How is the UK’s Joint Helicopter Command adapting to contingent operations? Ian Harding spoke with its Commander to find out
More than two years after the completion of Operation Herrick in Afghanistan, Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) and its subordinate rotary and fixedwing units are as busy as ever training hard for future conflict.
During the years of the campaign in Afghanistan, JHC knew who its main opponents were, understood the broad profile of its missions and could plan logistics and training requirements with some certainty. The situation has changed markedly and militaries around the world are now operating within an operational climate which requires a different approach and mindset. JHC and its subordinate units are therefore preparing for future operations in a much broader range of environments working alongside allies.
Following more than ten years of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, JHC has learned a lot about the capabilities of its structure, and the qualities of its aircrew, engineers, medical and numerous tactical support teams who performed admirably throughout these challenging campaigns.
Major General Richard Felton CBE, Commander JHC, outlined to AIR International how the operational lessons learned from campaigning throughout Operation Herrick are being used to good effect to prepare for the global contingent environment.
He said: “We grew up tremendously as a force in terms of professionalism and dealing with very high levels of combat and risk. Our people did an amazing job supporting troops in many guises on the battlefield. The rescue of approximately 13,500 battlefield casualties and the award of 24 DFCs [Distinguished Flying Cross] says it all.
“From an air mobility perspective, we understand better the contribution of rotary wing ISTAR [intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance] as part of Core FIND [one of the three roles for JHC’s battlefield helicopters, the others being LIFT and ATTACK]. We will never forget the hugely successful development of MERT [Medical Emergency Response Team] and the wider germination of our model; also the relationship we made with allies, especially working closely with the US Marine Corps out of Camp Bastion, Helmand and Leatherneck. These will continue through the Lead Commando Group and their affiliations. There are many other aspects we’ll take forward into our doctrine which include mission execution check lists and go/no-go lists for example. Afghanistan hasn’t been forgotten but contingency is much different.”
This final point is critical. In this new era, JHC’s challenge is helping future aircrew understand what to expect, how to conduct themselves, deal with operational risk and mental issues and ultimately to succeed safely within a more uncertain operational environment. Maj Gen Felton said: “Much of this comes from realistic training which helps generate trust, understanding of colleagues, the capability of your aircraft, understanding the logistics and command and control chain. You can have the best kit in the world but if you haven’t got the best people to fly them, you don’t have capability. We are blessed at JHC with having a fantastic set of people. Being ‘Joint’ and exercising together is good.”
Reflecting upon a campaign like Operation Herrick in Afghanistan in the broader sense can never be straightforward because it evokes so many difficult memories. One’s thoughts always naturally focus on those personnel who made the ultimate sacrifice, those injured and scarred, lives saved by the MERT and the honours bestowed on individuals for acts of bravery.
From a purely operational perspective, statistics provided to AIR International confirm the sheer scale of the campaign effort made by JHC and its subordinate units during Operation Herrick. The total amount of flying completed by its five main battlefield support helicopters amounted to approximately 140,800 hours. This breaks down to: Chinook 41,000 hours, Apache 49,800; Lynx 19,500; Merlin 18,000; and Sea King 12,500. Their combined efforts transported approximately 720,000 personnel and 54.67 million pounds of cargo (24.8 million kilos). Over 27.69 million gallons of fuel (125.9 million litres) were used during the operation as well as those undertaken by the MERT.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence and JHC are resetting future plans, accounting for the objectives and spending review contained within the UK MoD’s 2016 Strategic Guidance initiative which aims to map out a broad range of strategies to ensure objectives are aligned and coherent across the MoD.
Maj Gen Felton explained: “Context is really important here. In a similar way following our campaign efforts, it was clear when I took command that generating contingent force was pervasive amongst everything we did. The challenges I therefore face as commander are broadly four-fold.
The first is managing structural change. For example, command of 16 Air Assault Brigade [British Army Rapid Reaction Force] transferred to the Commander Field Army in November 2015 but I took command of the Watchkeeper force from August 2016.
Secondly, the ten-year recapitalisation and modernisation of our fleet which has impacted almost every aircraft type in some way. Thirdly, the reset of contingency training and operations and, finally, ensuring we are manned sufficiently to meet our tasks with suitably qualified and experienced people.
“This final point is important to me personally, coming from a background of frontline operations. We are totally inclusive and wedded to talent management within an engaging environment. I watch my forces with awe as they move forward and I give them clear markers as to what I want them to do and the standards required. Our aim is to provide personnel with the opportunity to succeed. Building trust is vital and the key is giving people the opportunity to make decisions and learn from failure within safe boundaries during training and exercises.”
