Ian Harding and Kevin Wills look back at this year’s European personnel recovery exercise held at Gilze-Rijen Air Base working with the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force
In the not too distant future, the Royal Navy’s Commando Helicopter Force (CHF), and 845 Naval Air Squadron in particular, will deploy three Merlin HC4s aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08) to support the Maritime Task Group (MTG). Within CHF, 845 is the high readiness squadron for contingency and as such, will provide deployed search and rescue (DSAR) and combat recovery for the MTG. AIR International joined 845 NAS during this year’s Air-centric Personnel Recovery Operatives Course (APROC) during which the squadron completed the next stage of its joint personnel recovery training. The ultimate objective is to develop the UK’s own personnel recovery capability.
The European Personnel Recovery Centre defines personnel recovery as, the sum of military, diplomatic and civil eff orts to eff ect the recovery and reintegration of isolated personnel. An awkward definition for sure. More specifically, personnel recovery is undertaken to rescue military or civilian personnel who are separated from their unit or organisation in a situation that may require them to survive, evade, resist exploitation (SERE), or escape while awaiting recovery.
The course aims to educate and train aircrews and ground extraction forces in the implementation of internationally agreed techniques and procedures for personnel recovery as part of a combined joint force. Interoperability is key to a viable personnel recovery capability.
Personnel recovery is not entirely new for CHF aircrew as Lieutenant Jonathan Moore, an 845 NAS pilot, qualified helicopter instructor (QHI) and SERE instructor said: “CHF has been doing this for many years: flying an aircraft to a landing site in the middle of nowhere, landing and dropping off personnel and recovering them. This course places a more complex overlay to that, adding tactics, opposing forces and isolated persons [ISOPS] who must be found. SERE defines the set of tactics, techniques, and procedures that will give ISOPS the tools to survive in any environment and to evade capture where a threat exists. Course missions are simple with learning points we can take away. Post mission debriefs allow knowledge to be shared at the following day’s main briefing attended by everyone on the course.”
CHF deployed two Merlin HC3As to APROC for the first time with 13 aircrew and 24 engineers, all led by Lieutenant Commander James Baker, an 845 pilot, qualiied helicopter instructor and aviation warfare oicer.
A component of the APROC course is combat search and rescue, one that CHF has not done before. Combat search and rescue missions are staged to recover aircrew who are down and located in a threat environment. CHF is adopting the mission and over the coming years will continue to train for it in the UK, attend further courses and work with US Air Force rescure squadrons who have, for many years, been experts in combat search and rescue. Lt Cdr Baker explained: “We will take up the joint personnel recovery role in the long term for the UK MTG, encompassing that with our DSAR role that we have commenced training for. A large proportion of the personnel trained at APROC 2018 will embark HMS Queen Elizabeth with the new Merlin HC4 to provide DSAR and other roles – ship-to-shore manoeuvres, for example – for the first of class ixed-wing trials this year. Our aim is to be fully operational in CSAR by 2021.”
Two CHF joint personnel recovery mentors were trained at APROC 2018 whose future role will be to continue CSAR development within 845 NAS. Working alongside other personnel also trained on this year’s course, they will teach the necessary skills to servicemen and women at Yeovilton.
In July, 845 participated in Exercise Forlorn Hope with the 57th Rescue Squadron, a US Air Force unit based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, whose personnel provided recommendations and an independent assessment and validation of 845’s capability.
The first two days of the course were spent in the classroom where participants were taught personnel recovery doctrines, operational processes and how to use the various mission planning tools. Lessons are designed to ensure that, within a time-constricted mission planning process, time is not wasted, and important information and solutions are created and distributed to all involved.
To keep missions as realistic as possible, an air tasking order was received the night before each mission, which allocated personnel and aircraft to the respective task forces, designated the rescue mission commander, airield departure and routing.
Work each day commenced at 08:00hrs local time with a morning brief, followed by discussion about the salient learning points gathered from each of the three independent task force missions conducted the day before. Each task force had its own personnel recovery coordinator assigned.
Brief complete, each task force assembled within its relevant planning tent with a nominated rescue mission commander and a deputy to run the planning cycle. An incident report was issued around 09:00hrs conirming the intelligence available and the best estimation of the location of the ISOPs.
