“In order to assure an adequate national defense, it is necessary — and sufficient — to be in a position in case of war to conquer the command of the air.” – Italian General Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air

Early on in the age of the airplane, convincing leaders air power was key to the future of warfare was an uphill struggle. Many notable commanders dismissed the notion of the aircraft having its place in any sort of military engagement. Nowadays, it is easy for us to consider such a viewpoint incredibly short-sighted; but, imagine yourself in the early 1900s when the airplane was new-fangled technology in its infancy. How could such a fragile machine of wood and fabric revolutionize the way wars are fought?

What would have become of the tactical aircraft if not for the likes of the French-born American William “Billy” Mitchell, or the British General Hugh “Boom” Trenchard?

RAF Typhoons from 3 Sqn prepare to launch from JBLE during the Trilateral exercise (photo by Jonathan Derden)
RAF Typhoons from 3 Sqn prepare to launch from JBLE during the Trilateral exercise. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

The two World War I contemporaries met while fighting in France, and both argued in favor of air power as a key strategy for winning wars. To prove his point, in 1921, and after having served as the commander of French-based American flying units, Mitchell orchestrated a demonstration of how air power could be utilized to sink ships. The combined flying force–known as the 1st Provisional Air Brigade–trained and flew their missions from Langley Field in Virginia, where they successfully sent several captured German ships and decommissioned US vessels to watery graves.

Revolutionaries as they were, both military officers were committed to seeing their respective countries develop airborne arsenals and, along with France, each to this day field some of the most formidable air forces in the world – especially when they operate together. All three nations operated together in the heat of conflict almost 100 years ago while the airplane was still in its infancy, but our shared history could be traced back for centuries. More recently though, a collective agreement known as the trilateral strategic initiative (TSI) was formed in 2010 to expound upon the long-established relationships and tradition of partnership between the United States, the United Kingdom, and France.

Five years later, and in the spirit of enhancing combined operations, the first Trilateral Exercise was held during the first two weeks of December 2015, appropriately at the home of the USAF’s Air Combat Command and the 1st Fighter Wing, Joint Base Langley-Eustis. The over-arching theme of the exercise was a focus on the anti-access/area denial (A2AD) scenario, a relatively new buzz-word that essentially means contested airspace, from integrated air defense networks (IADS) or a fighter force or any combination thereof.

An Armée de l’Air Dassault Rafale strikes a menacing pose at JBLE during the Trilateral exercise (photo by Jonathan Derden)
An Armée de l’Air Dassault Rafale strikes a menacing pose at JBLE during the Trilateral exercise. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

“For the last 15 years, we’ve been focused on an environment that is very permissive,” says USAF Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh of the service’s recent combat operations. “Our adversaries know what we can do when we own the air and have superiority so they are doing everything they can to deny it with aircraft and weapons and electronic warfare.”

The Royal Air Force has been confronted with a similar situation, primarily conducting counter-insurgency operations alongside the US for the past decade. “We’ve got to bring our baseline capability up, and after 10 years of Afghanistan and Iraq before it, some of those high-end skills have actually drifted away from us. They’re now coming back, and this exercise is an important part of that journey of recovering our high-end capabilities,” says Air Chief Marshal Sir Andrew Pulford, RAF Chief of the Air Staff.