What are the implications of training to meet operational requirements in this new era of global uncertainty? Context is again important. In the current climate, JHC and its subordinate units are conducting operations and training forces at a high tempo in concert with other components of the UK’s high readiness forces, and with its primary NATO allies. It is business as usual in some respects, although closer analysis confirms the tempo and diversity of training has increased, as have the component elements operating within the structure of the exercises and deployments undertaken.
This is partly due to the nature of perceived threats but also to ensure that JHC has sufficient numbers of skilled air and ground crew to meet future demands. As one might expect, some experienced personnel (especially in terms of aircrew; those with 1,500+ flight hours) sought new career opportunities away from the armed forces post-Afghanistan and JHC is addressing this as a priority. Maj Gen Felton confirmed that average cockpit experience across the rotary force has reduced by approximately 40% during the last six years.
He said: “The key challenge for our aircrew now is having the capacity to multi-task; managing all the information they face inside the aircraft, disseminating data effectively, having good judgement and making the right decisions. The challenge for me as the commander is how to ‘turbocharge’ this experience in the right way, reflecting the current operational environment and the type of aircraft we now operate. My view is this is best done by providing the very best training programmes available backed up with short and intense detachments to many different countries where junior commanders get the opportunity to command, make decisions and take responsibility.
“I always drive my force commanders hard in this respect because I believe in productivity [and] value for money, plus helicopters aren’t cheap. If I don’t do this, how can I expect my air and ground commanders to make the right decisions on operations when they haven’t considered it in training? We are now training how we think we’ll fight in the future. I want people to have responsibility and the confidence to do their job. We therefore work hard to establish the right atmosphere which includes them telling me when it’s getting too tough.
“Ultimately, I have to generate capability but this will never be at the expense of safety in the air and on the ground especially during training when there is no need. We therefore have to temper our aspirations to meet what the forces can deliver.”
The role of the Military Aviation Authority (MAA) has been questioned from an operational perspective in some quarters, with suggestions that increased regulation can stifle capability. Maj Gen Felton doesn’t share this view: “I feel the MAA has done a tremendous job in establishing a regulation structure for defence and now we’ve matured to understand where flight safety sits, I’m absolutely convinced that flight safety is enhancing operational capability. “I have four rules about flight safety that I tell my pilots, which are as follows.
Don’t make it too much a science, don’t let it stifle mission command, don’t allow the flight safety management system to become a safety risk in itself, and most important, if it doesn’t enhance operational capability you’ve got it wrong. With that understanding we can use flight safety to enhance operational capability, and it has done because our flight safety record has improved tremendously. We’ve had some tragic accidents: Puma [in 2015] and Lynx before that, but aviation is a dangerous business and I can put my hand on my heart as the aviation duty holder to say we do everything we can to understand where the risks are and to mitigate them both through training and our equipment programmes.”
Defining contingency in a military sense is not easy. The reality is the operational crystal ball is quite cloudy in terms of providing clear insight. JHC and its allies must prepare as best they can for every eventuality. Despite being a widely used term within defence circles, contingency has no formal definition. The definitions seek to explain what the future character of conflict will look like and, within this, defence policy makers including JHC must clarify what form their response will take. The public may expect clarity but one should not expect this because opponents unfortunately do not follow any rules; anything goes.
Does a contingency plan exist that meets every eventuality? The truth is it cannot because generating capability is costly and difficult and, ultimately, perfect foresight does not exist. Nobody can predict what future events will look like but at some point, UK policymakers responsible for defence must decide how good they want the military to be and allocate funds accordingly. It might be possible to maintain a high state of readiness 24/7 with assets to meet every potential eventuality, but this carries a high cost
One definition of contingency is: “Military activity, including but not restricted to the application of force, undertaken in response to crisis arising out of circumstances that cannot be fully anticipated, planned or trained for with respect to environment, scale, timing or nature of adversary or partners.”
Maj Gen Felton said: “We basically have to consider how we conduct operations against a belligerent we don’t know, with an unknown threat level, in an unknown environment and with ‘friends’ we don’t know either. In addition, the future character of conflict will be congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained. We will work alongside allies or partners when we can but this backdrop could be different. The most likely area for our future operations based on current events will be the Middle East and North Africa but these will likely be for short periods of time rather than campaigning. This will require our forces to be comfortable with uncertainty, conceptually agile and physically flexible to deal with complex environments and unclear outcomes.” Comparing contingent operations with those in Afghanistan and Iraq is difficult.
There, rotary units mainly operated from a single base, enabling logistics to be centralised, and worked alongside allies with relatively clear standard operating procedures. Combat levels were high, units generally knew their opponents, and the level of threat was unsophisticated. Training was considered relatively easy in some respects. The environment was harsh (hot and high with degraded vision) but everyone understood its demands and could plan accordingly.
