TIM ROBINSON joins the crew of VADER 61, a Cobham Special Mission Falcon 20 on a mission providing sophisticated operational readiness training to RAF fighter pilots.


Cobham Special Mission Falcon 20 and customers - RAF Typhoons (Cobham)

The wing drops, I'm pushed into my seat and everything feels heavy. Outside a small window I see contrails curve above us in the blue sky as the jet pulls hard and the G increases. Phew! We've 'trashed' - (dodged) a simulated BVR missile shot at our aircraft from a fighter we cannot see and we are still in the fight. The pilot unloads the G, and straightens up, while the EWO monitoring the electronic warfare suite keeps up a running commentary over the headset on how this mock air battle, 27,000ft above the North Sea, is developing. My head spins, not just from the unexpected dynamic manoeuvres, but also from the chatter from multiple radios across the airwaves that threaten to overwhelm me with bullseye calls, brevity codes and missile shots all coming thick and fast.

I'm aboard a Cobham Special Mission Falcon 20, callsign VADER 61, a civilian aircraft providing operational readiness training that is worth its weight in gold in helping prepare RAF Typhoon fighter pilots about to deploy to the world's crisis zones.

Today's scenario involves Typhoons from 3(F) and 11 Squadrons and Hawks from 100 Sqn and is a complex multi-aircraft mission that will pit three Typhoons (RAMPAGE), one Hawk (SAVAGE 1) and two Falcon 20s (VADER) playing 'Red Air' against a Blue Air package consisting of four Typhoons (RAZOR) escorting a single Hawk strike asset (SAVAGE 2).

As VADER 61 (and wingman VADER 62) this mission sees Cobham's Falcon 20s replicating a 4th generation 'Flanker-J' threat - with the capacity not only to jam radars but also communications - as well as launch (simulated) BVR AA-10 missiles. Three external pods carried under the wings comprise an electronic warfare jammer, Radar Signal Simulator (RRS) and RAIDS (Rangeless Airborne Instrumented Debriefing System) which tracks the aircraft using GPS and provides missile shot validity. Underneath the fuselage a fairing hides an ESM receiver which allows us to listen for radar signals.


We’re not here to win at all costs. We are here to provide realistic threat replication and to punish poor tactics."

Over the North Sea in restricted airspace, our flightplan includes a forward and rear CAP, a Bullseye and a REGEN zone off to the northeast that will allow 'killed' aircraft to retreat and then come back into the fight after a time-out. For this mission, with the Blue Strike package attempting to ingress from the south to a ground target at Bamburgh on the coast in the north west, 'Red Air' will have two 'lives' (or regens) as Flankers before coming back as less formidable MiG-23s. With the strike package having to fight its way in and out of the target and with an additional aggressor Hawk (SAVAGE) lurking as a close-in threat, a combined maximum total of 16 enemy aircraft means this is an extremely tough challenge - even for RAF Typhoons.

Yet this complex aerial exercise does not just happen and takes detailed planning and preparation - with Cobham crews and mission planners working closely with RAF and other services to meet training requirements. Though these are civilian pilots and a civilian operator, today's mission briefing echoes a front-line RAF squadron, with time hacks, met brief, NOTAMs radio callsigns and frequencies as well as a mission line-up card. Mission and training objectives for the day are reviewed so that all crews are on the same page with the agreed exercise plan with 3(F) and 11 Squadron. Emergency procedures (today a rear compartment fire) are also gone over. Briefings and take-off times are run to military precision - with the aircraft launching exactly on time.

Having taken off from Durham Tees Valley airport in the North East of the UK, we 'Fence In' and head to our designated CAP station to orbit at 27,000ft and await the call from BLACKDOG ground control that all players are in position for the fight. 

BVR battle over the North Sea

Evading a simulated AAM. Note contrails from RAMPAGE flight - our forward CAP.

With the call that the Blue strike package is running in hot as a ‘Wall’ - the combat begins to develop at a frighteningly fast pace. The front CAP of three RAMPAGE Typhoons, having fired a simulated volley, runs back north towards our station with the Blue escorts hard on their heels. 'Contacts, hot, pressing' Our turn next!

