Commando Helicopter Force have put the seal on ‘pioneering’ high intensity training on their annual Arctic workout, Exercise Clockwork.
The wings of the Royal Marines – who fly the Commando Wildcats and Merlins – are adept operators in one of the planet’s most inhospitable environments, and Clockwork serves as their yearly top-up of the deep freeze.
On the 51st edition of the extreme cold weather flying training, the Wildcats of 847 Naval Air Squadron continued their work with the British Army’s Apache attack helicopters of 656 Squadron Army Air Corps.
This work, known as ‘Attack Reconnaissance Teaming’, has undergone rapid development, according to 847 NAS’s Commanding Officer, Major Ian Moore Royal Marines.
Wildcats are tasked with finding enemy positions using their state-of-the-art battlefield reconnaissance abilities and laser targeting kit, before the potent Apache strikes and destroys targets.
Maj Moore said: "This winter deployment has proved an excellent vehicle for advancing 847 NAS’s warfighting capability in the Arctic.
“The squadron is now adept at both operating and, crucially, fighting in our aircraft in this most challenging of environments.
“A particular highlight has been the rapid development of the Attack Reconnaissance Teaming concept, which has seen Army Apache and Wildcat learn how to exploit and maximise their respective capabilities, and then work together to multiply the find and strike effect for the primary customer, in this case 3 Commando Brigade.
“This work is truly pioneering, and has never been done before in the Arctic or amphibious arenas.”
The training included the Apache’s firing their Hellfire missiles for the first time in Arctic as well as its 30mm cannon.
The Wildcats let rip with its own .50cal machine guns during their own live firing training at Setermoen Ranges, which saw them work with ground forces from the United States Marine Corps and Norwegian Armed Forces.
After completing the demanding Clockwork training, the CHF fliers progressed to Norwegian-led Exercise Cold Response, in which Wildcat and Apache put their earlier work into practice in hunting down the enemy across the Norwegian wilderness.
Merlins of 845 Naval Air Squadron, after their own Arctic training, moved onto Dutch ship HNLMS Johan De Witt for Cold Response.
From there, the Merlins flew inland in support of 45 Commando’s Battle Group, who were forging a path from the coastline on fjord raids, backed by Wildcats and Apaches.
Using their unique skills as battlespace managers, the Wildcats, meanwhile, provided support to ground missions, including reconnaissance of landing zones for the Merlins to come in and drop marines and supplies.
“The opportunity to deliver integrated air packages consisting of RAF Chinook, Commando Merlin, Apache and Commando Wildcat in a large-scale multinational exercise context has been very well exploited,” added Maj Moore.
“The utility of Wildcat as a multi-role aircraft, especially as an airborne mission command asset and a control of joint fires platform, has seen 847 take a leading role in most of the joint aviation missions.
“This serves to highlight the flexibility of the aircraft, the extremely high level of training of the aircrew, and thus the great value of Commando Wildcat in amphibious operations.”
Before sorties could be flown, the fliers had to learn to survive, move and fight on the ground in the Arctic freeze on the cold weather course run by the Royal Marines Mountain Leaders.
"Keeping the aircraft flying can often involve long hours out on the line," said Air Engineering Officer Lieutenant Holmes.
“The men and women of 847 NAS were no doubt tested physically and mentally during the course, but it has enabled them to carry out their duties in pretty bleak conditions."
Once up in the air, aviators and engineers new to the Arctic began learning what it takes to operate in the freezing temperatures and across the challenging terrain.
This included taking off and landing in deep snow, often producing complete 'whiteout' conditions with the downwash from the main rotor blades – a challenge even for the most experienced Arctic aviators.
Mountain flying in strong winds and poor visibility, load lifting, and tactical formation flying at night are other vital skills required to complete the course and set the conditions for a subsequent range package and Cold Response.