Ian Harding and Kevin Wills visited 847 Naval Air Squadron during its second deployment to Norway to discuss the unit’s achievements with Wildcat
MILITARY WILDCAT AH1
847 Naval Air Squadron (NAS) and its eight Wildcat AH1 Reconnaissance Helicopters (RH) have been exploring the platform’s capability since becoming the first squadron to convert to Wildcat in 2014. Despite initial manning and resourcing issues, the squadron has pushed forward relentlessly, achieving initial operating capability in 2015 and proving the helicopters specialist capabilities which include: reconnaissance; ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance); control of joint fires, including terminal control of air delivered munitions from air attack platforms; the direction of artillery and naval gunfire; and utility transport in the harshest weather conditions. In the near future the squadron aims to achieve full operating capability (FOC) for littoral manoeuvres (LitM), a key facet of carrier-enabled power projection (CEPP). An important component of the Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, 847 NAS provides a varied array of battlefield helicopter support, which to date has largely gone under the radar within United Kingdom defence. This is about to change as AIR International discovered during Exercise Clockwork 2019.
The Navy’s Wildcats are now referred to as reconnaissance helicopters (RH), a title which belies the potential of the aircraft and the highly trained aircrew who operate it. The strength of the Wildcat lies in its multirole capability evidenced by the work it has undertaken on behalf of CHF supporting 3 Commando Brigade and Royal Marines from an embarked maritime and amphibious standpoint, during littoral operations, and as a force generator operating from land. Closer examination of its capability confirms the helicopter is potentially the most versatile aircraft an amphibious commander could have at their disposal.
The Wildcat more than justifies its position on the deck as a light utility helicopter (LUH) alone, as Major Ian Moore, Commanding officer of 847 NAS, confirmed during its latest Arctic adventure. All of Major Moore’s front-line flying experience is with 847 NAS having flown the Westland Lynx AH7 before converting to the Wildcat. Embarked aboard HMS Ocean (L12) as part of the UK’s high readiness Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime) during the 2015 Cougar deployment, Royal Marines had their first opportunity to witness the ISTAR capability Wildcat can bring to an amphibious landing force. Further validation of this aspect of Wildcat came during 2016 when performing maritime force protection and maritime surface search roles; Major Moore explains: “In January 2016, we were the first Wildcat squadron to deploy to the Arctic during which we achieved our basic environmental qualifications [EQ] plus some basic tactical tasking. Initial hurdles to overcome included operating with wheels – Wildcat - rather than skids – Lynx - and cold-soaking the aircraft outside in the elements for a period of time. This was crucial to understanding how the aircraft would react to these extreme conditions and proving the aircraft could be maintained and operated in an austere environment. The aircraft performed really well which provided us with assurance we could operate Wildcat tactically in these conditions.” Between May and July 2016, 847 NAS deployed to Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona in the United States to perform hot and high desert training. Operating in temperatures up to 50ºC (122ºF), valuable lessons were learned including how the aircraft’s tactical processor would cope in the extreme heat. This proved another highly successful deployment for the Wildcat, achieving its desert environmental qualifications and most notably, some impressive tactical training which served to further enhance Wildcat’s international reputation. Major Moore explained: “It is almost standard now for 847 to complete an EQ and then achieve more in terms of mission specific and continuation training. We have an exchange United States Marine Corps [USMC] Weapons and Tactics Instructor embedded with us and during this deployment, we worked with UH-1Y Venom helicopters completing the first Wildcat laser target designation of an air delivered laser guided munition - APKWS [Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System] [2.75 inch/70 millimetre] rockets. One of our FAC(A)s [Forward Air Controllers Airborne] controlled the UH-1Y, providing them with targeting information and terminal guidance of that weapon into our laser ‘basket’. We also successfully completed the first UK laser-spot target handover with a US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II, which is a great demonstration of Wildcat’s ability to bridge the gap between fifth-generation jets and the envisaged fifth-generation commandos of the Royal Marines Future Commando Force. The tactical processing systems and capabilities aboard Wildcat can enable the fires required by these fifth-generation capabilities. This is a niche role within the LitM environment, and an important demonstration of partner nation interoperability which is at the forefront of UK defence strategy.”