With 11 aircraft heading towards each other at a combined closing speed of between 1.65-1.8Mach, time to decide and act is short. Cranking hard we 'trash' a couple of long-range missile shots, while RAMPAGE flight attempt to 'grind' and reposition for follow-up shots. With the combat taking place at 25miles or further ahead of us, from the cramped interior of VADER 61 there is little to see apart from occasional contrails up above and the changing horizon as the jet twists and turns. In the back of the Falcon, at her console, VADER 61s EWO (electronic warfare officer) sets up jammers, ‘spikes’ our targets and calls when we are being targeted - building up the fast-changing picture of how the fight is progressing.  

With the EWO activating 'music' (jamming) we select another target and launch three Fox 1s (radar-guided AAMs) in succession at a single Typhoon heading towards us. However, after splitting from our wingman, we are ourselves targeted by another Blue force Typhoon and 'killed' by a missile shot. Our pilot transmits a brief change in squawk code to indicate we are 'dead' and the Falcon begins to descend towards the North East at about 14,000ft to 'regenerate'. However, coming back into the fight with our second 'life' we hear over the radio from BLACKDOG that Blue has aborted their mission without striking the target and the package is now egressing away from us to the south. “That’s good” says a voice on the crew radio. A solitary RAZOR flight Typhoon momentarily snaps back towards VADER 62, but then thinks better of it and rejoins the rest of Blue flight hastily beating a retreat.

With that, BLACKDOG calls the exercise terminated and VADER 61 and 62 form up for the short flight back to Durham Tees airport. After a straight in ILS approach and landing, we taxied back to park next to Cobham's other Falcons on the line. Though we had been in the air one and a half hours such was the intensity of that it only felt like we were airborne for 15 minutes. 

Debrief and lessons learned

This jamming pod tricks Typhoon DASS that a harmless bizjet is a fourth gen Flanker threat.

Once landed, the VADER crews debrief today’s flight in detail. Was the mission objective achieved? Who had any technical problems? What was unexpected? Were all communications adequate (a faint callsign is noted)? What lessons can we learn? A look at the RAIDS pod data gives a top-down overview and replay of the air battle - vital for assessing and understanding what actually happened.

We claim one kill for VADER 61 with three simulated BVR (two Fox 1s, one Fox 1- long) missile shots down the throat of a Typhoon pressing us head on, but then get 'killed' later by another of RAZOR flight. These results are then forwarded on to RAF Typhoon squadrons to help them debrief and conduct post-mission analysis. Though times have changed from 1960-era ‘bar debriefs’ with hand-waving and 'I shot you/no you didn't' claims, even with today's situational awareness aids such as TCAS, ADS-B, and RAIDS it takes an experienced crew and specialists to analyse, sort through and understand what was going on at any given time. Air combat, unlike some fictional portrayals, is a team sport, yet the individual in a fighter cockpit only sees a fraction of what has been going on – especially in BVR air battles where targets are never seen.

However, in today's mission Red Air successfully defended the target, with the striker and escorts withdrawing rather than tangle again with regenerated MiG-23 Floggers heading back into the fight. “We trashed a lot of missiles today” observed a Cobham EWO reviewing the replay of the scenario.

This may sound like a triumph for ‘Red Air’ but as one Cobham source stressed: “We’re not here to win at all costs.  We are here to provide realistic threat replication and to punish poor tactics.” In this case, the debrief assessment is that Blue Air, with depleted BVR weapons after pressing us hard initially, made the sound tactical choice to withdraw and fight another day. Unlike in the movies, this was judged to be a correct approach - especially if their target was assessed as a low-priority one. 

(It also worth noting that this exercise only not benefited fighter pilots in the cockpits of 3/11 Sqn Typhoons in an ultra-realistic challenging air combat scenario but also would be highly beneficial to the GCI ground controller in controlling and communicating with a real pilots and aircraft engaged in a highly dynamic, complex exercise.)    

Aggressors - assemble!

Falcons may be bizjets, but they are flown aggressively to replicate fast jets.

This complex, challenging and highly dynamic mission is a window into changed and evolving training requirements from UK and NATO customers for high-threat, full-on, dynamic threat scenarios. Only five or six years ago, say Cobham, the typical mission for the RAF was far different - replicating a stand-off jammer that would see the Falcon 20 bore holes in the sky orbiting or providing a simple 'canned' fully-scripted encounter. While these 'canned' encounters are still useful - especially for introducing new Typhoon pilots to EW (now earlier in the training syllabus coming out of OCU level compared to previously) there is now a focus on real-world, high-intensity threats, with the Falcon’s providing a jamming and offensive (missile) threat replication. “We've really evolved the service we provide” said Jen Trafford, Cobham EWO and an ex-Tornado F3 navigator/WSO.

