Established in 1978, MAPLE FLAG is one of the largest of such exercises in the world, as it makes use of the extensive Cold Lake Air Weapons Range (CLAWR) which is co-existent with CFB Cold Lake. The exercise itself currently occurs annually over a four-week period, which is split into 2 two-week "phases." MAPLE FLAG provides realistic training for pilots from the Royal Canadian Air Force, as well as select allied air forces from around the world. The number of personnel at CFB Cold Lake effectively doubles while the exercise is being conducted, with approximately 5,000 pilots and support crews participating.
MAPLE FLAG can be considered a Canadian version of the United States Air Force's RED FLAG, which is held several times a year at Nellis Air Force Base (using the Nellis Air Force Range). RED FLAG was conceived during the Vietnam War when the USAF found that 90 percent of combat aircraft losses were during a pilot's first 10 missions; the first RED FLAG occurred in 1975.
MAPLE FLAG copied the RED FLAG format in 1978 and until 1987, it was held twice a year, and reduced to once a year after 1987. MAPLE FLAG has only been cancelled three times all due to significant Royal Canadian Air Force commitments, once in 1991, due to Operation Desert Storm, and again in 1999 due to combat operations (Operation Allied Force) in Kosovo. In 2011, Maple Flag was cancelled due to NATO military commitments (Operation Mobile) in Libya.
The mission of MAPLE FLAG is to provide training to the Canadian Forces and allied air forces, including fighter, bomber, aerial refueling, transport, air defence, AWACS, SEAD, and electronic warfare crews.
Participants join forces against a hostile aggressor (called "Redland"), using the CLAWR territory for all operations. Each 10-day phase involves a combination of air-to-ground, air-to-air and other missions.
Most Canadian tactical combat aircrew have participated in MAPLE FLAG over the years, initially flying the CF-104 Starfighter, CF-101 Voodoo and CF-116 Freedom Fighter, followed by the CF-18 Hornet. Other supporting aircraft have included the CT-133 T-bird, CT-114 Tutor, CC-130 Hercules, CP-140 Aurora, CH-146 Griffon, CT-155 Hawk, CT-156 Harvard II, CC-150 Polaris and the CC-137 Husky.
Allied air forces from many NATO countries have been involved in years past, with numerous aircraft types. Examples include:
- German Luftwaffe: F-4F Phantom II, C-160D Transall, MiG-29G, Panavia Tornado
- Royal Air Force: Buccaneer, Harrier II, SEPECAT Jaguar, C-130, Panavia Tornado, Sentry AEW.1
- USAF/USN/USMC – F-16C/D Falcon, F-15 Eagle, F-15E Strike Eagle, A-10 Thunderbolt, EA-6B Prowler, B-1B Lancer, KC-135 Stratotanker, KC-10 Extender, C-5 Galaxy, C-141 Starlifter, C-17 Globemaster III, F/A-18E Super Hornet, F/A-18A/B/C/D Hornets, F-111 Aardvark, A-7D Corsair
- Royal Netherlands Air Force: F-16AMLU Falcon
- French Armée de l'Air: C-160R, Mirage 2000-N, Mirage 2000-D, Mirage 2000-5, Mirage F1CT, Boeing E-3 SentryF
- Royal Norwegian Air Force – F-16 Falcon
- Belgian Air Force – F-16MLU, C-130H Hercules
Non-NATO nations include:
- Israeli Air Force: F-16C/D
- Royal Australian Air Force: F/A-18A/B Hornet, C-130H Hercules
- Royal New Zealand Air Force: C-130H Hercules
- Swedish Air Force – C-130H Hercules
- Republic of Singapore Air Force: KC-135R Stratotanker, F-16 Falcon
- Brazilian Air Force – C-130H Hercules
- Colombian Air Force – 6 A-29 Super Tucanos, 1 C-130H Hercules, and 1 KC-767MMTT.
Many officers and personnel from other nations have been invited as guests of the Canadian Forces to observe MAPLE FLAG operations. Several private sector organizations have also participated in MAPLE FLAG, providing fictional opposition Redland forces.
- "Exercise Maple Flag 44 cancelled" (Press release). Royal Canadian Air Force. 17 May 2011. Archived from the original on 18 April 2012. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
- "Israeli F-16s to participate at Maple Flag XXXVIII". ekollel.com. 13 May 2005. Retrieved 17 October 2015.
- "Fuerza Aérea Colombiana demostrará sus habilidades tácticas en los Ejercicios Maple Flag". webinfomil.com. Retrieved 17 October 2015.