The wings of the Royal Marines have taken a big step towards large-scale operations at sea after two action-packed months in the Baltic.
Wildcat and Merlin helicopters were vital to the UK’s Baltic Protector deployment, which saw the helicopters spearhead amphibious assaults from the shores of Denmark to Estonia.
After a decade of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan and conversion to new helicopters – battlefield Merlins and Wildcats replacing Sea Kings and Lynx respectively – the squadrons have had relatively few opportunities to get to sea… and rarely on such large-scale exercises with so many nations.
The two-month stint in the Baltic not only helped fliers and engineers get their sea legs back and hone their amphibious skills, but also demonstrated their ability to fight side-by-side with numerous allied forces and operate from bases they’ve never used before.
The helicopters took part in three major exercises – in Denmark, in the central/eastern Baltic and, finally, in Latvia and Estonia – performing the basics of operating at sea (landing, launching, refueling) through to front-line combat missions (ferrying troops into battle, directing friendly air power, taking out threats).
Detachment commander Major Will Moore said the mission with the UK’s Joint Expeditionary Force task group marked a “successful return to amphibious operations” for the Commando Helicopter Force.
He continued: “Baltic Protector has been an excellent vehicle for Commando Helicopter Force’s air group to continue to refine its amphibious aviation skills and experience. The ingenuity, flexibility and professionalism of both the air group and RFA Argus’ crew has seen us overcome many hurdles to produce the effect required.”
The Wildcat proved that it can scout for ground troops and friendly air power, using its sensors to ‘lase’ targets for the Army’s Apache gunships to attack and support a night raid, dropping troops of 45 Commando behind ‘enemy’ lines in Latvia.
And in neighbouring Estonia the Wildcats were used to guide HMS Kent’s main gun, shot up ‘enemy’ 4x4 vehicles, and provided key reconnaissance to Royal Marines on the ground of enemy movements, while the Merlin was a workhorse throughout the deployment, moving troops and equipment around and carrying them into ‘battle’ during the major raids.
Pilot Lieutenant Richard Burns said Baltic Protector had allowed crews of the new Merlin Mk4 – fully digital cockpit, folding rotor blades/tail for improved operations at sea – to prove the full range of the helicopter’s capabilities “from ‘helicasting’ [dropping Royal Marines into the water] to fast roping and conducting under slung loads to a moving deck.”
The detachment used aviation training/medical ship RFA Argus as its floating base for the deployment – turning the auxiliary into a makeshift aircraft carrier.
That could provide a useful pointer as to how a small detachment of helicopters could support the Royal Marines of tomorrow – the Future Commando Force being shaped for mid-21st-Century operations – and the planned ‘littoral strike ships’ they will use.
“The return to amphibious operations has provided the aircrew with many challenges, however it has shown that we are capable of deploying as an effective tailored air group in this role,” said Lieutenant Dominic Savage of 847 Naval Air Squadron, which flies Wildcats.
The regeneration of Commando Helicopter Force is not yet complete – Merlin Mk4s are still being handed over to replace the older Mk3s – but it is well on track to be fully ready for operations in all environments and scenarios as planned by 2023.
“The transformation with all our new aircraft is really going well,” said Royal Marines Colonel Steve Hussey MBE, Commanding Officer CHF.
“We’re about two thirds of the way through transition, and it’s been quite challenging, but the aircraft coming in are magnificent. Commando Merlin has delivered everything we could have asked for.”
The next major test for the Yeovilton-based force comes in the new year when it conducts its annual winter training in Norway and participates in NATO’s large-scale Cold Response exercise demonstrating how the alliance defends Europe’s northern flank against aggressors; the CHF helicopters are to base themselves on Dutch vessels.
“It will be demanding but an excellent and challenging time and we will rise to the occasion,” Colonel Hussey added.