Fifty U.S. and Canadian warplanes thundered aloft Saturday from Point Mugu to shoot it out near Death Valley in what its organizers said was the largest aerial war game of its kind.
Called Lobo Flag '93, the two-day exercise split jet squadrons into "enemy" and "friendly" forces, sending them out on simulated bombing runs and dogfights over the California desert to test their combat skills.
Saturday's first flight began with a 7 a.m. briefing on the political situation in the hostile nation of "Bennington."
"The U.N. has imposed sanctions on Bennington," Lt. Karl Lewis warned green-suited pilots from the U.S. Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Naval and Air Force Reserves, Air National Guard and Canadian Air Force.
Keep in mind, he said, that the enemy has "limited nuclear capability."
While simulated U.S. carriers "Moe" and "Howard" wait offshore bristling with simulated Navy SEALs and Delta Force commandos, the warplanes will bomb selected targets ashore while dodging defensive missiles and engaging in dogfights with enemy jets, he said.
Then, after final reports on weather and a refresher on "kill" rules, the squadrons received a final benediction:
"Let's have a good, safe war out there," said coordinator Lt. Cmdr. Roger White of the Naval Air Reserve Squadron VFA-305, or Lobos, who hosted the games. "Let's get some good 'kills' and have a lot of fun."
Their planes readied and programmed with simulated weapons by about 250 mechanics and support personnel who had spent weeks preparing for the games, the fliers donned their helmets and mounted up.
First aloft was a highly classified Air Force AWACS plane, the disc-shaped radar antenna on its back spinning to monitor the aerial combat.
Then came the jets: EA6-B Prowlers to jam radar, A-6 Intruders and F-15 Strike Eagles to deliver bombs under protection of F-14 Tomcats and FA-18 Hornets, while F-16C Falcons and Canadian CF-5 Tiger IIs were to attack the bombing groups.
Alone and in twos, the fighters took off on columns of superheated jet exhaust with a teeth-rattling roar.
Once near the tiny desert town of Trona, they began their attacks on a nearby airstrip. Bombers swooped down to 200 feet over the ground, then climbed to 2,500 feet to simulate bomb drops out of range of small arms fire, and plunged back to 200 feet to escape underneath enemy radar.
Jets locked radar and missile systems in electronic dogfights, each ending with a 30-second delay during which the "killed" plane had to drop out of the battle zone before returning to the game.
Just 25 minutes after the first bombing run began, it was over, and the jets returned to Point Mugu.
"It worked out pretty good," said Cmdr. Dave Bullard, a Navy pilot whose F-14 Tomcat defended a bomber group. "I didn't even feel like I was threatened."
Bullard grouped over Saline Valley with three other Tomcats, two Intruders and two Hornets and zoomed toward Trona, skirting the northwestern rim of Death Valley.
Over Panamint Springs, Bullard's radar picked up an enemy Air Force F-16 and he moved to attack, "shooting" it with the electronic model of a long-range radar-guided Phoenix missile. Firing a second missile--a Sparrow this time--Bullard confirmed the kill nine miles before his group reached the target, and downed another F-16 with a Sidewinder missile moments later.
The massive aerial war game put all the fighters through maneuvers they could not hope to get anywhere outside a real war, Bullard said, scanning through a videotaped dogfight recorded by his plane's camera.
He added, "It's about as real as it gets."
Canadian Air Force Capt. Darren Crabb wolfed down lunch as other pilots screened their cockpit videos.
"It was good," Crabb said of the flight, in which his CF-18 simulated dropping a 1,000-pound high-explosive bomb on a railway junction supplying a chemical plant. "It's a super training experience for us, and we really enjoy coming down and training here."
Pilots must train regularly to keep pace with the changes in warfare, he said. "The scenarios are being tailored more to what we are encountering around the world."
The war game's first exercise--to be followed by simulated attacks today on San Nicholas Island--went well, said Cmdr. Steven R. Sewell, commanding officer of the Point Mugu-based Lobos.
"We've been doing Lobo Flag for about eight years, and the quality of the participants has gone up, both in hardware and tactics," said Sewell, whose F-18 was "shot down" by Air Force F-16s as he escorted a bombing group.
Bombing has become more precise, now executed with fewer, smaller "smart bombs" that have replaced large-scale drops of simple iron bombs, he said.
Yet, as the military is scaled back, special reserve squadrons such as the Lobos must take on extra duties, Sewell said. During its ongoing work, the squadron is training to fly like foreigners, to give other U.S. jets more accurate depictions of enemy tactics and aircraft, he said.
"What people are seeing in this exercise is a combination of the best hardware and training in the world," Sewell said of the exercise, which he called the largest Navy aerial war game in the country.
"If you can do it here and do well, you can pretty much do well anywhere in the world."