AIR ASSAULT, securing an airfield for follow-on forces to fly in, was the mission of 38 NATO helicopters taking off from Bezmer Air Base in Bulgaria on the morning of July 22, 2017. On board the helicopters heading for Bulgaria’s biggest military training area at Novo Selo were troops from the US Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry and Greek paratroopers.
Colonel Clair Gill, commanding officer of the US Army’s 10th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB), flew the mission in a UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter. He is a veteran of Afghanistan, and Iraq and was a ‘Night Stalker’ in the 160th Special Operation Air Regiment. This was his first European deployment. He was impressed by the smooth operation of the multinational force. At the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army in Washington DC on October 11, 2017, he told AIR International: “I had two Greek Chinooks in the flight, behind me and two 10th CAB and two Greek Apaches provided armed reconnaissance and fire on the same sets of targets.”
The air assault was the capstone event of Exercise Saber Guardian 2017, one of the high points of the 10th CAB’s nine-month rotational deployment, reinforcing the 12th CAB – the US Army’s only Europebased helicopter unit – as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, demonstrating continued United States commitment to NATO. On November 7, the 10th CAB turned over its European mission to the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade (from Fort Hood, Texas) and returned to its home station at Fort Drum, New York, just below the Canadian border.
First to rotate
The US commitment to provide rotational CABs came out of NATO’s unanimous agreement at the 2016 Warsaw summit to change its overall policy from one of assurance to one of deterrence. Colonel Gill said: “Nothing deters like putting Apaches on the eastern flank.” The 10th CAB – minus units detached to Korea and Iraq – brought 50 Black Hawks and 10 Chinooks from Fort Drum and was reinforced by 25 Apaches from the 501st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion at Fort Bliss, Texas. Moving all these helicopters to Europe, said Gill, was, “very complex and expensive. It starts at the home station, implementing a training programme. The logistical effort required a ‘whole-of-military approach to build’, with strategic airlift and sealift that took us into multiple airports and seaports in the north and south of Europe.”
The 10th CAB had to adapt to operating in European conditions, as part of a multinational force, and with its battalions and companies dispersed across the continent. Europe was, Gill said: “an unfamiliar environment for us. We are very used to flying around the States or in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan where there are not a lot of rules. In Europe, we have to consider each country’s rules, laws and timing.” He said the 10th CAB’s pre-deployment training made its transition to flying in NATO: “almost seamless. There were some language barriers and differences in how we did planning. There were NATO standards, rules and TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] that we had to learn. Our learning curve was steep early on.”
US helicopters in Europe
By the time he flew in the air assault in Bulgaria, Gill said: “The fact that Greek Chinooks were behind me was normal. We had flown with Romanian Pumas. We’d carried troops from every nation from Germany eastwards [where the 10th CAB had flown] with the host nation military, or working with SOF [special operations forces], increasing exponentially their speed, survivability and lethality. We move them where they cannot otherwise move. Aviation can be a decisive element that a lot of militaries find prohibitively expensive.”
The 10th CAB learned from NATO partners. Romanian helicopter pilots shared how to operate in their country’s conditions: hot and high in the mountains, corrosion risks along the Black Sea beaches. Gill said: “It’s challenging to hide helicopters. We had Romanian jets looking for us from above and telling us what they could see.” In return, the 10th CAB found that their partners, especially from the smaller militaries, “most look to us for leadership – what right looks like.”
In Bulgaria and other countries, Gill said: “Some of the missions we asked them to plan it and then we executed, then we planned and they executed.” This approach was implemented in combat search and rescue missions with the Bulgarians, Mil Mi-24 Hinds and Apaches jointly flying escort as Black Hawks landed to make the pick-up.
With the 10th CAB deployed throughout Eastern Europe, Exercise Falcon Talon took place in multiple locations in Romania and the three Baltic nations, with NATO forces playing a major role and incorporating the exercise in their training. Gill said: “Our training culminated with Exercise Falcon Talon. After Saber Guardian, we came back, did a quick refit and then went back out in the field. The exercise started with a simulated Article 5 [outside attack on a NATO member] incursion. On an hour’s notice, we went to alert, marshalled, deployed to hide sites, then simulated how we would sustain operations at a low-echelon, company and below level, to execute a mission with no top cover, providing capability for a limited time before they need fuel or parts, giving junior leaders the requirement and capability to figure out things for themselves and demonstrate their ability to operate independently of higher headquarters, but wholly within my commander’s intent. [Stateside,] we’re used to train at a deliberate, collective level. Here, we said, ‘we are throwing the rules out, do what you have to do to survive.’”
