The ‘flying eyes’ of the Royal Marines can now bring full fire and fury down on their foes after a crucial week’s training with NATO allies in northern Scotland.
Bombs from fast jets and shells either from howitzers in the field or the guns of the Fleet can be directed to crash down on enemy positions with pinpoint accuracy, guided by the battlefield Wildcats of 847 Naval Air Squadron.
The state-of-the-art helicopters, crews and engineers decamped from their Somerset home to RAF Lossiemouth, from where they’ve either been operating over the RAF ranges at Tain in the Moray Firth or the extensive military exercise area at Cape Wrath at the north-western tip of the mainland, all in support of Exercise Joint Warrior, the largest war game hosted in the UK this year.
More than 8,000 personnel, three dozen ships and 60 aircraft from the UK and 13 NATO nations are committed to the ten-day workout, which ends tomorrow and is aimed at proving the ability of the alliance’s forces to mesh together quickly to respond to global events.
847 is one of three squadrons which supports the Royal Marines in the field, all under the banner of the Commando Helicopter Force based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset.
845 and 846 Squadrons use Merlin helicopters to ferry Royal Marines and their equipment into battle, 847’s Wildcats scout the field of battle for potential foes, provide aerial cover for convoys and provide close air support – either directly with Royal Marines blasting away with M3M machine-guns, spewing up to 635 .5in shells a minute at targets up to two kilometres, or indirectly by calling in bombing, missile and gunfire strikes.
The Wildcats arrived in Scotland with the goal of ‘ticking off’ the last major element of training – qualifying three fliers as aerial observers for naval gunfire support, the last of a trio of ‘fire disciplines’ 847 is expected to provide (the remaining two are acting as airborne forward air controllers to guide in friendly air power, and acting as air observation posts to direct land-based gunnery).
Operating in pairs, the Wildcats directed rounds coming from the 4.5in main guns of frigate HMS Kent and destroyer HMS Defender – capable of hitting targets up to 17 miles away – and the slightly smaller calibre 76mm guns of the Danish frigate RDB Peter Willemoes and Dutch patrol ship HNLMS Friesland as a hail of steel and high explosive rained down on Cape Wrath and Garvie Island just offshore.
In addition, the squadron also provided close air support at Tain range just north of Lossiemouth, strafing ground targets identified by the artillerymen of 29 Commando Regiment with the Wildcat’s M3M guns, before directing raids by numerous different aircraft including Typhoons from RAF Coningsby, US Navy NH-60 Seahawks and US Air Force F-15 Strike Eagles.
Just for good measure, the nimble Wildcats were called on to ferry personnel around the huge exercise area – the Scotland element of Joint Warrior alone stretches from Luce Bay at the southwestern tip of the country, to Cape Wrath, then across to Lossiemouth – including 3 Commando Brigade’s Commanding Officer Brigadier Matt Jackson who wanted to observe the live firings at Cape Wrath.
“We have given a lot to the other players in Joint Warrior – and we have achieved a huge amount ourselves,” said Major William Moore, 847 Naval Air Squadron’s Commanding Officer. “We now have forward air controllers airborne, people who can control artillery and naval gunfire forward observers who can call for and direct naval support. So that’s really good news for 847 Squadron and it’s good news for all of 3 Commando Brigade.”
Once Joint Warrior concludes, the Wildcats are lined up for a major test of UK air forces in and around RAF Spadeadam, near Hadrian’s Wall on the Cumbria-Northumberland border, practising the rescue of aircrew shot down deep behind enemy lines.
The mission – known as Joint Personnel Recovery – will see 847 act as the rescue mission commanders, choreographing support from aircraft as varied as Apache gunships, the marines’ own troop-carrying Merlins, RAF Rivet Joint intelligence gathering jets, RAF Typhoon fighters and RAF/Fleet Air Arm new F-35 Lightning stealth fighters, all facing threats in the skies and on the ground.