What the Dutch Air Force has to say on close air support
Posted: 07/30/2012 12:00:00 AM EDT | 0
Major Peter Arts, from the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s Attack Helicopter Branch, joins Defence IQ to provide fresh insight into recent developments in close air support capabilities.
Major, thank you for joining us. So, let’s start off by looking, of course, at the Apache and its track record. How has the fleet performed and evolved during operations in Afghanistan or, perhaps, in test and training and did this present your squadron with any unique challenges that have since become standard?
Well, during the mission in Afghanistan, the Apache performed very well. In relation to serviceability, we were happy. Out of five aircraft, we always had three aircraft up and running. Of course, this was also due to effective logistical lines and the technical crew did a hell of a job to keep the aircraft flying. We did have some changes in maintenance schedules but that’s mainly due to the fact that we were operating in a desert environment. So I’m talking about post-desert inspections, before and after phase inspections. In relation to affectivity, we also were very happy with the performance of the aircraft. We didn’t have any huge capability gaps. There were some changes in the weapon package that we took to Afghanistan. We procured a new type of Hellfire, the November Hellfire, with a metal augmented charge which was more suitable to destroy the larger buildings. Also, we found out that, during dynamic operations, our 30mm gun wasn’t as precise as we needed it to be because, more and more, we were engaging single persons. So, therefore, we changed a bit of our training. The biggest change we’ve seen in the Dutch batch over the last years is the upgrade to the modernised target acquisition designation system, our main centre which we use for target acquisition. Basically, we went from flare generation one to the newest generation flare, which gave us the possibility to actually positively identify personnel with the flare sensor, instead of just with the day camera, as we used to with the legacy tabs. But, furthermore, there were no huge changes in the last years on the aircraft because it performed very well.
Speaking of modernisation, last year we spoke to Air Commandant Ten Haaf and he mentioned that there were efforts underway to improve helicopter C4I and your data link capabilities. Can I ask, has this progressed in that time and in what ways has the crew perhaps struggled with this particular feature?
Well, we did make progress in the procurement procedures but, as in any procurement programme, of course, it isn’t going as fast as we would like it to go. There are a couple of things that we really need. First of all, we need beyond line of sight communications and especially in Afghanistan. In mountainous terrain, we found that if you leave your home base, you lose contact with home base, which we tried to solve with a satellite phone but that was unsecure and unreliable. So that didn’t really work. So now we’ve procured the HF radio, which will be installed next year to solve that problem and, in the future, we’ll look into TACSAT.
Another problem with the lack of beyond line of sight communications is that you’re not able to do an early check-in with your JTAG, especially during QRF missions, where we would fly into a troops-in-contact situation. Just before entering the area, we were able to contact that JTAG, which sometimes presented us with dangerous situations. For instance, there was frankly artillery shooting without us knowing it, stuff like that. So that’s a feature that we really need, beyond line of sight communications. We’re also working on a video up and down link, of course mainly to provide ground forces and JTAGs with live footage from our sensors during a telecom. I hope that we can procure that system within the coming couple of years but, up till now, well, we had to master the art of the good old telecom and, of course, we became very creative with a means of target marking. And not only do we need the video up and down link for the ground forces but, also, we need to integrate the attack helicopters with other ISR assets, like UAVs or the fixed wing cash assets. Although we operate a high level with the helicopter, it’s relative high level. So we still have kind of a helicopter point of view, which is always a lot different than that UAV which is operating around at 20,000 feet. So, therefore, it would be a lot easier for target handovers if we can also get a downlink from their imagery. Of course, a huge improvement would be the capability of blue force tracking, which I also expect to be procured in the coming years.
So quite a few things to dwell on there but, of course, I understand that, like many nations, the Netherlands has been forced to make some drastic budget cuts to what is already, let’s say, a small force. Has that impacted your plans for weapon upgrades to the Apache, and how much does that actually impact your operational readiness?
For now, we expect to push some plans backwards or postpone some upgrades just slightly. So those aren’t huge impacts. Also, we expect not to impact our operational readiness. Previous cutbacks have had a bad effect on our availability of aircraft, so a bad effect on the training. We’re trying to mend that but, during these huge cutbacks that we’re going through right now, we’ve made some distinct choices, like decreasing our transport helicopter capability, the Cougar. We went down from 17 to five aircraft and we’ll be operating those five aircraft until 2018 and then we’ll fully diminish that capability. Also, we’re going down in numbers of F16s and we’re losing one transport aircraft, the DC10. So, due to those choices, the Apache is one of the systems that are being left alone.
We often hear, as well, this mantra which is “train as we fight, fight as we train” but that is frequently harder than it sounds. As you mentioned earlier, you’ve adjusted your training. So how effective has your in-theatre training for the Apache crew been and how do you ensure that those lessons are properly taken on board, analysed, retained and reapplied, especially when you’re perhaps under the pressure of being in the middle of combat?
