2021 Exercise TAC EW, DHC RNLAF
Exercise TAC EW, Royal Netherlands Air Force
From 25th of January until the 5th of February 2021 the Defence Helicopter Command organized the exercise TAC EW (Tactical Electronic Warfare) in the Middle and Northeast of the Netherlands.
Normally this exercise would be held in Germany due to its vast training grounds and less populated areas, however Covid-19 again proved a true spoilsport. Instead the decision was made to organize the exercise in the Netherlands accepting the possibility of increased complaints. The Dutch population supports their armed forces as long as the noise is not in their backyard.
During the two weeks three AS532 Cougar helicopters of the 300 Squadron “Wildcats” and four AH-64D Apache helicopters of the 301 Squadron “Redskins” flew several missions training their tactical electronic warfare skills. The focus of the exercise was mainly on tactical low flying and night flying.
Both squadrons trained together with different teams of the Royal Netherlands Army and Air Force. In the first week the mission profiles were flown in agreement with the ground forces and on request of the different mission planners. On fixed locations different ground assets such as missile launchers, AAA installations and tanks with radar beamed the helicopters with laser and radar, gave them the opportunity to train different scenarios to counter this possible threat. The Apaches focussed on detecting and deter the radar threats, the Cougars tried to remain out of sight and perform evasive moves.
In the second week the training became more war like where the helicopter crews flew their own planned missions, but were unaware of the possible threats they might encounter including the locations were the threat assets were located. Even on their way to and from the target areas they would encounter simulated threats forcing the crews to make split second decisions such as laser simulated SAM launches.
For the 300 Squadron crews the exercise offered a wonderful training for both experienced as new crews. Parallel to the exercise TAC EW the squadron ran a four weeks long Mission Qualification Training for new crews, in which the two weeks long exercise was incorporated.
Forward Refuelling Point Training
Running parallel to the flying activities a small team of 15 soldiers ran their own training. Operating from a camp on Deelen airbase the team was self supporting for the entire two weeks, as the crewmembers were not allowed to go home due to the possibility of Covid contamination.
This team was responsible for the Forward Refuelling on location, offering the helicopters the possibility to prolong the time of the mission and time over the target area.
This small and specialized team consisted of refuelling, communication, medical and technical members training to become experts in the FRP. The team had experienced and less experienced members and by operating for two weeks exclusively as a team the learning curve increased steeply.
Added to the team was a specialist of the 299 TACTES Squadron for training and evaluation, who daily reflected with the team on the progress made and was co-responsible for the different scenarios practised.
The first week the team operated on the airbase for a concrete platform/flightline. This week was used for gaining experience and work on the tactical training procedures. Most missions were flown in the dark at night and the FRP team operated in complete darkness simulating the tactical situation as in wartime. The helicopter pilots would fly with their NVGs and have the use of their HUDs and FLIR, however the ground crew would work with their own eyesight depending on their procedures and experience.
The second week the team operated on the nearby heath, changing the FRP location on a daily basis. Again almost all missions were flown in darkness. For the FRP procedures the team would lay out a reversed letter Y on the ground, with small lights which were clearly visible to the crews, but difficult to see from the ground as they were relatively embedded. In the future the FRP teams might receive small beacons to guide the helicopters to the FRP position.
One of the advantages for the team during this exercise was the complete lock down in the Netherlands from 9.00 pm until 4.30 am daily, so they would have all the time and space to operate undisturbedly. Originally the whole exercise was planned on the heath, but as it is accessible for public the RNLAF was not taking any chances on too many visitors and negative feedback about the lack of social distancing caused by the action.
Beside the daily FRP training the team would receive training from specialists such as camouflage of the camp and vehicles, driving in convoy in hostile territory and other valuable lessons from army specialists.
Due to the typical winter weather in the first week two nightly FRPs had to be cancelled.
Instead a different scenario was flown on the Friday which hadn't been trained for a number of years, a so called medevac with full participation and training of the whole chain.
In the trained scenario an informant had to be picked up by the group, however the person was shot by enemy forces requiring a medevac. At the home base a Cougar in the medevac configuration was on standby alert and was radioed by the team using the so-called NATO standard "nine lines procedure"
In this procedure the team will give the helicopter crew valuable encrypted information about the number of pax, the status of the patient, the location coordinates and the possibility of enemy in the neighbourhood. Speed is essential for the wounded patient, especially the first hour is crucial for survival, the so-called 'golden hour'. The whole operation from the first call to the medevac team up to the pick up by the team has to be done within the hour. In this exercise the time was successfully clocked around 45 minutes!
The medevac team consisted of two crewmembers responsible for taking care of the patients. The helicopter flew with two loadmasters, pilot and co-pilot. One of the loadmasters coordinated the boarding of the patient as the medevac team took care of the patient.
In the trained scenario the Cougar landed on a nearby field by the use of smoke grenades and was covered from the air by two Apaches, which joined the medevac spontaneously, making the training very realistic. In war time the Apaches will provide the valuable fire power in case the transport helicopter will have to land in enemy territory.
After picking up the patient the crew flew back to Gilze-Rijen Airbase to continue their medevac training for example off boarding of the patient and simulating further treatment.
After finishing the exercise the team was very excited due to the realistic character of the training. Except for the OTE observer and the FRP commander no one on the team was informed up front about the scenario and the participation of helicopters. It made the scenario rare and realistic at the same time!
For the last day of the exercise (originally planned as spare) a daylight FRP was set out on the Arnhemse heath. The mission planners informed the team that beside two Cougars also four Apaches would drop in for the necessary fuel, after a mission in the North of Holland in the province of Drenthe.
Two Cougars were refuelled and the necessary crew changes were made, after which the aircraft performed a sling load training with the 11th Air Mobility Brigade.
The four Apaches arrived in pairs and were parked on the four FR points. Unlike the Cougars and Chinooks the refuelling procedure requires the engines to be set out as the refuelling point is very close to the engine and the chance of fire is present.
As only two trucks were available for refuelling the total time on the ground was a bit longer than usual. It offered crews the possibility to stretch their legs and observe the refuelling as fire aid.
After the refuelling the four Apaches took off again for continuation of their mission and the whole FRP team left the heath for their drive back home after 12 days in the field. The Apaches left the premises in style offering their colleagues a fly-by.
Northern Skies Aviation would like to thank the Royal Netherlands Air Force and more specific the PAO team of DHC Gilze-Rijen Air base and commander of 300 Squadron for their hospitality and offered opportunity to visit the exercise despite Covid-19 measures.