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Operations: Strengthening the Amphibious Arm

By Story and photos by Wim Das and Kees Otten | November 1, 2007
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The Netherlands is a key player in amphibious combat capabilities. Its navy’s helicopter fleet plays a major role in supporting that capability.

This is the second part of report on operations of the air arm of the Royal Netherlands Navy. The first part appeared in our September 2007 issue. — The Editor

DURING THE 24 HR WE WERE THE GUESTS OF THE ROYAL NETHERLANDS Navy on the HMS Rotterdam, the amphibious transport/assault ship was preparing itself and its crew for the big Joint Caribbean Lion exercise in and around Curacao.


Participants in this exercise included the Dutch Koninklijke Marine (navy), Luchtmacht (air force), Landmacht (army), and Marechaussee (military police). The ship was positioned somewhere near Den Helder. The navy was busy qualifying crews and personnel on the ship for dual-spot helicopter landings that day. As many crewmembers as possible took the opportunity to gain experience with simultaneously use of the landing spots. Flights were scheduled from NAS de Kooy to the ship, with a maximum of seven a day.

The Netherlands is one of the key players in the world regarding amphibious capabilities. It participates in the United Kingdom/Netherlands amphibian task group. This with the United States and the Spain/Italy coalition make up the "Big Three" in the amphibious assault world.

Previously, the United Kingdom provided the ships and amphib equipment and the Dutch provided the marines. Today, the Netherlands plays its own major role with two advanced amphibious transport/assault ships.

The HMS Johan de Wit has an enhanced staff capacity and will be able to operate as a command and control platform to lead an amphibious task force. Generals and admirals have trained for this task. When politicians decide to make a move, they can order one or two ships with Dutch or English marines to join NATO or United Nation operations and "show the flag" and establish an intimidating presence off the coast of a crisis area. If necessary, an amphibious unit can disembark from an big internal dock. The HMS Rotterdam provided this service for the U.N. Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea and shipped U.K. soldiers to Iraq. It also carried supplies and troops from Italy to Albania for U.N. operations and joined U.K. forces in transporting soldiers and equipment to Senegal.

The Commander Amphibian Operations demonstrated the possibilities of putting the ship into action. He wants to influence the situation on the land and, depending the rules of engagement; missions can range from peace enforcement to combat anywhere in the world as part of a quick-reaction force. Operations can be joint, with mixed options of army or navy elements and, with interoperability, may involve transporting or supporting allied forces. The Rotterdam is just like a tool box, and the question is what tools what tools you put in it? You can use the ship in several ways, and the military command decides which units and what equipment would serve the mission in the best way.

When a first step is needed in a conflict and it is necessary to occupy and consolidate a beachhead or a harbor, this is called the "initial entry." Usually this kind of maneuver is undertaken from a task force, with back up from ships and planes for the landing force. It is considered a big advantage that the force is mobile and you can choose at the latest moment your target while enemy forces lack the mobility or numbers to defend a complete coast line.

The Rotterdam embarks a normal crew of 123, and can host a battalion of 611 marines with supplies for 10 days in transit and another 30 days for coastal operations. When a landing area is stabilized, landing craft with equipment and troops leave the Rotterdam’s big internal docking area, which is called the "het stalen strand" of "iron beach." The internal docking area is filled with water to a height of nearly 9 ft (2.7 m). It normally accommodates two landing crafts of LCU (Landing Craft Utility) type and two of the slightly larger LCVP (Landing Craft Vehicle and Personnel) type. The rolling equipment is secured on a special deck in front of the dock and enters the landing craft the nose first. Operations in the dock are supervised by docking controllers visually or by screens in a special docking control area. On the beach, a special path for heavy equipment is put on the beach by the CASE tractor and rolling equipment, which is run aground in the water can be recovered with the BARV (Beach Armored Recovery Vehicle).

Next to the initial entry, operations can be limited to setting a "footprint" with a small force ashore, with the majority of logistical support staying on the ship. Other tasks can be humanitarian missions, like accommodating refugees or wounded in case of disasters, and evacuations of nationals. The Rotterdam can function as a primary casualty receiving ship; it has a large sick bay, two operating rooms, and a medical laboratory.

Depending on the mission, the helicopter can perform several tasks. Sometimes there are up to 6 AgustaWestland Lynx helicopters for major antisubmarine warfare operations and transport tasks. During landing operations, submarines and mine hunters will have cleared the path first. An aircraft carrier will provide air supremacy and frigates will guard and defend the fleet. Special forces like commandos or forward air controllers will be put ashore by helicopters. The Lynx also performs surveillance and submarine tracking up to 100 nm from the ship.

