The annual multinational exercise REAL THAW 2022 (RT22), organised by the Portuguese Air Force with participation of NATO was held between the 27th June until the 8th July at Beja Air Base. RT22 aims to enhance joint training and provide participants with a wide range of tactical missions, with the intention of sharing knowledge, increasing integration, promoting innovation and strengthening ties between NATO partners.
Through this exercise, the Portuguese Air Force shows its strong commitment to create an operational environment where participants can conduct a high-level tactical exercise to maximise integration, interoperability, and learning, while continuing to prepare and qualify their forces to fully accomplish the mission and ensure public interest and international missions assigned to it, with maximum security and efficiency.
In this year’s edition, the exercise has seen the return of participation from aircraft belonging to foreign nations including Belgium, Spain, the United States of America, France and with forces from NATO. Lithuania and the Netherlands participated with troops in a JTAC role.
The start of the exercise was marked with an opening ceremony presided over by the Air Commander, Lieutenant General António Branco, who expressed his wish that “this exercise will be a success and an excellent opportunity to prepare our forces, share knowledge and experiences”. The ceremony proceeded with the hoisting of the National Flag, followed by the hoisting of the participating countries flags, followed by their National Anthems.
History of the Exercise
In early 2008, Monte Real Air Base hosted, at different instances with an interval of 15 days spread between these instances, two detachments from the allied forces of Denmark and the Netherlands. Portugal acted as the host nation of these training exercises because of the favourable weather, since during winter it was more favourable to do this type of training in Portugal than in the participating countries. At the end of these multinational events, Portugal received letters of reference from the countries involved, praising the way in which they were received, particularly highlighting the excellence of planning and the competence shown in the conduct and execution of operations.
In the following year, Denmark requested again the organization of an event similar, with a deployment of 12 F-16 aircraft at Monte Real Air Base. This Danish request triggered what was already a goal of the Portuguese Air Force, that of creating a tactical air exercise in Portugal, in such an attractive and challenging way that it could appeal to the participation of allied and partner air forces. Thus, REAL THAW exercise was effectively born in 2009.
Beja Air Base
Beja Air Base, located near the city of Beja was constructed on October 21st 1964 by ordinance no 20856. Consequently, the air base celebrates its anniversary on this date. Spreading over an area of around 800 hectares, Beja was built both by Portugal and also by Germany, since Germany planned to use the base to provide operational training facilities for the German Air Force.
The base command facilities were finalized in 1967 whereas the construction work of all the remaining facilities came to an end in 1968. The base was first operationally used by the Germans in 1970, where 2 F-104 squadrons started operating from the base. In 1973, the F-104 squadrons were assigned to Germany due to a redeployment of German military assets and Beja Air Base started being shared both by the Portuguese and by the Germans, together with the introduction of commercial flights of Lufthansa and TAP, for training purposes.
On August 16 1979, the Portuguese-German agreed on the operation of an alpha jet squadron belonging to the German Air Force on the base to carry out operational training missions, which ultimately led to and significant increase of the local air activity at the base.
In 1987, 103 squadron was transferred from Monte Real Air Base to Beja Air Base, beginning a new phase in the life of this squadron with permanently stationed Portuguese National Aircraft. The changes to the air force during 1993 included not only the adjustment of missions but also the transfer to Beja Air Base of the following squadrons:
- 101 Squadron from Sintra Air Base equipped with Epsilon aircraft. The squadron returned back to Sintra in 2009 only to return back to Beja on 1st of July of 2020.
- 301 squadron from Montijo operating the alpha jet aircraft that were left at Beja by the German Air Force. In 2005, this squadron was transferred to Monte Real Air Base and started operating the F-16.
- 552 squadron operating the Alouette III helicopters. Nowadays, this squadron operates the AW119KII Koala helicopters.
In 1993, the non renewal of the agreement between Portugal and Germany on use of Beja Air Base led to the disbandment of all German operations from the air base.
In addition to the air units that are permanently based at Beja Air Base, the base is used by several air assets, both by the Portuguese Air Force and other foreign air forces for training and other exercising purposes, taking advantage of the favourable characteristics of the existing aeronautical infrastructures.
