For three weeks in March 2023, around 70 military aircraft participated in the biannual Exercise Cobra Warrior, which took centre stage at RAF Waddington in the United Kingdom. The exercise ran from Monday 6th March and ended on Friday 24th March.Cobra Warrior is the largest military exercise organised and run by the Royal Air Force, through which participants learn how to operate in high intensity large force, tactical air warfighting operations.

The main aim of the military exercise is for international allies of the United Kingdom to train together and develop operational aerial tactics. The exercise aims to synchronize multi-domain effects and so includes not just the air domain, but also Space and Cyber and for 2023 edition Land as well. The airspace allocated for Cobra Warrior 23-1 included parts of the North of England and Scotland plus out over the North Sea.

Besides RAF and USAF assets operating from RAF Coningsby, RAF Brize Norton, RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall, other international participants took place in Cobra Warrior 23-1. The most notable participants were the Indian Air Force, who sent over 5 Mirage 2000s and operated out of RAF Waddington. RAF Waddington was also host to 6 Belgian Air Force F-16s and 6 Finnish Air Force F-18 Hornets. The Royal Saudi Air Force also participated in the exercise and sent over 6 Eurofighter Typhoons that operated out of RAF Coningsby. Speaking at a media event in the first week of the exercise, RAF Waddington Station Commander Group Captain Mark Lorriman-Hughes said:

“It is wonderful once again to welcome our fellow RAF and international colleagues to RAF Waddington to participate in this world class air exercise. “

“Cobra Warrior provides an invaluable opportunity for international Allies and Partners to train together in developing operational tactics in the air”

Group Captain Mark Lorriman-Hughes – RAF Waddington Station Commander.

Air ForceAircraft TypeAerodrome
Royal Air ForceEurofighter TyphoonRAF Coningsby
United States Air ForceBoeing F-15E Strike EagleRAF Lakenheath
Royal Saudi Air ForceEurofighter TyphoonRAF Coningsby
Indian Air ForceDassault Mirage 2000IRAF Waddington
Belgian Air ForceLockheed Martin F-16 AMRAF Waddington
Finnish Air ForceMcDonnell Douglas F-18C HornetRAF Waddington

Helicopters from the UK Joint Helicopter Command and the RAF’s Air Mobility Force also participated in the exercise and operated out of RAF Leeming. RAF Leeming provided the platform from which Exercise tasks coordinated assets including Chinooks from RAF Odiham, Merlins from the Commando Helicopter Force, together with Royal Navy Wildcats and Army Air Corps Apaches.

Scenarios were complex and each element was crucial to mission success – from the US Air Force F-15E Strike Eagles providing Rescue Mission Command, to RAF Chinooks engaging enemy surface to air missiles, and RAF Regiment Precision Strike Teams who deployed from aircraft to safely recover personnel caught behind enemy lines. The full spectrum of air operations was carried out over the three weeks, including Defensive and Offensive Counter-Air as well as Strike Operations. These operations also include RAF Regiment Precision Strike Teams, Air Manoeuvre operations to support ground forces, and the development of the Joint Personnel Recovery Capability. Squadron Leader John Mcfadden, Officer Commanding 92 Squadron based at RAF Waddington who oversaw operations at the RAF Leeming with the RAF’s Air & Space Warfare Centre said:

“I have been coordinating the Air/Land integration part of the exercise here at Leeming. I head up the Excon [Exercise Control] team that enables the delivery of the exercise to test participants. We try to provide an immersive training environment for international partners and participants so that they take part in the serials, they receive the most training possible with a realistic opposition.”

“Faced with challenging and multi-dimensional roles, ground and air elements coordinated to provide an impressive performance in various locations and rapidly changing weather conditions.”

“It’s so important that we practice operating from dispersed locations. In an operational situation there’s no way we would all be sitting face to face in one room – this is much more representative of what would happen.  It is really rewarding to see how the participants bring together the aircraft and the weapons systems, including Precision Strike Teams from the RAF Regiment. To see that come together is really impressive.”

Squadron Leader John Mcfadden, Officer Commanding 92 Squadron – RAF Waddington

Throughout the exercise, several aerial refuelling missions took place with RAF Voyager aircraft and Boeing KC-135R refuelling aircraft taking off from RAF Brize Norton and RAF Mildenhall respectively. Moreover, French Air Force and NATO tanker aircraft also supported the exercise. The RAF Voyager aircraft were mainly responsible for conducting air-to-air refueling with the RAF Typhoons, Saudi Typhoons, and Finnish Hornets.

