British Apaches Over Arizona

By By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor | July 1, 2011
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Five British Apache Longbows at the Snake Pit, Gila Bend AFB, Arizona.
Photos by Andrew Drwiega

The view of my surroundings from the control tower on a bright, blue-sky morning, deep inside the 2,400-square-mile Barry M. Goldwater U.S. Air Force range in southern Arizona was perfect, but I could still not pick up the Apache Longbow helicopter that had begun its training attack-run from eight ‘klicks’ out. Eventually I picked up the growing black dot that was keeping a steady course onto its range targets. This was a controlled ‘live-fire’ exercise with no requirement for a tactical approach so the aircraft came on, straight and level. The first time you hear an Apache’s 30mm gun firing it is hard not to be impressed by the low, rapid hammering sound quickly followed by an explosion of dust and debris in the target area.

This was one small element of Exercise Crimson Eagle, the British Army Air Corps’ (AAC) training camp for its WAH-64D Apache Longbow aircrew and ground crew. It is not only the culmination of Conversion to Role (CTR), the final stage of the path in training aircrew to fly their attack helicopter, but it also serves as the Pre-Deployment Training (PDT) exercise for AAC squadrons going onto operations, in this case Operation Herrick in Afghanistan.

Two Apache aircrew participate in an escape and evasion exercise as part of their SERE course held in southern Arizona.

So why bring the British attack helicopters all the way to the southwestern United States to complete their training? Well, there are many good and sound reasons. The Goldwater training range at its western edge presses up to the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station at Yuma, and at its furthest extent east falls south of Phoenix (and Luke Air Force Base) and just short of Tucson, Ariz. It is eight times the size of Salisbury Plain, the UK’s largest range (250 square miles and one ninth of the county of Wiltshire). It is even bigger than the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS), on the plains of Alberta, Canada.

This means that aircrew can perform virtually every tactical scenario that they are likely to encounter with every weapon they have on the aircraft (Hellfires, 2.75” rockets and the 30mm chain gun) without being restricted by the size of the range. There is also the advantage that the ranges are constantly in use by U.S. forces, giving the opportunity to conduct coalition training—vital for both sides especially in large multinational force areas such as Helmand Province.

Armored Personnel Carrier post-strike by an Apache fired RF Hellfire missile.

The Crimson Eagle exercise has operated annually in the U.S. since 2006, first out of eastern Arizona at areas such as Western Army Aviation Training Site (WAATS) and Evergreen, Marana, but more recently out of the Naval Air Facility El Centro, just inside the California border.

Chief of staff during my visit, Maj. Marc Briggs said of the facilities, “El Centro is the best long-term location for Crimson Eagle, especially with access to the Goldwater range. We are confident that we can use this over the long term. It is a secure and friendly environment with little security risk. Most importantly it is relatively low cost and as an established base, it crucially means that we don’t have to invest in infrastructure.” It also serves transiting squadrons and has no residual American squadrons, therefore it is ideal for the small UK contingent to use as a base.

The Army Air Corps has its own dedicated hangar on permanent loan for Crimson Eagle, and was able to secure a neighboring hangar for use by four Lynx Mk 9 aircraft that had been deployed during my visit on Exercise Lynx Vortex. These aircraft join the Apaches during the exercising of tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), and I witnessed them joint training with Joint Tactical Air Controllers (JTACS) and Close Combat Air (CCA) controllers.

El Centro is also a short flight away from the Auxiliary Air Force Base at Gila Bend, back in Arizona, which is very close to the live firing ranges. The British contingent have temporary facilities there when deployed, including dining, sleeping other necessary daily requirements. The aircraft are based on a flight line dubbed the “Snake Pit,” which is a small walk from the main base operational area. During the PDT up to six Apaches can be found on the line, surrounded by ground crew and Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) who refuel/rearm and look after the aircraft’s mechanical parts and software systems respectively.

Ground crew waiting to rearm a British WAH-64 Apache Longbow during part of Exercise Crimson Eagle.

Since its deployment to Afghanistan, the first combat deployment of any British Apache, the aircraft has been one on which the ground troops rely for its already fire support capability and situational awareness. The Rolls Royce RM322 Mk 120 engines have proved invaluable in allowing the British Apaches to operate “hot and high” with its millimetric-wave radar in Afghanistan, which has brought ISR and air control benefits, the latter particularly when multinational helicopter operations have been taking place around a single location.

While the chain gun and unguided rockets have been in almost constant use, both for direct fire and area suppression, the British Apaches have only used their laser guided (SAL) AGM-114R Hellfire missiles due to their particular rules of engagement (RoE). This has meant that the AAC’s stock of Lockheed Martin AGM-114L Longbow Hellfires that are radar-guided have not been called upon—and their shelf-life has nearly run out. This turned into an unexpected bonus for a select number of the Apache aircrew who gained the privilege of being the first ones to fire these missiles live at downrange targets that had been specially brought in for the occasion (albeit armored personnel carriers that had seen much better days). Although I did not witness the RF firings live, I was taken to the range afterwards to see the results (see picture in this feature). The word came back that the missiles had been successfully fired achieving hits or near-hits that would likely have done the intended job. CTR training lasts around eight months, including this exercise, which accounts for the last couple of months. “At this particular time there are 17 CTR aircrew going through their course and we are also running pre-deployment training (PDT) exercises for two squadrons from the Attack Helicopter (AH) Force, both from 3 Regiment Army Air Corps,” said Briggs.

Environmental qualification is very important to helicopter aircrew faced with taking aircraft into the unforgiving, harsh environmental conditions in Afghanistan. The AAC talks about exercising in limited performance conditions around El Centro for one good reason—the airfield is actually 35 feet below sea level. So while it is certainly hot, it is not particularly high, although there are mountainous areas surrounding the training ranges. But as Maj. Briggs explained, the hot (sometimes very hot) and dry heat conditions, when added to a fully loaded Apache with under slung fuel tanks and full of ammunition (dummy or otherwise—depending on the exercise) still replicate the difficulties that crews will face in managing their aircraft’s performance and capabilities. So all of the CRT and PDT requirements can be met including practicing TTPs.

The culmination of the training syllabus is Exercise Lightning Hurdle, which is a tactical training exercise where everything that has been learned over the preceding seven weeks is put to the test. Essentially this is the final exercise before PDT squadrons, and even some of the CTR course students, deploy operationally. On the course I was observing three CRT students would be going to Afghanistan (two went in September 2007, four in December 2009 and nine in September 2010). Groundcrews, engineers, JTACS, FSTs and CCAs who participated in this exercise would all be considered operationally ready at the end.

When Exercise Crimson Eagle’s syllabus matches that of U.S. forces training alongside them or nearby (Yuma and Twentynine Palms, Calif. in the case of the U.S. Marine Corps), both sides make the effort to conduct combined operational training. It is considered free training, as there is no additional financial cost to either side. Briggs said that in addition to the helicopter elements working together and with fixed-wing too, the ground JFACS, FSTs and CAAs get to work with all types of air support. During Exercise Lightning Hurdle in December 2009, aircraft involved included UH-60s, Cobras, Hueys and even F-16s in a variety of scenarios. The exercise runs over a week with extended hours. The USMC equivalent PDT exercise is Mojave Viper.

The AAC is very happy with the value that it gets from Exercise Crimson Eagle in Arizona/California. In a post-Afghanistan world there may even be thoughts of somehow linking up these deployments with British infantry units on exercise in BATUS, Canada, to provide combined arms training which has not been as prolific as many would have liked.

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