After this, the process to narrow down their positions and where the rescue vehicles will land began. The communication card, detailing frequencies and contact procedures, had to be completed by 10:00hrs so this could be passed to the airborne early warning aircraft (an Aeronautica Militare G550 Conformal Airborne Early Warning) acting as the overall airborne mission commander node. It was then down to the rescue mission commander to run the remainder of the planning process. Deadline brieing time was 12:00hrs. Maps and mission information packs had to be completed by then ahead of a inal step brief lasting 45 to 60 minutes. Participants, including ground extraction forces, then walked straight to their aircraft from 13:00hrs, ready to lift around 14:00hrs. Task force departure times were staggered by 15 minutes for safety reasons to ensure deconliction, and to enable the departure plan.
Lt Cdr Baker said missions were due to inish around 16:00, with everything wrapped up by 18:00hrs, including the step in debrief. He said: “This was rarely achieved. Aircraft had to refuel on their return to base and the earliest a CHF mission ended was 17:30. In essence, all crews worked from 08:00 to 18:00, plus the time it took to conirm with air operations how the mission went, any safety issues, followed by the task force group debrief. This wasn’t a mission debrief dealing with mission success, more a debrief where aircrew highlighted speciic learning points and anything that could be done better next time. For example, better if we’d had certain imagery.”
Task force planning meetings were intense, with communication the key to success within a multinational force where the level of spoken English varies greatly. Lt Cdr Baker explained: “We can all plan big operations, but when you’re trying to pass information over quickly within a compressed time line to a multinational force, the communication feed must be clear and concise. The learning point for us all is the need for efective communication; we must eliminate ‘Jack’ speak [sailor’s slang] or words others will not understand. Speaking face to face with people is also preferable. As the rescue mission commander, it was important to establish from the outset who you and the deputy are and then to allocate cell leaders and whom they’ll be working with. It then runs itself within small groups before groups then interact passing information between them. There is plenty of man and information management within the task force. The rescue mission commander must ensure everyone has the most up-to-date information, because if people are working from old grids for the ISOP, it’s worthless and wasted time. In addition, it’s imperative the rescue mission commander considers the diferent nations operating procedures. For example, a Black Hawk has a very diferent dust proile from a Merlin. The Black Hawk comes to a high hover and comes straight down. If both aircraft are recovery vehicles and are scheduled to land, we [the Merlin HC3A] cannot land ahead of him if he’s in the hover as we will brown him out. Timing must be considered carefully in the same way that not all countries are trained to perform dust landings and similarly crews, so a diferent helicopter landing site may be required. Overall, it’s about interoperability and that encompasses communication. Interoperability can be a constraint we have to manage. For example, some nations’ aircraft have only two radios, which is very limiting when it comes to the objective area. Something we have to get to grips with.”
All missions were conducted within eight designated locations in an area covering more than 100 square miles (259km2), seven within the Netherlands and one in Belgium.
One mission involved two CHF Merlin HC3As, a Marina Militare (Italian Navy) EH-101 and two Siły Powietrzne (Polish Air Force) Mi- 24 Hinds that provided overhead protection for the rescue vehicles and ground extraction forces. Aeronautica Militare (Italian Air Force) Euroighter EF2000s provided overhead force protection.
The CHF uses a gate process to de-risk landing in brownout conditions, as Lt Moore explained: “We set up at the gate 50ft above the ground and fly a continually decelerating descent approach to the target. The trick is to find a marker: a bush, tree or troops [who will stand or crouch on the floor] and we visibly position that in our right-hand window. You need something that isn’t moving. With dust blowing around you with no references you can become disorientated, so you need a fixed point. As the dust cloud blows through, you get what we call the doughnut underneath the aircraft. As the handling pilot, your normal viewing position is down in your two o’clock position. As the dust blows through, you scan back, and your first reference point will now be in your three o’clock, so you have to pull your eyes back a little. This is why battlefield helicopters do this job. Going forward, it would be highly desirable to have an imaging system that artificially projects these reference points inside the helicopter.”