The Finnish Air Force participated in the exercise for the first time, deploying six F/A-18 Hornet multi-role fighters to enhance interoperability with future NATO allies and to develop the integration of 4th and 5th generation fighters. In a press release, the Finnish Air Force stated that their participation in the exercise shows how much they they value the Royal Air Force as a partner in the framework of the Joint Expeditionary Force cooperation, and as a future NATO ally.

Chief of Staff, Air Force Command Finland, Brigadier General Timo Herranen stated that developing interoperability with the United Kingdom within JEF will also help Finland cooperate better with NATO. Finland joined the JEF programme in 2017. Besides the Finnish hornets at RAF Waddington, Finnish fighter controllers also participated in the exercise and operated out of the Control and Reporting Centre at RAF Boulmer.

The Royal Saudi Air Force deployed 6 Eurofighter Typhoons from 3 squadron, 10 squadron, and 80 squadron and operated out of RAF Coningsby, located close to RAF Waddington and ensuring that the Saudi contingent made best us of the typhoon facilities at RAF Coningsby. The Saudi Typhoons flew all missions with a central targeting pod on the center line pylon to support air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Their participating in Cobra Warrior marked their second ever deployment to the UK.

The Belgian Air Force participated with 6 x F-16AM from 349 Squadron based at Kleine Brogel. 349 Squadron has participated in all major air operations in recent history such as in air operations over Libya in 2011. 349 Squadron was also the first NATO Squadron to land in Siauliai, Lithuania, in 2004 to defend Baltic airspace.

The Belgian Air Force has purchased the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with the arrival of the first example this year in the United States at the American base in Luke near Phoenix, Arizona, for the initial training of Belgian pilots and mechanics. This means that starting from this Summer, the Belgian Air Force will start phasing out its F-16 fleet. F-16AM ‘FA-95’ will be the first one to be retired from service next summer, after being in service since 1985. It will then reach 8,000 flight hours. The others will follow until 2028. Originally, Belgium had acquired the F-16s in two batches: the so-called Initial Buy of 116 F-16s and the Follow-on Buy of 44 F-16s.

An Indian Air Force contingent comprising 145 Air Warriors participated in Exercise Cobra Warrior 23-1, marking the first ever presence of Indian Air Force Mirage 2000 fighter in Europe. The five Mirage 2000I/TI ‘Vajra’ fighters and their crew were supported by two C-17 Globemaster III and an IL-78 mid-air refueller aircraft. Within the Indian Air Force, Mirage 2000s are operated by three units (No 1 Squadron ‘Tigers’, No 7 Squadron ‘Battle Axes’ and No 9 Squadron ‘Wolfpack’) at Gwalior-Maharajpur Air Force Station (AFS) in India’s Madhya Pradesh province.

The Mirages have been modified extensively since first deliveries in 1985 and are similar in capability to the Mirage 2000-5 with upgraded avionics, radar and self-defensive systems. The upgrade also enabled integration of the MBDA Mica air-to-air missile and the expansion of its air-to-ground armament options. During the exercise the Indians did not perform any air-to-air refueling, explaining why they always flew with three external fuel tanks to extend their endurance.

The U.S. Air Force also participated with airmen and F-15E Strike Eagles from the 48th Fighter Wing, RAF Lakenheath. A press release issued by United States Air Forces Europe, states that Cobra Warrior will help “train warfighters capable of leading Joint All-Domain Operations in a contested, degraded and limited operating environment with scenarios that will include air interdiction, dynamic targeting, offensive counter air and defensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defense, and personnel recovery” (USAFE, 2023). 

U.S. Airmen and KC-135 Stratotankers from the 100th Air Refueling Wing at RAF Mildenhall, England, supported the exercise by providing aerial refuelling capabilities during the missions. USAFE highlighted how exercises such as Cobra Warrior better support the USAF’s ability to employ a strategic force in theater whenever called upon.

Besides the air assets operating out of RAF Waddington for the exercise, the based squadrons were also very active during our stay at the station. RAF Waddington is the home of the RAF’s Intelligence Surveillance Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) capabilities and is home to a fleet of aircraft composed of the Shadow R1, RC-135W Rivet Joint and operating base for the RAF’s MQ-9 Reaper. Since October 2022, it has also been home to the RAF’s Aerobatic Team the Red Arrows. Except for the MQ-9 Reaper, all three aircraft flew multiple missions on each day and made sure to entertain all visitors in between one Cobra Warrior mission and another, as you may note below.