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Monday, September 1, 2008

Dutch Apaches: Taking the Night

Kees Otten and Wim Das

Royal Netherlands Air Force Apache crews train at night at home to prepare for combat missions in Afghanistan.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force has played a key role in supporting NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Though a base like the one in Kandahar, for instance, is comparatively safe, you can still hear the shooting every day there. Beyond such bases and throughout the whole country, the danger is lurking at every corner, in every house and behind every tree or rock.

The Dutch air force’s Boeing AH-64D Apaches — which play a major and indispensable role in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan — have to practice very thoroughly to be as sharp as a knife in the situations that arise there. Apache crews train during the winter months under night circumstances in their home base environment to prepare for the missions in Afghanistan, where more and more sorties are flown at night. The International Security Assistance Force already has raised its commitment for night operations to 40 percent of total missions. The AH-64D is extremely suitable for this work because of its highly developed, coordinated sensors. The training for these missions is conducted from the Gilze Rijen Air Base, between the cities of Breda and Tilburg in the central part of the Netherlands.

During night flights, pilots rely on night-vision goggles (NVGs). Pilots have to have these tools completely ready at their fingertips because once they arrive in Afghanistan they go to work right away. For that reason, the NVG training is intense, especially that focused on identification of the environment in which they are flying. They must become accustomed to how the ground and structures and features on it look through the goggles, and how to recognize and identify people, even children. A key challenge is learning how to judge distances through the goggles, which can alter a pilot’s sense of depth perception.

By the end of this year, the Dutch plan to mount night-vision sensors on all their Apaches to better support mission requirements.

In addition to practical exercises about how to fly at night and identification of friend or foe, civilians or weapons, the Apache crews focus on learning to use their aircraft’s equipment and systems under extreme and dangerous circumstances.

Operational conditions require them to fly higher than they have during missions in the past. A key reason for shifting away from low-altitude tactics is the presence in Afghanistan of effective small-caliber enemy fire. The evolving capabilities of the Apache to identify and attack targets from greater distances also reduce the need to fly lower.

The training from Gilze Rijen aims to simulate circumstances like those in Afghanistan. The Dutch (as all of the other countries involved) try to avoid, as much as possible, any collateral damage from their operations. A key concern is avoiding friendly-fire incidents, too, since the helicopters are there to support ground troops who bear the brunt of the operations against the Taliban. The training in the Netherlands, therefore, is often conducted jointly with platoons of soldiers, to drill in providing fire support for them and to hone the helicopter crews’ scouting and reconnaissance skills to aid the ground forces.

Training with ground forces in the Netherlands is essential because there is no option to do this in Afghanistan. These exercises mainly take place at the Veluwe National Park north of Arnhem in the Netherlands. In addition to large, heavily forested areas, Veluwe has flat, sandy plains controlled by the Dutch army. It is ideal for drilling convoy operations and reconnaissance skills and for training with forward air controllers.

Low-altitude flying is practiced mainly over the Maas-Waal territory because of its suitability, but it takes much transit time to reach, so sometimes the Apaches also fly to the south of the Netherlands.

Crew coordination is another important area of training. The members of an Apache crew are highly attuned to each other. They are more than just colleagues; they were taught to act like a very smooth team.

Where do you want to go? What exactly do you mean? These are not questions Apache crewmembers can afford to ask of each other. The pilot in the back seat has NVGs for the best overview, but must be able to explain in very short words and cues to his gunner in front what is being seen. Live-fire exercises are held twice a year in Germany and Belgium and in Germany and Poland during major combined exercises.

Ground crews are trained very well in working on the Apache in completely dark circumstances because this is somewhat safer at all times. They are ready with fluids and repairs where ever needed. An Apache giving cover to ground troops or any other mission has to be able to refuel and relaunch very fast between sorties, so crews drill in "hot refueling" while the rotors are still turning. Landings take place in a precise vertical position. The complete process has to be done in a few minutes.

Dutch Forces Extract Full Use From Helicopters

Dutch operations of the Apache began in 1996, when the Royal Netherlands Air Force leased 12 AH-64As from the U.S. Army.

The aircraft enabled aircrews to begin training to fly the AH-64D, which the Netherlands had ordered from Boeing the previous year. The Netherlands was among the first three nations to order the next-generation AH-64D from Boeing, the other two being the U.S. and the U.K. Doing so increased the interoperability of the Apache in NATO’s contingency force.

In 1996, 23 Royal Netherlands Air Force AH-64A Apache pilots and support crews became the first international unit to complete the U.S. Army’s intensive collective training program. Shortly thereafter, the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s 301st Sqdn received its certificate of readiness.

Boeing delivered the first AH-64D to the service in April 1998. The Royal Netherlands Air Force accepted delivery of its 30th and final AH-64D in 2002.

The AH-64As were based at Gilze-Rijen Air Base.

The Dutch air force uses its Apaches for armed escort and reconnaissance, new capabilities that the AH-64 brought to service. It had not flown armed helicopters before the Apaches.

The service fielded two combat-ready units, the 301st and 302nd Sqdns. When the AH-64A were divested and returned to the U.S., the units were merged into the 301st Sqdn.

Like other AH-64Ds, the Dutch Apaches are equipped with a comprehensive package of sensors, including a daylight TV camera and infrared sensor, as well as Hellfire missiles, 2.75-in rockets carried in outboard pods and a 30mm gun. The combination of sensors and weapons can be flexibly deployed on the Apache.

From June 1998 to September 1999, the Apaches deployed with an air force detachment to Bosnia for peacekeeping operations.

In 2001, four of the Apaches were deployed to Djibouti to support the possible evacuation of Dutch troops of the United Nations Mission in Ethiopia and Eritrea peacekeeping force. That marked the first international deployment of AH-64Ds.

Starting in April 2004, the Royal Netherlands Air Force has deployed a detachment of six Apaches to Kabul, Afghanistan in support of NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force. Six more Apaches subsequently were deployed to Tallil Airbase in Iraq in support of the Iraq Stabilization Force.

Since 1984, Boeing has produced nearly 1,500 Apaches. All of the nine nations flying the Apaches, have ordered or have selected AH-64Ds, according to Boeing.

The U.S. Army has ordered more than 500 AH-64Ds with the Longbow fire-control radar. The first was delivered in April 1997.

In addition to the Netherlands, international Apache customers include Israel, the United Kingdom, Egypt, Greece, Japan, Singapore and Kuwait.

In July, Boeing marked the first flight of the Block 3 upgrade of the AH-64D. The manufacturer won the U.S. Army contract for that upgrade in June 2005. Boeing expects to begin low-rate initial production of the Block 3s in April 2010.

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