. During the autumn 2010 there was a lot of turbulence in the Armed Forces, since the new contract was mandatory to sign, otherwise you were forces to leave the Armed Forces. The Supreme Commander and the Minister of Defence both stated that the new contract was needed, otherwise it was not possible to continue sending Swedish units on international missions.
But how prepared are the armed forces today? Is it possible to send any unit on international missions without a lot of mission specific training?
The Nordic Battle Group trained for a year in order to be available during the 1-2 quarter of 2011 for international missions within the force structure of EU. The Battlegroups has been criticized since there seem to be very little political interest and financial possibilities for the EU to actually deploy a Battlegroup. NBG08 cost a lot of money to train and keep on alert, but nothing happened. NBG11 has been on alert for 6 months, but nothing has happened even though there have been escalation of conflicts in e.g. Sudan.
A unit that is sent to Afghanistan train for approximately 3-6 months depending on the position within the unit. Maybe this will change in the future, but even though army units can take a core company there will always be need for specialists to accompany the unit to the mission area end this personnel also need to be trained as part of the unit.
FL01 was build up mainly by personnel from F 17 Wing in Ronneby that was already on international alert as part of NBG11 EAW - Expeditionary Air Wing. FL02 will be organized mainly by personnel from F 21 Wing in Luleå. F 21 are well prepared, since they also were on international alert during 2010, and were planning to be on alert during 2012. So a lot of the pilots were already combat qualified and current on e.g. AAR.
But in order to be available for international missions just having aircraft and personnel is not enough. The units must be trained in the type of missions that are planned and their flying status must be good enough.
NATO demand 160-180 flying hours per pilot per year. If the entire Swedish Air Force would be at this high alert it would stress the economy a lot. A squadron also need time to train new pilots and to replace the old guys retiring or leaving for HQ duty or schools. Therefore there will never be a time when all pilots in the Air Force are in combat status.
There is also a lot of special training needed. One example is AAR - Air to Air refueling. In order to be "current", a pilot need to train every 90 days. The only AAR-tanker available in the Swedish Air Force is the Tp 84/C-130 Hercules that is currently down in Italy. It has now been sent back to Sweden to train the F 21 Wing pilots and also check out some new C-130 crews on how to handle this specific aircraft.
There are also a lot of other equipment that is in short supply in the Swedish Air Force and is therefore difficult to train with in Sweden, since most of the equipment is down in Italy. Most Air Force pilots are today well trained in CAS - Close Air Support that was planned to be their major contribution to support the army units in a Afghanistan type of mission. Now they are going to Italy as recce pilots!
It will be interesting to see if the Swedish Air Force can continue with the planned activities for 2011. It was planned to send a unit to Red Flag in Alaska during 2011, but will there be any personnel and aircraft available? Will there be any budget left for this kind of exercise? Unified Protector is a sort of Red Flag exercise and has shown that the Air Force units has been trained well enough.
The supreme commander and the minister of defence focus of getting all officers to sign the new contract is not what counts when it comes to be ready for international mission. What counts is to get realistic training in the same type of equipment that will be used down in the hot zone. The old saying is that "You must train as you fight". Unfortunately the truth is too often that you train as you can afford and then fight as what is needed in the operation. This is of course quite risky since the operational procedures can differ quite a lot from the training.
Interesting to note is that a lot of the planned Red Flag exercises in Nellis has been canceled for 2011. Maybe the European (and American) units are to occupied with Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq? US minister of Defence, Mr Gates, was to the point when he criticized Europe for our lack of capability/capacity to support the mission in Libya. Sweden is doing its best, but it put heavy stress on the Air Force organization.