Pumas in Composite Air Exercise

Four crews and two aircraft of RAF Benson’s 230 Sqn recently participated in an intense but highly successful ten day Composite Air Operations (COMAO) exercise in Norway.

The Exercise, hosted by 338 Sqn RNoAF at Orland Main Air Station near Trondheim, featured 57 aircraft from 12 NATO nations completing nearly 490 sorties against a series of contested scenarios in a deployed environment. This marked the final participation of the Puma Mk1 in an exercise of this scale and its contribution was well received. Training for the COMAO began months in advance as the Puma Force utilised Fast Jet QWIs experience as part of their ‘Thursday War’ scenarios at the RAF Benson Medium Support Helicopter Aircrew Training Facility. This building houses Chinook, Merlin and Puma Simulators and provides several scenarios for linked simulator sorties allowing Op crews to train for the COMAO environment. The mentoring received from the QHTIs and FJ SMEs meant that 230 Sqn could arrive in Norway fully prepared to integrate into a complex battle space from the outset. The crews were tested on the relatively unfamiliar aircraft that they would work with in Norway to give them a sound understanding of the weapons and tactics each type would employ.

Flying two waves per day and planning over long hours, the crews tackled the intricacies that go into making a successful plan, including the inevitable last minute fine tuning or injects from DS. The Pumas completed Joint Personnel Recovery (JPR), CASEVAC and ground force insertion/extraction serials that centred upon urban operations and formed the priority task for many of the COMAO scenarios. Det Cdr, Sqn Ldr Steve McCann said “This exercise was a rare but excellent opportunity for our crews to perform and develop their skills as a major component of a large-scale COMAO. They practised skills which provide the framework for future joint and combined operations, like those seen on Op ELLAMY.” A sizeable exercise area set with the impressive back drop of Nordic fjords, allowed the Puma crews to hone evasion skills against GBAD and fighter threats that are seldom seen on UK exercises. The inhospitable terrain and inclement weather additionally pitched the crews against challenging flying conditions in a testing mountainous region.

Working closely with Norwegian and other NATO ground forces afforded crews the opportunity to experience the strengths and weaknesses of multi-national coalition operations. Naturally, operating procedures differed from those of the British Army but exposure to such differences will be crucial for the joint and combined multinational environment.  This valuable knowledge and exposure will serve the Puma Force well on their return to contingency operations.

Pilot and a mission commander Flt Lt Chris Pepper, described one of the successful JPR missions; “Directed by AWACS and being reliant upon Suppression of Enemy Air Defences from Luftwaffe Tornados and CAS from Belgian and Norwegian F16s we knew we had to be in exactly the right place at exactly the right time and we managed to locate and extract in timely fashion.” A number of personnel were able to plan and observe the Ex from a different perspective by working alongside another aircraft type to see how the different elements contribute to a successful package.

Early comparisons were sought by other participants between the current Puma Mk1 and the step change represented by the Puma Mk2 in terms of numbers carried, range, endurance and communications. OC 230 Sqn explained that crews trained in the complexities of multi-national operations, and in particular against contested battlespace scenarios and sophisticated threat systems, would soon be complemented by a tremendously capable helicopter when the Mk2 arrives in service, offering Defence a very exciting future capability.

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