Between May 16 and 27, Ala 15 of the Ejército del Aire (Spanish Air Force) hosted this years edition of the annual NATO Tiger Meet (NTM) at their Zaragoza Air Base home. Two years have passed since the Ejército del Aire made firm its proposal to organise the ‘meet’ at Zaragoza especially with Ala 15 being one of two Spanish units – the other being Ala 14’s 142 Escuadrón at Albacete – belonging to the NATO Tiger Association. Since the proposal to host the NTM16, there have been many meetings to plan and organise in detail the joint exercise by the NATO Tiger squadrons. Despite it being a gathering of squadrons belonging to NATO countries, the air operations were controlled and directed locally by the Ejército del Aire. These tasks were undertaken by the personnel and resources belonging to the Mando Aéreo de Combate (MACOM – Air Combat Command), just like they would in a real-life situation.

The logistical support during both the planning and execution phases was provided by the Mando Aéreo General (General Air Command). As the host unit, Ala 15 was in charge of coordinating all the details of this huge gathering made up of 24 squadrons from 14 countries plus a NATO contingent.

Some 97 aircraft participated across the two weeks of the exercise, although not all were present at the same time – the force being made up of combat, command and control, electronic warfare, inflight refueling and airlift aircraft, as well as rotary assets. In addition to these aircraft (Slovakian Air Force MiG-29 Fulcrums from 1st Bojova Letka sadly cancelled at the last minute), one needs to take into account the large personnel deployment involved. Nearly 1,250 individuals travelled to Spain from the participating countries and joined the 450 personnel attached to Ala 15.

With the passing of the years, this annual reunion of the NATO Tiger squadrons has evolved into one of the more important exercises on the European calendar. The NTM sees that training under realistic conditions is its primary objective with modern warfare seeing the need to create and operate as part of a coalition made up of diverse assets when the time comes to respond to a crisis. This is the fundamental objective of the exercise – to train and execute air operations that might well be encountered during a crisis by combining the assets of various nations. Having all the aircrews and ground personnel in one location allows for interaction and familiarisation between them, the chance to learn first hand about procedures used by each unit, and the chance to fly in the back seat of each other’s aircraft to gain additional knowledge. This strengthening of relations does not stop at the aircrews, but is also extended to, (amongst others) security, intelligence, information and maintenance staff. This way, in case of conflict, this mutual understanding will enhance logistics and air operations.

This years Tiger Meet was the largest organised in the 55-year history of the NATO Tiger Association in terms of the number of participants. This was in part due to the extensive facilities available at Zaragoza, with its large ramp space being able to accommodate all of the aircraft. In order to accommodate all the personnel involved, in addition to using the base’s permanent installations, it was necessary to set up tents and container buildings supplied by the based Escuadrón de Apoyo al Despliegue Aéreo (Air Support Squadron Deployment) or in some cases by the participating units themselves. Inside the large ‘Tiger City’, one of the most sensitive and important areas was the operation facilities which was surrounded by fencing and constantly under guard by security personnel. This was the location where all the exercises classified material was kept and where all the tactics and techniques to be used during the missions were discussed. For the meet, the opportunity was taken to deploy a mobile operations centre belonging to MACOM from the air base at Torrejon to Zaragoza. Made up of personnel from various Ejército del Aire units, this mobile centre also served as a liaison between the Tiger units as well as the air arms command and staff. For the exercise, various buildings on base were set up to support aircraft maintenance, along with tents and container buildings. A maintenance operations centre coordinated fuel, oxygen and fire-fighting support and all of the support equipment brought in by those attending was set up in a special area near the parking ramp.

The daily missions were divided up into two daylight periods. During the morning, missions were flown as part of the shadow wave, made up of two flight periods. During this part, air combat missions took place that included engagements of 2 v 1, 2 v 2, 4 v 4 and up to 10 v 4, close air support (CAS) missions and combined air operations (COMAO) with helicopters. The primary flying period, or main wave, took place in the afternoon with missions taking place in two different areas designated as dangerous (D) or restricted (R). In these zones, the daily large COMAO missions took place whilst in the various TMA sectors to the north of the base smaller special missions were flown, such as medevac, non-combatant evacuation operations and ground extractions. The main wave missions were the primary and most demanding flights with regards not only the number of aircraft flown, but also the difficulty of planning them. The total number of sorties flown each day varied between 50 and 60 in the morning to between 60 and 70 in the afternoon giving a daily average of around 130 sorties – a good idea of the complexity of the exercise.

The valuable experience gained by the Ejército del Aire over the last few years of hosting the Tactical Leadership Programme (TLP) courses in Albacete greatly helped in the planning and coordination with civilian aviation authorities. A large number of the flight areas used during the NTM were the same ones used during the TLP courses, including several missions over the Mediterranean near the coast of Castellón, to the east of Zaragoza. Thanks to the use of GPS trackers, after each mission it was possible to visualise and analyse the development of the mission jointly in the presence of the participating crews in order to evaluate the actions and reactions of each pilot to the threats encountered.

After two intense weeks of training, May 26 saw the end of the exercise and brought to a close with the traditional ceremony of lowering the flags of the 15 participating nations. At the same time the winners of six competition categories were announced:

  1. Best-looking Tiger Uniform: 21° Gruppo, Italian Air Force
  2. Best-looking Tiger Aircraft: 221 LtBvr, Czech Air Force
  3. Best Skit: 338 Skvadron, Royal Norwegian Air Force
  4. Best Flying Ops: 11 Flotille, French Naval Aviation
  5. Tiger Games: 31 Squadron, Belgian Air Force
  6. Special Tiger Spirit Award: 12° Gruppo, Italian Air Force

The coveted Silver Tiger Trophy was, for the ninth time in the history of the NTM, awarded to 31 Squadron of the Belgian Air Force, the oldest member of the association still on duty. During the award ceremony, it was also announced that the 2017 NTM will be hosted by 11 Flotille of the French Aéronavale based at Landivisiau, Brittany.