Air manoeuvres

MILITARY EXERCISE FALCON AUTUMN

This year’s Falcon Autumn, the Dutch Air Manoeuvre Brigade’s largest annual exercise, difered from previous editions in several respects, as Kees van der Mark found out

Former Luftstreitkräfte der Nationalen Volksarmee Aero L-39ZO Albatros NX139LE is used by Groningen-Eelde-based contractor Skyline Aviation to supply airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and electronic warfare services to the exercise management.
All images by Kees van der Mark

Between September 24 and October 12, a dozen locations in the middle, eastern and northern parts of the Netherlands were the location for the combined Army-Air Force exercise Falcon Autumn, held annually to train 11 Air Manoeuvre Brigade (11 AMB).

There are a number of components within 11 AMB comprising 11 Luchtmobiele Brigade (11 LMB, 11 Air Mobile Brigade) of the Koninklijke Landmacht (KL, Royal Netherlands Army), elements of the Defence Helicopter Command (DHC) and 336 Squadron of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (KLu, Royal Netherlands Air Force). The latter operates two C-130Hs and two C-130H-30s from Eindhoven Air Base. Of the helicopter squadrons within DHC, three are particularly committed to supporting 11 LMB operations: 298 Squadron with its 11 CH-47D and two CH-47F(NL) Chinooks at Gilze-Rijen Air Base; co-located 301 Squadron with 20 AH-64D Apaches; and Fort Hood, Texas-based 302 Squadron, operating eight AH-64Ds and four CH-47F(NL)s from Robert Gray Army Airfield.

German participation

Of the 2,000 people taking part in or supporting Falcon Autumn 2018 at some stage, almost 1,750 were involved in the daily scenarios. Nearly half of them were Deutsche Heer (German Army) personnel serving in the Division Schnelle Kräfte (DSK, Rapid Forces Division). The large German participation is a direct result of the close cooperation between the Dutch and German armies, which combine their operations and training in several integrated bi-national units. The Dutch 11 LMB was fully integrated in the German DSK in June 2014, making it a more than 11,000-strong unit with a German commander and a Dutch deputy commander. Despite the integration, 11 LMB remains entirely based at Schaarsbergen and Assen in the Netherlands. Unlike 11 LMB, the air elements within the Dutch Air Manoeuvre Brigade do not report to the DSK – the DHC and 336 Squadron remain under KLu command.

Created in 2014 and headquartered in Stadtallendorf, the DSK is the parent unit of the German Luftlandebrigade 1 (1 Airborne Brigade) in Saarlouis, which comprises two parachute infantry regiments – Fallschirmjägerregiment 26 in Seedorf and Fallschirmjägerregiment 31 in Zweibrücken – and several smaller units. All three operational helicopter regiments of the Heeresflieger (Army Aviation) are also part of the DSK: two transport helicopter regiments operating the NH90 TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter) – Transporthubschrauberregiment (TrspHubschrRgt) 10 ‘Lüneburger Heide’ at Fassberg and TrspHubschrRgt 30 at Niederstetten – and the sole attack helicopter regiment, Kampfhubschrauberregiment (KpfHubschrRgt) 36 ‘Kurhessen’ at Fritzlar with its EC665 Tigers. TrspHubschrRgt 30 will fly the Heeresflieger’s last 29 UH-1D Hueys that will continue to equip SAR stations at Niederstetten, Holzdorf and Nörvenich until late 2020.

Roughly half of the 800 German soldiers in Falcon Autumn 2018 were ground troops. The remainder was assigned to the Heeresflieger composite squadron temporarily based at Militair Luchtvaart Terrein (MLT) Deelen, the former air base located adjacent to the 11 LMB barracks in Schaarsbergen that today acts as a relief landing ground for DHC helicopters. The deployment of eight NH90s, ten aircrews plus support personnel for Falcon Autumn was a shared commitment of TrspHubschrRgt 10 and TrspHubschrRgt 30. Four NH90s took part in the daily operational missions, the other four served as support aircraft and reserves.

As if emphasising the spirit of cooperation between Germany and the Netherlands, this mixed formation comprises Heersflieger NH90 TTHs and CH-47D Chinooks from the Koninklijke Luchtmacht. The transport element is escorted by a Dutch AH-64D Longbow Apache.

