Wires Are a Survivability Threat for Apaches, Too

Wires strung between poles and heights below 500 feet agl have been a longstanding threat to both civil and military helicopters, which can spend 30% or more of their time in the air at low levels.

But some combat missions can remind military aviators that low wires are deadly threat in war as well, one British Army officer noted at a helicopter survivability conference held during last week’s Paris Air Show.

Lt. Col. David Amlot was one of several speakers at the “Helicopter Survivability: At the Heart of Operations” symposium hosted by the Aviation Légère de l’Armée de Terre, or the Light Aviation service of the French army. The symposium was held June 22 at Le Bourget Airport northeast of Paris. Amlot works on aviation force development and strategic plans for the U.K. Defence Ministry. He was introduced at the symposium as the first British officer to fly the Longbow Apache.

He summarized shared survivability challenges of French and British forces and the priorities of the British Army. He noted that combat operations over the last decade and a half in Iraq and Afghanistan reaffirmed that the first survivability challenge is the operating environment for combat aircrews, particularly the created visual environments.

“Our ability to own the night no longer exists where there are enemies that are certainly capable themselves of participating in the hunt,” Amlot said. He echoed the sentiment of his counterparts in U.S. Army Aviation and other NATO officers when he observed, “We want to now optimize our survivability by not just surviving in the degraded visual environment but also fighting in the degraded visual environment.”

Likewise, he said, “terrain will always be a challenge, wherever we are in the world, but that terrain can be turned against us as well, whether it’s in a canyon or valleys, or in the urban fights.”

In the British Army’s future operations concept, “and certainly in the joint forces, we see ourselves operating more and more in urban and really complex terrain,” Amlot said. “We need to address how we would detect those survivability threats to our aircraft.”

To focus his presentation, Amlot used the British military’s 2011 Operation Ellamy. That was the U.K.’s designation for its military support of the NATO-led intervention to protect civilians in Libya and enforce a no-fly zone during the civil war in that country.

“Libya, for us, started as an exercise for the United Kingdom Task Group to conduct a number of operations with partner nations throughout the Mediterranean, culminating in an exercise in Albania,” Amlot said. “Throughout April and May 2011, we conducted trainings from the Gibraltar sea ranges through to Crete and Cyprus, watching all the while the buildup in the operational tempo in Libya. We were very well aware of the forces that France as a nation had committed to that fight.”

The U.K. was asked to join the fight, “albeit a very much smaller part in aviation terms,” at the end of May beginning of June, he said. That “smaller part” included Army Air Corps WAH-64 Apaches operating from the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean. They flew their first strike mission alongside French forces on the night of June 3 and their last mission in the beginning of August 2011.

The theater of operations included “very recognizable threats to Army aviation,” from small arms and rocket-propelled grenades to Russian-made SA-6 and SA-8 medium- and short-range surface-to-air missiles and SA-7 and SA-24 man-portable, shoulder-fired missiles.

But one survivability threat that took British Apache crews by surprise was the wires, on which Amlot said, “we had to focus on right from the start.”

The crews didn’t have maps depicting the location of wires, he said. “So we used our synthetic-aperture radar aircraft [like the Raytheon Sentinel R Mark 1 airborne stand-off radar system] to try to map out where those wires were,” as well as other obstacles.

The wires also prompted the Apache crews to change their training from their focus since Afghanistan at medium-level altitudes “to get us back down into the lower environment,” Amlot said. “That was quite hard because the Apache sinks quickly – very quickly. We had not been training below 500 feet above the water. So, with days to go, the entire training focus had to switch to the very low-level environment.”

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