Spanish Air Force missions at Bardenas gunnery range

Situated in the heart of the Bardenas Reales National Park is a vast area designated as an aerial gunnery range: el Poligono de tiro de las Bardenas Reales — Bardenas for short. This complex in northern Spain is the only such location available for the Spanish Air Force, Navy and Army to train for all types of tactical air-to-ground missions.

The Bardenas range is located in a narrow, uninhabited valley some 30 miles long by 15 miles wide. With an elevation of approximately 1,000ft above sea level, the landscape has drawn comparisons with the high deserts of Afghanistan. The firing range itself has an area of 2,244 hectares, a length of 8.6km and is 2.6km wide. Helpfully, the nearest civil population is around 13km outside the range’s perimeter.

A gunnery range was established here in 1951, after an investigation of different sparsely-populated areas. In its early years the range had only one target available and was used solely by the Spanish armed forces. The situation changed when the range attracted the attention of the United States Air Forces in Europe, after USAFE lost access to its major weapons training site in Libya — the El Uotia Range located 80 miles south-west of Wheelus Ah Base — in September 1969. After some negotiation, the US and Spain signed a memorandum of understanding regarding joint use of Bardenas. Meanwhile, construction work on the range was already under way. Under the agreement, USAFE would provide capital investments and construction of barracks, control towers, bombing targets and strafing pits. Subsequently, USAFE units deployed to the then Zaragoza AB on a temporary basis to allow training at Bardenas. The range proved vitally important to USAFE weapons training in the years that followed.

Spanish takeover

American use of the range ended on 13 December 1991 and the USAFE facilities at Zaragoza were handed over to the Spanish Air Force on 30 September 1992. However, the Spanish Air Force (Ejercito del Aire) still uses the part-abandoned infrastructure on the south side of Base Aerea de Zaragoza. Fighter units of the Spanish Air Force usually deploy up to six aircraft to Zaragoza in order to make missions to the Bardenas range more efficient. An exception is Ala 15, this unit keeping its EF-18+ Hornets home-based on the north side of the facility.

Units send armed aircraft to Zaragoza and typically use the Bardenas range for the first time just before they come in to land. After arrival the first attacks are debriefed, while the ground crews re-arm the fighters for their next mission. Such a tempo enables the pilots to work on maximising their combat readiness. The qualification regarding air-to-ground bombing is NATO-standardised and incorporated in a document entitled ACO Forces Standard Volume EL In general, it involves 10 to 12 different air-to-ground profiles, with a minimum of 42 valid passes over the targets required each year.

At the time of writing, Capt Jesus Manuel Salazar (Ala 14) was deployed to Zaragoza to work on his qualification. ‘Under the most ideal circumstances we can be qualified in three missions, but many factors can ruin a very carefully planned run’, he explains. Soon to be retired, the Mirage F1 operated by Ala 14 is still a capable platform for air-to-ground missions, and even air-to-air combat. Capt Salazar: ‘During beyond visual range attacks the Mirage Fl has no chance, but with smart tactics and some surprises we can still beat the F/A-18 Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon. During DACT 2011 (Dissimilar Air Combat Training at Gando in the Canary Islands) we won all our missions during one day.’

Bardenas gunnery rangeOf the original two control towers built by USAFE, only one remains in use, the other apparently now deemed to be too close to the line of fire. At the time of our visit, Maj Alvaro Alcazar, an F-5 pilot of Ala 23, was in the control tower overlooking the range area with a microphone in his hand. As ‘his’ four-ship of Ala 23 SF-5Bs approached the range he imparted a final weather update, and confirmed the area was clear for them to ‘join’. Today, he was the range officer but tomorrow it will be his chance to see the targets from the cockpit. After being qualified, every fighter pilot with at least one year of experience will serve as a range officer from time to time.

Target options

Three kinds of targets are found on the range. There are five strafing pits, although two of these are too close to the control tower and are effectively out of use. The new strafing pits are situated in ploughed-out areas to indicate safety zones. These zones allow pilots to recognise where they should cease firing their guns to reduce the possibility of ricochet damage and damage to the scoring system. The targets themselves are old drag chutes strung horn high poles. In the centre of the target, behind a large wall of sand, a highly sensitive microphone measures the supersonic Shockwave of the bullets. The microphone is connected by wire to the acoustic scoring system in the control tower. This is also the weakest link in the system — sometimes, when the pilot misjudges his run, the wire is hit and the target is ‘dead’ for the rest of the day.

