The French Experience
January 6, 2013. It is just after dawn. A fat, orange sun rises rapidly over theIndian Oceansome200 mileseast ofSomalia. The heat increases perceptibly with every degree farther it travels on its arc. A long, low white boat is charging across the waves in the direction of the coast, its two occupants sweating in the humidity. And in fear. They are pirates, fleeing the scene of an attempted attack on a merchant vessel the day before. In a desperate bid to escape, they have abandoned ten of their countrymen in a heavier, slower whaler somewhere to the west. But their flight is in vain.
The unmistakable drone of a Lynx HMA8 cuts through the air and suddenly they can see it, quickly sweeping in from their right. The outline of the .50 calibre M3M heavy machine-gun is equally unmistakable. The skiff stops and the Lynx moves to cover it in a slow orbit. For a minute, one of the pirates half-heartedly mimes the act of fishing, but then sits down heavily – the game is up.
In total, 12 suspected pirates were arrested that day, and later passed to the Mauritian authorities for prosecution – another great success for the Fleet Air Arm and the venerable Lynx but, at first glance, not necessarily that remarkable. Our Flights have routinely been deployed in and round the Indian Ocean, taking part in Counter Piracy operations, for years. But the FAA Lynx in this particular story was not embarked in a Royal Navy FF/DD, or even an RFA. This Lynx was from 217 Flight, deployed since October 2012 in FLF Surcouf, of France’s Marine Nationale.
A French ship? What would Nelson think?! What on Earth are the Fleet Air Arm’s finest doing working hand-in-hand with the old enemy? The successful operation described above is the tangible result of a treaty, signed in 2010 at Lancaster House between the UK and France, agreeing to greater military cooperation and interoperability between the two countries. In return for, amongst other things, increased MPA support to RN ASW exercises, 217 Flight of 815 NAS detached for 4 months in the La Fayette class fregate Surcouf. The Flight’s 2 aircrew, 8 maintainers and 2 Royal Marine snipers deployed with the ship for Op Atalanta, the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR) Counter Piracy mission.
It’s fair to say the challenges of planning and conducting such an embarkation were many and varied, but equally so were the benefits.
In this article I aim to provide an overview of the process, including the significant amount of work accompanying the normal generation of the Flight pre-deployment, day-to-day life in Surcouf, our contribution to the Atalanta mission and, finally, what I think the FAA and the wider RN can take from the experience.
217 Flight had not long finished a particularly ‘crunchy’ deployment in HMS LIVERPOOL during the crisis inLibya, before being told their next deployment would be in a French ship. The news that they would therefore be spending the next 15 weeks in a classroom learning French was met with a bit of surprise: could the Flight really be spared from their day jobs for almost four months? Four months without flying, or without laying hands on a spanner? As a compromise, the language training was provided at Yeovilton so that a bare minimum of admin could continue in the background, but our subsequent return to the normal flying and engineering routine had to be carefully managed.
It was decided early on that a basic level of competence in French would be one of many factors ensuring both Operating and Operational Assurance. For those unfamiliar with the concept that now underpins all military flying, Assurance is the term given to the process of assessing, and then reducing to a level As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP), the risks involved in any given evolution. The risks and mitigating action can then be recorded and essentially the ‘can’ carried by designated appointments (the “Duty Holders”) to ensure legal culpability in the event of an accident.
Gone are the days when common sense alone can be relied upon to perform this process in a dynamic and ad-hoc manner.
With this in mind, you can imagine that the deployment of an entire Lynx Flight in somebody else’s warship, for sustained Operations rather than just a simple cross-decking exercise, was subject to a high level of scrutiny. Representatives from the Flight, and Lynx Helicopter Force HQ (LHF, as was) travelled to Surcouf inToulon twice in the months before departing theUK, to investigate and assess every area of the detachment. The issues and questions considered ranged from the obvious and important – whose ROE would we operate under? – to the mundane but still important – how do we do our laundry on board? – to the obscure (but, as it turned out, critical!) – how do we send or receive engineering data if there’s no compatibility between British and French Restricted level infrastructure?
Fortunately, we found plenty of similarity in many aspects of our two modus operandi; after all – the Marine Nationale operates the Lynx, Panther and NH90 from their FF/DDs and is not a newcomer to small-ships aviation. As we delved deeper, we discovered their procedures would only need slight modifications here and there to bring them into line with our own and thereby satisfy the Duty Holders that we would be able to operate as safely and effectively as we do in our own ships.
So, in late October 2012, the newly-christened “Striker” (from the 815 NAS motto, Strike Deep) set off from Yeovilton to join Surcouf in Toulon. The majority of the Flight equipment had been sent ahead on board a chartered “Strat. RORO” – itself quite an undertaking. Used to embarking in Plymouth or Portsmouth, the corporate knowledge of international Flight Moves was embryonic and the learning curve steep. However, men, equipment and aircraft were all successfully embarked in their new home by the beginning of November and starting to settle in.
An important part of the Assurance process was a period of sea training, conducted with the help of a team from FOST and their equivalents inToulon. While the Flyexes proceeded from day Procedural to night, then to Secondary Roles, tactical serials and eventually NVG ops, just as much effort was expended in learning about, and adjusting to, life on board a French warship. At times it felt just like home – it seems Pusser’s bunk-spaces are as narrow and lacking in vertical extent no matter whose ship you’re on – and in broad-brush terms of course, a warship is a warship: there is a Bridge, an Ops Room and a Flight Deck, engines below and radars above.
