US Army Apache battalion in Europe

A lot has changed in the international theatre. Since the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea and the Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war, NATO is changing the way it trains. Since 2015 we’ve seen a few Theater Security Packages in Europe to, “strengthen interoperability, demonstrate the US commitment to Europe and to deter further Russian aggression,” according to a 2016 US Air Force press release.

But the US Air Force isn’t the only service sending security packages to Europe – so too is the US Army.

USAREUR reorganisation

After the revolutions of 1989, the US Army Europe (USAREUR) greatly reduced its size and dispatched US forces to Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Reorganisation plans from 2005 called for the formation’s major subordinate units – 1st Armoured Division and 1st Infantry Division – to be relocated from Germany to the continental United States. On August 7, 2006, the units of the Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division and units of both the 12th Aviation Brigade and the former 11th Aviation Group were combined into the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade (CAB). The 12th CAB replaced the units that were relocated. On March 20, 2007 the 12th became a separate brigade under V Corps. The brigade is currently based around Ansbach, Bavaria, in Germany, and headquartered in Katterbach Kaserne, with subordinate units in Illesheim and Wiesbaden.

The plan was to reduce the presence in Europe even more. In 2015, the Department of Defense announced it would cut 24 AH-64 Apaches, 30 UH-60 Black Hawks, three CH-47 Chinooks and nine HH-60 MEDEVAC Black Hawks in a process called the Army Aviation Restructuring Initiative (ARI).

The 12th Combat Aviation Brigade’s seven battalions were cut down to two. The 12th CAB is now meeting the operational needs of Europe through a regionally allocated force which is resourced through CABs in the continental United States. The 12th CAB is currently augmented by the 227th Aviation Regiment of the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade from Fort Hood, Texas.

A difference in training

Chief Warrant Officer Chris Moore who is an Apache pilot with the 12th CAB in the USAREUR. He joined the US Army in 2002 as an infantryman and deployed to Iraq in 2003 as a spotter for a sniper team. It’s there where he first came in contact with Apaches. He said: “The confidence and the safety that I had on the ground, knowing that the Apaches actually are above us, it was a game changer over there.” He decided to become an Apache pilot: “It was a natural progression to go with attack aviation.”

In Iraq and Afghanistan, there was a threat of surface-to-air missiles. CW3 Moore explained: “But realistically, at 1,500 to 2,000 feet we were not afraid of anything. We owned the skies and have since.”

The training has changed following the tensions along NATO borders. The threat is no longer confined to shoulder fired missiles, but a near peer adversary with attack aviation assets of its own. Training is now moving towards a near peer threat of actually flying in places that are not permissive and that have a surface-to-air threat. CW3 Moore said: “We train flying in places where we have to be low in the trees and we don’t own the skies.”

Learning curve

A typical mission day begins much earlier than it used to, because a long planning cycle comes first. All the training missions now take between 24 to 48 hours of planning. The threat drives the tactics of how the aircraft are being deployed.

CW3 Moore sees it as a challenge: “It’s been a steep learning curve for a lot of us because we’ve been flying in Afghanistan for ten plus years doing the same thing over and over. We’re very good at flying there. Getting into this lower and slower environment is a challenge.”

The steep learning curve is not just because of the change in tactics. The operational tempo is also very fast, and not without reason. After the US Army visited Ukraine to talk about lessons learned from their conflict, it became clear that the operational tempo that it took for the Ukrainian Army to constantly have helicopters and constantly change their tactics was very demanding. It’s a peer-to-peer fight where they are always out flying missions.

“We can take it, the aircraft can’t,” CW3 Moore elaborated. “The aircraft need time to reset, and fix things. Basically, manage how much can we push, but at the same time how much can we sustain.”

There’s a lot of processes going on during the training. For example, maintenance is fixing the rotor blades, people are refuelling, there are food facilities supporting the personnel so they can eat, communications are set up, and each one of those aspects has their own maintenance and their own level of sustainability of how fast they can go.

But CW3 Moore notices that there’s been great improvement: “I feel that we’ve ramped up. If we do fight that near peer fight, we can now sustain a heavy operations tempo for a long period of time which we probably couldn’t have done five years ago.” He does not mind the high tempo because, “we’re going there to support allies, and they are waiting on us when we get there”.

Training in Europe

CW3 Moore is in Europe for a three-year tour. He thinks it’s one of the most unique places to train and to use the Apache. Because the 1st Battalion is the only US Apache battalion in Europe, it is tasked to meet every mission where attack aviation is requested.

Training events in the US are different. The ranges are typically very small, and in the local area. In Europe it’s much more of a global event. CW3 Moore explained: “One week we will be up in Denmark flying for them and will learn all their capabilities, we’ll learn how we can communicate with them, how they move and integrate into their plan. And the next week we go to Poland and we do the same thing over again. Then Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia.”

