2003 – Volcanex 2003

Volcanex title976-2

report by Gilles Denis
photographs by Didier Kories


02_VOLCANEX From 1 till 12 September, Florennes air base hosted exercise VOLCANEX 03/CSAR – CIS. This exercise is designed and co-ordinated by the European Air Group (EAG). This organisation regroups seven European air forces.  It was created in 1995 as the Franco-British European Air Group. The addition of Italy in 1998 and Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain in 1999 led to the current designation of European Air Group. The EAG is headquartered at High Wycombe in the UK. Its aim is to improve the operational capabilities of the seven air forces to carry out operations in pursuit of shared interests. To achieve this, the EAG develops ways to enhance complementarity and interoperability between the air forces.

One such way is to organise exercises during which deficiencies and points to improve can be identified and corrected. The generic name for these exercises is VOLCANEX. The first was held in 2000 in Italy and France and was centred on Communications and Information Systems (CIS). Its goal was to test interoperability among the EAG air forces in the fields of cryptography, CIS equipment and data transfer in support of Out of Area operations. In other words, could all the parties involved in an operation communicate with each other using their own national equipment? The lessons learned and the experience gained allowed the EAG to hold a more complex CIS exercise in 2001.


For VOLCANEX 2002, a second element was added to the exercise: 03_VOLCANEXCombat Search And Rescue (CSAR). CSAR consists in recovering pilots shot down behind enemy lines. It is one domain of operation that is viewed as highly important by the EAG. For the moment, the only country that is self-sufficient for CSAR missions is the United States. European capabilities are rather limited and this has been recognised by the Air Chiefs of the seven EAG nations. They decided to improve the situation by giving the EAG a role of co-ordinating and promoting CSAR activities. With limited resources, the only solution is to combine the assets of the different countries. And if different air forces want to go into action together, they have to train together, hence the CSAR side of VOLCANEX 2002 which was held at Cazaux air base, in the south of France.

As in 2002, VOLCANEX 2003 was divided in two parts, which were highly interconnected: CSAR and CIS. The CSAR part was held at Florennes with around twenty helicopters and 200 personnel deployed on the Belgian air base. The CIS part took place jointly at Florennes and at Pratica di Mare, Italy from where all the CSAR operations were directed. This allowed the EAG to better simulate a deployment of assets out of the European area and to evaluate the CIS procedures. CIS equipment – provided mainly by Italy and installed in transportable containers – were present at Florennes to establish the link between the participants and the command centre situated in Italy.



The following air assets were deployed at Florennes to take part in the CSAR missions:

  • 3 A.109s (Belgian Armed Forces/Land Component)
  • 4 SA.342L1 Gazelles (France – ALAT)
  • 2 SA.342M Gazelles (France – ALAT)
  • 1 SA.330B Puma (France – ALAT)
  • 2 SA.330B Pumas (France – Armée de l’Air)08_VOLCANEX
  • 3 UH-1D Hueys (Germany – Luftwaffe)
  • 2 AH-64D Apaches (the Netherlands – KLu)
  • 2 AS.332B Super Pumas (Spain – EdA)
  • air cover was provided by Belgian F-16s

During the flying phase of the exercise – which started on 4 September – each participant took part in one of the three daily missions. The composition of the forces involved in each mission was changed every day so that everyone had a chance to work with all the others. For example, the Dutch Apaches could escort German Hueys one day and Spanish Super Pumas the next.

09_VOLCANEXEach day started by a mass briefing given to all participants. After that, and according to mission assignments, the aircrews split-up in three groups to plan their respective mission. One typical training mission flown during VOLCANEX 03 involved 2 French Gazelles (escort), 2 German UH-1s (rescue vehicles), 2 Dutch Apaches (escort) and 2 Belgian F-16s (air cover). Once the mission was planned, all the aircrews got together to brief the others on their specific task. The senior Dutch Apache pilot led the briefing. He explained the mission scenario: a British Tornado F.3 – call sign Bulldog 27 – had been shot down over enemy-held territory. The pilot and his back-seater had ejected successfully and were in good health. This was ascertained by the last radio contact with them that took place the day before at 13:30z.

After a quick weather brief, the mission plan was explained to all the participants. 10_VOLCANEXIt was divided into four phases. Phase 1 was the transfer from Florennes to a Forward Arming & Refuelling Point (FARP). The Gazelles – call sign Lyon – would take the lead, followed by the UH-1s – call sign Berlin – and the Apaches – call sign Breda. Once at the FARP, the Gazelles and the UH-1s would land first and refuel while the Apaches would stay in a holding position. Then it would be the Apaches’ turn to land and simulate a refuelling. Phase 2 was the flight from the FARP to the Initial Point (IP). Once at the IP, the Gazelles would start to scout the area, looking for any enemy forces and possible threats. Enemy ground forces had been reported in the area and Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) and Anti Aircraft Artillery (AAA) had to be expected. For added realism, threat generators and smokey SAMs were deployed in the area. The plan was to by-pass any major threat areas as the objective of the mission was to rescue the two pilots, not to engage the enemy.

12_VOLCANEXPhase 3 was the actual pick-up of the two survivors. During the all operation, two F-16s would give air cover to the helicopters. Arriving on the scene five minutes before them, the fighters would contact the two downed pilots, make sure of their identities, locate their exact position and pass on the information to the UH-1s that would keep radio contact with them until the actual pick-up. Located at Bertrix airfield – 55 kilometres south-east of Florennes – the pick-up point would be approached by the Gazelles first. They would scout the area and position themselves north of the runway. Two minutes later the rest of the team would come in from the north-east: one Apache, followed by the two UH-1s and with the second Apache in trail. The two attack helicopters would cover the area south of the runway while the Hueys would land on the airfield with the extraction forces to secure the site. With the two downed pilots located and then brought into the helicopters, a “Popcorn” call would be sent that would mark the start of the egress and the return to base (Phase 4). Once again the Gazelle would exit the pick-up area first, followed 30 seconds later by the other four helos. The mission was scheduled to last a little less than two hours.

The briefing ended with a reminder of safety and communication procedures and then the participants headed for their aircraft. While they did their pre-flight checks, two French Pumas and three Belgian A.109s took-off for the first mission of the day, soon followed by four French Gazelles and two Spanish Super Pumas for mission number 2. Finally take-off time arrived and the third mission could start with the departure of the two Gazelles, the two Hueys and the two Apaches. A little less than two hours later they landed back at Florennes and they were soon on their way to a debriefing. This was followed by a mass debriefing with the participants from all three missions so that they could share their experiences and talk about the problems they were faced with.


A total of fifteen missions were flown during VOLCANEX 03 amounting to around 96 sorties. The last day was dedicated to night missions. It has been a rare occasion for around 200 people of seven different nationalities and of five different disciplines to work together. Aircrews of rescue and escort helicopters, extraction forces, SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) staff and Intelligence personnel took part in a realistic exercise. After a thorough analysis of the results, a lot of lessons will be drawn from this exercise. It will lead to a better co-operation between the different air forces and new tactics and procedures will be put in place for future exercises and… for real war operations.


The authors would like to thank all the EAG personnel and the VOLCANEX participants at Florennes for helping us preparing this article.

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