The wings of the Royal Marines helped commandos snatch a chemical weapons in a night-time raid – the finale to action-packed training in Denmark.
Using floating hospital/aviation training ship RFA Argus as its home, the Commando Helicopter Force is making maximum use of the UK’s premier amphibious deployment of 2019 to get used to operating at sea again.
The force has spent most of the past 15 years over Iraq and Afghanistan. That plus the transition to new helicopters – Wildcats in place of Lynx, Merlins for Sea Kings – means both air and ground crews are not perhaps as much at home at sea as they once were.
Six helicopters – battlefield Wildcats from 847 Naval Air Squadron, battlefield Merlins from 845, both normally based at RNAS Yeovilton in Somerset – are assigned to the UK’s amphibious task group throughout its Baltic Protector deployment.
The three Wildcats bristling with sensors provide Royal Marine commanders on the ground with unparalleled information about the battlefield – enemy movements, terrain, potential threats, location of friendly forces – and provide some ‘top cover’ with its M3M .50 calibre machine-gun.
The three Merlins provide the brute strength, ferrying troops (up to 16 commandos with full kit) and equipment (105mm guns, Land Rovers, BV transporters and Viking armoured vehicles) from ships to shore.
After mastering the basics of operating at sea (deck landings by day and night, bad weather approaches, refuelling, winching duties and so on), the Wildcats acted as the eyes of the gunners aboard frigate HMS Kent, Denmark’s HMDS Absalon and Norwegian corvette HNoMS Glimt, before the small air group, bolstered by Dutch Cougar helicopters, prepared for the final exercise on Danish soil at the Oksbol ranges near Esbjerg on the west coast of Jutland.
Merlins and Cougars put the men of 45 Commando ashore in the dark, with the Wildcats guiding the troops to their landing sites, first escorting the transporters, then using laser illumination to ‘light up’ the dropzones with pinpoint accuracy, and directing any fire support the troops on the ground required.
The Wildcats were in action for all eight hours of the final mission – placing demands on air and ground crews alike. And having deposited their men safely on the ground, the Merlins were held back to act as flying ambulances should any casualties need evacuating.
“The Wildcats were the first aircraft airborne and the last to return, providing situational awareness of the battlespace and airspace to everyone involved throughout the raid,” said Major William Moore, the Royal Marine in charge of the Wildcat detachment aboard RFA Argus.
As with the rest of the Joint Expeditionary Force, RFA Argus and her helicopters are now getting stuck into the main exercise of the summer deployment, the huge Baltops war games in the central Baltic, directed by the US Navy’s Second Fleet.