On Monday the French defense minister, Gerard Longuet, announced publicly that both the French and the British were about to deploy attack helicopters into the fight against pro-Col. Gaddafi forces in Libya. That revelation was quickly denied by the British Armed Forces Minister Nick Harvey, who said no such decision had been taken.
France’s newspaper Le Figaro reported that 12 French Tiger attack helicopters with Gazelles had been deployed on the French ship Tonnarre, an amphibious assault carrier of the French Navy with a reported capability to carry up to 35 helicopters.
In an exclusive interview with Rotor & Wing, a Ministry of Defence official confirmed today that the Royal Navy’s HMS Ocean helicopter carrier, which has around eight helicopters onboard (a mix of Apache AH-64Ds, Lynx Mk9 and Sea King Mk 4s), and other auxiliary ships, has joined an exercise code-named Cougar 11 which has been planned to demonstrate the capabilities of the newly formed Response Force Task Group.
The exercise has been focused in the eastern Mediterranean around the island of Cyprus, a long-time location for British military operations (its airfield is currently one of those being used by military fast jets).
Although it was confirmed during the interview that this exercise, Exercise Cypriot Lion, has been in the planning stages for months, it is opportune to have such a force there at this particular moment in the Libyan campaign (and plans can quickly be changed).
Accompanying HMS Ocean are the auxiliary ships Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) Mounts Bay, fast fleet tanker RFA Wave Knight, and supply ship RFA Fort Rosalie. These are joining HMS Albion (officially described as a Landing Platform Dock—LDP), HMS Sutherland (a Type 23 Frigate), and RFA vessel Cardigan Bay.
As part of the exercise program, the Royal Marines have conducted beach landings. As every military operation is usually preceded by its own rehearsal, it would be easy to make the link in this case.
Call it coincidence, but if there was a force that had to be assembled to project a small fighting team ‘over the beach’ on a littoral operation (moving a force from ship to shore to conduct operations from land), then this would be a good example. In addition a naval group of warships that include the helicopter carrier HMS Ocean and the helicopters, the force comprises 40 Commando Royal Marines (the UK’s equivalent of the U.S. Marine Corps).
With the UK’s Royal Navy under such pressure through defense cuts, this is a very sizeable force to assemble for a simple ‘proof of concept’ exercise. Should they be diverted to operations off the Libyan coast, or indeed by called on to land a military force of indeterminate size within Libya itself, there are the warships and auxiliaries on hand to support such a venture for the initial stages.
During the interview, the MoD spokesman confirmed that there were only a limited number of Apaches on HMS Ocean for the purpose of the exercise. However, other attack helicopters could be quickly transported out by air cargo aircraft or by sea, or at the extreme flown over France (with the French government’s blessing) to the Mediterranean. RAF Chinooks could also join the group if called to do so (Chinooks flown from HMS Ocean were the first UK helicopters to arrive into Bagram airfield at the start of operations in Afghanistan).
Although the Apaches have been certified to operate from ships such as HMS Ocean (with electromagnetic compatibility issues resolved) and have only this month conducted the first test firing of a Hellfire air-to-ground missile in a maritime environment, it would be much more effective if the aircraft were moved forward—that is, from the sea to a land base. This could mean a Forward Area Refueling Point (FARP), which could be temporarily established in a remote location close to any expected fighting.
The reason for forward locating the helicopters on Libyan soil would be to cut down their reaction time when called to engage targets of opportunity (most likely identified by Special Forces soldiers covertly watching Gaddafi’s forces). With Gaddafi’s troops trying a myriad of tactics to merge with the civilian community so as to avoid being targeted by NATO’s fast jets, the opportunity to hit them when they are briefly in the open and, very importantly under rules of engagement, can be visually confirmed as hostile, may be their Achilles’ heel. A helicopter waiting to be called forward with 10 to 15 minutes’ notice, which can approach using nap-of-the-earth tactics (flying very low level to conceal its approach), could be very effective. The Apache is also particularly well suited to nighttime attacks, through the use of its modernized target acquisition designation sight/pilot night vision sensor (M-TADS/PNVS), a forward looking infrared sensor with day/night capability. British crews have grown exceptionally skilled at fighting their aircraft against the Taliban in Afghanistan over the last few years.
However, if this tactic of employing FARPS is to be used, they will need not only supporting maintenance teams on the ground to refuel and rearm the helicopters, but also a dedicated protection force (it is unlikely that Special Forces personnel would be tied down to such a task). Such a move would mean an escalation in the UK and French commitment in basing regular forces on Libyan soil as it would be unlikely that the anti-Gaddafi rebels would be capable, or trusted, of providing the required protection.
While this comment is still speculation, the French Defence Minister’s announcement that helicopter operations were imminent does make this ‘food for thought.’ And if attack helicopters are about to be deployed, then the Libyan conflict is close to an escalation that will have very significant consequences, both in terms of militarily and political commitment. It could be a gamble to quickly bring fighting to an end with the collapse of Gaddafi’s forces. But if the commitment is limited, or conducted with too few resources, it could simply add to the problem. Bonne chance!