Other air assets

Dutch air assets in Falcon Autumn 2018 included six AH-64Ds from 301 Squadron and four CH-47Ds from 298 Squadron, plus an additional two spare aircraft of each type. The Dutch helicopters operated alongside the German NH90s in a separate composite squadron at Deelen. A single C-130H-30 from 336 Squadron flew from its home base Eindhoven. A Luftwafte C-160D Transall from Lufttransportgeschwader (LTG, Air Transport Wing) 63 at Hohn Air Base was on standby to take part if required but did not participate in the end. Pairs of Belgian Air Component F-16s supported ground troops during the exercise on several occasions. Their role included (simulated) suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD). German Tornados were scheduled to participate in a similar role. The KL’s Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance Command (JISTARC) also set up one of its X-200 ScanEagle unmanned reconnaissance systems in the Marnewaard area to support the ground troops. Groningen-Eelde-based contractor Skyline Aviation supplied airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic warfare (EW) using their L-39ZO

Albatros and Learjet 36A.

Scenario

11 AMB reached operational readiness in October 2003 and since then both 11 LMB and DHC squadrons have been – and in some cases still are – heavily involved in NATO and UN-led international missions, including lengthy deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq and Mali. These contingencies repeatedly prevented larger exercises like Falcon Autumn and the slightly smaller Falcon Spring from going ahead. When they were held, their scenarios focused mainly on peace keeping operations. But in the light of recent international developments, 11 AMB has shifted its attention to protecting the Netherlands and its NATO allies.

This renewed focus was reflected in this year’s exercise, according to army Major Steven Vermeulen, ground operations officer within the DHC staff and one of the project officers for Falcon Autumn 2018: “This year’s exercise centred around NATO’s Article 5 principle, in which an armed attack against one or more-member states is considered an attack on all. So instead of writing a scenario based on counter-insurgency operations like we did in previous exercises, we focused more on conventional warfare between two regular armed forces that are more or less equal. The opponent that invaded one of the NATO member states – located in the Marnewaard training area in the northern part of the Netherlands – was the imaginary country Gardineria. Its regular troops were supported by an insurgency group called the Black Wolves. This subversive proxy unit operated in non-occupied territory to disrupt the operations of the Dutch-German force tasked with expelling the enemy from NATO territory. The scenario included current-day elements like cyber-attacks, the use of social media and small drones.

Operating together

The Dutch and German helicopters arrived at MLT Deelen, called staging area Baseball in the scenario, on September 24-25. Among the DHC pilots flying in Falcon Autumn was Captain Harmen, one of 298 Squadron’s flight commanders. He said: “Although we have met some of the participating NH90 pilots during NATO and EDA [European Defence Agency] courses, this was the first time our Chinooks and German NH90s have flown side-by-side in an exercise like this. Our ways of operating are largely similar but differ in many aspects too. We used the first week of the exercise to get used to each other’s platform’s capabilities and tactics, techniques and procedures [TTPs]. During the first two days at Deelen we had several lengthy meetings to discuss and align them. We sometimes use different handbooks for procedures, we had to check aspects like weather limits, but also the number of daily working hours allowed in peacetime and many other things. It was important to sort these out before we started flying.”

The Chinooks and NH90s flew combined, yet still relatively small missions to training areas in the vicinity of Deelen on Thursday and Friday, September 27-28. This allowed both aircrews and ground troops to get used to working with another helicopter type. It was also the first occasion for the helicopter crews to fly with the other nation’s vehicles as sling loads. The necessary clearances for this were arranged in the months preceding the exercise. “One of the main goals in those first days was to train landing zone operations. We also practiced enroute procedures and cooperation of the NH90s with our Apaches,” said Capt Harmen.

Transport helicopters compared

The NH90 has both advantages and disadvantages compared to the larger, but relatively aged CH-47Ds of 298 Squadron, which will be replaced by new F-models from 2020. Capt Harmen said: “The NH90 has a state-of-the-art cockpit built around the mission management computer. It gives the pilots a really nice digital overview of all necessary information, whereas we still use hardcopy maps and documents in our Chinook Deltas.”

Two Dutch CH-47D Chinooks from the Koninklijke Luchtmacht’s 298 Squadron demonstrate their utility for assault operations during Falcon Autumn 2018
A Heersflieger NH90 TTH and two Koninklijke Luchtmacht CH-47D Chinooks wait on the ground for troops, while above them a Dutch Apache Longbow keeps an eye out for trouble.

The NH90 is equipped with the laser-based electro-optical system MilOWS (Military Obstacle Warning System) that is able to detect obstacles in the light path of the helicopter, even thin wires that are diicult to see with the human eye, at a distance of more than 1km (800 yards). Images of the landscape are projected on the visor of the pilot’s helmet or a multi-functional display in the cockpit. An acoustic alarm sounds when an obstacle – or the ground – is dangerously close. MilOWS was certiied for use on the NH90 in June 2013, and seven of the eight NH90s in Falcon Autumn had the system itted.