The Wildcat’s principal weapon is currently its mission systems integrated with its Electro Optical/Infrared Device (EOD). AIR International’s discussions with Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) confirm Wildcat’s capability could be greatly enhanced with the introduction of the Selex Galileo Seaspray 7000E actively electronically scanned array radar which is currently fitted to the naval Wildcat HM2 version. This has outstanding overland ground moving target indicator (GMTI) capability and synthetic aperture radar which would greatly enhance the aircraft’s maritime force protection and stand-off target acquisition capability in the littoral environment. It is hoped that future upgrades will also include long-range fuel tanks to extend endurance and enhanced datalink communication capability. The aircraft hoovers up so much information so quickly that this is considered a necessity.
As impressive as these achievements were, perhaps the perfect demonstration of the Wildcat’s LUH capability came during late 2017 when 847 NAS, which was deployed with the Standard NATO Maritime Group 2 (SNGM2), was called into urgent action to provide humanitarian relief to British Overseas Territories in the Caribbean following Hurricane Irma in September 2017 (Operation Ruman). Major Moore confirmed the aircraft’s strength lies in its multi-role capability: “Whether it’s supporting LitM or providing disaster relief, Wildcat’s small size enabled us to get into locations Merlin and Chinook helicopters couldn’t for fear of creating further downwash damage. Whilst our heavy lifters did just that, Wildcat was used to move people and stores between platforms and to complete bespoke tasks ashore. Embarked, Wildcat is a jack of all trades, an enabler providing ISTAR, control and direction of joint fires and organic offensive strike, thus providing 3 Commando Brigade with flexibility and choice.” Partner nation interoperability was further demonstrated in 2018 during 847 NAS fivemonth deployment aboard the French Ship Dixmude (L9015); an amphibious assault ship. With two Wildcats and 40 personnel deployed, this embarkation to the Mediterranean, Southeast Asia and Oceania enabled the squadron to develop its maritime expertise and support the UK and French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime).
847’s charge towards FOC has seen them working extensively with NATO partners, a key tenet in the current climate. As demonstrated in the US in 2016, the direction of joint fires is one of the principal force multipliers offered by 847 NAS and the Wildcat RH. Comprising a mix of specialist aircraft commanders able to direct and control artillery, Naval Gunfire Support (NGS) plus an array of air-delivered munitions from fixed- and rotary-wing attack platforms, the direction of joint fires is a niche capability which has effectively lain dormant within the UK’s rotary inventory for years. Momentum for this requirement within UK Defence and amongst NATO partners is gathering pace and it is easy to understand why. Through a mix of determination and an understanding of the advantage this role can offer encapsulated in an airborne ISTAR platform, 847 NAS has fully realised this capability for the first time since the battle of Al Faw in Iraq in 2003 (Operation Telic) when 40 Commando were delivered by both UK and US helicopters into the peninsula to secure oil fields and clear the area of enemy forces. Future success in this role is dependent on training and recruitment of the right skillset as Major Moore explained:
”The key to realising our joint fires capability and achieving FOC by our target date of 2020 is our ability to generate suitably qualified and experienced aircrew and achieving our full aircrew complement. Operating across three disciplines of FAC(A), AOP [Airborne Observation Post] and NGS, our aircrew are utilising the aircraft’s sensors and tactical processing capability to effectively provide an airborne extension of a Royal Artillery Fire Support Team [FST], which may not yet be established ashore in a LitM context, to support the fire and manoeuvre of ground forces once established, and enable the fires plan in the early stages of an amphibious operation. To do this requires a very specific skillset, which requires a lot of training and flight currency to maintain. “The rejuvenation of FAC(A) and the UK’s joint fires capability within JHC represents a major success story for 847 and Wildcat. We have proved to be the pioneers of Joint Fires from an airborne platform, especially with regard to FAC(A)s as we have the only FAC(A) instructor in the front line. It is now imperative we develop this capability amongst our principal aircraft commanders who will lead this type of mission in the future. Having achieved our basic AOP and NGS qualifications in the classroom and simulator environments, in order to fully qualify we will live fire on our return to the UK on Salisbury Plain [Ministry of Defence large military training area in Wiltshire] and on Exercise Joint Warrior.”