As in the mission I experienced, today Cobham's Falcons are replicating fourth generation threats and are embedded in a CAP as a missile-laden fighter, with the only thing it can't do, within visual range (WVR) dogfighting. However, aggressive flying by the pilots, along with chaff and EW means that the Falcon can still hold its own at BVR ranges. In addition, the simulated missile ranges are tweaked to account for the Falcon’s slower speed when entering the merge compared to a supersonic fighter. This, says Cobham, provides a highly cost effective threat simulator, giving 80% of capability of a fast jet at just a fraction of the cost.

Partnered with the RAF’s 100Sqn Hawks, which give an agile opponent to fight in the visual arena this allows Cobham’s Falcon’s to give RAF Typhoons (and other fighter communities) something to test their skills.

With six radios onboard to monitor, an aerial battle to fight, EW systems to operate and civilian traffic over the North Sea nearby, the three-person (Captain, First Officer and EWO) crew of Cobhams Falcon 20 also adds an additional safety margin. With multiple aircraft in the same airspace, standards need to be high and there is no room for complacency. Only three years ago, for example, a German bizjet collided with a Eurofighter while doing air policing training -  a far less dynamic and unpredictable training mission than today’s air combat. Two crew aboard the Learjet were killed.  

Falcon 20s - still going strong

Falcon 20 on the line at Durham Tees Airport. 

Cobham Special Mission operates a fleet of 15 Falcon 20s, with ten routinely supplied for UK defence training and operational readiness tasking. These are split roughly equally between its main base in Bournemouth (RN support and where maintenance is handled) and Durham Tees Valley (RAF support) but these can vary depending on the tasking. Its contract with the UK MoD provides for 6,000 flying hours annually based on availability and performance. 

Cobham’s Teesside-based Falcon 20s not only provide Electronic Warfare/Electronic Attack  training for RAF Typhoons but also provides threats to help train Tornado GR4, rotary-wing and C-130 crews. Falcon 20 crews will also help train QRA intercepts by posing as ‘rogue airliners’ with, at times, the entire UK command and control apparatus (right up to the UK Cabinet's COBRA committee) involved. Though the threat of a 9/11 style terror attack has receded in the public mind, it is critical that responses to this nightmare scenario are trained for and rehearsed.

For the Royal Navy, Cobham's Falcon 20s play the role of maritime attackers, ensuring that every member of the ship’s crew, sensors and weapons are calibrated and prepared. Working with 736 Naval Air Sqn’s Hawk T1As, Cobham's Falcons will simulate missile attacks on RN warships with the Hawks acting as sea-skimming missiles. Here the Falcon’s sophisticated EW pods act as missile search and lock-on radars to help train crews to react these deadly threats. Cobham also provides target-towing services for live RN Sea Wolf firings, which involves unreeling a sea-skimming missile four miles behind a Falcon 20.  

Though its Dassault Falcons were first delivered in 1985, Cobham praise the rugged, dependable type as a ‘fantastic’ platform. “It’s an old platform but it’s really about the training effects that you can create with innovative technological solutions” says Jepson. Its swept wing (originally from the Mystere fighter) gives a max speed of 350kts with external pods. The aircraft delivers 95% availability rate (typically higher than the most military fast jet types). In addition, hardpoints allow up to four external pods to be carried. This allows EW ‘effects’ to be mixed and matched to represent highly complex threats. The EW pods also can replicate ground or surface threats, allowing the Cobham Falcon to re-role as a ‘pop-up’ SAM radar threat after being 'killed' as an airborne aggressor. The ability to emulate SAM or surface radar threats, anywhere, without needing a ground radar site adds additional flexibility to the Falcon's role.  

The aircraft have been updated with Rockwell Collins glass displays and two of the fleet also have Link 16 fitted. Other changes include TACAN and military radios as well as a chaff fit. The latest addition to the Falcon 20 in the back has been real-time RAIDS display (Real Time Monitoring System (RTMS) consoles on two aircraft - providing mission planners, QWIs, and battlespace commanders the ability to debrief in the air, check validity of shots and advise on better tactics while aircraft are still airborne. Such is the value of this real-time learning tool in understanding and analysing the air battle and getting the most out of valuable training time, Cobham has modified a third aircraft to accept the RTMS console as well.

