Italian Blade 2015

By By Kees Otten and Wim Das | November 1, 2015
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The NH90 is an asset to Germany’s infantry and helicopter regiments, which are all under one command. Photo by Wim Das

The European Defence Agency’s most recent large-scale, multinational helicopter exercise offered aviators and airborne troops the opportunity to hone their joint-operations skills in a range of scenarios, from air assault and close air support to combat search and rescue and medical evacuation.

More than 30 helicopters and 1,000 military personnel from seven nations gathered in Viterbo, about 45 nm (85 km) northwest of Rome, for the exercise called Italian Blade. Viterbo is home of the Italian army’s aviation command. The exercise ran from June 22 to July 3 and involved 201 missions and 445 sorties totaling 618 flight hours, according to the organizers.


The European Defence Agency’s Helicopter Exercise Programme organizes the annual activities to allow helicopter crews and airborne troops to learn how to cooperate in international environments. The next exercise, dubbed Cold Blade, is scheduled for next year in Finland.

Italy’s division used an upgraded CH-47 Chinook. Photo by Wim Das

Milos Pecha of the Helicopter Exercise Programme’s core planning team worked closely with Andy Gray, the defense agency’s helicopter program manager, to create challenging scenarios, especially from the pilot’s point of view. Tactical instructors were invited from existing courses such as the U.K.’s Qualified Helicopter Tactical Instructor Course, the Netherlands’ Helicopter Weapons Instructor Course, and the European Defence Agency’s Helicopter Tactic and Helicopter Tactic Instructor courses. Mentors from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the U.K. formed a team under the supervision of a chief instructor.


Improving communication has been one issue at the forefront of these exercises. Col. Andrea di Stasio, commander of Italy’s 3rd Reggimento Elicotteri per Operazioni (“Aldebaran”), explained that, in the nation’s role of the Combined Joined Task Force commander, Italy integrated European nations tactically by coordinating helicopter missions with infantry units. Italy deployed new air assets—a license-built AgustaWestland ICH-47F and a NHIndustries NH90, which participated in a successful hot refueling at a forward arming and refueling point for the first time at the event.

With about half the weight of an Apache, the Mangusta has both potent firepower and high-flying capabilities. Photo by Wim Das

Italy also performed ground-troop insertion with an AgustaWestland A129 Mangusta for support. With both potent firepower and high-performance flying capabilities, the Mangusta is more agile at about half the weight of an Apache. Guns on the aircraft are used for precise fire, while rockets target larger ground areas. Each of its two crewmembers can act as pilots. The gunner in the front seat can direct the gun with helmet movements. Later models of the Mangusta have been upgraded with better avionics and five blades.

Meanwhile, the Joint Operational Center (consisting of various nations under Italian leadership) was tasked with coordinating air traffic. Many air assets were involved in composite air operations that were conducted for a cumulative 50 hr a day, compared with Viterbo’s non-exercise average of 60 to 80 hr a month. One goal of the exercise is to get representatives from other nations involved in the daily routine rather than only acting as observers.

The Joint Operational Center guided helicopters to operate within the ROMEO 53 special airspace dedicated to the Army Aviation School at Viterbo.

Italy was charged with setting up a management system for the exercise. It used its own SafeStrike system, first implemented in Afghanistan four years ago and commonly used in the Italian military in general. Under the system, the operations room monitors every helicopter in the theater and tracks real-time traffic over a large distance with the use of iPads inside every aircraft. The system also allows for a Mangusta to cooperate with a Joint Terminal Attack Controller to choose the most appropriate weapon system while avoiding collateral effects.

Austrian AB-212s have been outfitted with new digital cockpits.
Photo courtesy of Austrian Air Force / Gorup

SafeStrike can also help with planning. By creating a waypoint, operators can obtain 3-D satellite imagery of the surrounding area. (These capabilities are in the works to be used in unmanned aircraft and other field units.)