Lt Moore conirmed the mission was similar to the previous two days, but with considerably more threat. He said: “The UK Merlin HC3A led the formation as the rescue mission commander with one ground extraction force team on board. The Italian Navy EH-101 contained the second ground extraction force team. The personnel recovery communication card contains various aircraft details including aircraft call signs, serial numbers, persons on board, IFF codes and times for taxi and departure. Importantly, these are Zulu times, not local time, so two hours are added. TACAN [distance measuring equipment] information conirms how spaced out the formation is, which is useful if the rescue mission commander loses sight of someone and we therefore know where they are. Conversion codes are also included to quickly encrypt messages if radios aren’t secure. The location of the FRP [Deelen Air Base] which the participants are mandated to use, light altitudes and heading, last grid positions for the ISOPs, radio frequencies, etc are also set out. The formation knows there are two ISOPs on the ground who may have been on the run for months. Their grid references will therefore be diferent to ours. As the formation closes, an on-scene commander takes charge of the ISOP and the ground extraction force and force protection will provide a ring of steel around them on the ground. Once the ground extraction force has the ISOP, medical staff will look after them and the JTAC will recall the recovery vehicles once they’re certain the landing site is clear.”
The ISOPs were successfully located. The second mission involved one CHF Merlin HC3A, an Aeronautica Militare HH- 101A, a Försvarsmakten (Swedish Armed Forces) UH-60M Black Hawk and two Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) AS555 Fennecs. This proved to be a more testing mission highlighting the need for operational flexibility, as the Swedish Black Hawk became unserviceable on departure, the formation lost its fast jet support and the NATO E-3 AWACS yet again failed to materialise. The HH-101A carried the rescue mission commander and the CHF Merlin HC3A his deputy.
Commenting, Lt Cdr Baker said: “We lost our Eurofighters, so we had to improvise and come up with a contingency plan, which was difficult with so many opposing forces in the area hunting our two ISOPs who had become dislocated [from each other]. Flexibility is the key to air power and this mission tested the flexibility of everyone in the air and ground group and the rescue mission commander who had to pull it all together. We had to find a robust plan in the air. We had grid references for our ISOPs, but they were updated in the air, which led to us changing our landing sites. We had two independent ground extraction forces, including Lima Company 42 Commando with two separate rescue vehicles [Merlin HC3A and an HH-101A]. Ingress to the target area was about 30 minutes and then 30 minutes back to Gilze-Rijen. We had two hours 45 minutes’ fuel with us, but due to the time delay finding the second ISOP caused by the large number of OPFOR [Opposition Forces] in the area, the formation needed to refuel at the FRP [Deelen Air Base].”
Aircraft endurance and fuel created an additional problem for the task force, so knowing how and when to refuel became a critical issue. Should the formation refuel together or yoyo to the FRP individually? The fact that a Merlin is refuelled using pressure whilst a Fennec uses gravity to refuel added extra complexity. Such small details can make or break a mission, so 100% focus was required at all times. Timings are important, but in the end the helicopters refuelled together, having located both ISOPs, and the UK’s Tactical Support Wing marshalled the formation in for refuelling, which also helped with timings.
According to Lt Cdr Baker, the training area used for this mission was an incredibly large dust bowl mirroring what CHF had experienced in Afghanistan. The decoy flare used by OPFOR to give a false ISOP location would normally have been spotted by the fixed-wing component, but having lost them the rescue mission commander and deputy came up with a plan to interrogate their PRC112G survival radio and cross-reference their grids securely to locate one ISOP.
The French Fennecs provided low-level overhead support.
Lt Cdr Baker added: “Generally, we were very pleased with how this mission went. Losing aircraft at the start didn’t help and there was some conflicting information over the ISOPs’ grid locations, which cost the task force time. We located our first ISOP in minutes, but the second proved more difficult. He was in the tree line, which ultimately provided great training for our ground extraction force who had to deal with conflict, dust and the recovery vehicles. In the end, they had to get the ISOP to use his whistle whilst we searched for safe holding areas. It was a back-to-basics approach. The dust created other considerations. Having landed once and then departed, we couldn’t get back in for a few minutes because it was just too dusty. If we then landed somewhere else, the ground extraction force had to locate a different landing site to obtain better situation awareness [SA]. Question then is, do we get in as close as we can, or do we off set to obtain better SA? It’s a huge learning process getting used to the SOPs [standard operating procedures].”
Eight missions were completed by 845 NAS during the course, without any serviceability issues. Course objectives increased in complexity with time, and 26 missions were flown during nine days, amounting to 140 sorties and 300 flight hours accumulated by 20 aircraft. Missions were undertaken in realistic environments with an international cast using processes and structures followed in international operations.
Participants had the opportunity to exchange ideas and procedures and witness how different nations work throughout all of the changes made to the task force every three days; nobody did the same mission twice.
The APROC is currently the only European course of its type that focuses entirely on this mission set and it naturally attracts great interest in many countries.