If that isn’t enough, Cobham can also ramp up the difficulty with GPS threat jamming (tightly controlled) and, revealed Spike Jepson, EMEA General Manager, Cobham Special Missions, is also looking to introduce the threat of cyberattacks into future offerings to customers. How would, for example, fighter pilots deal with spoof targets being inserted in Link 16 in the heat of battle?

However, while hypothetically Cobham’s Falcons could fly out to 2035 based on fatigue life, retirement is fast approaching for these hard-working modified bizjets and the upcoming ASDOT (see below) will see Cobham exchange these for other platforms able to truly challenge the latest UK weapon systems such F-35, Type 45 and Meteor.  

As well its Falcon 20s, Cobham also recently acquired a Diamond DA42 as a UAV surrogate. Equipped with a MX15 camera sensor and downlink it allows the RAF Reaper UAV to be emulated in exercises in airspace where the RPAS cannot currently fly.

Aggressors on tour

Cobham holds the NATO SHAPE EW training contact and thus also works with other air forces - including this Polish Su-22 Fitter (Cezary Adamczewski/Cobham) 

But it is not just RAF pilots and RN warships whose tactical skills are honed and sharpened by fighting Cobham’s electronic aggressors. Its Falcons also deploy to support overseas exercises, both with RAF aircraft and even sometimes on their own. Recent exercises have included NATO Frisian Flag in April, as well as working with the US Navy USS George Bush carrier air wing and Royal Navy in Exercise Saxon Warrior more recently. Says Spike Jepson “We had a pretty significant part in that, with seven aeroplanes deployed as well as the DA42 as a simulated UAV”.

Other overseas deployments (sometimes at short notice and with challenging clearances and logistics) have included Oman, Malaysia and even Cape Town recently to support RN training. “Those kind of challenges, getting aeroplanes, people, role equipment from the UK to overseas exercises is logistically very challenging, but is one of the areas we really pride ourselves in” says Jepson. 

The company also currently holds the NATO SHAPE EW Flying Training contract - making its Falcons a familiar sight outside the UK on major exercises. It is also currently rebidding for an existing contract to provide EW training for the Royal Saudi Air Force. 

The Cobham team

Cobhams highly experienced crews represent a deep store of EW/EA knowledge.   

Like some other defence companies today, Cobham can be thought of as part of the RAF or MoD's 'Whole Force' concept, providing an outsourced commercial service (EW training) that used to be performed in house. It is thus no surprise that its aircrew comprise some extremely experienced ex-military pilots and WSOs, with Tornado F3, Phantom F4, Typhoon experience and exchange tours flying F-16s, F/A-18s, F-15Cs, US Aggressors and even the F-117. General Manager of Cobham Special Missions, EMEA, Spike Jepson is himself a former RAF Red 1 and Team Leader and the company is set to take on its first ex-F-35 pilot later this year. These pilots (with some 130,000 military flying hours between them out a total of some 293,000 flying hours total) thus provide a deep core of operational service experience to Cobham. This provides a level of long-term continuity in ‘Red Air’ training for the customer.

However, interestingly Cobham also recruits from the civil sector with some pilots joining without a military background and making their way in via the right-hand seat. Chief Flying Instructor at Durham Tees Valley, George Jameson, for example, has been with the company a decade - yet has a non-military flying background and, as VADER 61's Captain, was the flight leader for this highly demanding mission described above. This is a very attractive career path for anyone perhaps looking for a high-tempo flying job that is civil, yet features low-level, exciting flying and contributes directly to UK front-line readiness.

It is also a job for people who like flying - with aircrew flying roughly 460hrs a year or double their counterparts in the military. The Falcons fly two or sometimes three times a day. This also has the effect of boosting their experience in this highly specialised, aerial work. 

ASDOT and beyond

Wings to come? The upcoming UK ASDOT requirement has seen Cobham partner with private 'Red Air' Draken International. (Cobhman)

However, a big change is on the horizon with the UK’s upcoming ASDOT (Air Support to Defence Operational Training) requirement - an all-in-one 'Red Air' aggressor training project that will see a single industry contractor provide air-to-air, JTAC, naval aerial support and other airborne tactical training services. Set to be formally launched later this year, the reported £1.5bn, ten-year contract has already seen industry partnerships formed as companies jockey for position. Textron Air Land, for example, has joined with QinetiQ and Thales with the Scorpion jet as the centrepiece of its bid. Meanwhile training and mission provider Inzpire has teamed with Canadian ‘aggressor’ contractor Discovery Air Defence (see Train Virtual, Fight Easy, AEROSPACE June 2017).   