For Austria, Blade is the only international exercise it attends every year. Col. Hannes Mittermaier of the Austrian air force was present with four Agusta-Bell AB-212s that have been upgraded with digital cockpits. Austria began participating in crew swaps with a Slovenian Eurocopter AS532 Cougar, a Hungarian Mil Mi-17, a Czech Mil Mi-25 and Italy’s Mangusta and NH-90 in an effort to develop international helicopter crews. Although Austria is not a NATO ally, its participation in the event is to further its presence as a nation of the European Union, especially as military helicopter numbers in Europe decrease.



A Hungarian Mi-17 pilot, Maj. Endre DaróczI, was tasked with demonstrating high-mountain takeoffs and landings, skills useful to pilots performing various missions in Afghanistan. Troops from other nations were trained to fast rope from the moving Mi-17 during troop insertions and extractions.

Austrian AB-212s have been outfitted with new digital cockpits. Photos courtesy of Austrian Air Force / GorupAustrian AB-212s have been outfitted with new digital cockpits.
Photo courtesy of Austrian Air Force / Gorup

A second objective for the Hungarian troops was to practice English language skills and common procedures in composite air operations flights using a combination of European Defence Agency and NATO standard operating procedures. The Hungarians also honed their air mission commander skills, coordinated planning of activities involving up to 16 helicopters and 150 troops. Any failures or problems were openly communicated to create a learning atmosphere.


Germany provided the majority of ground forces in this exercise. These were made up of a company of combat-ready paratroopers belonging to the Rapid Forces Division of the German army, a unit permanently made up of both German and Dutch soldiers.

Led by a two-star general, the division consists of three combat brigades, including fully air-mobile German special forces troops. In June 2014, the Dutch 11th Airmobile Brigade was fully integrated into this unit as part of the military cooperation between Germany and the Netherlands. Troops of this division or its respective predecessors have taken part in all overseas deployments of the German army and were largely involved in these operations’ preparation process. Today, it is the most combat-proven unit of the German military.

The division’s infantry regiments accompany three helicopter regiments. Having those assets under one command is a true innovation for the German army, as infantry and aviation have historically been under separate division commands. The two transport and one attack helicopter regiments (equipped with the NH90, Bell Helicopter UH-1D and Eurocopter Tiger) have become integral parts of the division. Its motto is “Combat-ready at any time, world-wide.”

The Hungarian team participated in troop insertions and extractions with its Mi-17.
Photo by Wim Das

Germany deployed a Joint Fire Support Team following NATO procedures, since there are no European Defence Agency standard procedures for that function. This team in the field helps to decide where to effectively concentrate firepower from all available sources of land, air and naval artillery from any nation. It is common to connect an airborne infantry company to a fire support team. The latter operates close to first-line troops. Such a team usually comprises a Forward Air Controller or Joint Terminal Attack Controller, a non-combat officer for support and a third member (such as a driver, medic or force protector).

Col. Christian Rüther is the commander of the German “Transporthubschrauber-regiment 10,” which is subordinated to Division Schnelle Kräfte. The overall operational level of each NH90 was not top notch, but many of the relatively new helicopters were already in full-operational-capability configuration. Rüther said of the German Forward Air Med Evac (FAME) NH90s, “It’s like putting an ambulance in a combat zone.” Since the mission is widely admired, but mastered only by German and U.S. forces, it marks the growing abilities within every new issue of the defense agency’s Blade exercises.

Italy Takes 250th NH90

NHIndustries delivered the 250th NH90 Oct. 13 in Viterbo,Italy during the annual conference of operators of that twin-engine military helicopter.

The delivery to Italy’s army aviation command “highlights the technical and commercial success of this European program,” said NHIndustries Managing Director Vittorio Della Bella. Present at the delivery was Brig. Gen. Antonio Bettelli, commander of Italian army aviation.

The milestone aircraft is in the Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) configuration and its optimized for land-based missions. It will be operated by Italian army special forces. The Italian armed forces fly 30 NH90 TTHs and 17 NATO Frigate Helicopter NH90s.

NH90s have accumulated more than 95,000 flight hours in operation with Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Greece, Oman, Belgium, Australia and New Zealand.

NHIndustries is a consortium owned by AgustaWestland (32%), Airbus Helicopters (62.5%) and Fokker (5.5%).




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