The NATO Tigers – since 1961, Aims and origin
In its relatively brief history, military aviation has spawned a considerable number of interesting and colourful institutions or associations, primarily to help in the promotion of interoperability, co-operation and morale amongst like minded aviators. For many involved in military aviation few of these institutions can compete with the NATO Tiger Association in demonstrating the capability and character of those unique individuals who defend their nation’s skies.
By Frits Jongerman
It all began when the French Minister of Defence, Pierre Messmer, made a plea for an improvement in Franco-American military co-operation. In response to this request, the C-in-C of the United States European Command urged his commanders to take every opportunity to further relationships between the two countries. Coincidentally, 74 (Fighter) Squadron based at RAF Coltishall, were renewing old friendships with their American neighbours of the 79th Tactical Fighter Squadron at nearby RAF Woodbridge. The 79th TFS set about finding a common theme that would link fighter units of the three nations’ air forces and discovered that the Escadron de Chasse 1/12 of the Armee de l’Air shared a tiger squadron emblem with the two UK based squadrons. In 1961 EC 1/12 were invited to Woodbridge, together with the 74(F) Squadron and the first Tiger Meet took place. The one day meet was deemed a great success and word spread quickly throughout NATO. The common Tiger theme was retained and during the second Tiger Meet, no fewer than eight Tiger Squadrons representing six NATO nations were in attendance. In 1963, the Tiger Meet moved to continental Europe for the first time, taking place at Kleine Brogel, Belgium.
Since those early days the NATO Tiger Association has steadily grown in international esteem and the Tiger Meet has become a firmly established annual event which is famous amongst members of the Association, NATO, and military aviation enthusiasts around the world. Since the very first Tiger Meet, the main objectives of the NATO Tiger Association have been to promote co-operation between the air forces, create a better understanding of NATO military objectives, and to develop unit interoperability. The maintenance of strong personal ties between the members of each Tiger Squadron are equally important.
France, who hosted the meet for the first time in 1964 recognised the value and importance of ground crews in air operations and placed a new emphasis in their involvement into the Tiger Meet. Cross training on different aircraft types was developed during a series of ground competitions. The professional profile of the Association was also enhanced in the mid sixties when General Robert M Lee placed his seal of approval on the annual event with the Air Deputy Award, that was presented for the first time in 1966. During the next 15 years the NATO Tiger Association experienced considerable expansion as more and more nations and air forces realised the organisations’ potential for engendering training, esprit de corps, and co-operation. In spite of the world oil crisis of the early seventies which threatened the very existence of the Association further accolades followed. In 1977, the international Air Tattoo at Greenham Common, hosted the Tiger Meet and during the show, the Silver Tiger Trophy was donated to the Tiger Association. The Silver Tiger is now arguably the most valuable trophy owned by the Tiger Association and is awarded annually to the Tiger squadron that shows the highest degree of professionalism and Tiger spirit during the Tiger Meet. The winner is determined by a vote of the Detachment Commanders present at each Meet. The first squadron to win this coveted trophy in 1977 was 439 Squadron Canadian Armed Forces, then based at Baden Söllingen in West Germany.
During the 1980’s the NATO Tiger Meet once again grew in stature only to be threatened by the monumental changes that began to alter the political and military map of Europe in 1990 following the collapse of communism. Almost simultaneously, the Tiger community was hit by the disbandment or relocation of a number of its established members including the 439 Sqn CAF, 431 Squadron Luftwaffe and one of its original founders, the 79th TFS USAFE.
Demonstrating typical Tiger spirit, the Association fought back and quickly added 05/330, 313, and 321 squadrons to its membership rolls. Further, as NATO was looking to the East, the NTA began establishing links with potential new members amongst Tiger squadrons in the former Warsaw Pact. The first of these new East European “recruits” proved to be a real success story. The Czech 331 (now 221) Squadron helicopter unit was inducted in 1996 as an honorary member, then upon their joining NATO, became a full member in 2001. They went on to win the Silver Tiger in 2002. A second Czech unit was inducted in 2008 and a Hungarian squadron is in observer (and potential new member) status in 2009. A Polish and a Slovak Squadron are also now in our sights. In another historic milestone, 11 Staffel of the Swiss Air Force, who had been dedicated Honorary Members since 1981, were voted into Full Membership in 2003, since they were part of the NATO “Partnership for Peace” program. They too proved their professionalism and dedication by being awarded the Silver Tiger in 2008.”
Today the NTA is as strong as ever. Our recent Meets have generally integrated an average of 15 squadrons flying some 800 – 1.000 sorties with 50+ aircraft, around 250 aircrew and 400 ground crew. The dedication of all the members is not in doubt as evidenced by a particular meets non-participants mostly citing operational conflicts as the reason for not attending. Today’s Air Arms of all nations are committed to a much higher level of real world operations than 20-50 years ago. Multinational peacekeeping missions, combat deployments, and world-wide training detachments, coupled with the ever-present pressure on military budgets and personnel, have not reduced the need for joint training. The annual Tiger Meet has proven itself, and is now firmly recognized, as an outstanding and cost-effective solution to fill this need.
Main objectives NATO Tiger Association *
1. promote cooperation between air forces
2. better understanding of NATO military objectives and procedures
3. develop unit interoperability
4. networking, maintenance of strong personal ties
*)The objectives were first named by USAF General Rober M. Lee – SHAPE Deputy for Air in 1962 – and are still true and valid today.