For its part, as the incumbent of two of the core missions (RAF EW operational readiness and RN threat emulation) earlier this year Cobham announced it had partnered with the US 'Red Air' contractor Draken International. Draken International, which operates A-4Ks, surplus L-159Es and is also acquiring 20 ex-Spanish Air Force Mirage F1Ms is already busy in the US providing private aggressors to train against fifth generation F-35s - the newest and most challenging platform that is entering service. The thought of this new partner, with fast jets, able to take training to the next level is “thrilling for us” said one Cobham source.

ASDOT will thus see the Falcon 20s replaced with a new platform (or platforms). Says Jepson: “It is our intent to undertake a fleet replacement programme which would see the Falcon 20 aircraft phased out and new platforms introduced with zero transition risk to the UK MoD.” He adds “A key part of our ASDOT solution includes ensuring that we include innovative technology solutions that build on our pedigree in providing relevant and realistic live Operational Readiness Training that where possible link into any future synthetic, networked DOTC(A) programme”.

Indeed, Spike Jepson notes that Cobham's existing contract will see the company provide the first operational support training to UK F-35B when 617 Sqn touches down in the UK in 2018. The company has started engaging with the MoD to understand what the F-35Bs training requirement might look like.

ASDOT comes at a critical time with the introduction of new air platforms like F-35, new weapons like Meteor and new warships like Type 45 and HMS Queen Elizabeth - all of which point to larger ranges and airspace needed. In this, the fusion of live and simulated assets (or LVC), via DOTC(A) will be key to train and utilise these assets to the max. Add in new threats such as GPS spoofing and cyberattacks and the 'operational readiness' is set to see a step-change in how tactical training is provided in the future. “These are fundamental shifts and we have to a take an innovative approach to them” says Jepson. “It’s really so that when F-35 comes fully online, we’re really delivering at the top end”. 


Private 'Red Air' contractors are set for growth as militaries grapple with tight budgets (Cobham) 

Looking from the outside at Cobham’s role in providing this service to MoD and others three things stand out. First is the flight profile was far more aggressive and dynamic than one would expect from a description as a ‘EW jammer threat’ Though not a fighter, the pilots fly the Falcon to its limits to provide a realistic and challenging BVR opponent. Second, is that the Falcon 20, a bizjet designed in the 1960s, might at first glance seem outdated by now. However, its reliability, ability to be upgraded, endurance, multicrew and versatility to replicate threats ranging from 4th gen fighters, to SAM systems, to AWACS keeps it highly relevant for the moment. Whatever platform (or platforms) replace it for ASDOT, it will be a tough act to follow.

Third is the professionalism of the crews. While it is no surprise that many would have service aviation backgrounds, the military-style ethos and operational squadron ‘feel’ of briefings, ops and a can-do attitude allow for Cobham to interface more easily with its customers. In essence, it feels 'part of the team'. 

Though Cobham’s portfolio is a wide one and ranges from antennas, to aerial refuelling pods, to space systems, bespoke airline services and training, its Operational Readiness Training function as part of the RAF (or MoD) 'Whole Force', is particularly critical at the moment as the RAF and other NATO and coalition air forces seek to rebuild their air-to-air edge to survive, fight and win in the contested EW-heavy skies of the future.



Trash - defeat a missile launch kinematically

BLACKDOG - Red Air GCI Ground Control

VADER - Cobham Special Mission Falcon callsign

RAMPAGE - Red Air Typhoon callsign

RAZOR  - Blue Air Typhoon callsign

SAVAGE - Hawk callsign

Music - Jamming

Nails - RWR indication of a AI radar in search mode

Spike - RWR indication of radar in tracking/launch mode

Snap - immediate change of direction of hostile group/bogey

Bullseye - reference point from which BRAA (bearing/range/altitude/aspect calls are made to callsigns)

Fence In (Switches (eg master arm) set for entry into the combat zone)

Wall – contacts or groups heading in a line abreast formation

Tim Robinson
12 September 2017