leased-in air defences for Austria- an operational visit to the 2. Überwachungsgeschwader
With the withdrawal of the Saab J-35 "Draken"
and the then no-longer existing capacity to protect the Austrian
Airspace against possible attackers, the Austrian Air Force was forced
to lease 12 Northrop F-5E "Tiger II" from the Swiss Air Force during
2004. The F-5’s were to fill the gap in air defence between the Draken
period and the delivery of the Eurofighter in 2007-2008. Currently the
12 F-5E are based at Nittner Air Base at Graz Thalerhof with the 2nd
Squadron of the Surveillance Wing (2. Überwachungsgeschwader). Also
known as the Panther Squadron, as clearly shown on the door of the ops
room of the squadron. Before the deal could be effectuated approval of
U.S. authorities was necessary, since the F-5E carries American
Initial pilot training started in early June 2004 at Dübendorf air base
(Switzerland) when the first four pilots started their conversion. This
was done under the project name "Aquila". Draken pilots needed 4-5 weeks
for conversion to the F-5E while Saab 105 pilots needed 8 weeks, to
appreciate the new sensations like the use of an afterburner and to fly
at supersonic speed. Most of the training was done in Switzerland –
including the use of weapons against ground targets, as well as airborne
targets. The only part of the training to be conducted in Austria was
night operations, as the Swiss Air Force no longer used the F-5E "Tiger
II" for these operations. All in all 18 pilots were trained on the F-5E
in four Aquila classes.
Austrian pilots were accustomed to visit Switzerland with regular
intervals when specific live training exercises were on the program,
like dogfight instruction against Swiss F-5E's and air-to-air gunnery
exercises. The reason to deploy the aircraft to Switzerland is that
there are no gunnery ranges in Austria. In the Draken era, pilots got
the opportunity to hone their skills in Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT)
at Payerne against Swiss F-18’s or participate in complex air-to-air
scenarios at the now defunct ACMI range in Waddington (UK). Some pilots
gained experience at modern, partly glass cockpits in the Swedish Air
Force Viggens at Angelholm. The pilots of 2 squadron can not oversee the
Swedish Viggen training lightly as a complete front section of a Viggen
was presented to the squadron afterwards, with the nosecone protruding
in a dramatic pose in the stairway of their squadron building.
About a year before Austrian QRA duties were handed over to the F-5E,
the first four Tigers became operational with the Austrian Air Force
upon arrival at Graz Thalerhof on July 7, 2004. On the July 9,2004 there
was a small event celebrating the arrival of the new aircraft. The F-5’s
involved where J-3005, J-3030, J-3033 and J-3065.
The other eight where delivered over the course of the next few months
and comprised of J-3052, J-3004, J-3038, J-3057, J-3014, J-3036, J-3041
and J-3056. All retained their Swiss serial with only an Austrian
roundel added. A small squadron logo was added to the tailplane at a
The 12 single-seat F-5E of the Swiss Air Force were leased for four
years. This was contracted at a value of 75 million euro altogether.
This amount contains the lease rate per jet (at 4.4 million euro) as
well as the costs of the re-education of the pilots and technicians,
maintenance in Switzerland, the maintenance and logistics, the armament,
the necessary documentation and all taxes. The maintenance schedule is
adhered from the Swiss Air Force with most of the work done at RUAG in
Emmen. The maintenance in Austria was essentially only the flight line
and pre- and postflight work. The technical staff of Fliegerwerft 2 (the
Austrian maintenance base at Graz) was trained in flightline and 2nd
line maintenance. All other work was performed in Emmen.
In the exercise "Bubble 04" for the
first time the leased F-5E "Tiger II" where used from Graz. From the air
bases in Zeltweg and Linz also Saab 105 and Draken did participate in
this event. The air traffic control exercise "Bubble 04" trained
intensively the protection of the Austrian air space. Background of the
project was that Austria was going to lead the presidency in the
European Union council in 2006 and host the European football
championships in 2008.
With both events the protection from the air represent a substantial
part of safety precautions. All elements of the air traffic control
cooperated in order to ensure the unimpaired proceeding of the events.
The exercise center coordinates together with mobile radar stations and
operations centers with deployment of the fighters, helicopters and
ground to air defensive weapons.
