Trident Juncture Excersize
The four Wildcat helicopters from 847 Naval Air Squadron, based at RNAS Yeovilton, have spent the past few weeks being put through their paces on Exercise Trident Juncture.
It has been an opportunity for the Battlefield Reconnaissance Helicopter (BRH) – an upgrade on the old Lynx helicopter – to demonstrate some of its new attributes and functionality in an international setting.
For while it may look like its predecessor, Wildcat represents a new generation of digital helicopters designed to cope with a cluttered battlespace using its powerful camera system, upgraded engines, a redesigned tail that improves durability and stealth, state of the art cockpit instruments, and high tech secure communications.
Trident Juncture is the first outing for an entire Royal Navy Wildcat squadron, comprising 847’s first nine (of 16) pilots and 65 personnel – a mixture of aircrew, engineers, logistics staff and mission planners from the Army Air Corps who have been preparing the mapping database for the digital systems onboard.
Commander Graeme Spence, Commanding Officer of 847 NAS, as well as Commanding Officer of the Tailored Air Group on HMS Ocean, said Trident Juncture was an excellent opportunity to prove the operational capability of the helicopter.
“The exercise has given us fantastic interaction with the Landing Forces as well as access to a wide range of NATO ships which has expanded our capability as aircrew working with aviation partners in different environments, landscapes and climates,” he said.
As part of the Commando Helicopter Force, 847 NAS is the first operational squadron to convert across to the Wildcat BRH and have been embarked on HMS Ocean as the lead aviation squadron working with Navy Merlins, Army Apaches and RAF Chinook, all providing aviation support for the Lead Commando Group, 45 Commando Royal Marines.
However with such a new, and advanced, airframe there will always be teething issues as the Royal Navy engineers have discovered during the exercise.
Chief Aircraft Engineering Technician Daryl Prichard, the senior maintenance rating, said Wildcat was far more complex than Lynx and that was generating new learning opportunities for his team.
He added: “It’s still a new aircraft that we are testing in the different environments we operate in, so it’s going to be cold weather next and then onto the heat of the desert. If this helicopter is going to do what it is designed to do then we have to test it in varying conditions.
“As a result this has been a busy deployment as we are learning but there are also a large number of aircraft working alongside each other on a single deck so there is a lot of shuffling around, with programmes changing and then changing again. So while we may not be flying all the time there is a lot going on in the background.”
As an entirely new platform, Wildcat can perform a range of tasks from surveillance and reconnaissance, command and control, control and direction of joint fires, re-supply and the provision of force protection using its powerful M3M 0.50 calibre heavy machine gun.
It was designed with versatility in mind meaning it can be fitted for different roles quickly and easily.
Royal Navy pilot Lieutenant Alex Lovell-Smith, said Wildcat was proving itself on Exercise Trident Juncture.
“We have taken four Wildcat to sea working on a mixed type operation with Apache, Chinook and Merlin; this is core business and we are learning quickly,” he added.
“Wildcat performs well in the maritime environment; we have been able to operate with a wide variety of NATO shipping both day and night, whilst still retaining our ability to transition through the littoral and into the land environment. We have been re-setting from Afghanistan to being at sea again and so regaining our maritime skill-set. Equally, we have personnel who might never have been to sea and so that, along with working on a new helicopter, means Trident Juncture has been a steep learning curve for all involved.”
The Wildcat programme will deliver aircraft to both the Royal Navy and Army with 847 NAS having two Army Signallers posted to the squadron for two years to prepare mapping databases and work on mission planning and the extraction of video following sorties for analysis.
Lt Lovell-Smith added: “Wildcat has the most complex, advanced communications suite we have ever used, and as such it offers much more than previous types I have flown. As we operate the aircraft its flight envelope is being expanded. For example, halfway through this exercise we had an increase to our maximum speed and the weight we are allowed to carry, among other limitations.
“Trident Juncture has given us the opportunity to cement our relationship with 45 Commando Royal Marines who are also taking part. As part of the exercise, Wildcat provided over 12 hours of over-watch against a light armoured threat to a helicopter assault force inserted ashore by Chinook and the US Marine Corps Osprey; it went really well, and it was immensely satisfying for the aircrew involved to provide a service to troops ashore.”
The squadron has the UK’s first Forward Air Control (Airborne) capability in the post Afghanistan era.
This allows suitably trained pilots to co-ordinate fast jet and helicopter airborne fires from any NATO nation, and was used to great effect with Polish F-16s as part of the exercise.
All 847 NAS pilots are trained to call in artillery and Naval Gunfire Support from the air, which was again used to support 45 Cdo in their final raid of the exercise.
Upon their return to the UK, 847 NAS will have little time to rest on the success of Trident Juncture as they will shortly deploy to Norway to test Wildcat in Arctic conditions.
Commander Spence said: “Having successfully demonstrated our ability to work in the maritime environment we will have a quick turnaround before re-deploying to Norway for essential cold weather training and then later next year we plan to undertake desert training. All of this is required in order to fully generate the squadron to its full.