A lot has changed in the international theater. Since the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, the Annexation of Crimea, and the Russian involvement in the Syrian Civil War, NATO is changing the way they train.
In the past year we've seen a few Theater Security Packages in Europe, to “strengthen interoperability, demonstrate the U.S. commitment to Europe and to deter further Russian aggression,” according to a USAF release. But the U.S Air Force isn’t the only service sending security packages to Europe, the U.S. Army is also on a different path now. Since the end of the cold war, USAREUR has greatly reduced its size and dispatched US forces to Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm. The U.S. Army's reorganization plans from 2005 called for the formation's major subordinate units – 1st Armored Division and 1st Infantry Division – to be relocated to the continental United States.
The 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment, converted to a Stryker Brigade, and the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, replaced them. The plan was to reduce the presence in Europe even more. In 2015 the Defense Department announced to cut 24 AH-64 Apaches, 30 UH-60 Black Hawks, three CH-47 Chinooks and nine HH-60 Medevac Black Hawks in a process called the Army Aviation Restructuring Initiative. The 12th Combat Aviation Brigade went from the largest CAB in the Army with seven Battalions down to two. The 12th CAB is now meeting the operation needs of Europe through a regionally allocated force which is resourced through CAB's in the continental United States. The Brigade is currently augmented by the 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, “Task Force Spearhead”of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade from Fort Hood, Texas.
The Brigade will receive additional forces in the spring of 2017 to bring the CAB close to the amount of aircraft present before the ARI cuts.
A difference in training
We spoke to Chief Warrant Officer 3 Chris Moore who is an Apache pilot with the USAREUR. He joined the Army in 2002 as an infantryman and deployed in Iraq in 2003 as a spotter for a sniper team. It's there where he first came in contact with Apaches. “The confidence and the safety that I had on the ground, knowing that the Apaches actually are above us, it was a game changer over there.” He decided to become an Apache pilot: “It it was a natural progression to go with attack aviation.”
In Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a threat of surface to air missiles. Moore explains: “But realistically, at 1500 to 2000 feet we were not afraid of anything. We owned the skies and have since.”
The training has changed following the tension along NATO borders. Our greatest threat is no longer confined to shoulder fired missiles, but a near peer adversary with attack aviation assets of his own. Training is now moving towards a near peer threat of actually flying in places that are not permissive and that have a surface to air threat. “We train flying in places where we have to be low in the trees and we don't own the skies.” A typical mission day begins much earlier than it used to, because a long planning cycle comes first. All of the training missions now take between 24 to 48 hours of actually planning. The threat drives the tactics of how the aircraft are being deployed. CW3 Moore sees it as a challenge: “It's been a steep learning curve for a lot of us because we've been flying in Afghanistan for 10 plus years doing the same thing over and over. We're very good at flying there. Getting into this lower and slower environment is a challenge.”
The steep learning curve is not just because of the change in tactics. The operations tempo is also very fast, and not without reason. After the US Army visited Ukraine to talk about lessons learned from their conflict, it became clear that the operations tempo that it took for the Ukranian Army to constantly have helicopters out, to constantly change their tactics was very demanding. It's a peer to peer fight where they are always out flying missions.
“We can take it, the aircraft can't,” CW3 Moore elaborated. “The aircraft need time to reset, and fix things. Basically manage how much can we push, but at the same time how much can we sustain.” He describes what's going on during the training: “Right now we have maintainance going on fixing the blades out there, we have refueling going on. We have food facilities supporting all of us so we can all eat, we have communications set up, and each one of those has their own maintainance and their own level of sustainability of how fast they can go.”
But Moore notices that there's been great improvement: “I feel that we've ramped up. If we do fight that near peer fight, we can now sustain a heavy operations tempo for a long period of time which we probably couldn't have done five years ago.” He does not mind the high tempo, because “we're going there to support allies, and they are waiting on us when we get there.
Training in Europe
CW3 Moore is in Europe for a three year tour. He thinks it's one of the most unique places to train and to use the Apache. Because the 1st Battalion is the only U.S. Apache Battalion in Europe they are tasked to meet every mission where attack aviation is requested. Training events in the U.S. are different. The ranges are typically very small, and in the local area. In Europe it's much more of a global event. “One week we will be up in Denmark flying for them and will learn all their capabilities, we'll learn how we can communicate with them, how they move and integrate into their plan. And the next week we go to Poland and we do the same thing over again. Then Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.” Moore really notices the value of exercising with different countries: “We see what their capabilities, their strengths and weaknesses are. Everywhere we go, the first week is always a problem solving week. After that we're getting into a nice rhythm.”