Yes, I fully agree with you that “train as you fight” is a great one-liner but I don’t believe in it. Basically, you have to know what the difference is between training and combat. It starts with that and, of course, once you start shooting at people or blowing up people’s houses, something changes in the way you feel in the cockpit and, also, you have to keep in mind the stress that comes upon the aircrew once ground troops are in deep trouble and you’re the only one that can help them at that moment. That’s also something you cannot simulate. So, therefore, you have to look at what happens to the performance of the aircrew in those situations and, to give you an example of how we incorporate that in our training, we’ve seen more sloppiness in weapon employment. So, therefore, we want the aircrew to become better than expected in their weapon employment. So, when they’re in a combat situation and they become sloppy, still, they’re at the level that we expect them to be at during combat. Of course, during combat, there are a lot of lessons learnt. We have a very frequent technical reporting routine, once we are deployed. At least every two weeks from deployment area, a report is sent to Holland. Also, after each deployment, there is an extensive debrief of the crews that we’re flying out there and those lessons identified are incorporated in our training by weapon instructors. These are technical experts and also flight instructors and they make sure that we incorporate these lessons in our training and in our tactics, techniques and procedures. Those are retained in our technical SPs, to make sure that we do not have to learn the same lessons again in a couple of years.
That’s fascinating. Can I ask what about training alongside other allied nations who operate the same platform? What can you tell us about things you’ve gained from that approach that perhaps couldn’t otherwise have been learnt? I understand you’ve had experience alongside US forces at Fort Hood? Is that right?
Yes, that is right. We try to train as much as possible with US forces also, and we do not do that enough, in my opinion, but we try to train with the British Apache forces. I think the only way to learn each other’s TTPs, for the moment that you’re operating together on, for instance, a deployment, the only way to learn that is during combined training and the problem with the attack helicopter community is that we do not train sufficiently with each other. That’s, of course, because of dislocation. It’s harder to fly towards to each other’s locations with helicopters than with fixed wing. Also, we’re all under a very busy deployment schedule. Our training schedules are very demanding due to, first, our mission package and, also, we have to integrate our missions with other national assets, like the army, the navy. So it’s very hard, besides all of that, to find a moment for international training.
Is the adherence to TTPs perhaps the key to your training because I’m curious as to how your branch is able to properly prepare for the next conflict when it’s never really clear what form of conflict that may take? So, for example, are you seeing a shift in the manner of preparations, more asymmetric scenarios, or are you maintaining a full spectrum approach?
Yes, we’re trying to maintain a full spectrum approach. We try not to make the mistake that defence forces normally make and that mistake is preparing for the last fight that you fought. So we try to look towards the future in our preparation. I agree with you that it’s not clear what form the conflict might take but it is clear to me what roles the Apache can take upon itself during different conflicts. So, basically, what we’re doing is that the lessons we have learnt in asymmetrical warfare are incorporated in our training and we’re keeping the level of those skills as high as possible but, next to that, we’re more and more looking into the more traditional roles as strike missions. We’re looking at maritime ops for the future and we’re trying to train our low level ops a bit more again. The reason that we need to retrain those skills is that, in the past, while we were deployed in Afghanistan, we were forced to concentrate on asymmetrical warfare and on the role we have in Afghanistan, basically due to the fact that we didn’t have enough flight hours to support the deployment, support the training programme and keep a full spectrum training programme. So, basically, we’re trying to mend it right now.
I see. Just on a closing note, Sir, can I ask, in terms of the long term future, how much do you see the attack helicopter playing a role in close air support operations, considering the apparent popularity or, let’s say, the obsession with this discussion over an unmanned future? Do you think it can or, indeed, should these assets coexist, as far as CAS is concerned?
I do believe they should coexist, like they do already but, first of all, I think that comparing the attack helicopter to UAVs is like comparing apples to oranges. We look at close air support, we, as the attack helicopter community. It’s nothing more than a procedural role during a direct support mission and we jump in and out of that role during one sortie [?]. So, in other words, while we do close air support after maybe the first 15 minutes into the sortie, we also always see that the fight dies down a little bit and then we go more into an ISR role and support the ground manoeuvre. Once we get into that role, we get more and more independent and do our own find fix strike missions. For that, you need that unique aerial presence role that the Apache can take on or any attack helicopter can take on itself and I think that’s something the UAV now still lacks in due to their capabilities. Also, we should not forget that, especially attack helicopter aircrew but I think it’s the same for all the aircrew, of course, they build their situational awareness with their sensors and information given digitally or by voice from ground troops. I think this information is complementary to their gut feeling and that gut feeling is being built up because they are integrated in the fight. They’re collocated with the ground guys. If they fly towards a mission area, they look around and they get a feeling for pattern of life, and all that stuff cannot be replaced by UAVs yet. I do see a lot of advantages of the UAV, especially the covert nature of the platform and, of course, long airtime and, as we have done in Afghanistan, if you integrate that in the correct manner with the Apache, then you have a huge force multiplier and, yes, I do think we need to continue to integrate UAV in attack helicopter operations by means of training and equipment.
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