Due to increasing cooperation between NATO countries it is more important than ever for pilots to meet each other and standardize their procedures. For over 25 years the Tactical Leadership Program has provided NATO pilots the opportunity to fly combined air operations in a multi-national environment.
The Allied Command Operations Tactical Leadership Program (ACO TLP) was formed under a Memorandum of Understanding between 6 NATO countries. In January 1978 these 8 countries (Belgium, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States of America) attended the first theoretical courses at the former German Air Force base Fürstenfeldbruck. The aim of this exercise was to improve tactical capabilities, techniques and procedures which would enhance multi-national air operations.
In September 1979 TLP moved to Jever air base where the first flying course took place. 71 flying courses were held and almost 2000 NATO aircrew graduated before the exercise moved again, to Belgium. Florennes became the home base of the Tactical Leadership Program in March 1989. Its central position allows missions to be flown all over Europe: the North Sea can be reached for air-to-air refueling missions, as well as shooting ranges in the United Kingdom and low-level flying areas in France.
The Tactical Leadership Program is divided in three different branches: Concepts & Doctrine Branch, the Academic Branch and the Flying Branch. The Concepts & Doctrine Branch consists of conferences and seminars about the various concepts and doctrines about air operations. The Academic Branch organizes a series of academic courses about subjects such as aircraft and weapons performances, threat doctrine and offensive and defensive air operations. Through these courses the expertise of the TLP can be passed on to approximately 500 NATO air force representatives, many more than can attend the flying courses. The Flying Branches are held six times a year, each lasting four weeks.
The success of the Tactical Leadership has urged many countries to join. Only Canada doesn't annually participate in the TLP anymore; countries such as France, Greece, Turkey and Italy have joined since the early '90s. In 2006 even the Czech Republic participated in the exercise, possibly opening the door for other East European countries with modern equipment such as Poland and Hungary.
All aircrew attending the flying courses of the Tactical Leadership Program have to be well-experienced. They must be able to lead a four-ship formation and have a minimum of 500 flying hours. The first two weeks they attend about 50 hours of academic training, combined with the first missions. In total, the aircrews go through approximately 12 to 15 carefully planned missions in four weeks. Each mission will grow in complexity and consists of an increasing number of participating aircraft. Each course includes up to three air-to-air refueling missions.
TLP missions are often controlled by an E-3 AWACS, operating from its home base Geilenkirchen (Germany) or every now and then from Florennes. The missions are debriefed in greater depth than in any other flying course. Through an Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) and the evaluation of aircraft mission tapes every aspect of what really happened in the air is analyzed.
During the third and fourth week of the exercise some additional participants are taking part. These are normally air defense fighters like F-16 Fighting Falcons, Mirage 2000's or F-4 Phantoms. Sometimes the TLP instructors come up with a different scenario to include a couple of Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) missions, when a 'missing' airmen needs to be rescued from hostile territory. Also aircraft for electronic warfare can regularly be seen at Florennes.
Each year one, or sometimes even two, out-of-region (OOR) operations are held outside Belgium. The main reasons to organize these OOR operations are to provide air crew the opportunity to fly in better weather circumstances and to fly at night. They are mostly held in Mediterranean countries like Spain, Italy and Turkey.
Since 2003 TLP has been looking for a new home base with better weather and less flying restrictions. TLP staff are discussing possibilities with the Spanish government to move to Albacete, but a final decision still has to be made. The Tactical leadership Program will stay at Florennes until at least the end of 2008.
The TLP staff are proud of the programme's reputation for not only providing excellent training but also for fostering friendships and engendering an important spirit of cooperation between nations. There is no doubt that a generation of airmen have greatly benefited from lessons learned while taking part in the program and it is hoped that this important tradition will continue for many years at Florennes, Albacete or wherever it may take place in future.