Junglies Back to Sea
In the dead of night, on a pitching and rolling deck, the clatter of 2 Chinooks and 4 Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) Sea King helicopters can be heard from within HMS Illustrious. Outside, a 30 knot wind, sea spray, whirling rotor blades and a cramped flight deck make it a dangerous environment in which to work. From the 'starboard wait', two AAC AH-64 Apaches watch the scene using their on-board sensors, calmly awaiting the launch to lead the insert of troops from 45 Commando (Cdo) RM to their objective, a few miles inland. Further towards the shore, HMS Bulwark is dock down and releasing her landing craft to make an amphibious landing at the same time as the aviation insert.
This is the setting for just one of the missions carried out during the recent multinational Exercise Joint Warrior, Europe’s biggest military exercise. Involving 18 ships from 8 nations, it is designed to validate 45 Cdo RM as the UK's Lead Commando Group unit, and its ability to deploy aboard the UK's amphibious shipping anywhere in the world. To support the troops, a Tailored Air Group (TAG) was brought together to make best use of the UK’s Battlefield Helicopter assets. Although the Commando Helicopter Force is manned by Naval personnel, including Royal Marines, specialising in the conduct of amphibious operations its operations in recent years have been centred in Afghanistan.
Joint Warrior has served to help re-instil an amphibious mindset in the aircrew and engineers of the CHF, but also to integrate the Army Air Corps (AAC) Apache force into flying in that uniquely challenging environment. Detachments from both types were embarked aboard HMS Illustrious for the duration of the exercise. Together with Royal Air Force Chinooks operating from land, the Commando Sea Kings and AAC Apaches made a formidable and potent air group. In the past 9 months, HMS Illustrious' ships company has also had to work tirelessly and flexibly to switch from the Harrier Strike mindset to that of the LPH (Landing Platform Helicopter) role which results in a busier deck, the management of major troop movements, and a new set of challenges.
After a complicated deck launch cycle, necessitated by the number of aircraft and troops, the package of eight aircraft disappears into the night in loose formation. The lead Apache, acting as Air Mission Commander, clears the formation through the airspace and on to the objective. Once the troops are dropped off the AH remains on station overhead providing protection and firepower to the ‘boots’ on the ground.
The importance of Exercise Joint Warrior cannot be overstated. It is a fully integrated exercise incorporating amphibious assaults by aviation and surface landing craft, anti-submarine and fast-attack craft serials, air defence drills, and a whole range of other training associated with maritime theatre entry and power projection.
“It’s been a steep learning curve for all but the most experienced crews” said Sea King Pilot Lt Fred Durrant of 845 NAS. “We are all now quite comfortable with Afghanistan operations and being thrust straight back into a fully amphibious role has taken some hard work and flexibility on the part of all concerned”. The amphibious role is key to CHF, and now the Army Air Corps' Apache Force are becoming more used to operating its Apaches from sea, the UK's capability in this arena is impressive. The JHC force elements attributed to the UK's high readiness Response Force Task Group, which include the CHF's Sea Kings and the AAC's Apaches, are now at high readiness to deploy anywhere in the world.
Despite its current commitments, CHF will, over the next 4 years be at the forefront of changes to the UK Rotary Wing Strategy. The Sea King Mk 4 is now being drawn down and will be replaced with the Merlin Mk 4 and Aviators and engineers are currently operating and training at RAF Benson, in Oxfordshire to ensure a smooth and timely transition. 847 Naval Air Squadron will also begin their conversion to the new Agusta Westland AW159 Wildcat, becoming the first UK unit to operate this new helicopter in 2013.
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