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Monday, August 30, 2010

Insider Chat

Andrew Drwiega

Australia Supports ISAF in Afghanistan

Colonel Andrew MacNab, deputy commander, 16 Army Aviation Brigade, Australian Army talks exclusively to R&W about his country’s rotary wing commitment to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The interview took place at Enoggera Barricks, Brisbane on 31 May 2010.

Andrew Drwiega: Colonel MacNab, could you outline your current policy on Australian Defense Force helicopter deployment into Afghanistan in support of the ISAF force?
Colonel Andrew MacNab: Our CH-47s [Chinooks] operate March-October in Afghanistan [the fighting season] due to our size [a standing fleet of six aircraft]. At the end of the deployment we bring the aircraft back. We deploy two Cabs to Afghanistan – both of them are online most of the time [both D models].  Our training culminates with a battle worthiness board and certification. We have found that our crews are often asked to take the roll of air mission commander for multiple air missions when there are three or four nations operating together.
AD: Where do you do your pre-deployment training?
AM: We have a dedicated build-up programmed and we focus on foundational war fighting skills. It is not about flying or operating the helicopter, it is about employing the weapons system in the battlespace to achieve the right effect at the right point at the right time – that is what we do and we do it for the soldier. So our foundational warfighting skills need to be outstanding. Afghanistan is only one mission that we do.
We train combined arms – high density altitude in Papua New Guinea [PNG] – before we deploy. Deck landings and altitude training are part of our core skills. If you look at our nearest neighbors they are all tropical islands, most of the places we will operate in Australia are high density altitude just by temperature – not necessarily mountain flying, but PNG gives us a good balance of high temperatures, with tropical and mountainous terrain. We do dust training in Australia, but the dust in Afghanistan can be worse. Dust is something you have little control over so it represents a great danger to mission success and aircraft survivability. Dust landings are a core skill, it is incorporated into all of our unit training, but again dust can be bad in many places in Australia – our own environment.
Then we get into mission specific skills. Our view is that most of our fighting will be at night so we do a lot of training for that – as the advantage night gives us is that it reduces the effect of ground weapons systems. Our mission specific training includes mission rehearsals with multiple aircraft at night. For the CH-47s we include a lot of simulator training in the US and the UK.

AD: What is the crew ratio?
AM: We have got three to four crews over there. That does a couple of things. Firstly we have planning crews for deliberate operations, allowing the operational crew to rest – or one crew can be tasking. We can get a bit of redundancy and we can plan and operate both aircraft concurrently if we need to. Normally our minimum requirement is one aircraft but we will usually fly two if required.  The crew spend one eight month tour in Afghanistan, which has just changed from a four month tour. We don’t know how long we will be in Afghanistan – that is a decision for the government – we are just setting ourselves up for the longer term.
We now have guys who have completed two and three tours. We need to balance retention of individual experience while mentoring the younger guys. The foundation training continues in theatre as well – where the senior guys will mentor the junior guys to make sure the experience will be passed on. But we also have to look at the number of tours the guys have been on against the effect on their families. We have to balance consumption against investment. Consuming means doing the job well, which in theory means the First Eleven all the time - against investment. So when the First Eleven retire, if you look at cricket where strong teams have gone on for years but have never blooded new players. Then four or five retire at once and then they are getting thumped by everyone. And that is why training continues both here and in theatre.

AD: Do you have a need for Urgent Operational Requirements?
AM: Yes. When we first went over [to Afghanistan] we had a number of requirements. Clearly Blue Force Tracker was one. That wasn’t an ADF fit. Coupled with that is the electronic data module which is the knee pad computer that links into Blue Force Tracker but provides your moving map display, situation awareness, networking and communications. That was originally introduced as a rapid acquisition for Chinook but it is now being fitted as a standard mod into all of our aircraft – the Black Hawks, the Koalas. There was also the M134 minigun – which has been pretty successful. We also put a lot more ballistic matting into the Chinook – which is pretty common across many nations. Even with our current aircraft we are still balancing investment.
We have also upgraded the CH-47D’s engines to the Honeywell T55-714s from the 712s and installed engine particle separators – I think they were initially for our deployment to Iraq.

AD: Will your Black Hawks deploy to Afghanistan?
AM: That would be purely a decision for government. We would look at plans and find a way if required.
AD: Thank you.

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