Focus on interoperability – Arctic Challenge Exercise 2023

In the early June, this year´s edition of Arctic Challenge Exercise (ACE) was successfully concluded. Held every two years, the exercise already became an integral part of Nordic air forces combat training and also one of the largest aviation exercises in Europe.

Initially, with almost 3,000 personnel from thirteen countries and more than 150 aircraft participating in the exercise, the ACE 2023 seemed to be the biggest multinational aviation training in Europe this year. However, it was overrun by Air Defender 2023 that finally turned out to be extraordinary huge – with 10,000 personnel from 25 countries and 250 aircraft. Nevertheless, that fact does not diminish the importance of the Nordic training activity.

The tradition of the Nordic joint aviation training started back in 2008. At that time, the first multinational exercise was organized, then named Cross Border Training (CBT). Its primary goal was to enhance the interoperability between air forces of Finland, Norway and Sweden, to make them able to train together across Scandinavia, without being limited by national borders.

Norwegian F-35 fighters flying together with the USAF KC-135 – ACE 2023 (photo: Morten Hanche / Forsvaret)

The first joint training was proven to be so effective that military authorities of all the involved countries decided to continue with organizing that initiative on regular basis. Over the years, the CBT exercise became one of the most important military aviation activities in Europe, attracting many new partners and covering larger training areas. In 2013, the CBT programme was renamed into Arctic Challenge Exercise, better reflecting its multinational status and range of activities.

Within the scope of ACE 2023, air forces from fourteen nations worked on complex air operations, flying from four different air bases located in Scandinavia – Rovaniemi and Pirkkala in Finland, Ørland in Norway and Kallax in Sweden. This year, Finland was taking the role of the exercise leader, being responsible for particular training scenarios and flight activity.

The list of aircraft participating in ACE 2023 included: Eurofighter Typhoon (Germany, UK), F/A-18 Hornet (Finland, Switzerland), JAS 39 Gripen (Sweden, the Czech Republic), F-16 Fighter Falcon (Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway), F-35 Lightning II (Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, USA), F-15 Eagle (USA), Rafale and Mirage (France) fighter aircraft; CC-150TT (Canada), Voyager (UK) and KC-135 (USA) air tankers; E-3 AWACS (NATO, France); as well as electronic warfare aircraft Falcon DA-20 (UK) and Learjet (Germany).

JAS 39C Gripen, Czech Air Force – ACE 2023 (photo: Katrine Engebretsen Rønning/Forsvaret)

Live-fly part of the exercise officially began on 29th May, with the first flight performed from Kallax air base. The first part of the ACE 2023 combat training was held in Norway, off the coast from Ålesund and northwards, and in the area off the coast of Helgeland. In the second part of the exercise, the training activities were organized in northern Sweden, over Norrbotten, Västerbotten, Västernorrland and Jämtland regions.

Combat training flights were performed on every second day in two, morning and afternoon, waves. As usual, most emphasis was placed on tactical interoperability between participating air forces. Majority of combat scenarios required pilots to cooperate within a force of fifty jets from different nations and of different types. Their mock enemy meant another force of thirty or forty aeroplanes, also of different type and performance.

The active part of ACE 2023 was successfully concluded on 9th June.

This year´s edition of the training marked a milestone for the Royal Norwegian Air Force that emphasized the ongoing generational change. For the first time, the Norwegian F-35 Lightning II fighters fully participated in the Arctic Challenge Exercise, flying together with the country´s F-16 Fighting Falcons for which it was the last edition.

The ACE training is part of Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO) between Finland, Norway and Sweden. Within that initiative, armed forces from those three countries perform regular joint trainings beyond their national borders.

Belgian pilots with F-16 fighter in Ørland – ACE 2023 (photo: Ole Andreas Vekve / Forsvaret)

Cover photo: USAF F-35 Lightning II lands in Ørland air base – ACE 2023 (photo Mariann Beausire / Forsvaret). All photos © Royal Norwegian Armed Forces / Forsvaret. Information from the Royal Norwegian Armed Forces, the Swedish Air Force and the Finninsh Air Force press materials were used.