The Defense Helicopter Command at Gilze Rijen Air Base was host to the international Air Centric Personnel Recovery Operatives Course (APROC) from 23 May to 6 June, 2018. The course is an initiative by the European Personnel Recovery Center (EPRC). This was the first time that the course took place in the Netherlands.
To understand what the course is about, we must first find out what Personnel Recovery, or PR actually is. Countries have a moral obligation to take care of their people. But besides the moral obligation, PR can also have an impact on operational security, morale of assigned forces and public opinion. Course Director LTC. Bart Holewijn explains this with an example: “If your car flipped over because you slipped on a slippery road, you are essentially isolated because you do not have control over your own situation. You drive up in the winter to northern Sweden, and you get into an event like this you can die simply because of the cold, you can freeze to death unless you have taken proper precautions. And this is without having an enemy threat.” To prepare personnel for an event where they get isolated, they train in Survive, Evade, Resist, Extract (SERE). This training consists of tactics, techniques, and procedures that will give isolated personnel the tools to survive in any environment and to evade capture where such a threat exists. And if they get captured, they are taught to resist exploitation by captors and, if the situation permits, escape captivity to finally be recovered and return with dignity.
Holewijn illustrates some PR events that have had a great impact in history. He mentions the U-2 crash over Soviet Union, and the captivity of Gary Powers. An event that happened over 50 years ago, but is still widely known. “The problem in this case in terms of impact is that, at that moment the Americans and the Russians were just starting negotiations for the reduction of strategic nuclear weapons, and you can imagine that the American president was not very happy when the Russian President mentioned the capture of a CIA U-2 pilot. This immediately had a bad impact in the negotiations.” Holewijn also mentions Mike Durant, made famous by the book and movie Black Hawk Down: “The fight around the crash site where the Blackhawk crashed in Mogadishu lasted for two days, and on the third day, President Clinton said: we stop operating immediately and all Americans have to be out of the country within six months. Five and a half months later there were no Americans in Somalia anymore. However the big impact was that the Americans were protecting a U.N. Support aid mission and the U.N. could not do anything without the American support so immediately the whole U.N. operation over there was stopped to help people in that country.” The Course Director also mentions Dutchbat in Srebrenica, where a whole battalion was isolated. If something really goes wrong, there has to be a system to get people back who are isolated. That system is not always military, it can also be diplomatic and civil efforts to effect the recovery and reintegration of isolated personnel.
Holewijn: “To do that we have created the European Personnel Recovery Center (EPRC) in 2015 with seven participating nations. We would like to help NATO, E.U., the various EPRC nations, but also other nations if necessary to develop concepts and doctrines, and also help them educate and train procedures, so that we get standardization and thus interoperability. This means that at some point in time we are going to be much more effective, much more efficient in Personnel Recovery missions. Part of being effective is being safer and if we all use the same procedures then we can be quicker as well.” The center focuses on the four phases of Personnel Recovery, Preparation, Planning, Execution and Adaptation. To train this, the Air Centric Personnel Recovery Course (APROC) was invented.
Director Holewijn explains: “Air Centric is not because we think that you can only do this kind of mission with helicopters. Absolutely not, you can use infantry vehicles, armored personnel carriers, submarines or if necessary special forces. The difference is that if we want to do this kind of mission with air assets, we can only do it in a multinational fashion. Look at it as a jigsaw puzzle, all nations have a number of pieces of this puzzle and collectively we have the whole puzzle. The advantage of doing it together is it is a lot more efficient and a lot less expensive.” Therefore, the focus of the training is the multinational aspect of it. “All the task forces are completely mixed with people from all the different nations. We focus on the process, in particular the planning process. The key is, if you can plan this kind of mission properly you can execute it. The execution in the course is very nice because then you can see how your plan worked out.” The course is a crawl-walk-run process. It starts slowly and simply, but will gradually become more challenging. The course is the only specific course that trains this kind of missions, and attracts great interest as various countries now notice the necessity of these capabilities.
For this year’s course 577 personnel from 12 countries were deployed to Gilze-Rijen Air Base in the Netherlands. The aircraft deployed for this iteration were F-16 (NLD) and EF-2000 (ITA) in the Fixed Wing Rescue Escort role, AS-555 (FRA), AH-64 (NLD) and MI-24 (POL) in the Rotary Wing Rescue Escort role and CH-47 (NLD), AS-332(ESP), NH-90 (FRA), Merlin (GBR), EH-101 (ITA), HH-101 (ITA) and UH-60 (SWE) in the Extraction Vehicle role.
Holewijn outlines the two main participant groups: “The primary group is inexperienced aircrew, who have never done any kind of mission planning in a complex environment like this. Complex multinational multi-ship dissimilar type of aircraft. We have experienced pilots who will become Rescue Mission Commander (RMC). We need experienced pilots to do this to keep things safe and to also increase their levels of success. And they will be leading these missions throughout the course.
Then there is the Extraction Force leadership, they will be participating in the planning, completely immersed in the process. This sometimes is a bit of an issue because fighter pilots and a senior NCO as boss of the extraction force need to communicate. The senior NCO is going to decide what is going to happen in the pickup zone because in this mission it's very simple: if the extraction force fails, the mission fails. The Extraction Force is key to the mission.
The secondary participant group are the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) crews, Rescue Escort (RESCORT) crews and the Extraction Forces personnel.