A submarine is easily found with a dipping sonar. After one is discovered, it usually tries to escape. Airborne and surface crews try to pinpoint its location with sonobuoys. Once found, the Lynx would attack it with Mk.48 torpedoes.

The Lynx can also transport a mortar in a sling.

Everybody is looking forward to the introduction of the NHIndustries NH90, which will substantially increase the amphibious capacity by air. More and more, the focus of amphibious planning is shifting from "blue water" to shallow "brown water," or littoral operations. Consequently, the air transport element must fit more in these type of operations near shore.

The need is there to transport more people through the air and enlarge operational capabilities, which will be more possible with the NH90. Due to lack of night-vision goggles, the Lynx is limited in night operations — a much-needed capability in littoral ops.

The Dutch navy has tested the Eurocopter Cougar in this role, and most probably they will fill the gap before the first Dutch NH90s will enter service in this year and next. The Dutch have two versions of the NH90 on order, one of which will serve all forces, the TTH (Tactical Transport Helicopter). The other, special for the naval service, is NFH (NATO Frigate Helicopter), fitted with sonar equipment.

Some thought has been given to changing some TTH to a MTTH (Maritime Tactical Transport Helicopter) version with strengthened landing gear and a harpoon to connect with the deck.

Another capability requirement that has become more evident is the ability to conduct anti-terrorist operations. These would be conducted by a special force called the BBE (Bijzondere Bijstands Eenheden). Techniques like fast-roping are frequently trained and several people can be picked up with rigging that enable them to hook up simultaneously to the rope. Some six heavily armed soldiers can be transported by the Lynx. Usually for special operations in war zones, marines of the "Korps Mariniers" are in charge of these operations.

The helicopters arrive through the support of the air traffic controllers on the ship, who have a good overview with radar screens up to 100 nm from the ship. The officer in command of the deck is the Helicopter Direction Officer (HDO), who can oversee the deck by camera.

When the deck is not clear, he can put helicopters in a holding pattern. When visual contact is made, the helicopter awaits orders from Flight Deck Officers (FDO) on the deck to direct and support it to the landing spot. This process is supervised by the Flight Deck Supervisor, who watches the movements from a special cabin that looks like a big blister above the hangar. He assigns a landing spot to an approaching pilot. Sometimes landings come from starboard, sometimes from aft; depending the wind, there are several possibilities.

Two helicopters repeatedly performed landings and takeoffs simultaneously as we are watched. After a landing, the Lynx ejects a harpoon into a grid on the deck. This secures the aircraft to the deck. In rough seas, this is essential. The FDO gives the sign that the harpoon can be extracted.

The actions of the FDO make for an inspiring scene. With special arm signals, he clearly indicates specific actions or directions to the flight and ship crews. The pilot knows what the next sign of the FDO should be, but the FDO has the responsibility to watch if everything is safe and cleared.

As we are watched, the FDO signaled with a wide movement of both arms to lift off and the Lynx climbed into the air gradually, then circled around the ship and began a new approach.

When there is little light or in night conditions, the FDO uses a light stick both hands.

Landings can be done safely in up to 45-kt winds. In rough seas, the FDO will count the waves to time aircraft launches so a helicopter is not lifting off as a wave is breaking over the ship.

To fly back, we again donned lifesaving suits and equipment and said goodbye to the ship’s crew and officers. As the rotor started to turn, we were secured in the cabin. Everything around us marked the professionalism of the crews. After we are secured inside, the Lynx climbed in the air and, with a sharp turn, we were on our way. Within seconds, the HMS Rotterdam was a small figure on the sea’s surface below us. We flew through gray shades of clouds that blocked out views of the water below us. Within some minutes, the lights of Den Helder airport became visible to us. After a safe landing, we shared some coffee with the crew in the 860 Sqdn. building.

Pilots there told stories about their landings in 50-60-kt wind on offshore oil and gas platforms that bristled with antennas. They flew these approaches with only radar, since visual approaches were hardly possible. The pilots appeared very confident in their equipment; they said the Lynx cuts through the sky like a knife, thanks to its enormous power. They called it a Ferrari amongst helicopters.

We heard many slogans on this trip, like "Train as you fight" "Professionalism is the key to success," and "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." We observed everything and launched our own: "Who does not want to work in this organisation, where they know exactly what they want?"

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