Three targets are available for practising dive-bombing, on which only practice bombs are authorised for use. The two targets furthest from the control tower have multiple concentric circles, and in the centre the hulk of a battle tank serves as a bulls-eye. The smallest target is relatively close to the control tower. Measuring the score is accomplished by triangulating from different control points. This information is then plotted and a score derived. With flights of up to four aircraft in the bombing pattern, it is essential that this information is both rapid and accurate. After each run, the score is transmitted to the pilot in order to give him the chance to adjust the next run. Following the last run the range personnel are sometimes rewarded with a flyby, and the total score for each aircraft is then wired to Zaragoza for debriefing.

Live bombing takes place on a different part of the range and far away from any building. In these areas, the landscape is completely ploughed up and the targets are barely recognisable. When live bombing missions are planned, security is intense since the range is not fenced off. Guards patrol along the invisible borders to warn unexpected visitors.

But Bardenas has more targets to offer. Besides these conventional bombing targets, the ahcrews still need to practice their delivery techniques on full-sized, tactical targets. These are located on different parts of the range and include an airfield, surface-to-air missile sites and convoys. Non-repairable salvage items are used as actual targets because they reduce the cost of the range and significantly increase the realistic training value. The ‘airfield’ has a runway, taxiway and dispersals created in the landscape. The aircraft parked up on the runway, dispersals and the flight line show multiple signs of direct hits.

Practice weapons

The Mirage F1 and the SF-5B make use of the SUU-20 practice bomb and rocket dispenser, capable of carrying and releasing up to six practice bombs and four 2.75in rockets, although the latter are no longer used. The dispenser is carried under the centreline pylon. The Hornet makes use of a different system, with the BRU-41 multiple ejector rack fitted below one of the wings. Common types of practice bombs include the BDU-33 and the Mkl06. The latter is used to simulate high-drag bombs such as the Mk82 Snakeye. The BDU-33 simulates a free-fall aerial bomb release. Upon impact, the firing pin triggers a cartridge in the nose and this ignites the smoke charge. Smoke is expelled through the rear tail pipe, allowing the impact to be observed in order to evaluate accuracy.

Spanish Air ForceAircraft begin their rim about 3km from the targets. A run-in line is carved out of the landscape to make it easier to navigate to the targets. The line can even be illuminated for night missions. However, the Spanish pilots are very familiar with the area and so they use a landscape marker to approach the target. In fact, this marker is a mountain formation with a flat top and vertical walls — hence the tactical name ‘the aircraft carrier’.

Tactical bombing is not very common at Bardenas, with most of the runs making use of a toss bombing profile. Level toss is characterised by its low-level approach: the lower the aircraft flies, the later the bomb is released. This tactic allows improved accuracy but makes the aircraft very vulnerable to ground fire. More survivable is dive tossing, in which the aircraft approaches the target from a higher altitude and pulls up just before the bomb is released. This gives the bomb additional momentum and helps the aircraft to regain altitude. Another variant involves pulling away sideways just before release to avoid overflying the target.

The area around the Bardenas Range is still a farming community and the range must be closed for a two-week period each July to allow the local farmers to complete their harvest. Although this deprives the military of valuable training time, it does allow the range personnel to work on the targets and facilities without interruption.

Playground for Afghanistan

Once a year the Spanish combat units gather together at Zaragoza. During a period of about two weeks the crews have to plan and accomplish combat missions with a selection of live ammunition. Besides gaining experience in dropping real bombs, the crew of the different units also have to work together to fulfil different missions, including air-to-air, air-to-ground, combat search and rescue (CSAR) and electronic warfare. During this campaign, movements within the restricted airspace around the range are intense. Although the capacity of the range itself is limited to 100 aircraft daily, with an average of 20 minutes over the range for a flight of four aircraft, this total is never reached. Instead, the only limitation on activity is generally the weather. Visibility must be up to 5km with a cloud ceiling of 3,000ft. On around 5 per cent of the working days the range will be closed due to these restrictions. The landscape at Bardenas is similar to Afghanistan, which makes it an excellent ‘playground’ for Spanish special forces and CSAR teams to prepare themselves for the real thing.