Maj Gen Felton said: “The training for campaigning was laid out for people. We had an excellent pre-deployment package with mission-specific training which turned people into a very effective fighting force in Afghanistan. The situation for contingency is very different. I could tell you what a profile for an Apache or Chinook sortie looked like in Afghanistan but for a contingent sortie profile, I’ll say it depends on the threat level as there isn’t a standard answer. Our mission commanders and aircrew at all levels therefore need the mindset, mentality, confidence, understanding and judgement to take decisions in this situation. “As a force we try to install comfort with uncertainty and that takes trust and training.
When we buy equipment, it must be highly deployable and able to operate and be maintained in austere environments. We need to be able to understand and operate in a range of threat environments, which means our platforms need ballistic protection, comprehensive defensive aids systems against both RF [radio frequency] and IR [infrared] threats. There was little RF threat in Afghanistan and we have some catching up to do.”
JHC’s aviation assets will need to lift troops, conduct medical evacuation and support ground forces with attack helicopters. They will also need to carry out manned aerial surveillance at home and abroad, data link with other complex systems including unmanned aerial vehicles, and provide forward air controller (airborne) capability, co-ordinating fast jet operations alongside ground forces. They will need greater operational dexterity and the ability to change roles quickly across a diverse range of operational environments – most notably from the sea to the land and back again.
Recent examples of major exercises completed which tested the force’s capabilities to respond and meet future demands have included Exercise Trident Juncture 2015 (NATO’s largest exercise for 20 years), Exercise Griffin Strike 2016 (Anglo-French interoperability), Exercise Clockwork 2016 (cold weather and UK-Royal Norwegian Air Force interoperability), and Exercise Voijek Valour (UK-US interoperability).
Maj Gen Felton explained: “Our personnel at all levels will have to embrace new technology and apply a different operational mentality, adjusting within environments. Future missions may be more complex. Having become used to desert operations, the land environment may also include Arctic and temperate conditions, hence the breadth of training we’ve conducted since returning from Afghanistan.
“We have to ensure we train to the right environments and our logistics personnel can deal with the concurrency of different locations at the same time. We have to prioritise based on perceived threat levels but consider the needs of each environment; we can’t put all our eggs in one basket. This will never happen because contingency means lots of deployments which require an increasing amount of resource to sustain them including deployable spares packs, engineers’ toolkits, and transport kits.
“We aim to produce the maximum outputs from the minimum inputs and therefore, design a system with flexible training programmes that provide the skills people need. This addresses both the quantity and quality of the capability we produce. The test of how good we are is ultimately determined by our ability to provide a force which understands the risks and can operate in any part of the world against a belligerent in their environment, when the UK MoD demands.”
It is an applied science working out what does and does not work from an operational perspective. The current range of training is very dynamic. This is a conscious decision considered necessary to practise skills and refocus minds on training which was not required in Afghanistan. Training for future contested missions means learning how to counter a kinetic threat within an environment degraded in terms of jamming, electronic warfare and communications. “This could apply in all theatres and countries of instability around the world,” Maj Gen Felton said.
The structure of deployments has been changed in line with policy, as he outlined: “Our deployments are more frequent, less intense and the average person is probably visiting three continents per year. Nights deployed seldom exceed around 120-150. The opportunity for air and ground crew to do interesting, challenging training in completely different environments and locations is up for grabs.”
A good example of this came in 2016 when the Chinook force operated in the US (from two locations), in Cyprus and aboard ships. Apaches went to the Middle East and United States and Wildcats to the United States, completing environmental training in Arizona and California, and Canada. There was various concurrent UK training and Arctic training in Norway for the Merlin force.
Undertaking the largest ever UK rotary reequipment programme alongside intense, high-tempo training is helping reshape operational mentality and the scope of permissive operations undertaken by JHC and its subordinate units. Allied with technological advances, these assets provide new opportunities previously unavailable, which is exciting for the command leadership.
Maj Gen Felton said: “My squadrons understand why we need to do this and what they need to do to produce a credible capability, and they are simply getting on with the job. Generating capability is extremely challenging in the current climate. When people ask, ‘is there an endgame?’ my response is simply, ‘how good do you want us to be?’ That is a question for the MoD.
“In the meantime, we will move forward positively and proactively and re-set ourselves constantly. Change is the new norm and I think that is right. There is a commonly used quote which says, ‘if you don’t like change, you are going to like irrelevance even less’. We should embrace change with the opportunity it provides rather than the threats. There are so many unsung heroes within JHC which includes engineers and Tactical Supply Wing [TSW]. Air and rear crew tend to get all the attention. TSW have so many people at high readiness doing remarkable things in all parts of the world at short notice. Ultimately, we are only ever as good as the weakest link.”