The ‘Fencer’s radar is simulated by NATO-supplied electronic warfare pods, fitted alongside Cobham’s own jammers. Our ‘missile’ is actually a BAe Hawk trainer, flown by Marcus of the Royal Navy’s Fleet Requirements and Development Unit (FRADU), who joins us as we pop out of the cloud that covers all of Scotland and hangs tightly off our wing as we descend over the Minch, the strait that separates the Outer and Inner Hebrides.
After a low-level run we climb to 1500 feet, the Hawk tucked in close alongside. We paint a target with the NATO pod, simulating the ‘Slot Back’ radar of the Su-24.
“Launch Marcus” calls Caroline the Falcon’s pilot, waving her hand forward. The Hawk banks vertically, rolls inverted and dives for the deck out of sight.
We pull a 1.4g turn away onto a reciprocal heading, jamming behind us as we go, before turning back towards the carrier. When Marcus calls an estimated five miles to run, EW operator Mal turns on the simulated missile head and transmits it at the target. The Hawk itself has no radar or weapons, but we can provide a fair simulation for the ships’ defensive systems operators. The Hawk is authorised to overfly the carrier at 100 feet, but today there are issues with helicopters, including the Apaches that ‘Ark’ is carrying, operating below 500 feet near the ships. With the cloud level at 1700 feet and hanging lower in places, we don’t see many warships ourselves.
Marcus rejoins us at another predetermined gate for a launch at the Greek frigate Themistocles. This time we are too low for the inverted dive, so he accelerates away on the level at our signal. Again we paint, jam, turn, reverse and illuminate, and repeat the process once more before the Hawk leaves us for good.
Our last task is a run on the Dutch frigate De Zeven Provincien, a very modern ship with a sophisticated 3D radar system. We are joined for this by ‘Starbeam’, Tony, George and Ted in the other Falcon, which has mainly been stand-off jamming so far. We launch them off our starboard wing then become a missile ourselves. Restricted by helo activity to 1,000 feet, we are an easy target for DCA, - defensive counter-air – a Royal Navy Hawk on combat air patrol playing the part of one of the fighters ‘Ark’ used to have, but despite technically being blown out of the sky, we press on. Passing the tiny Shiant Islands, I glimpse Ark Royal, two Apaches and a Lynx. On the other side we catch the Dutch frigate in a cluster of four ships, which start turning hard to evade us and to present clear arcs for their anti-aircraft weapons. “There’s the Turk” calls Caroline as we pass abeam the Babaros, helpfully flying a large national flag. De Zeven stands out with its paler paint and straighter lines and we zoom over her from stern to stem. “A good catch”.
I don’t know if we ‘hit’ Ark Royal, but a week later the UK government’s spending review got her, with a ceasing of operations with almost immediate effect. Her regular complement of Harriers followed soon after and RAF Kinloss closed for flying in July 2011.