847 NAS’ latest venture into the Arctic proved a major success with increased focus on tactical development of the aircraft and personnel once their current EQ (which lasts five years for aircrew) had been achieved. Whilst EQ was the primary objective, 847 NAS decided to spend ten weeks in the Arctic to ensure there was sufficient training time to additionally ‘fight’ the aircraft in preparation for Exercise Cold Response 2020 - a major NATO exercise which will take place in Norway. The squadron brought four Wildcats to ensure it could maintain two operational tasking lines. This proved a sound move as Major Moore explained: “This environment is one of the harshest on earth and if you can operate here, you can operate anywhere. It was important we hit this Clockwork hard to achieve our EQ and to ensure we are positioned well for Cold Response next year. Although we lost some training days due to the weather and some minor serviceability issues which is to be expected in this environment, our training went exceptionally well and there was no EQ shortfall. In all we trained eleven pilots and five aircrewmen, each flying ten EQ sorties, the content of which ranged from day navigation and snow landings right up to tactical night formation sorties operating in a Wildcat pair. Importantly, we achieved our additional mission specific training which manifested itself in numerous live firing events using Wildcat’s M3M 0.50 calibre heavy machine gun. We were tasked by JHC to conduct AH/RH [attack helicopter/ reconnaissance helicopter] teaming which we did with the Apache helicopters from 4 Regiment [656 squadron based at Wattisham Airfield, Suffolk] as soon as we arrived. This was their inaugural Arctic deployment.
Initially we completed some joint low-level operations to build relationships as they will be part of the maritime aviation task force [JHC’s Aviation Task Force 2 comprises Apache, Chinook, Merlin and Wildcat]. Our joint training culminated in Wildcat laser designation of Apache live 30mm gun fires on the Setermoen range. We used three aircraft during this operation, again illustrating Wildcat’s operational versatility. One was used to underslung load ammunition to the FARP [forward arming and refuelling point] whilst another flew a dissimilar type AH/RH teaming profile. With one Apache and one Wildcat flying a ‘shooter-shooter’ profile, one further Wildcat aircraft acted as the FAC(A) providing the target information, CAS brief [close air support), ultimately ‘clearing’ the AH to engage the target. The results of this teaming were excellent with the Apache commander confirming it worked beautifully.” Major Moore explained how this teaming dynamic worked. Seated in the left-hand seat, the FAC(A) has control of the Wildcat’s EOD which is principally used for imaging and target designation. Having approved the attack and the Apaches’ attack heading, the FAC(A) then provided the Apache with its target geometric coordinates or blocks. Once the Apache was in range and the commander had called ‘laser’, the FAC(A) lasered the target and terminally guided the Apache’s simulated AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-surface missile and follow on 30mm gun fire into the laser ‘basket’ created by the Wildcat.
A key tenet of the UK’s defence strategy in Norway is that based British forces also train with Norwegian forces during Clockwork. During their ten-week deployment, 847 NAS completed two six-ship missions with the Luftforsvaret (Royal Norwegian Air Force) Bardufoss-based Bell 412s which operate with 139 Wing’s 339 Squadron. On each occasion, four Bell 412s were escorted by two 847 NAS Wildcats which additionally honed their offensive live firing skills on Norway’s firing ranges. The four Norwegian Bell 412s carried Norwegian and USMC reconnaissance troops during these missions. The squadron also completed important joint fires training with Dutch marines as Major Moore explained: “The Netherlands is an important partner of the UK in an amphibious context. We therefore spent a couple of days with members of their fire support team facilitating their mortar fires. We carried Dutch forward observers who observed our laser target designation technique which involves lasing the target, obtaining an accurate grid and then calling in the fire. Any correction required by their gunner was quickly obtained by Wildcat’s targeting system which was then transmitted by radio to them. They were very impressed with Wildcat’s mission system accuracy and flexibility. In addition to the support training completed with 3 Commando, we also completed some training with 30 Commando, the UK’s ground ISTAR specialists. We provided them with simulated CAS and acted as an airborne extension of their ISTAR effort. Another exercise undertaken near Tromsø airport to the north of Bardufoss involved two Wildcats, one acting as Red Air and the other as Blue Air. The Red Air aircraft operated out of sight on one side of the airport trying to detect the Blue Air aircraft which was trying to find targets on the airport. This represented quite advanced and incredibly realistic training.” During Clockwork 2019, 847 Wildcats completed over 260 flight hours. These results are impressive given the low ambient temperatures and heavy snow and recirculation experienced during this exercise. The high value training conducted to date, which includes the specialist training achieved during Clockwork 2019, places 847 NAS in a strong position to provide the niche capability required by 3 Commando as they develop littoral strike capability in this new era of UK carrier operations. 847 NAS’s ability to provide specialist capabilities such as ISTAR, direction of fires and other battlefield support roles while operating with partner nations in austere conditions means the squadron and the Wildcat is well placed to be a key player in the air, land and maritime integration sphere of future amphibious operations. AI