In May 2007, AB11 was awarded the “Medal of Honour of the Municipality”, where the distinguished and highly meritorious services rendered by the air base to the municipality of Beja were recognised.
This exercise aims to prepare the Air Force, Navy and Army soldiers, and the participating countries, to act in joint operations, enhancing interoperability between all. RT22 offers participants a unique opportunity to plan and execute missions, with the aim of integrating and synchronizing different domains to solve a tactical problem.
Real Thaw 2022
RT22 provided joint interoperability training throughout the execution of a vast range of battlefield missions, facing operations in a high intensity joint setting. Furthermore, the exercise focused on the integration and synchronization of multinational linking assets into a combined armed team, enhancing tactics development and validation.
The primary training objective for the FORCE was to carry out a tactical block of training for both flying and no flying assets (ground and navy units), supported by a realistic world scenario, while maintaining coherent Command and Control over the FORCE, via the execution of the daily air tasking orders.
An additional training objective was to enhance the capabilities to operate with several aerial and land players in a forward operating base. Knowing how essential interoperability can be, RT22 also included the participation of the Portuguese Army and Navy together with forces from Belgium, France, Lithuania, Netherlands, Spain and USA, together with additional assets from NATO.
The majority of missions took part towards the South West of Portugal, well within the Atlantic Ocean. Depending on the missions being flown, several volumes of airspace, corridors, and air to air refuelling areas and corridors were designated for Real Thaw well before the start of the exercise, as can be noted from the following extract from the military AIP circular that was issued in the weeks before the exercise. These areas were tactically activated on each day based on the type of mission being flown by the participants.
Seven countries operating, approximately 1000 military personnel, and a total of 54 air assets participated during RT22.
P-3C CUP+ (x1)
Air Mobile Protection Team
F-16 AM (x6)
|United States of America||F-16CJ (x18)|
AIRBUS A330 MRTT (x1)
The missions that took place throughout Real Thaw 2022 can be classified into the following:
- Air-to-Air Training Missions: Defensive and Offensive Counter Air Operations, High Value Air Assets Protection and Slow Mover Protection. The first Air-to-Air Refueling training mission was carried out on June 28th involving two Portuguese F-16M aircraft and a United States Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker aircraft.
- Tactical Air Transport Missions: Airlift Escort, Airdrops Escort, Support Special Operations Forces and Military / Non Military Extractions.
- Tactical Air Helicopter Missions: Air Assault, Special Operations, Combat Service Support, Convoy Helicopter Escorts, Personnel Recovery, Combat Search and Rescue and Medical Evacuation.
- Close Air Support Training Missions to increase aircrew skills to establish a base of fire or an over watch position.
- Live-Firing Range Training Missions where aircrew have the opportunity to live-shoot realistic ground targets.
In addition, during RT22, three teams known as Assistance and Relief Systems Operators (OPSAS) participated in the exercise. In addition to the Portuguese, the RT22 also involved teams from America and Belgium. For Sergeant-Aide Monteiro, these type of exercises, which allow for joint training, “are extremely important because we end up working with different procedures than ours.This symbiosis between the different nations promotes the sharing of knowledge and the evolution of all participants”. The Portuguese OPSAS ended by saying that they really enjoyed the training exercises, referring to the preparation and readiness for potential real situations in which comrades might be in danger.
During RT22 real and simulated emergencies were tackled. In these cases, the siren is activated, the soldiers are equipped and enter the emergency vehicles as quickly as possible, after positioning the vehicles at the aerodrome, the appropriate procedures are carried out, which differ from emergency to emergency, to tackle and solve the problem. After every simulated exercise, a briefing about the mission was held, to highlight any positive aspects or others that may be improved. During our visit, we encountered several instances where the OPSAS teams were called to respond to aircraft emergencies.
Another fundamental training exercise at each military exercise the Medical Evacuation procedure, which was also practiced during RT22. On June 29, a medevac training was held within the scope of the Tactical Casualty Care Course – Medical Provider – TCCC-MP. In this course, a situation was staged with formative moments, where Force Protection elements such as Medical Providers were integrated. The MEDEVAC team has also been integrated into the missions carried out at Real Thaw, simulating situations that are close to reality, allowing doctors and nurses to train and improve their skills, keeping them prepared for any type of scenario, in any situation.