While the basic tasks is defending the Austrian air space via a QRA
line-up, the squadron must also train intercepting techniques. As an
adversary force the Air force operates the Saab 105, which are also
based at Nittner Air Base. This gives pilots an opportunity to become
more skilled in 'dogfighting'. At one moment 21 pilots where active at
Nittner of which 18 on the F-5E and 3 on the Saab 105OE.
The QRA on the F-5E became operational from spring 2005. While the
aircraft and crew are capable of executing sustained defensive counter
air operations day and night, the QRA is only carried out from sunrise
to sunset because of the limited number of pilots and aircraft. When
situations require a different level like important summits with
prominent European or world leaders or during the visit of the Pope to
Austria last year, the QRA level was raised to 24 hours a day.
In such cases there are continuously combat air patrol's in the air.
Normally two F-5E's are on alert armed with cannons and Sidewinder
missiles with two pilots ready to go and one spare F-5E. One aircraft is
in the air in 5 minutes and both in 7 minutes. In a CAP an immediate
response might be required. For this 2 pilots and 8 technicians are on
standby duty to respond.
Unlike the Swiss airbases, most of the Austrian military airfields are
equipped with an ILS system, so all Austrian F-5s have some
modifications following regulations to comply with civil rules in
Austrian airspace and therefore ILS, both separate UHF and VHF
transponders and a combined backup are required. In comparison Swiss
F-5E's only use UHF communications.
On average in the four-year period the F-5E’s performed one live
scramble per week. Mostly concerning aircraft where no radio
communication could be established (norac). In this case part of the
cost of the scramble will be billed to the private person or airline. A
practice getting more common with the increasing cost of these
operations. Other missions included the visual checks of military
aircraft overflying Austria to verify the standing regulations
prohibiting the carrying of (live) armament during these overflights.
Operational flying during the week would be two morning missions and
another two missions in the afternoon. In certain periods of the year
there would also be night flying with two missions in the evening. Due
to noise restrictions at Graz airport, the last landing had to be before
22:00. The total hours of flying was a fixed amount in the lease
agreement, therefore flying would be limited before and after special
events like the visit of the Pope. In there 3 years of operational
flying only one major accident was reported when F-5E J-3052 suffered a
landing gear failure (... or was not down at all?) and made a wheels up
landing on June 18, 2007. This airframe was quickly repaired and put
back into service.
The F-5E lacks a modern cockpit layout like the Eurofighter. For example
it doesn’t have a HUD, making the transition to the Eurofighter a big
step up for the Austrian pilots. Initial familiarisation with the
Eurofighter is done in Germany. Pilots have to go to Laage Air base in
Germany to train on Luftwaffe Eurofighters and become familiar with the
environment of the latest avionics. Fifteen Eurofighters will be divided
over the 2 squadrons (no’s 1. and 2.) of the Surveillance Wing at
Zeltweg Air Base within the air defence brigade. Due to logistic aspects
and cost effectiveness the choice has been made to base all the
Eurofighters at one air base. Four Saab 105 will also be located at
Zeltweg to represent training counterparts. Austria has also signed up
to send two pilots each year to the Canadian NFTC where fast jet
training is performed on the Hawk 115 jet trainer, allowing for a
smoother transfer to the Eurofighter. A recent political promise to
deliver new jet trainers to the Austrian air force (a.o. to replace the
Saab 105) has yet to be cashed in by the military leadership.
Deliveries of 15 Eurofighters from Tranche I, Block 5 to Austria started
in the second quarter of 2007, with four aircraft. Another 4 already
delivered in 2008, and delivery being completed in 2009 with the final 2
aircaft. They will be based at Zeltweg which is still undergoing massive
construction works preparing for the full complement of Eurofighters.
The Air Force would like to upgrade the aircraft to block 8, but no
funding is available at the moment.
At the end of there lease on June 30, 2008, the F-5E's will be returned
to Switzerland. The last operational flights are scheduled on June 29,
2008, coinciding with the final game of the Euro 2008 football
championships. With the departure of the ‘Tigers’ and the choice for
Zeltweg to be the main fighter base, Nittner Air Base at Graz Thalerhof
will be closing down for operational flying on the 1st October 2008.
Maintenance on a.o. the Saab 105 will still be done at Nittner Air Base.
We would like to thank the following persons for their help in arranging
the visit; the Public relation office of Austrian Air Force and the
officers who escorted us during the visit.