But the devil is in the detail, as they say; and the detail of Jacque’s routine is quite different to that of Jack.
The day starts with l’appel au poste du compagnie; each department musters in their workspace for a quick communiqué from their Chef du Service. Information from the previous evening’s briefing d’activités is disseminated, and manpower allocated to the day’s tasks. L’appel also gives every single person on the ship the opportunity to shake the hand of every other person on the ship, as they pass them on the way to the muster. Every person, every day, without fail. To forego the handshake, or worse to forget that you have already greeted that person that morning, is considered a serious snub! A well-intentioned but tiresome custom, at least it made it easy to see who was still bitter about Trafalgar!
For my team on the aft end, the biggest difference in their working environment was the presence of a whole department dedicated to aviation. In our ships, the Flight are generally the only people on the flight deck, and can liaise directly with the Officer Of the Watch for evolutions such as aircraft moves or fuelling. Not so in Surcouf.
At l’appel au poste aviation (Prepare For Flying and Hands to Flying Stations all rolled into one), no less than ten additional personnel are required to turn-to in the hangar. Four of them are Firesuit-men, who must be fully dressed for even the shortest, simplest evolution.
An Officer de Quart Aviation sits in the Passerelle Avia (Flyco) to coordinate deck activities with the bridge, providing an extra layer in the usual game of Chinese Whispers between aircraft, FDO and OOW.
While the extra manpower was welcome when pushing the aircraft in and out of the hangar (deck configuration specific to Surcouf precluded the use of the Douglas RAM handler), and undoubtedly increased the safety factor, it was nigh on impossible to operate the deck with the Fleet Air Arm sense of urgency and efficiency. A more... patient attitude had to be adopted.
As we were beginning to get used to these subtle differences, the ship sailed to join EUNAVFOR Task Force 465 at the end of November. The Atalanta mission itself is broadly twofold: detection, deterrence and disruption of piracy activities; and protection of World Food Programme and other vulnerable shipping. To achieve these goals there were three main areas in which the Lynx was used during our time in the TF; Surface Search/Patrol, Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) along the Somali coast, and Interception of vessels suspected being involved in Piracy.
While the capture and detention of suspected pirates such as described above is the ‘punchy’ and headline-grabbing end of the EUNAVFOR mission, it is only the tip of a very big iceberg. The majority of our time was spent conducting ‘baseline’ Counter Piracy tasking. Usually flying at dawn and dusk, we participated in constant surveillance of the International Recommended Transit Corridor (IRTC) – contributing to the compilation of the Recognised Maritime Picture (RMP) that is FAA ‘grey’ fleet bread and butter.
Far more interesting however, was the significant amount of coastal ISR tasking we carried out. Along huge stretches of the North and North-East coast ofSomaliare scattered a multitude of camps, villages and small towns that are, or could easily become, logistical bases for pirates. Only by keeping a constant watch on these areas can the ‘pattern of life’ be established and any suspicious activity spotted. Dawn and dusk patrols, armed with a high-resolution DSLR camera and sufficiently long lens, allowed us to distinguish between routine activities such as fishing or fuel trading and indicators of possible Pirate Action Group (PAG) preparation ashore.
Throughout the mission, the Flight’s integration into the Ops team to achieve these different tasks was almost seamless. Of course, there were occasional language issues on the radio, but these were mitigated against by conducting thorough table-top tactics (TTTs) sessions before, and regular debriefs after, each phase. The use of numbered lists of piracy ‘tripwires’ and other cribs also helped to clarify and improve the information flow between aircraft and Ops room.
Sympathetic programming made full use of our engineers’ ability to ‘flex’ maintenance left or right – something the French cannot do with their Panther – to provide maximum availability for operational phases, while still achieving monthly training objectives.
So what have I learnt from our four month experience française? Firstly, the Royal Navy are still the best at small-ships aviation. The French navy is modern and professional, and operates safely and effectively, but I believe that among our own, the knowledge and appreciation of aviation – from basic Flight Safety principles among the ship’s company, to a thorough understanding of the effective tactical utilisation of the helicopter in our OOWs and PWOs – is a step higher. I put this down to two factors; our training and our ‘whole ship’ ethos.
Secondly, the key FAA qualities of flexibility, adaptability and pragmatism are alive and well. This unusual detachment was a challenge from start to finish, but one that was overcome by determination and the right attitude. I am extremely proud of my team for what they have achieved, well outside their usual comfort zone. It is important that we keep pushing the boundaries of what we can, and are willing, to do – to continue to prove to ourselves, as well as our neighbours and allies, that we retain the fundamental values that make the Royal Navy world class.
Finally, and more closely to home, the stage is truly set for the introduction of the Wildcat to replace the Lynx. Frequently throughout the deployment I found myself imagining how much the quality of our ISR product would improve if we had a fully integrated, high-resolution, recordable Electro-Optical Device instead of a simple DSLR camera? By what factor would our chances of detecting and localising a tiny skiff on the high seas increase using the Wildcat’s next generation radar over the Seaspray? The littoral looks set to remain an environment central to current and future conflict zones and, whether deployed in our own ships, or embedded with EU or NATO allies, in the Wildcat the FAA will have the right tool for the job.