Text: Paulo Mata
Featured on Air Fores Monthly  magazine April 2019

The US Air Force’s 480th Fighter Squadron sent 18 aircraft and 320 airmen from Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany to sunny Portugal for three weeks this winter. Paulo Mata joined the ‘Warhawks’ at Monte Real.

During the European winter, Monte Real air base offers welcome respite from the harsh weather conditions that can be encountered elsewhere on the continent. The latest 480th Fighter Squadron (FS) detachment patch depicted a weasel – symbolising the squadron’s suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) role – surfing a wave, a reference to the high breaking waves found at the nearby Nazaré beach. But behind the playful image lay hard work around the clock for the 480th FS during its tenure from February 2 to 22.

Monte Real, officially Base Aérea No 5 (BA5), is located in central Portugal. Since its inception in the late 1950s, this base has been the ‘Portuguese fighter town’ and today it’s home to the two Força Aérea Portuguesa (FAP, Portuguese Air Force) F-16 squadrons. It offers several maintenance facilities, not usually available at air base level, some of them a legacy of the Mid-Life Update (MLU) programme that was partly carried out at the base. In addition, BA5 provides suitable accommodation for external personnel and aircraft, and access to an excellent bombing range.

The Portuguese Vipers are standardized with OFP M6.5.2

Deployments here also benefit the FAP, which has the chance to integrate with other units, creating realistic environments and scenarios for a range of exercises. All these factors, allied with plentiful available airspace and exceptional weather conditions for most of the year, make Monte Real and Portugal desirable for winter deployments, ensuring frontline fighters retain their readiness levels even when flying operations are restricted ‘back home’. The base hosted a US Navy detachment from the aircraft carrier USS Harry S Truman last November, the Royal Danish Air Force’s Winter Hide exercise in January this year and, most recently, the USAF’s 480th FS training detachment.

Readiness and interoperability

The recent operational history of the 480th FS is visible on several of its aircraft, which bear wartime ‘mission marks’ on the port side of the cockpit. This is a busy unit and operational standards must be permanently maintained. Lt Col Michael ‘Bait’ Richard, the commanding officer of the ‘Warhawks’, summarised the objectives of the detachment in two words: readiness and interoperability.

The former is achieved by deploying a large-force package to a foreign country and then being able to operate expeditiously. Interoperability is represented by being able to integrate with an ally and then carry out joint and combined operations. According to Lt Col Richard, both objectives were successfully accomplished, and he stressed the “seamless integration with our Portuguese friends”. He added: “We arrived here on a Saturday and were able to start flying with the Portuguese on Monday morning!” The lieutenant colonel also praised the compatibility between the USAF and FAP F-16 fleets: the Portuguese Esquadra 201 and 301 employ the MLU-updated F-16AM/BM with Operational Flight Program (OFP) M6.5.2 software, while the 480th FS flies F-16CJs with OFP M7.1.

Cobham's Electronic Warfare Falcon 20 landing in Monte Real runway 19
The E-3A Sentry that provided AWACS support to the exercise

Despite the 480th FS’ primary mission of offensive counter-air suppression of enemy air defences (OCASEAD), the deployment to Portugal was used to train for a wider variety of missions over and above the famous ‘Wild Weasel’ tasking: defensive counterair (DCA) and offensive counter-air (OCA) usually included US and Portuguese aircraft switching roles during the sorties.
A NATO E-3A Sentry AWACS provided added help, while a Cobham Falcon 20 offered electronic warfare ‘interference’.

On the range

The huge 2,000lb (907kg) BDU-56 inert bombs (blue) before a sortie to Alcochete range
Arming the bombs at Monte Real runway 19 EOR
Spangdahlem F-16CJ with BDU-50 inert training 500lb bombs under the wings on its way to Alcochete

The Alcochete firing range was heavily utilised for basic surface attack (BSA) during the air-to-surface missions, including strafing and bombing. The latter began with light BDU-33 smoke bombs before moving up to the larger 500lb (227kg) BDU-50 and 2,000lb (907kg) BDU-56 bombs.
Low-level flying was a daily feature, and the ‘Warhawks’ made full use of training opportunities that are limited in Germany’s crowded airspace, where poor weather is often limiting factor.
Missions were also supported on the ground by US and Portuguese Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs).

BDU-33 bomblets in the triple launchers pylons under the wings

Commander of the FAP’s Esquadra 201, Major Joel Pais, highlighted the opportunity to integrate with a squadron dedicated to OCA-SEAD, a capability offered by few other European-based air forces. For his part, Esquadra 301 boss Major Duarte Freitas emphasised the importance of social networking, which can prove vital for future real-world operations.

"Familiy photo" of the several units involved in the detachment, both US and Portuguese

US Ambassador in Portugal George Glass (centre), 52FW CO Col. Jason Bailey (left) and BA5 CO Col. João Gonçalves (right)

Monte Real air base CO, Colonel João Gonçalves highlighted the positive impact of foreign air force detachments, which provide a welcome economic injection for the region as a whole. US Ambassador to Portugal George E Glass visited the Spangdahlem detachment at Monte Real and even had the opportunity to fly in a twin seat F-16D piloted by Robert Kowe of the 480th FS. Back on the ground, the ambassador praised the long history of defence co-operation between the two countries. This includes Lajes Field/BA4 in the Azores, which remains a critical shared asset. Col Jason Bailey, 52nd Fighter Wing (FW) commander, concluded that the Monte Real facilities were “outstanding” and praised Portugal as a “tremendous hosting country”.

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