Since 2009, a disused part of Carlisle Airport has played host to a helicopter detachment from the Koninklijke Luchtmacht – KLu (Royal Netherlands Air Force) – to take part in the TAC Blaze exercises, a two to three week deployment to the UK, that usually takes place twice a year. However, due to the implementation of new planning and resource software by the Dutch Ministry of Defence (MOD) being postponed, TAC Blaze 13-1 is likely to be the only version of the exercise to take place this year. John Higgins reports.
TAC Blaze is just one version of a number of exercises under the Blaze title, each one designed to teach different tactics and operations that may be required, due to the force being deployed virtually anywhere around the globe. Dutch Blaze exercises take place at home on the ranges in the Netherlands; Snow Blaze exercises take place in Norway for cold weather operations training; Hot Blaze exercises take place in Portugal and Spain for hot and dusty operations training, and High Blaze exercises take place in the mountain ranges of Italy. Indeed, exercises are already planned in both Portugal and Italy later in the year.
Carlisle was chosen as the FOB (Forward Operating Base) for the TAC Blaze exercises, mainly due to its very close proximity to the Electronic Warfare Tactics Range at RAF Spadeadam. This provides the Dutch crews the opportunity to hone their skills against a multitude of modern day electronic threats and scenarios, providing realistic and safe training in preparation for deployments across the globe. The close proximity to the range also means that flight times to and from the area of operations are very short, allowing more missions to take place during each day as the transit time to and from Carlisle is minutes rather than hours. The area of operations for the duration of the exercise is not limited to just the Spadeadam range. Other locations, including the former RAF station at Kirkbride and the Army Training Range at Warcop, are also utilised during TAC Blaze missions.
Major Klip explained that on camp, “We run three separate exercises in parallel during TAC Blaze. The first one being initial student pilots, who are learning to fly and fight against radar systems on the range, performing tactical manoeuvres to gain some of their mission qualifications. In parallel with that, we have fully experienced pilots who want to become Weapons Instructors (WI) working on the Helicopter Weapons Instructor course, who will occasionally use fast jets. Last year we had some assistance from RAF Leeming. The third being regular pilots, carrying out their yearly exercises, and they are here, again, for evasive manoeuvre training”.
All three elements run simultaneously during the three weeks of operations, with the aircrews flying at low level, over the challenging and diverse Cumbrian terrain, something the flat Dutch plains cannot provide. Other key elements include ground force insertions, along with some under-slung load training also taking place on the airfield at Carlisle.
A two week period of planning and build up takes place, involving the aircrews and the ground forces, prior to the deployment to Carlisle. The first week is theory based, focusing on safety and procedures, whilst the second week has more interaction, with regards to boarding, insurgents’ extractions and also some gunnery training taking place on the ranges in the Netherlands.
The TAC Blaze exercise consists of 300 staff overall, 180 from the Royal Netherlands Air Force, Defence Helicopter Command (DHC) from Gilze-Rijen Air Base and 120 from the Royal Netherlands Army, from the 11 Luchtmobiele Brigade (LMB) or Air Mobile Brigade. When integrated with the DHC, the package comes under the Air Manoeuvre Brigade (11 AMB) designation. This unit is able to deploy anywhere around the globe within twenty days for various UN or NATO missions if required to do so.
The Helicopter element for TAC Blaze 13-1 was made up of three CH-47D Chinooks from 298 “Grizzly” Squadron and four AH-64D Apaches from 301 “Redskins” Squadron, both based at Gilze -Rijen Air Base in the Netherlands.
Previous exercises have seen the AS-532 Cougars of 300 Squadron taking part, but due to the Cougar force being cut in the defence review, those days are now over. Only eight airframes remain operational, and they are currently very busy covering the capability gap left after the Dutch Navy Lynx were withdrawn without the replacement NH-90s being fully operational. Another of the planned roles is supporting the anti-piracy mission in Somalia from 2014. Major Klip informed us that a Cougar popped into Carlisle during the first week of the exercise for a visit, en-route to one of the Dutch Navy vessels taking part in the Joint Warrior exercise. It is unlikely that Cougars will take part in any future TAC Blaze exercises at Carlisle.
Forward Operating Base – Carlisle
The camp is built up from around 50 containers that are expandable with tent attachments on the sides. This houses the main detachment and air operations at Carlisle Airport. There is also a smaller army detachment on the Spadeadam range of about 15 tents and some supply containers, allowing the army unit to enter the range easily, whilst on foot.
The whole operation comes from the Netherlands through Newcastle, either by ferry or by air, in a couple of detachments. A forward convoy of 36 trucks, trailers and 75 staff, containing the main camp arrives a week or so before the exercise starts. The camp is set up and made ready before the arrival of the second convoy, consisting of 12 trucks and trailers and 40 staff. 130 personnel arrive by air charter, and the helicopters fly in from their home base, so the exercise can start straight away. The massive logistical operation is planned well in advance, with the logistics officers starting the planning phase around six months in advance of the exercise commencing at Carlisle.
Captain Thijs, the head of Exercise Control (EXCON), provided a brief on the training objectives of the TAC Blaze exercise. The main task of EXCON is to create missions where the learning objectives can be met. The process begins with the learning objectives being obtained from the weapons instructors who have a syllabus of various training elements that they wish the pilots, be they student or proficient aircrews, to be trained or kept current in. Once the learning objectives have been decided for the mission, a computer generated movie is created by the mission planners that contains only the basic mission information as seen from the cockpit whilst on task, from the take-off point, area of operations and arrival back at Carlisle. This is presented to the training audience and game players.
