COMMANDO HELICOPTER FORCE ON BALTOPS
The wings of the Royal Marines shared Baltic skies with more than 40 other helicopters, fast jets and patrol planes – demonstrating their ability to work seamlessly with international air power.
The Commando Helicopter Force was called upon extensively throughout the fortnight-long Baltops exercise, the largest and longest-running war game in the Baltic, this year largely staged in Sweden and Lithuania.
The five commando helicopters – two battlefield Wildcats, three battlefield Merlins – flew alongside aircraft as varied as German Sea Kings, Spanish Harrier jump jets and American Blackhawks.
The detachment – drawn from 845 (Merlins) and 847 (Wildcats) Naval Air Squadrons, both based with the rest of the Commando Helicopter Force at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset – is based aboard aviation training ship RFA Argus for the duration of the Royal Navy’s summer workout for its amphibious task force, Baltic Protector.
It’s the task of Wildcats to scout ahead of Royal Marines on the ground, call in missile strikes, air raids and naval gunfire support and provide overhead cover for troops and columns on the move below, while the Merlins ferry up to 16 commandos with all their kit into battle for airborne assaults.
The first major test for the fliers was a raid on Rinkaby Airfield in southern Sweden, where the Commandos were charged with capturing an ‘enemy’ missile launch site, seizing prisoners and vital intelligence, and creating an ‘airhead’ for further raids deeper into Swedish territory.
The Merlins carried the men of X-Ray Company, 45 Commando, from Arbroath, to their dropzone, escorted by Wildcats which then scouted the terrain around Rinkaby, covered the men on the ground with their machine-guns, gathered intelligence, before everything was reversed and the raiding party was recovered and flown back to the task force.
The commando fliers were in action in force again during a day of amphibious demonstrations was laid on for VIPs from around the world at Palanga, Lithuania’s principal beach resort, where holidaymakers made way for a beach assault by the Royal Marines, rapid roping on to the sand from their Merlins.
This time it was to task of the Wildcats to act as ‘airborne air traffic control’, marshalling all the various aircraft involved in the demonstration in holding areas at different heights and speeds, before guiding them in when required for their part in the show.
And the Wildcats were thrown into a strange role for the large scale ‘war at sea’ phase of Baltops when they were charged with acting as the task group’s ‘eyes in the sky’ – but this time over water.
Even though it doesn’t have the same sensor suite as the maritime version of the Wildcat, the commando version flown by 847 Squadron was called upon to scour swathes of the Baltic to track potential threats.
The Wildcats succeeded in finding an ‘enemy’ submarine – normally the task of a specialist Merlin helicopter, not taking part in Baltops – allowing a maritime patrol aircraft to continue the pursuit and drive the sub away from the task group.
“Baltops has allowed us to conduct many of the secondary roles which the Wildcat can fulfil, such as fast roping,” said Sergeant Tom Goy of 847 NAS.
“Interaction between the crew is paramount to ensure Royal Marines are safely and efficiently delivered ashore.”
As well as all these ‘crunchy’ missions, all helicopters and crews honed day-to-day skills – deck landings, refueling, ferrying troops, visitors and supplies around the fleet.
“The missions conducted throughout Baltops by the air group have been a team effort,” said Wildcat pilot Lieutenant Mark Hanson.
“The high levels of cohesion between the two squadrons on amphibious operations has ultimately provided an efficient and effective service supporting 3 Commando brigade.”
Merlin pilot Lieutenant Andy Duffield added: “Integrating with the Commando Wildcats has given us useful training opportunities to conduct tactical formation flying, enhancing the ability of the two helicopters to work together.”
Sub Lieutenant Mike Golden, overseeing the team looking after the Wildcats, said engineers and technicians had risen superbly to the challenges placed on them by the exercise.
“The busy nature of Baltops has meant that both squadron have faced greater engineering requirements than normal,” he added.
“Despite this and due to the hard work put in by the engineering team, we have managed to provide a fully serviceable set of aircraft throughout.”
After a visit to Kiel and participation in its annual yachting/seafaring festival Kiel Week, the helicopters will remain with Argus for the final stage of the UK’s two-month-long Baltic Protector deployment, focusing on amphibious operations working with forces from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.