The Airborne Early Warning (AEW) crews have to become proficient as Airborne Mission Coordinator (AMC), In this course, French and NATO E-3F AWACS and a brand new Italian G550 CAEW (Conformal Airborne Early Warning were providing this coordination. This is a type of mission that they normally never train, making this one of the very rare occasions where they could really train their PR mission coordinator skills. The jets in particular do the on-scene commander duties. Every pilot should be able to be an on-scene commander, but there is a need for people who are really proficient in this role.The Extraction Forces were training their skills, we also mixed the Extraction Forces among the other nations in order to standardize their procedures.” Personnel involved in the training includes staff, opposing forces and specialists in the field of survival, escape, dodge, resist and evacuate from enemy territory. For every participant, there are actually two people in this course making it possible.
Swedish detachment commander Lt. Anna Brodin leads the Swedish Extraction Forces, and Hkp-16A Blackhawk flight crew. She explains: We're flying all nations' extraction forces. The only extraction force we haven't flown yet in the Blackhawk are the Swedish extraction forces, because we have been flying with the French, the Italian, the Spanish and the British extraction forces.”
Brodin notices the differences, but also the similarities between nations. “I think everyone is actually quite good at English, nothing has been a big issue. The different countries extractions forces work a bit different. Some of them have Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTAC), some of them don't. Some of them are quite small teams like for example the Swedish extraction teams. They are five to six people and the dog as well. Some other nations’ extraction teams consist of twelve people.” Swedish pilot, Captain Christian Bagge adds: “Sweden is not part of NATO, and I think we are not as familiar with NATO documents like some NATO countries are. But otherwise I think we fly pretty similar to them. We know the procedures and they are often very similar or the same as ours. So I wouldn’t say it is a big difference.”
Throughout the training course, the missions are progressing in difficulty, and get more and more complex each day. Lt. Brodin sketches a typical scenario: “Quite early in the in the planning process we are informed there are one or more Isolated Personnel (ISOP). Something has happened, a plane has been shot down, or a team of journalists has been captured and managed to escape and are on the ground. The ISOP's are acting according to their plan of escape.
We've got a lot of intel about the hostiles and the area, so then the planning starts. We have a basic look at the area, how does the terrain look? How can we do the ingress and egress of the area? A lot of planning takes place with the Extraction Forces, how they want to do it. Will they have like a quick snatch and grab? Are we having a positive ID of the ISOP quick? Can we just land there, grab the ISOP and the helicopter and go? Or do they have to make a search because of an injured ISOP?” The rotary wing discusses what the various capabilities, restrictions, speeds, and endurances are. Captain Bagge: "First days felt very short, really compressed. But after a couple of days it feels natural. For us, this is a new way of planning, a new procedure. Then there will be the main briefing about the plan. We talk about deconfliction, if something goes wrong what will we do? Afterwards we go out and fly the mission according to the plan.” When the Rescue Vehicle closes in on the ISOP, they try to identify the ISOP via radio. Letters from the NATO alphabet are sent by the rescue party in random order. The ISOP knows at which letter he has to pop smoke in order to identify his position. The ISOP is being treated as a suspect on the ground. He is a detainee until the mission is over. Afterwards when they are back at base, the various parties de-brief together. Mission Monitors are following the planning process continuously and give feedback. Captain Bagge: “The first week I was very exhausted by Friday, especially for the planning course because it was pretty intense. With more complex scenarios, more elements, it is more for us to take into consideration, I think especially for the mission commander.”
The Dutch airspace poses some unique difficulties. The central European location of the host base restrics the freedom of movement of the course participants. 3 landing zones in Belgium are also part of the training areas. Holewijn elaborates: “We have three pick up zones every day, one for each task force. On the base we will give them particularly routes that they have to take to get out and to return. This way we ensure that the task forces will never meet each other in the air. In the very worst case they all come back at the very same time around the base. There is an air traffic controller so he will manage to keep everything safe at that stage.
The routes are about 200 kilometers each, so you can fly the route plus some time on the pickup zone, and some time on the FARP within about two hours, which means that we don't make the day too long and you stay well within legal crew rest requirements.”
In the Netherlands, all the Air Traffic Controllers, all the airfield towers are very close. For pilots it’s an additional challenge to have to deal with the tower and Air Traffic Control while at the same time keep concentrated on the mission. Low flying over populated area’s was also new for Captain Bagge: “Coming from Sweden, we have vast areas with no restrictions to fly low level so we were really surprised to go out in the military low flying area for the first time to fly over golf courses and farm land. These are prohibited areas in Sweden.”
The course has changed a lot since the first edition in 2011. A very ambitious goal was set, but the EPRC adapted, which resulted in improved skills. And that is the reason APROC was initiated in the first place. Detachment Commander Brodin reflects on the course: “We will try to implement things that we have learned that we can see that have a purpose back home in Sweden. We may adjust our planning methods or at least take the good parts and try to implement them.
We have already started but can improve on cooperation with our fixed wing in Sweden. We do see all the good things about coordination and collaboration. So hopefully that will be one thing to work on in future exercises or just daily training. I think we can do it quite easily, so that's one thing we should take home with us and improve.”
26 missions were planned in 9 flying days by 20 aircraft. 3 missions were cancelled due to bad weather. Over 140 sorties were flown, and over 300 flight hours were made.
Words & Photography: Jeroen Veenendaal, Ralph Blok and Roelof-Jan Gort (Dutch Aviation Photo)