When picturing the French Riviera and the surrounding area, you are more likely to think of cruise ships not warships, but at the end of a grey English summer HMS OCEAN set sail for that exact area.
Embarked onboard as part of the Tailored Air Group (TAG) and providing the Task Group (TG) with a STRIKE capability was 662 Squadron of 3 Regiment Army Air Corps.
The process of rerolling an attack helicopter squadron so recently returned from the final Apache HERRICK tour to fulfil a maritime role is no small achievement. Add into that a requirement to gain enough experience to fulfil a quick reaction role next year and it was clear that there was a lot to do in a short space of time. COUGAR 15 presented man and machine alike an opportunity to develop capabilities further, but first the squadron had to reach a point where it was ready to embark. Thanks to a successful joint deployment with 656 Sqn AAC during BALTOPS, the squadron was able to observe and then develop a plan that would see them step up to the plate in time for COUGAR. Every department of 662 Sqn rehearsed tirelessly over the summer months, culminating in several successful Deep Strike missions against an enemy command post in Norfolk. The route into the target area was around the coast of East Anglia, giving the crews an opportunity to experience prolonged flight over the sea, with the Ground Support Flight (GSF) deploying a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP) into Sculthorpe, aided by a signals detachment and workshop support. A stark contrast to Corsica, the backdrop to the next such mission!
The REME workshop did a fantastic job of preparing 4 Apaches for embarkation and the squadron was onboard in a timely fashion by early September. Training to land onthe deck was the initial priority as the crews had to be able to prove their ability to land on HMS OCEAN by both day and night. Sgt Henry Luck, a pilot with 662 Sqn said “Landing in the daylight was easy enough, but the real challenge came at night. With light levels low and the ship difficult to see at times, that’s when it got quite hard”. With 3 other aircraft types onboard, deck space was always restricted. Nevertheless by the end of week two there were enough pilots trained to facilitate the first large serial of the exercise, a raid conducted by 45 Commando. Utilising a mix of sea and air insertion, they infiltrated the target on the south Cornish coast, supported by a pair of Apaches providing simulated fires. Mission success was achieved and HMS OCEAN was ready to sail, content that all aboard were ready.
Most Army kit comes in various shades of green and the swell encountered in the Bay of Biscay didn’t fail to bring that colour to a few faces. Despite this being the case, work needed to continue and everyone stepped up to the task. Most impressive perhaps were the signallers who were based in a small hot room at the top of the ship and continued to provide the squadron with a robust operations centre. “Working the night shift was made easier by the way the ship is set up for 24-hour operations.” Air Trooper Lyons said, “The variety of tasks kept us busy and also meant that I learnt a lot, enhancing my skills as an Aviation Communication Specialist.” His words were echoed by his opposite number on HMS BULWARK, Air Trooper Short who added “After a few initial setbacks setting up the Mission Planning System, the rest of the exercise went well. It was a steep learning curve, but enjoyable at the same time.”
A few weeks at sea had highlighted many lessons to us and crucially, time was a resource quickly identified as being in short supply and many of the frictions of embarked operations appeared to stem directly from this. Missing a take-off time by only a few seconds could result in a huge delay as the ship repositioned. Lance Corporal Keane from the Ground Support Flight said “It’s really quite challenging, but in a good way. Things like having to lash everything down and not being able to move the aircraft ourselves adds a lot of time pressure, but it’s something different to Herrick. It’s ‘gleamships’, but one downside is not having any windows.” Further obstacles such as complex lines of communication, limited space, constant noise and the difference in cultures between the Army and the Royal Navy to name but a few made it clear that a hard-work ethic would be required to form an effective capability. This was lost on no one and as expected all departments worked with impeccable professionalism, becoming more efficient on a daily basis and demonstrating that 662 Sqn were more than up to the challenge.
After a short resupply stop in Toulon, the ship departed port for the start of Ex CORSICAN LION. The exercise was designed to test the entire Task Group and required all the various units to work seamlessly together. As the name suggests, the French island of Corsica provided the backdrop for this stage of the exercise. Corsica offered all the squadron could have wanted in terms of terrain and as such the opportunity was taken to practise a further deep strike mission. This time with all the considerations required for operating from HMS OCEAN thrown into the picture. With a further set of successful missions under our belt it was clear that 662 Squadron were progressing well along the track of becoming maritime competent.
Another success came in the form of staging several interoperability flights with the Wildcat crews from 847 NAS. Playing a part in shaping an emerging capability rarely comes along and both squadrons were grateful for the opportunity. The final test for 662 Sqn was a live Hellfire range conducted at sea. All in all, close to 20 missiles were successfully fired by the squadron further proving the Apache’s effectiveness whilst operating at sea.
What became clear to all involved from COUGAR is that at sea you must always factor in some extra time to accomplish any task, big or small. A tight knit team with robust internal and external communications is also key with everyone on board pulling their weight or the mission will not succeed. Although there is still much more to learn, 662 Sqn have progressed significantly throughout the course of the exercise and go into GRIFFINS STRIKE next year with a solid foundation to work on. A team that has proved itself up to the challenge of operating in the demanding conditions found at sea.