Typically the working battalion sets with all 24 aircraft and they are being operated in companies of eight. Europe is a diverse environment and calls for different requirements all over. That results in operating these companies a lot more. It allows the company leadership to learn to actually use just their company, instead of receiving orders from higher up all the time. It builds them up as problem solvers.
At the moment, most of the missions the Apache pilots fly, are live fire exercises. Moore is aware of the trust and confidence they have gained: “We go out and not only execute an 8-ship mission, but also use live ammunition. The ground forces below us trust us to use live ammunition when were flying above them. Usually it's a slow crawl, walk, run process in the U.S.. In Europe it's a much faster process, because we built good relationships over all of our trips we've done.” The U.S. Army built a lot of contacts in the past time: “When I get on the ground, I already know who they are, and I know how they operate. And so we can roll right into a live fire exercise now.”
The aviation command structure in Europe is very different than the way it worked in the Middle East. In Afghanistan it's the mission commander who's in charge of the aircraft. He runs the air portion, and the ground force commander runs the ground portion. Since operating in Europe requires very low-level tactics, the aim is to operate as a maneuver force. CW3 Moore explains: “If you have an infantry platoon of three squads, we are your fourth squad now. “We're directly integrated into the ground forces. The ground force commander, who is typically another NATO ally, is now in charge, and we follow whatever he wants us to do. Instead of us just flying in circles above the battle field, making our own decisions.” A ground force working with Apaches has big advantages. “We have a situational awareness. We are in the fight on the ground with them. The troops can say: We're taking fire two o'clock and I already know where their position is.”
Working with different allies
Another challenge the U.S. Army met when exercising in Europe is the variety of different allied countries. Moore tells an anecdote about a deployment: “We worked a rotation with forces in Eastern Europe and were trying to integrate a communications piece, and all they had were Motorola radios. That was a challenge we never had to deal with before because we always worked with people with a near peer radio system. Rather than talking to them we had to implement triggers like: When you are at this line, I need you to be disciplined enough to say “I'm at this line”. That's my move to move to my next point. We're trying to find ways around these limitations like that.”
There are more concerns with various allies working for the first time with the Apaches: “They are nervous about how to use us and so they don't. Every time we do these rotations and integrate them into our planning and us into their planning, we break down that language barrier. We're getting better and better at them properly using us and us showing up on time and deploying our weapons so that they're confident that we can do our job too.” LONGBOW There are also changes in the hardware. When training in Europe the Apaches make use of the Longbow fire control radar. “The system weighs about an extra 600 pounds. In the Afghan and Iraq fight we didn't really need them, we were not looking for vehicles or armored targets over there. So they've been off the aircraft in the past ten years.”
The radar system works on millimeter a wavelength radar where, rather than exposing the whole aircraft, just expose the radar has to be exposed in order to put a radar signature out. The aircraft will automatically identify what vehicles are there depending on the the radar signature, and what type of material the vehicle is made of. It will then classify it if it's an air defence system, or a tanks and it will assign a title to each vehicle. It can do this up to a 1024 targets. Knowing that the pilot is now the weakest link, it will only show the top sixteen targets. Moore tells from experience: “It knows I can't process hundreds of targets myself. It's too much for the pilot, especially when I'm ten feet above the trees at night time with zero illumination from the moon.”
The Longbow Apaches are usually implemented into teams. If a team of two or a team of four Apaches is operated, only one of the Apaches has to have a Longbow radar. It can send target information constantly to the other pilots so they can see it too.
The AGM-114 Hellfire Lima model is our radar missile working together with the Longbow radar. Moore knows the advantages: “I never have to expose my aircraft to shoot it. Once I have that radar image I can back up and shoot the missile from behind cover. It's a fire and forget missile. I don't have to see where it goes, I dont have to continuously lase the target. It's more survivability for us.” The weapon has not changed, but the wayit is used has. The Hellfires were used a lot, typically on a single person putting an IED in the ground back in Iraq. With more targets there are a choises to be made. “Do I use this Hellfire on this armored threat or do I use it on this BTR60 personnel carrier? Well I'm not going to use the Hellfire on the personnel carrier because I need to puncture the armor of a tank. And I can use the 30mm or rockets on the BTR60.” Not just these weapon systems, but most of all the international cooperation builds strength and hope. CWO3 Moore is convinced the training works well, and clearly enjoys doing it. He says he has the best job there is: “I wouldn't change it for the world!”