Once the basic movie has been presented to the students and game players, it is then given back to the weapons instructors and mission planners. The movie is then separated into two parts, in close coordination with the intel community, into an Operation Order and Intel-Scenario.
The Operation Order is given to the players by one of the mission managers, who do their mission planning on the basic task they have been ordered to execute. Take off from this point, fly to the target area, carry out an assault or raid, for example, and then return to base, whilst reacting to various threats they expect to encounter along the way, and in the area of operations. However, they are not given the full mission details, so as to ensure the mission is as realistic as possible. They have to expect the unexpected whilst on task, so they are working on all the learning objectives without actually being aware that they are. Which learning objectives have been met in various situations will only become clear during the mission debrief.
Meanwhile the Intel community is at work on the Intel-Scenario, adding the learning objectives, along with all enemy threats that will be implemented during the mission. These are controlled by an opposing forces controller who adds various enemy threats designed to test the crew’s ability to evaluate and react to the variety of situations they are presented with whilst on task. This ensures that the training is as realistic as possible as the enemy does not always play as the crews have been told to expect them to play. For example, the enemy threat not opening fire at the landing zone until the Chinook is wheels down with troops embarking or dis-embarking, so as to test the crew’s ability to react to an unexpected threat, rather then the enemy opening fire too early, giving the Chinook crew the chance to abort the landing, and call in the Apache to eliminate the threat. These are the kind of details that go into the mission planning to ensure that various learning objectives are met.
The whole situation has to remain fluid, as numerous factors can affect mission planning. Electronic systems may be unavailable on the range, or the unpredictable Cumbrian weather, quickly changing for the worse, could cause a change to the planned missions. That is the case today, with stormy conditions causing the cancellation of the morning operations on Spadeadam due to the winds being above the operational limits allowed for the helicopters. Afternoon missions go ahead as planned but Warcop is utilised for an assault. Throughout the course of the exercise, missions are flown not only during daylight, but night sorties are also flown into the early hours.
Time on task is set at around two hours. If the primary objectives are met with play time to spare, extra tasks and secondary learning objectives are on standby and can be added to the mission very quickly to make sure the mission time is utilised to maximum effect. Once all the learning objectives are complete, all elements return to FOB Carlisle for a full mission debrief.
The Road To War
Lieutenant Jeroen from mission support provided an example of a fictional scenario that has been used by the mission planners for a previous TAC Blaze exercise. A few slides showed the road to war, using fake country names, but I will use the real ones for this brief explanation. Germany colonised Scotland, sometime in the 1900s, after NATO was formed. Pressure was exerted on Germany and eventually Scotland regained its independence in 1999. Then in 2002 Great Britain and Scotland merged to create the United Kingdom, but Germany remained hostile, with the dispute revolving around natural resources, geographical location and historic colonial claim. This resulted in Germany using three Brigades of forces to re-invade the United Kingdom, re-establishing the historical Scottish border in 2012. This in turn, saw the United Kingdom request NATO intervention. An NSF (NATO Security Force) is then deployed to see to the negotiated ceasefire via a ZOS (Zone Of Separation), the northern line of which roughly follows the existing Scottish border. The southern line runs roughly parallel to the Scottish border a few miles to the south, incorporating the army training range at Warcop.
As the exercise progresses, the story develops. Mission support will brief the crews daily on the evolving story as it unfolds. They are also responsible for passing on up to date meteorological information, along with the latest intelligence on various threats or areas of interest on the Spadeadam range. An example shown is a slide of a military objective located on the range. Intel suggest there are six to eight personnel stationed at a maintenance facility and shows what threats and weapons systems may be found in the region. These could be Light Machine Guns (LMGs) or Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) and intel will suggest their status, eg are they currently serviceable?
For the duration of the exercise, the detachment operates a standard mission week, with the mission managers starting operational planning on Sunday afternoon. Mission cycles start on Monday morning and end late on Friday evening. Saturday and Sunday morning are reserved for rest and relaxation, then on Sunday afternoon the whole cycle starts again.
Out on the flight line I spoke to Leon, a student pilot who has been on Chinooks for two years: “I started my pilot flying school in 2007, right from the beginning, like most pilots, I wanted to fly fixed-wing fighter jets, but once I was sent to Chinooks, it didn’t take long for me to realise what an amazing machine this is to fly – definitely the greatest thing I have ever flown! The team work and interaction with the crew, along with the assistance you give the troops on the ground makes it really rewarding. This is my first time over in the UK on the Spadeadam range, I am really looking forward to getting into the more tactical flying over here.”
During the second week of the TAC Blaze exercise, various Joint Warrior elements arrived at Carlisle, including Royal Air Force Chinooks, Army Air Corps Lynx and Apaches, along with French Army Puma and Gazelle helicopters. Although flight operations took place at the same time, there was no actual overlap between the two exercises, but it did make for very busy rotary operations.
Five out of six of the new CH-47F Chinooks have been delivered, two in Holland and three still in the US at Fort Hood. The operation and evaluation test programme continues for around the next 12 months with three helicopters scheduled to be operated by 298 Squadron at Gilze, whilst the other three are scheduled to remain at Fort Hood for the foreseeable future for flight testing and crew training. TAC Blaze 14-1 should take place, once again at Carlisle, sometime in the spring of 2014, although, at this stage, this has yet to be confirmed.
With thanks to Major Klip, Captain Thijs, Lieutenant Jeroen and the Royal Netherlands Air Force for their kind assistance.