“Aircraft squawking Mode 3 of 1703 at height 879 feet, on course 219, speed 227, this is Dragonian warship nine-four operating in international waters. Request you report your callsign and state your intentions.”
“Dragonian warship nine-four, this is Caledonian zero-two, we are on an air defence trial in international airspace. We are unarmed. We are unable to deviate from our present course as it would invalidate our trial.”
But that’s not true. We are not a Caledonian C-130 but a converted Dassault Falcon 20 loaded with jamming pods under the wings and an experienced electronic warfare operator down the back working four different radios and ready to jam, spoof or generally sew confusion among shipborne radar and radio operators. Cruising low over a blue sea dotted with treeless brown islands and rugged headlands, we are on a probe/stand-off jamming mission over the calm but disputed waters of the Wallian Archipelago. Tensions over the region have boiled over to the point where a multi-national force has been despatched by the United Nations to preserve order, prevent sovereignty violations and attacks on ethnic minority groups. Facing the UN and Caledonian fleets is that of Dragonia, a small navy, but one equipped with several sophisticated modern vessels. Today we are visiting each in turn and testing their alertness and rules of engagement (ROE) as we try to force a response.
But that’s not true, either. Caledonia, Dragonia and Wallonia are fictional constructs, part of the regular scenario replayed with variations twice a year as part of the UK’s Exercise Joint Warrior. Roughly speaking, Dragonia is southwest Scotland, western England and Wales, Caledonia is Eastern Scotland and England, and Wallonia is the Outer Hebrides. The Falcon is one of 15 owned by Cobham PLC, who are contracted by the UK Ministry of Defence to provide services such as jamming, target towing and target presentation, of which more later. I am along for the ride with pilots Tony and George and electronic warfare operator Ted, who is working his magic down the back, twisting electrons to do his bidding. We are working off estimated ship positions provided by Eagle Safety, the callsign for a radio operator on one of the ships tasked with deconflicting air traffic and ensuring maximum training value by not having assets like us hunting all over the map for targets. We get help from the Falcon’s weather radar, which does a fine job of spotting surface contacts, to which co-pilot George allocates three-letter callsigns.
We overfly two US Navy ‘Arleigh Burke’-class destroyers, whose combat information centre (CIC) operators appear to be sleeping, as we hear nothing from them at all as we pass overhead. One appears completely dead in the water. “I’m surprised we aren’t dragging any ROE off Whisky Five Alpha” – the USS Stout – says George. The Royal Navy Type 23 frigate HMS Monmouth is on the ball and warns us off before we get too close, adding a hard turn to throw our aim off.
The next visual sighting, hard to make out clearly in the low sun of a bright Scottish autumn sun, turns out to be a tiny elongated island, no doubt one frequently mistaken for a warship over the years. Soon, however, a new ‘Arleigh Burke’ emerges. The USS Nitze is on the nose at 16 miles. This is the Dragonian warship nine-four we encountered above.
“Caledonian aircraft, you are still closing our position. Request you turn east.”
“Dragonian warship, confirm that you want us to turn east” replies Ted.
Ted switches to intercom: “What do we intend to do?” “Go west!” says George.
So as the distance ticks down, we request a turn west, which is only confirmed when we are nearly on top of the frigate. Would we have got so close in a real crisis situation without being threatened or engaged? Should we have? Testing the ships’ CICs like this may make a big difference on the day that they encounter potentially hostile aircraft for real somewhere like the narrow Persian Gulf where decisions have to be made in moments.
On the EW side of the mission, the Falcon can play various tricks like recording and replaying ship-to-ship voice transmissions to give spoof orders and by using DRFM, or digital radio frequency memory, can create false radar targets. “It’s all first-generation stuff, but still quite effective” says Ted.
We head west off our maps and beyond the Outer Hebrides in search of the stealthy Danish warship Absalon, a ship I am looking forward to seeing as I spent some time aboard her on a 2008 Joint Warrior. En route we ‘Dirfm’ ahead and briefly jam our own radar, a rose-red fan blooming on the screen. Even in the sparsely-populated Western Isles one has to take care not to blot out air traffic control radar heads or the local residents’ TV reception, but right now, says Ted “We’re pointing out into the Atlantic so we can do what we want.”
George peers at his radar display and then out the windscreen. “That’s way too small to be the Absalon”, and indeed it turns out to be a small radar reflector-fitted fishing boat chugging its way back to port with its own radar transmitting on the same I-band as some military systems. On radar it appeared much larger. Absalon’s stealthy shape or perhaps just an outdated position report from Eagle has allowed it to elude us on this mission.
Turning back towards Scotland, Ted indulges in a bit of comms jamming, further confusing the Nitze with whoops of electronic noise before we cruise between the colourfully-named islands of Eigg and Muck and Rum, across the Isle of Skye and then climb into the clouds, leaving some baffled Dragonians in our wake.