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With a deployment to Erbil, Iraq, on the near horizon for members of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s (RCAF’s) 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron (THS), participation in the Canadian Army’s road to high readiness training has taken on a different focus.
In recent years, RCAF tactical aviation and the Army’s mechanized brigade group preparing for worldwide deployment have both received their final validation at Exercise Maple Resolve, an annual final live training exercise held each June in Wainwright, Alberta, to confirm their ability to respond to any kind of conflict anywhere.
This year, however, 5 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group (5 CMBG) and 430 THS, both of Valcartier, Quebec, are preparing for actual deployments in very different environments. In April, 430 THS will arrive in Erbil to replace 408 THS as the tactical aviation detachment on Operation Impact; and beginning July 1, 5 CMBG will be the Army’s high readiness force and the next rotation into operations in Latvia and the Ukraine in support of NATO’s Operation Reassurance.
Consequently, while the Brigade will receive final confirmation of its battalions and other units at Maple Resolve, 430 THS is undergoing a separate validation process prior to deployment to Iraq.
“[We] are deploying to two different places on two different rotation schedules with two different training objectives, which makes it very difficult to synch our training,” said LCol Mike Babin, commanding officer of 430 THS.
Nonetheless, the CH-146 Griffon helicopter squadron and elements of 450 Tactical Helicopter Squadron from Petawawa, Ontario, which operates the CH-147F Chinook, are playing important roles in the Brigade’s high readiness training exercises.
That was on display last week in Valcartier during Exercise Unified Resolve, the Army’s largest computer-assisted training exercise to certify the command and control capabilities of the Brigade headquarters and several subordinate units, confirming their ability to plan and conduct missions.
While the helicopter squadron was not part of the primary training audience and operated only a partial headquarters and operations centre, its role as a simulated tactical aviation task force was critical to helping the Brigade “in their training objectives to integrate aviation within their own force,” Babin told Skies during a brief break in the exercise. “[It helps the Army] know how to use aviation and for us to not lose our collective knowledge and capability to run such an operations centre integrated within a brigade.”
Seated in a tent inside a barbed wire enclosure — representing the Brigade’s headquarters and operating base — as snow continued to pile up outside and the temperature hovered at -10 C, Babin said the aviation task force had been engaged right from the start of the exercise, which began with a large air mobile operation.
“We immediately dispatched planners to all the various units involved in that operation. We were well integrated into the Brigade operational plan to make sure that our air mobile fit within the overall Brigade scheme of maneuver,” he said.
Understanding each other’s operating procedures and capabilities, and how to plan to ensure the best effect, is often a key exercise objective for the Army and tactical aviation. Though air-land integration has advanced considerably since Canadian helicopters were first deployed in Afghanistan, both are still learning how best to use air assets.
And even old lessons need to be reinforced. Babin noted that while the Army and Air Force have been through these exercises many times in recent years, the frequency of personnel rotations means that a significant number of headquarters staff members are new from one exercise to the next.
The CH-147F helicopter has also reached a level of maturity since 450 THS was re-established in 2012. Where the first cadres of pilots where often former Griffon aircrews-or recent arrivals from the United Kingdom — increasingly the Chinooks are operated by graduates of the 450 training program.
“It’s more and more important that we have representatives of both capabilities in our planning, otherwise we are making assumptions that may or may not be right,” said Babin, adding that leadership in Griffon squadrons now may have limited background with Chinook operations.
In 2016, under direction from Army leadership, 2 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group, based in Petawawa, stood up a working group with 450 THS and key members from the Brigade’s service battalion, light infantry battalions, and artillery regiment to focus on the standard operating procedures for air assault and air mobility as part of high readiness training.
Babin said the 5 CMBG and 430 had not received a similar directive, but were working on how to improve airspace control, a challenge “we are constantly working to refine.” He also noted that the RCAF, 450 THS, the Army and Canadian Forces Health Services Group held a planning meeting last week to work on the validation of a forward air evacuation capability for the Chinook.
The aim, he said, is “to figure out exactly how that is going to work, where we are going to have nurses, doctors, security personnel on the aircraft. [It] will be tried for the first time on Maple Resolve . . . [and validated] for deployment some time in the next year.”
As much as the RCAF has learned from recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, it could face a vastly different threat environment. Exercises such as Unified Resolve and Maple Resolve, which are currently set in a scenario resembling the Caucuses against a near-peer enemy with significant air power and ground-based air defenses, serve as a reminder that Western forces will not always control the airspace.
“This is a wake-up call. We’re facing a completely different and massively superior enemy in this scenario,” said Babin. “I just spent the last three years working in Europe in a strategic planning position and it was a wake-up call to me. Times have changed. The West used to . . . fly wherever and whenever we wanted. Gone are those days. So everybody is learning on these exercises.”