2011 Articles

FEB 15 2011
JHC Pashtun Jaguar on Salisbury Plain

Running concurrently was the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRX) dubbed "Pashtun Jaguar". This saw JHC deploy 17 helicopters to Netheravon camp within the SPTA in Wiltshire. Royal Air Force Chinook and Merlin, Army Air Corp Lynx and Apache, along with Royal Navy Sea King helicopters would take part in the exercise in preparation for deployment on Operation HERRICK. This would involve crucial training, acting out various scenarios, honed from more than five years of operational experience in Afghanistan, real life situations that the crews may face whilst deployed.

The camp at Netheravon takes on the role of Camp Bastion in Helmand Province for the duration of the exercise. It is, in reality, not even close in terms of size. In fact the real Bastion is much bigger and has grown much larger over the past five or six years alone, to accommodate the huge increase in numbers of personnel and helicopters based there. Even on a smaller scale, it's still a huge logistical effort to transform Netheravon into a busy hub of operations, accommodating various elements of JHC, including the aforementioned helicopters. Around 300 personnel are housed in 100 or so tents including aircrew, groundcrew, support and HQ staff. It was expected that over 1000 helicopter flying hours would take place over the duration of the exercise.

Colonel Neil Sexton, the assistant director of operations at JHC headquarters said, "We have moved on a lot over the last couple of years. What we are doing on this exercise, which has been developing over that same period, is training our people in JHC for Afghanistan. We have a number of aims on this exercise, firstly supporting the 3 Commando Brigade exercise that is going on all over Salisbury Plain. Secondly, we need to validate our own crews and indeed the groundcrews for their roles in Afghanistan. What that is achieving are our collective training objectives; focusing on joint planning, on briefing together and on executing together, that is, Chinooks, Merlin, Lynx, Sea King and Apache all working together as a joint helicopter force".

In May last year, the UK integrated most of its helicopters in Afghanistan with the US Marine Corp, to form a larger and more capable aviation combat element. The UK Joint Aviation Group (JAG) now forms part of the US Marine Corps 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Fwd), which in turn, comes under the command of Maj Gen Mills, the head of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1 MEF). The commander of UK Joint Aviation group (JAG), now sits immersed within this aviation combat element at the American headquarters at Camp Leatherneck. While this was not replicated so much at Netheravon for the duration of Pashtun Jaguar, there were UK staff officers training for roles within the JAG being trained at Westdown Camp during the exercise.

Col. Sexton continued, "As well as the Joint Helicopter Force Afghanistan JHF(A) with its crews and its staff which are based at Camp Bastion, what we also need to do is train those people who belong to the Joint Aviation Group (JAG) as these assets are immersed into the US Marine headquarters, based at Camp Leatherneck. Whilst we are in Regional Command South West (RC SW) Afghanistan we are completely integrated with our allies in the US Marine Corps. This what the exercise is all about, preparing all our people so that they are correctly ready for Afghanistan."

There are three key elements that JHC was focussed on delivering during this exercise, each dependent on the task required by the troops on the ground. Lift, Find and Strike; the 'Lift' element being the domain of the heavy lift helicopter force mainly in Chinooks, Sea King and Merlin and, to a lesser extent, the Lynx. The main role in Lift is air assault, getting infantry onto the battlefield along with passenger and freight movement. Carrying out daily taskings within the area of operations also involves the re-supply of the Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) and this can include the movement of almost anything such as food, water or ammunition; all the essentials which enable the troops on the ground to get the job done. Supplies can be carried as underslung loads or carried internally. Underslung has the benefit of speed, being able to 'drop and go', thus minimising the threat to both helicopter and crew.

The one thing that can not be replicated on the SPTA is the hot and high conditions the crews will experience on operations, especially during the winter months in the UK, so pre-deployment, hot and high training is carried out elsewhere - Morocco being one such location. It is essential that this kind of training is carried out, as depending on the time of day and year, the conditions create serious issues for the assets of JHC. A Chinook, for example, can usually carry 40 passengers, but in the dusty, hot and high conditions at Camp Bastion, being 3000ft ASL, that figure is significantly reduced to 19 during the summer months.

Casualty Evacuation or CASEVAC is another key role for JHC in Afghanistan and was another key training element that was replicated many times during the exercise. Getting a helicopter airborne as quickly as possible in response to a medical emergency is crucial, every second really does count. A Chinook sits at Bastion as part of the Immediate Response Team (IRT) on 20 minutes readiness during daylight hours and 60 minutes during the night, although the average daytime response time is actually around eight to nine minutes from the call to actually being airborne. The Chinook IRT is the most capable package of its kind and the Chinooks carry a Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) which is essentially an airborne A&E department. This affords rapid, life saving treatment to be carried out whilst en-route to the field hospitals and is proven to save lives.

If the IRT aircraft is not available then the US equivalent, Pedro helicopters, are utilised. These are armed US Blackhawks with medics in the back that have a slightly higher state of readiness. Fifteen minutes by day and thirty minutes by night. These assets are also heavily utilised depending on the situation and threat; in fact around 60% of the UK's casualties are collected by the Pedros.

Back to the exercise's three key elements and 'Find' is a key role for the Army Air Corps. UAVs also conduct these missions, something that currently cannot be replicated on exercise, so a Gazelle carrying an MX-15 Wescam played the part of a UAV. Later in the exercise an Islander aircraft also took part in the same role. A Lynx was also utilised as it will be on deployment in Afghanistan while the Apache helicopter can utilise its MTADS (Modernised Target Acquisition Designation Sight) system for hunting down suspicious activity.

Finally we come to 'Strike', another vital job for the Army Air Corps. The Apache helicopter's main weapon is its 30mm cannon, along with Hellfire missiles and rockets and the Lynx MK.9A is also used, having recently had the door guns upgraded to the M3M 0.50 Cal variant, which has significantly increased its firepower.

Another key element undertaken during Pashtun Jaguar was Judgemental Training. Whilst not the main focus, it is key to the effect that JHC hopes to deliver. Judgemental training is about the correct use of force within the context of an engagement, making sure that the crews understand the situation that they are faced with, helping them to make important, correct decisions, and to understand what they can and cannot do.

This training involved a small group of individuals, usually veteran crews who have previously deployed to Afghanistan, acting out various scenarios they themselves have faced on operational duty. Dressed in authentic Afghan costumes and kit, and complete with RPGs, AK-47s and the infamous civilian pick up vehicles used by insurgents, they go onto the SPTA and create various scenarios, whether it be an ambush or perhaps an IED placement for example. An Apache will then be tasked to deal with that situation to test the crew's decision making and response, making the training as realistic as possible. Afterwards the crews return, their gun tape is reviewed and discussed to determine various facts about the mission. Were the correct targets engaged? Were the correct drills carried out? And so on. It's all about preparation and making it as realistic as possible.

Col Neil Sexton said, "At JHC we are pretty pleased that we have an exercise that we have developed over the last couple of years that delivers high quality training and makes our people ready for operations in theatre, both intellectually as well as physically. It's not just about going flying, it's about preparation to go flying".

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