German Bell UH-1D Hueys leaving the Ovar Portuguese airbase in northern Portugal. Photo by Andrew Drwiega
“We train up to 700 students a year and we have somewhere around 27 training schools - and that doesn’t make sense,” said Andrew Gray, the European Defence Agency’s (EDA) Hot Blade Helicopter Exercise Program (HEP) manager.
“There is no harmonization of flying training; we are all doing it our own way, probably based on decisions made 70 years ago. We like having our own flight schools and academies; it’s an ethos thing and it is also negative,” he added.
Gray was speaking during the VIP day toward the end of the EDA’s annual Hot Blade HEP, held at the Ovar air base in northern Portugal for the last three years. Multinational tactical training has been one of the EDA’s more successful campaigns over the last few years. The Hot Blade exercises began in Gap, France in 2009 and there is a mandate and plan agreed by 13 Member nations for them to continue up to 2022.
Over the course of the exercise, which ran from July 16 to 30 this year, around 3,000 personnel, 25 helicopters and 12 fixed wing aircraft took part in a series of increasingly complex tactical missions. Participating nations included host Portugal, together with Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK.
The lineup of helicopters for Hot Blade included: four Boeing CH-47D/Fs from the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF); four AgustaWestland EH101s from the Portuguese Air Force; four A109s from the Belgian Air Force; three new Airbus Helicopter Puma Mk2s from the Royal Air Force (RAF); six Bell UH-1Ds from the German Air Force and two Bell AB212s from the Austrian Air Force.
Tactically, the exercise challenged crews by presenting them with hot, high and dusty ‘brownout’ conditions, similar to those found in operational areas where member states are currently deploying their forces. Aircrews have the added challenge of working with aircraft types that they are not familiar with, especially missions coordinated with ground troops that may also incorporate fast jets and fixed wing aircraft delivering Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) information. The range of missions encompassed air assault, special operations, close air support, convoy/helicopter escort and a range of combat, medical and personnel recovery tasks.
The HEP is part of a package of initiatives to come out of the EDA under the Helicopter Training Program (HTP). Other aspects include the Helicopter Tactics Course (HTC), the Helicopter Tactics Instructor Course (HTIC) and perhaps vitally an Operational English Language Course (OELC).
Gray believes that more harmonization needs to be achieved before national forces are sent into multinational operational environments and has the experience to support this view. His last operational tour was as the chief of staff, 904th Expeditionary Air Wing, Kandahar, Afghanistan.
While in that post, he said that the lack of helicopters among some of the contributing nations meant that these assets often became ‘cab ranked’ on days when there were multiple actions taking place around the area of operations (AO). So if one nation needed a troop insertion, transit flight or redeployment, they could not be guaranteed of getting their own nationality of helicopter lift. “Most troops go into the back on trust that the pilots will be as good as their own nation’s crew - but you have no way of measuring that,” observed Gray. “Blind faith works as long as nothing goes wrong, but when it does there will be politicians and the media to answer to. I don’t think it is acceptable not to know. Vital questions include: whether they are night vision goggle (NVG) qualified; whether and when were they instrument rated.”
The notion of ‘combat ready’ is open to national interpretation, according to Gray. “We send people on operations together, but we have a completely different understanding of what competences those people should have. We don’t have a mission essential task list that we all agree, then go backwards and work out how we are going to train people to meet it.” This is the motivation behind what he and the HEP team are trying to achieve through the EDA.
Results in Effect
Part of the EDA’s Hot Blade exercise involved the insertion of ground troops through air assault, special operations and as guard forces for casualty/personnel evacuations. Photo by Andrew Drwiega
According to Major Alphous Jacobs, commander of this year’s Dutch Hot Blade detachment which includes four Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) CH-47 Chinooks (three CH-47D plus one new CH-47F), the exercise occurred at the right time.
Four RNLAF Apache AH-67Ds were due to participate in Hot Blade but were instead shipped out to Mali in May and are now serving alongside other international forces in the United Nations (UN) Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission (MINUSMA).
The RNLAF established its base at Camp Castor in Gao Province on May 16. According to the Netherlands Defence Ministry, it is the first time that Apaches have been used for UN peacekeeping operations.
The RNLAF is also due to send CH-47D/F Chinooks to Mali later in September so they will be operational the following month. “This EDA training serves three objectives,” stated Jacobs. “Work up our international cooperations skills, introduce our new guys to hot and dusty environments, and prepare for Mali.” To do this the RNLAF swapped crews through the exercise so that seven crews received the benefits that the exercise provided.”
The total Dutch contingent numbered around 300 people, including around 180 ground forces. “The soldiers operated with the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven UAS in the field,” added Jacobs.
Hot Blade 2015 and Beyond
According to Jacobs, the first planning meeting will be held in October for Hot Blade 2015, which will see the exercise relocate to a new site at the Viterbo air force base, 80km north of Rome, Italy.
With the international European defense ministries largely stating their expectation that future deployments are likely to be expeditionary in nature, after three years in Portugal (and coincidentally in line with the draw down of ISAF forces in Afghanistan), the exercise planning team has decided to take it ‘on the road’ for the next few years. Future locations identified include Finland (2016), Hungary (2017), back to Portugal (2018) and the Czech Republic (2019).
A final positive comment came from General José Pinheiro, chief of staff, Portuguese Air Force, who said that a wide number of Portuguese participants had benefited Portugal’s three-year hosting of Hot Blade as it was vitally a ‘home’ exercise which did not necessitate the expense of foreign deployment. He also praised the EDA’s management team for their ‘high levels’ of vision and ambition in planning the variety of scenarios.
Related: Training News