In terms of payload, the Chinook and NH90 are in a diferent league. Capt Harmen said: “I consider the limited payload of the NH90 to be its biggest disadvantage. During this exercise, it could either carry a modest sling load – its weight limited to 1,000kg (2,205lb) when carrying maximum fuel – or up to ten soldiers with full gear, but not both at the same time. We lifted up to 7,000kg (15,432lb), 38 fully equipped soldiers plus a vehicle as sling load.” Harmen added: “When lying a mix of four NH90s and four Chinooks, we could deliver close to 200 people and four vehicles in a single wave.”

Missions

With the first week used as a familiarisation period, the exercise scenario unfolded in the second week with air raids on locations in non-occupied territory – dubbed Trutta in the scenario – where the Black Wolves were active. In these rapid raids, up to 170 infantry soldiers were lown in from Deelen to neutralise the insurgents. They were dropped of and picked up again by up to four NH90s and four Chinooks, while receiving air cover from Apaches throughout the raid. The locations included a steel factory in Terwolde, a military depot in Coevorden, the former Twenthe Air Base and the military training ground at Vlasakkers/Leusderheide. To allow diferent companies to exercise at these locations, most were raided at least twice. Apart from their escort missions, groups of two to four Apaches lew air attack sorties to take out static and dynamic targets in enemy territory.

Towards the end of this week, attention shifted to the KL’s Marnehuizen training village in the Marnewaard area, where the Gardineria Armed Forces’ division headquarters was located and where the battle to seize this last stronghold would take place during the inal week of the exercise. In preparation for this, the Hercules dropped pathinders at night, who prepared the landing zones Maroon 1 and Maroon 2 in the Marnewaard area. The Hercules also used the cargo delivery system to drop supplies by parachute over Deelen and Twenthe.

To enable the helicopters to ly as low as possible to evade radar and surface-to-air missile threats, temporary low-lying areas and corridors were created for the exercise. A high percentage of the operations were carried out in the evening, sometimes until midnight. Major Vermeulen told AIR International: “I would estimate that nearly half of the missions were flown during dusk and in the dark.”

A Koninklijke Luchtmacht AH-64D Apache Longbow from Gilze-Rijen-based 301 Squadron lands at a forward arming and refuelling platform during Exercise Falcon Autumn. Note the two AGM-114 Hellfire anti-armour laser-guided missiles on the weapons pylons.
Lockheed C-130H-30 Hercules G-273 of the Koninklijke Luchtmacht’s Eindhoven-based 336 Squadron drops supplies by parachute during Exercise Falcon Autumn 2018.

The final battle

The final battle began on Monday, October 8, when about 600 ground troops, dozens of German and Dutch vehicles, other equipment and supplies were airlifted to the Marnewaard area by eight transport helicopters – escorted by four Apaches – in four waves in the afternoon and evening; additional waves were flown the next day. For this purpose, forward operating base (FOB) Chevrolet was created close to enemy territory at the military training ground De Haar near Assen, some 50km (31 miles) south of the Marnewaard area. The FOB comprised two large fields acting as pick-up zones, plus a third that accommodated a forward arming and refuelling point (FARP) with six hot refuelling spots and another six cold refuelling/parking spots for the helicopters. Although commanded by a KLu officer and supervised by DHC air traffic control personnel, the FARP was essentially a combined Dutch-German effort, with both nations supplying fuel trucks, fire and rescue vehicles and personnel.

After a final raid on a former munition factory in Munnekezijl in the evening of October 9, all ground troops and equipment were airlifted back to De Haar and eventually returned to Deelen on October 10, effectively ending Falcon Autumn 2018 operations.

Looking ahead

As might be expected with large-scale exercises of this type, not everything went according to plan during Falcon Autumn 2018. This was partly due to the cancelled participation of two companies and the consequent reduced number of ground troops. Inevitably, some missions had to be cancelled due to weather or technical issues. But in general, the exercise was a success and there was a lot of training value for all involved.

The integrated training of German and Dutch forces is regarded by many as the biggest benefit of this exercise. Captain Harmen said: “We will certainly be operating together more often in the future, also during operational deployments. That is why it is important to continue training together. During this exercise our German colleagues learned a lot from our way of operating, and the other way around.”

Another major chance for the Dutch and German rapid forces to train together will be during exercise Green Griffin, to be held in Germany in May 2019. The lessons learnt, and experience gained during Falcon Autumn 2018 will undoubtedly be put to good use in that exercise.