Puttingthe ‘A’in JHF(A)
Since the first Apache arrived on Op HERRICK, the force has seen a constant evolution of all aspects of life in Afghanistan. Beyond the obvious physical expansion of Bastion and the development of comforts, such as the tier 2 accommodation for aircrew, there are more subtle and defining changes that underlie the way we operate. These changes have arisen as the nature of conflict in Helmand has progressed from the intense ‘break-in’ experienced on Herrick 6-8 to the counter-insurgency experienced on Herrick 14.
Whilst the Apache was originally designed to defeat armour in the context of a traditional ground based war, it has adapted its tactics to achieve quite staggering success in the counter-insurgency warfare now seen in the green fields of Helmand Province. It has always been the soldier’s choice for air support and the primary strike asset for Task Force Helmand. During our tour, we have continually adapted our approach to enhance the lethality of the punch we deliver.
663 Squadron took over from 662 Squadron on 19th May 2011, nestling once more under Joint Helicopter Force (Afghanistan) – a great example of combined air power from all three services. Whilst the pace of change in Helmand has undoubtedly been felt primarily by the AH force, the evolution has affected all rotary assets.
First and foremost, our job is always to support the soldier on the ground. Much of the success we have seen throughout the tour is as a result of our soldier-centric mentality. We continue to be the weapon of choice and a soldier’s favourite. The OC of a Mercian Company based in PB Rahim described having the Apache overhead as having ‘Angels on our Shoulders’. The Army Air Corps has always prided itself on having soldiers flying for soldiers and nowhere is this more prevalent than on Op HERRICK.
The fight that the Apache faces today is almost unrecognisable from that of its debut in theatre. Of course this is a good thing as there would be little appetite amongst the British public to sustain such heavy fighting in an enduring context. We operate under strict rules that govern the way we manage risk, engage targets and conduct our business. Despite enemy action decreasing by half that of previous summers, such are the advances in targeting techniques, the Squadron has maintained the same kinetic strike rate. So while the ground situation has undoubtedly improved, there has been no degradation of the stresses and strains that aircrew are subjected to on a daily basis.
Whilst we have moved on from the era of ‘Courageous Restraint’, we have now found ourselves in the paradigm of refined, directed, and precise targeting. The need to achieve a zero expectation of civilian casualties and zero damage to civilian structures is at the forefront of every attack pilot’s mind. Whilst we still need to achieve an effect on the ground, the mantra of tactical patience has never been so true.
It’s been a busy tour for all the crews. Fatigue has been an issue under constant management and we have been battling to achieve all the demands placed upon us. There is no margin for getting it wrong, every mission has been closely scrutinised. With the constant pressure to ensure no civilians are injured, every trigger pull requires intense concentration and is backed by comprehensive ‘judgemental’ training prior to deployment. Flying over the summer months not only increases fatigue and crew stress through the intense heat, but also forces most of the deliberate ops to be conducted in the unpleasant hours of early morning. The continued support by Lynx Mk9A continues to offload much of the escort tasking to only but a few high-risk places. We have thus been able to successfully continue the high tempo of offensive patrolling throughout the summer period.
The major summer operation was Omid Haft, intended to bring stability to some of the last remaining Taliban safe havens in Nad-E Ali North and Nari-E-Saraj. 663 Squadron was called upon to provide intimate support to all elements of the operation and played an instrumental part in achieving its success. It is clear that the area has gone through a remarkable transformation and has seen the least AH kinetic activity of all coalition areas. Hotspots have remained in none but the most resilient corners, which needless to say have received a great deal of our attention.
663 Squadron have had an extremely effective tour. We have achieved some notable successes. In a summer where much of the news coverage has rightly focused on the war in Libya, the Apache Force in Afghanistan continues to maintain its formidable and awesome reputation without pause. The Squadron formally handed over control to 653 Squadron on 20th September, which is continuing to build upon the progress made so far.