PREPARING FOR HELMAND

APDR’s Richard Gardner visits the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command at Netheravon during Exercise Pashtun Jaguar as crews and helicopters are prepared for an operational return to Afghanistan.

6th Apr 2011


Afghanistan

 

PREPARING FOR HELMAND

 

APDR’s Richard Gardner visits the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command at Netheravon
during Exercise Pashtun Jaguar as crews and helicopters are prepared for an operational return to Afghanistan.


Everyone is now familiar with television reports from Afghanistan depicting the harsh realities of soldiers’ lives in the dangerous IED-infested front line of areas such as Helmand Province. But not so well appreciated is the massive air effort behind the scenes that makes it possible to sustain the ground forces, every day and every night, so they always have airlift when they need it, so the ammunition, rations and water don’t run out, so timely casualty evacuation can be relied on, and when really close air support is on hand when needed.

Much of this work is routine and doesn’t make for exciting television images, unlike the reports from embedded media teams moving around the country with foot patrols or convoys of armoured vehicles. Even on the ground in theatre there is not always full awareness of how much training back home is required to prepare and sustain this level of deployed tactical air support. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) It remains a fact that without such substantial integrated air assets to provide mobility, flexibility and the domination of airspace overhead, then many tens of thousands of extra troops would be needed in Afghanistan to extend protection and influence over such a remote and hostile region.

The high tempo of active operations in Afghanistan does not provide a suitable environment for large-scale cooperative training between air units and ground forces. They have to arrive in theatre fully prepared for conditions and operations with confidence that procedures and mission tactics are well rehearsed against a realistic scenario. Getting it wrong can cost lives in theatre, so the time and expense of large scale training exercises is an essential investment in crew validation. At first glance, the fertile rolling landscape of Salisbury Plain in England might seem a million miles from Helmand Province, but in February, during Exercise Pashtun Jaguar, the men and helicopters of Joint Helicopter Command spent several weeks working up with ground units of No 3 Commando Brigade, which is due to return shortly to the front line.

The exercise used Netheravon airfield, with an HQ and units set up to operate as they would at Camp Bastion in Helmand, where UK JHC helicopters of the RAF, Army and Royal Navy fly alongside US Marine Corps helicopters based at their own HQ, Camp Leatherneck. Exercise Pashtun Jaguar concentrated on collective training and integrated missions, with much attention on achieving mission objectives, planning, briefing and execution, and judgemental training.

As well as the representative base operations, realistic replica Afghanistan-style ground force bases have been set up on Salisbury Plain, complete with protective rock and mesh perimeter walls, gun positions, tents, shelters and vehicle parks, complete with desert camouflaged armoured vehicles similar to the types actually used in Afghanistan. From the air, these replica bases look just like the real ones in almost all respects, except for the fact they do not disappear under a blanket of sand whenever a helicopter approaches.

To give more realistic environmental helicopter training, better suiting UK pilots to local Afghan conditions, separate training exercises have been undertaken in actual desert conditions, with Apaches being dispatched to Arizona, USA, and Chinooks and Merlins to North Africa. Exercise Jebel Sahara saw some 220
Personnel from RAF Odiham, the main UK Chinook base, and RAF Benson, home of the Merlin, deployed to Morocco with four Chinooks and three Merlins. This provided good field exposure to the hot and high conditions that would be experienced in Afghanistan and enabled support crews as well as flyers to get used to setting up camp and logistics activity in a variety of harsh desert and mountain conditions. Crews from the Operational Conversion Unit as well as operational units took part and involved all aspects of day and night helicopter flying, from troop uplift and cargo carrying, to underslung loads, and search and rescue.

An important element in the Pashtun Jaguar exercise at Netheravon is what is known as Judgemental Training. This is official-speak for the training in Use Of Force and Rules Of Engagement and tests crew response to scenarios that mimic what might arise in the confused circumstances of in-theatre operations. This is done based on real-life incidents and uses replica villages and soldiers dressed in local Afghan-style clothing so crews have the opportunity to make decisions on whether groups or individuals are innocent bystanders or hostiles.

Videos are used extensively to debrief crews to examine how successfully they dealt with the challenges. (KYM TO TASHA, BPS) Putting crews into typical mission flight profiles (such as approaching a pick-up point in a threatened landing zone) gives examiners a chance to see how they react and to give them a chance to perfect their skills. Just as forces serving in Afghanistan have had to adapt over the years to changing Taliban tactics- such as the main threat becoming that from Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) – the countermeasures also have to evolve to include new tactics.

An example of this is the increasing use of air dispatch to deliver vital stores in high threat areas. Rear Admiral Johnstone-Burt is Commander, Joint Helicopter Command, and he told the author, “We were experiencing increasing ground fire as we approached certain well-used landing zones, taking more and more hits on helicopters. We decided to take a fresh look at how a return to air dispatch instead of drop-off, using the Chinook, might reduce the risk. We wanted to see if new developments in precision delivery might be adapted for Chinook use so that we could guarantee dropping the stores with great accuracy and with no chance of the stores falling into the wrong hands. We worked closely with industry and operational evaluation showed that this could be achieved. The whole project was carried out within weeks using the Urgent Operational Requirements process to fast-track the delivery of a reliable capability that we could rely on to do the job with added safety.” This is now in use in theatre and gives added flexibility when deciding how to meet operational tasks.

US forces also took part in the exercise, which reflects today’s operational reality where JHC is now closely integrated with US units and operates under the joint command of a 2 star US General.

The helicopters used by JHC in the exercise included the latest RAF Chinook HC3 and Merlin HC3A, Royal Navy Sea King HC4s, Army Apache Longbow attack helicopters, Lynx AH7s and an optical pod-touting Gazelle posing as a UAV. Because of the altitude and temperature difficulties experienced in Helmand, the lift performance of the participating helicopters was restricted to enable more representative missions to be flown.

This meant, for example, that a Lynx could only lift between 2-4 troops and a Merlin between 9-20. In contrast, the more powerful Chinook could still carry between 19-40. In Afghanistan, Apache and Lynx Mk9 helicopters provide escort duties to troop-lift helicopters and it is almost unheard of to fly over the operational areas without being in a formation of at least two aircraft, so there is always an aircraft available for immediate support if there is a problem with the other. Apaches, armed with cannon, rockets and missiles, have enormous firepower to bring to focus against any hostile ground elements. Operating unseen and at a safer altitude are RN Sea King Mk 7s acting as flying command posts and radar surveillance and communications platforms. Managing the primary operational mission in Afghanistan is difficult enough, but without the tasking confidence provided by air power, the job of providing security on the ground would be an impossible one.

Exercise Pashtun Jaguar is part of the ongoing effort to make sure effectiveness can be maximized within the constraints imposed by political reality.


 

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