70th Anniversary Celebrations
On the 3rd July, during the weekend between the first and second week of RT22, the Portuguese Air Force organised an airshow at Beja to celebrate an important milestone in their history i.e. their 70th anniversary. It was the first time in several years that an airshow was organised in Portugal and the large numbers of aircraft present at Beja for RT 22 couple with the size of Beja Air Base helped set the scene for a wonderful day out for many Portuguese enthusiasts to enjoy some military aviation while at the same time celebrate the anniversary with their air force. It is estimated that over seventy thousand people visited Beja Air Base for the commemorative airshow.
As expected, the airshow was dominated by the home team, where nearly all types in the Portuguese Air Force took to the skies to display their capabilities. The displays commenced with a C-130H Hercules dropping their parachute display team, followed by four flybys by a P-3 Orion and a formation departure of two F-16s. In an excellent set-piece, an AW101 Merlin helicopter carried troops who landed by rappelling to the ground while the two F-16s made a ground attack and provided air cover. At the same time, a highly agile AW119K Koala helicopter gunship provided close support for the troops.
In addition, several types from the Portuguese Air Force were also present in the static display, including a CASA C-295, 1x P-3C Orion, 1x AW119K, 2x Socata TB30 Epsilon trainers, and 4x F-16s, as well as a Chipmunk.
Another highlight of the show consisted in a surprise flyby by an Airbus A340 of Hifly flanked by two Portuguese Air Force F-16s! This Portuguese airline supplies wet-lease aircraft to airlines, often at short notice. They are headquartered in Lisbon but base their planes at Beja’s civil terminal. Foreign air forces also provided a raft of fast jet displays, such as the Spanish Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon, a Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon and a Belgian Air Force F-16. The Spanish Air Force used one of the jets present for RT22, whereas the Belgian Air Force and the RAF provided their own solo demo jets that are responsible for visiting airshows throughout 2022. The Red Bull flying association also provided a pair of alphajets for the static and flying display.
An airshow would not be complete without the presence of a display team, and the airshow at Beja managed to attract not just one, but three unique and varied display teams including the Italian Air Force Frecce Tricolori with their ten MB339s, the Moroccan AF Marche Verte with their Mudry CAP 230s and the Spanish AF ASPA team of five EC120 helicopters.
Finally, another highlight of the air show was the demo by the Brazilian Embraer KC-390 Millenium, which was significant since Portugal has ordered five of these aircraft which will be based at Beja and will eventually replace the C-130 Hercules. In fact, construction of the hangars that will house the aircraft is currently in full swing.
Besides the main event at Beja airshow, a series of events are also being organised by the Air Force to commemorate its 70th anniversary. Besides the airshow, 2 days prior on the 1st July a military parade was organised. In addition, various concerts, contests for kids to participate in, aeronautical journeys, aeronautical medicine journeys, conferences and multiple expositions have been organised in different cities throughout 2022.
Furthermore, open days organised by the air force will occur on the following military bases.
- Montijo Air Base – June 5th
- Ovar Air Base – July 17th
- Terceira Island Azores – August 31st
- Monte Real Air Base- September 18th
- Sintra Air Base- September 24th
The exercise came to a close on the 8th July 2022, with plenty of lessons learnt and new memories made. This event was marked with a closing ceremony on the 7th July that was presided by the Air Commander of the Portuguese Air Force, Lieutenant General António Branco. During the ceremony, the National Flags of the participating countries were lowered, while the NATO Anthem and the National Anthem of Portugal, organizer of the event, was played. This was followed by an award ceremony, where certificates and awards were handed out to aircrew and soldiers who were involved in the exercise and excelled in the performance of their duties.
MAR would like to thank the Public Affairs Office of the Portuguese Air Force for facilitating our visit and for giving MAR the best possible access for two whole days to visit and document pictorially this ever-growing exercise. Onto the next one!