The tempo of life at 664 Squadron, 4 Regiment AAC has been relentless since our return from Op HERRICK in July 2014 and we have been resetting to assume Very High Readiness. This period of adjustment has included a number of exercises designed to switch focus from the well established, medium level, AH TTs of HERRICK, back to those of the low level environment, against a potentially more advanced and better equipped adversary.

On a damp, cloudy day on Salisbury Plain in November the members of 664 Squadron firmly left the Afghanistan mindset in the past and the first mission was a good shake out for all parties involved. Beginning with a thorough IPB and Seven Questions Estimate, the execution of the first mission saw us tasked to search for, and destroy, air defence assets on Salisbury Plain, in order to facilitate an unhindered advance of the Scots Guards armoured battle group across their line of departure.

The air defence assets, provided by Spadeadam Range, allowed our aircrew to practice the use of cover, mutual support and command and control, whilst operating against credible and potent systems and operators. Whilst a relatively simple mission, many valuable lessons were quickly highlighted, including the need for a robust and timely relief in place and good liaison with ground forces in the early stages, due to the flexible time windows that aviation work in. After quickly putting these lessons into practice, and streamlining the processes for the subsequent missions, further complexities of mixed Lynx and Apache flights were also tested. This allowed for us to capitalise on the strengths of both platforms: most notably the MX-10 camera of the Lynx, to cue the Apache Weapons systems. It allowed for some extremely good interoperability training and nap of the earth flying, by all crews, in challenging weather conditions.

The end of January saw 664 Squadron deploy the aircrew to the USA on Exercise Crimson Eagle, for a re-familiarisation with the excitement of dust landings and live weapons firing.

It was on the backdrop of the Sonora Desert and the Peninsula Mountains to the east of San Diego city that, once acclimatised, the aircrew quickly completed their day and night dust landing sorties. With the CTR course itching to take back the aircraft and continue their TT week, we took our leave and embarked on an AT package and number of visits across California and Arizona. Consisting of scenic, yet challenging, mountain biking in the hills to the north of San Diego followed and kayaking off the Pacific coast, an already memorable day was graced by the appearance of grey whales and dolphins.

We then headed east for a visit to the 55th Rescue Squadron, which provides CSAR capability using UH-60s, out of Davis- Monthan Air Force Base, Tucson, Arizona. They presented us with a thorough capability brief and insight into their TTs. During our time in Tucson, we also visited the Aircraft Boneyard and Boothill Graveyard at Tombstone, the location of the famous O.K. Corral gunfight.

The final leg of our trip took us north, to Flagstaff. Organised by Capt Ison, the Squadron spent the next three days alpine skiing on a small mountain overlooking the Grand Canyon in the distance. Each day consisted of lessons tailored to the group’s ability and experience by friendly and patient instructors who found our foreign sense of humour, and verbal “encouragement” of each other, rather amusing.

Finally, it was time for us to return to duty and the delights of Gila Bend Air Force Auxiliary Field. From here we were able to launch onto Barry M Goldwater Ranges to fire Hellfire, CRV- 7 rockets and 30mm in both academic profiles and low level, tactical battle runs. The challenges of the low level environment, with poor power margins and difficult communications, led to discussion between ourselves and JTACs as we developed new TTs and procedures.

On return from the United States, the Squadron embarked on a self-generated exercise to the furthest reaches of Scotland. This was designed as both an exercise for the aircrew, in the considerations and execution of a deep strike some 450 miles from base, but also the logistics of deploying our CSS, ground crew and signals required for a short-term deployment via C130 and Chinook.

Despite the C130 and Chinook being re-tasked at the last minute, and the weather conspiring against us, we deployed to RAF Leeming at strength with four aircraft, the fifth joining over the runway for a photo opportunity. This display of 100% serviceability was a real credit to our CSS engineers. The routing, with extended range afforded by the twin RCEF role fit, between RAF Leeming and the target area incorporated the sights of Edinburgh, the Scottish highlands, Loch Ness and Glen Coe. The target was a pair of isolated buildings located at the head of an exposed north-facing bay. Our mission was to neutralise an insurgent QRF in one of the buildings, as simulated SH simultaneously delivered troops onto the second building to extract hostages. The limitations imposed by the mountainous terrain with regard to weapon engagement profiles were  considered in the planning stages but remained a challenge during the execution. This was experienced further in the Snowdonia MFTA as we prosecuted further targets as part of rapid plan extension to the exercise.

Having covered approximately 1250 nm in three days, from eastern England to northern Scotland to western Wales, Exercise Archer’s Reach was a resounding success with many lessons learned and much experience gained.

Taking part in the largest MOD exercise in 2015, as a lead element of JHF-1, meant we had much preparation to do. Not only were we integrating two new pilots straight from CTR, but we also had the novel task of  ensuring everyone got through Ex Totemic without a glitch. It almost seemed a relief when the exercise finally got underway. With the majority of the ground crew and REME support moving west by road the day before, the five aircraft deployed to MOD St Athan. The first few days involved intense preparations for the first major mission at Keevil, an initial AH strike onto key targets before 2 Para Battle Group would conduct a combined ground and air assault to capture the objective. Having completed orders and rehearsals, our initial four-ship strike was very successful with RIPs taking place for the next 8 hours to cover the entire period of the Battle Group insertion.

After a day spent back at St Athan, we flew forward and established ourselves at Keevil for further tasking. The second mission was a deep strike onto a target in southwest Wales, which was defended by an ADU, constituting a radar threat. Concurrently, we also provided support to a number of night raids conducted on Salisbury Plain, the insertion and extraction of troops by SH being coordinated by the AH. The strike mission  went well and, once again, demonstrated the ability for AH to strike targets at range without FARP support. This was followed by a JPR exercise to recover a downed pilot, with AH providing RESCORT to a Merlin extraction team.

The final phase of the exercise consisted of a Para drop onto Stanford Training Area, for which we relocated to Sculthorpe in order to support. We were tasked to escort numerous MEDEVAC missions, provide over watch for ground troops and coordinate, and lead, a HAF mission for 2 Para Battle Group. Having conducted gun DHs at Salisbury Plain en route to STANTA, our main effort in the final phase of the exercise was a combined  arms live fire demonstration alongside 105mm guns from 7 RHA onto the same target, giving 2 Para a good battlefield inoculation.

The range of tasking was eye opening and a great experience for the newer members of the Squadron, as well as providing consolidation for the Squadron as a whole. Once again, credit must be given to the 664 CSS as aircraft serviceability was near 100% throughout. The ground crew and signallers are also to be commended for the manner in which they dealt with the relentless and ever changing tasking, during a highly successful exercise.

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