10TH COMBAT AVIATION BRIGADE IN THE NETHERLANDS
On October 23, the 10th CAB started an operation to move its helicopters back to the United States following a nine-month deployment to Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
Around 80 helicopters were off oaded from a so-called ARC (American Roll-on, roll-off Carrier) at Bremerhaven, Germany in March, before moving to various locations in Europe.
In order to test different logistical routes and the handling capability of different ports, the 10th CAB’s return took place mainly via the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, while a small number was shipped from the port of Alexandroupoli, Greece.
During the last week of October, 55 helicopters were flown from southern Germany to Rotterdam, in most cases via Wiesbaden airfield and Eindhoven Air Base before the final hop to the port of Rotterdam.
In total, 27 H-60 Blackhawks, 16 AH-64 Apaches and 12 CH-47 Chinooks arrived at Rotterdam and temporarily placed in a large hangar owned by a civil contractor. For the duration of the exercise the hangar was declared military terrain and guarded by both US and Dutch troops.
The helicopters, 1,100 vehicles and containers, were loaded on ARC Endurance by mid-November, before heading back to the United States.
The 1st CAB replaced the 10th CAB as part of Atlantic Resolve and 77 of its helicopters arrived aboard the ARC Endurance at the port of Antwerp, Belgium on October 19. All 77 helicopters were initially flown to Chievres Air Base, Belgium before forward deployment to various airfields in Germany.
The 10th CAB encountered a number of challenges during its deployment, Gill said. “In technical capabilities, we need an RNAV [area navigation all-weather] capability. We are required to have RNAV to fly in Europe. Some aircraft don’t have it, so we are looking at modifications to allow them to fly in RNAV. The next rotational brigade will have modifications for an initial federated solution to allow them to fly in an RNAV environment. Some of our helicopters don’t have de-icing capability, another expensive modification. We need rotor blade de-icers on Chinooks. We are looking for ways our missiles can increase their lethality and be able to reach longer than the Hellfire.”
Sustainment and support of the 10th CAB’s dispersed helicopters was a challenge. Gill said: “You can’t not do maintenance on helicopters… you can’t stockpile parts every place we are now.” Gill thinks future US CABs in Europe will need: “more consistent and well-honed sustainment and routing systems that get parts to the point of need in the east. We’re good in Germany; at Baumholder, I can get it in a day, but to get a part to Latvia or Romania can take the better part of a week. I’d like to see our NATO partners operate a CN235, which could carry a pallet, or a C-27. We’re doing it [flying parts to dispersed helicopters] on the cheap with a C-12. A part could get bumped off by a passenger.”
Rotating rotary wings
Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, commander of US Army Europe, speaking at the AUSA meeting on October 11, said he would like to see the 12th CAB, which is permanently stationed in Europe, brought up to strength. It is currently the weakest CAB in the active force, with only two battalions (Attack and General Support) as opposed to the usual five. He said: “Nobody takes an army seriously unless Army aviation is part of it. It will always be at the top of my list, whether rotational or stationed. I would prefer to have Army aviation stationed permanently in Europe. I know this is expensive and I worry that, at some point, the Army thinks if EDI [European Defense Initiative] money dries up or they get less, it will be more difficult for the Army to fund or resource. I like having rotational forces. They are in Europe for nine months, with an operational tempo twice what it is at home and get a lot of effects. I am trying to have it both ways with aviation and I worry about losing that.”
Gill also wants US Army Aviation to have a rotational and permanent presence in Europe: “They need a permanent aviation brigade and could modify their aircraft to operate over there. There is continuity in relationships working in an alliance that you need to have. There is some fidelity lost in a rotational unit and some friction when we come in.” However, a rotational brigade comes back to its home station highly trained, ready for any contingency. Gill said: “This brigade has been afforded opportunities to train unlike anything I have ever seen. We absolutely have built readiness in my team. We have done collective training from squad up to brigade, even at battalion level, some with exercises. As soon as we go home we refit our gear. This brigade has been able to train at a high level and attain a high level of readiness over nine months.”
The US Army has a powerful capability in the 10th CAB and its experienced personnel as they return stateside.