He really notices the value of exercising with different countries: “We see what their capabilities, their strengths and weaknesses are. Everywhere we go, the first week is always a problem-solving week. After that we’re getting into a nice rhythm.”

A typical US Army attack reconnaissance battalion consists of 24 aircraft organised into three companies of eight aircraft each. Europe is a diverse environment and calls for different requirements. That results in operating these companies a lot more. It allows the company leadership to learn to actually use their company, instead of receiving orders from higher up all the time. It builds them up as problem-solvers.

The five-pillar principle of the USAREUR is applied. These pillars are: empowering junior leaders; army reserve and National Guard support; allies and partners; regionally allocated forces; and dynamic presence.

At the moment most of the missions the Apache pilots fly are live fire exercises. CW3 Moore is aware of the trust and confidence they have gained. He said: “We go out and not only execute an eight-ship mission, but also use live ammunition. The ground forces below us trust us to use live ammunition when we are flying above them. Usually it’s a slow crawl, walk, run process in the US. In Europe it’s a much faster process, because we built good relationships over all of our trips we’ve done.”

The US Army has built a lot of contacts: “When I get on the ground, I already know who they are, and I know how they operate. And so we can roll right into a live fire exercise now.”

Command structure

The aviation command structure in Europe is very different than the way it works in the Middle East. In Afghanistan it’s the mission commander who’s in charge of the aircraft. He runs the air portion, and the ground force commander runs the ground portion. Since operating in Europe requires very low-level tactics, the aim is to operate as a manoeuvre force.

CW3 Moore explained: “If you have an infantry platoon of three squads, we are your fourth squad now. We’re directly integrated into the ground forces. The ground force commander, who is typically another NATO ally, is now in charge, and we follow whatever he wants us to do instead of us just flying in circles above the battlefield, making our own decisions.”

Manoeuvring with infantry troops is not the only support the Apaches give to the ground troops. They also work on being a manoeuvre force capable of taking on tanks and an armoured force with the Longbow fire control radar system.

A ground force working with Apaches has big advantages. “We have a situational awareness. We are in the fight on the ground with them. The troops can say: We’re taking fire two o’clock and I already know where their position is.”

Working with allies

Another challenge the US Army meets when exercising in Europe is the variety of different allied countries. CW3 Moore gave an anecdote about a deployment: “We worked a rotation with forces in Eastern Europe and were trying to integrate a communications piece, and all they had were Motorola radios.

“That was a challenge we never had to deal with before because we always worked with people with a near peer radio system. Rather than talking to them we had to implement triggers like: When you are at this line, I need you to be disciplined enough to say `I’m at this line’. We’re trying to find ways around these limitations like that.”

There are more concerns with various allies working with the Apaches for the first time. He said: “They are nervous about how to use us and so they don’t. Every time we do these rotations and integrate them into our planning and us into their planning, we break down that language barrier. We’re getting better and better at them properly using us and us showing up on time and deploying our weapons so that they’re confident that we can do our job too.”

Longbow

There are also changes in the hardware. When training in Europe, the Apaches make use of the Longbow fire control radar. CW3 Moore explained: “The system weighs about an extra 600 pounds. In the Afghan and Iraq fight we didn’t really need them, we were not looking for vehicles or armoured targets over there. So they’ve been off the aircraft in the past ten years.”

The radar system works on millimetre wavelength which, rather than exposing the whole aircraft, just exposes the radar, which must be exposed to put out a radar signature. The aircraft will automatically identify what vehicles are there depending on the radar signature, and what type of material the vehicle is made of. It will then classify it if it’s an air defence system, or a tank’s, and it will assign a title to each vehicle. It can do this [for] up to 1,024 targets.

Knowing that the pilot is now the weakest link, it will only show the top 16 targets. CW3 Moore tells from experience: “It knows I can’t process hundreds of targets myself. It’s too much for the pilot, especially when I’m 10ft above the trees at nighttime with zero illumination from the moon.”

The Apaches are usually put into teams. If a team of two or a team of four Apaches is operated, only one of the Apaches must have a Longbow radar. It can send target information constantly to the other pilots so they can see it too.

Missiles

The AGM-114L Hellfire is the radar missile that works together with the Longbow radar. CW3 Moore knows the advantages: “I never have to expose my aircraft to shoot it. Once I have that radar image I can back up and shoot the missile from behind cover. It’s a fire and forget missile. I don’t have to see where it goes, I don’t have to continuously lase the target. It’s more survivability for us.”

The weapon has not changed, but the way it is used has. In Iraq, the Hellfires were used typically against people putting an IED in the ground. With more targets there are choices to be made. “Do I use this Hellfire on this armoured threat or do I use it on this BTR60 personnel carrier? Well I’m not going to use the Hellfire on the personnel carrier because I need to puncture the armour of a tank. And I can use the 30mm or rockets on the BTR60.” CW3 Moore is convinced the training works well, and clearly enjoys it. He says he has the best job there is: “I wouldn’t change it for the world!”

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