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Hot Blade 2012: Europeans Train for Combined Air Ops in Portugal

By By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor | August 1, 2012
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Portuguese Merlin EH101 inserts a protection force via fast roping during the EDA training exercise.

Duke 21, you are cleared to proceed to the southern landing zone, Sabre. With that order, transmitted by the airborne mission commander working out of a Belgium Air Force A109B hovering just below a ridgeline with a view of the battlefield, two Austrian Air Force AB212s sped across the northern Portuguese landscape at low level bringing in a ground protection team. Above them a pair of high flying Portuguese Air Force F-16s on station as combat air patrol (CAP) had been using their onboard sensors to sweep the previously identified landing zones (LZs) for unfriendly forces—and had just reported back to ‘Sabre’ that the zones were clear.

Intense air and ground activity was focused around the two LZs. Enemy forces were threatening to intervene in the rapidly developing operation, with troop insertions and extractions were planned to occur over the next hour.


As the operation got into its stride, ‘Sabre’ in his over-watch A109B was beginning to struggle as two helicopters raced in to the wrong landing zone, and almost concurrently he could not reach Grizzly 71, a Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) Chinook CH-47D with a vehicle under-slung for a section of the newly arrived ground forces. Eventually his orders were relayed through Viper 1, an overhead F-16. Elsewhere in the mountainous valleys and popping over ridgelines other helicopters were either lining up to take their turn in the LZs, or clearing the area to avoid air confliction. These include a pair of Finnish Air Force NH-90s, two CH-53 Sea Stallions from the German Air Force (just recently transferred from the army in the latest defense review). There was also a RNLAF Cougar AS-532U2. A NATO AWACS had been available for the first half of the exercise period, but had returned to its more regular duties the day before. Ground crews supported all helicopters. While this drama could actually have occurred anywhere operationally from Bosnia to Afghanistan, it was in reality just one day during the recent European Defence Agency’s (EDA) annual helicopter training exercise in Portugal (July 4-19), centered on Ovar military airfield, near Porto. The EDA annual exercise has been managed for the last few years by Wing Commander Andy Gray (Royal Air Force) and his planning team.

Portuguese EH101 Merlin arriving behind CH-53 tail rotor.

Exercise Hot Blade 2012 is the most recent of a series of exercises stretching back to France in 2009, Spain in 2010, and Italy in 2011. Its purpose is to train participating multinational helicopter crews and their support teams in as wide as possible range of joint operability tasks including Air Assault (AA), Special Operations Aviation (SOA), Combat Service Support (CSS), Close Air Support (CAS) including Urban CAS and Emergency CAS, convoy/helicopter escorts, Reconnaissance and Security (R&S) operations, Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), Personnel Recovery (PR), Military/Non Military extractions (NEO Ops), Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) and Casualty Evacuation (CASEVAC).

It provides Composite Air Operations (COMAO) training and is all achieved in the space of a couple of weeks. So for the air controller previously described to show signs of feeling the pressure that this multinational mixture of assets and nationalities brings is not only understandable, it is expected. The point of such a large meeting is to expose these crews who would not normally be faced with such challenging conditions to the realities of warfighting in countries such as Afghanistan, where combined air operations have been the norm. According to EDA figures, since its conception the annual exercise program has delivered training involving 72 helicopters, 152 crews and over 1,800 personnel. Over 50 percent of crews that have participated have subsequently deployed to Afghanistan.

Organizing and planning such an exercise has to begin years in advance and for the succession of annual exercises to keep rolling means that Grey and his team have a full-time job. One such example was the arrival of the German CH-53s by sea, a deployment the like of which has not been seen for more than 20 years. Grey says that simply organizing the international military in advance to ensure that they make assets and people available, commit to the exercise, and fulfill on that commitment is hard enough, but there is also the political dimension of working within the framework of the EDA and the impact of ever changing national politics.

That said, what he and his team continue to provide on both the military and political fronts in terms of delivering a tangible, multinational training event is on the face of it good news for everyone. However, wider political developments do raise questions over future training priorities for European Union member states.

European nations are in a financially induced transformation of capability. Budget cutting is a reality with procurement being slowed or cancelled, as well as the obsolescence of aircraft being brought forward. Wide cuts in military personnel are also featuring strongly. This reduction is set to continue for the short to medium term.

One of the consequences has been a number of bilateral agreements outside the standard defense pact that is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Recent bilateral agreements include those between the United Kingdom and France signed in November 2010 and the Franco German Letter of Intent signed in June this year. While France’s agreement with Britain looks at harmonizing needs, pooling capabilities and enhancing cooperation over training and logistics, its LoI with Germany is focused on defense procurement and development, in particular in helicopter terms at the integration of the Tiger and NH-90 helicopters that both countries are procuring.

The undercurrent of bilateral agreements is already beginning to dilute the availability of aircraft and personnel. There is a growing dilemma of priority: do NATO, EU or bilateral exercises take priority? Added to this is the further confusion of competing yet similar training ambitions within the EU.

In a typical European anomaly, this EDA-managed international helicopter training program is being replicated by another international defense agency within NATO, the European Air Group (EAG). The sixth running of the EAG’s personnel recovery course takes place at Holzdorf air base in Germany from Oct. 9-26, 2012.

A need for better focus on CSAR was identified via the EAG’s VOLCANEX exercises between 2002 to 2006. From that a regular course was developed and specialist training exercises within the EAG were created of which the Holzdorf meet will be the latest iteration.

Considering the current employment of NATO’s forces and the shift towards PR operations (to include Combat Recovery) in general, a decision was taken to rename the course “CJPRSC,” to encompass current personnel recovery operations such as those being conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The PR course in 2009 was conducted at Cazaux airbase, France in September 2009, at Lechfeld airbase Germany in September 2010, and in October 2011 at the Tactical Leadership Program (TLP) facilities at Albacete, Spain.

The EAG makes its own claim that between 2009 and 2011 training has involved 58 helicopters, 114 crews and 1,300 personnel, of which 63 crews have been deployed to Afghanistan.

Although not identical in objectives, many of the skills and ambitions of the two exercises are similar with combined multiple helicopter missions, troop insertions, isolated personnel recovered and night operations. But it seems that there are “wheels within wheels” when the decision arises about which country will participate in each event, and with what. Some countries, such as the UK, have only sent observers to each exercise usually citing the excuse that they cannot spare aircraft away from existing deployments/commitments. U.S. forces do not participate in either exercise.

With budgets squeezing each nation’s capability in what it can commit to in terms of annual exercises, there is a very real likelyhood that prioritization will begin to dilute the perceived less attended exercises, at least from the point of view of the major players.

Importantly, the EDA exercise has the backing of its own organization behind it and the financial muscle that its politically connections can deliver. The European Defence Agency (EDA) chief executive Claude-France Arnould flew in on a C-130 for the VIP day, joining the Portuguese Minister of Defence, Jose Pedro Aguiar-Branco. During her address, Arnould praised the financial support provided to the helicopter training program by Luxembourg Defence Minister Jeane-Marie Halsdorf. The shortfall in helicopter lift is still one of the EDA’s top ten priorities and therefore gains access to funding.

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