Early on the 19th of April, on a cold and very windy Keevil airfield, the Sunday morning quiet was taken over by the sound of helicopters. This wasn’t an aerial invasion by a foreign nation, but the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force conducting an airfield assault as part of Exercise Joint Warrior. Alec Walker provides an idea of what it is like to see that kind of force brought to bear in this guest report.
For 16 Air Assault Brigade’s Air Assault Task Force (AATF) – comprised of the Battlegroup from 2 Parachute Regiment and a Joint Helicopter Force commanded by 3 Regiment Army Air Corps, Exercise Joint Warrior provided a testing analysis of their ability to conduct the full range of military operations required of them, from non-combatant evacuations through to the full scale traditional “warfighting”.
Exercise Joint Warrior 15-1 had the AATF simulating a mission to support a friendly nation in counter-insurgency operations, with the insurgents backed by a hostile foreign force. As with a real operation, the 1,600 personnel of the AATF were activated and swiftly converged on the Joint Air Mounting Centre (JAMC) in South Cerney, Gloucestershire. From here, 16 Air Assault Brigade moved to MoD St Athan in Wales to begin preparations to capture the insurgent held Keevil Airfield – over 100 miles away on Salisbury Plain.
Shortly before 0800 local on Sunday April 19th, 6 Westland WAH-64D Apaches appeared from a standoff position near to Keevil, and the airwaves crackled with observations of troop movements and enemy firing positions scattered around the insurgent held airfield. Soon simulated attacks began with all available weapon types being pressed into (simulated) action against the enemy positions on and around Keevil Airfield – the assault had begun. For the next ten minutes, the Apaches continued to assault the airfield and neutralise enemy positions, clearing the airspace for the following ground elements – heralded by the sound of heavier rotors drifting across the airfield.
The main troop insertion , transported in by four Merlin HC.3s and two Pumas (one of which was the commemoratively marked “Black Peter”), headed directly for the airfield as the Apaches continued to suppress the insurgent forces. The transport helicopter contingent made quick tactical landings on the designated Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ) and disgorged numerous troops of 16 Air Assault Brigade who quickly made their way to defensive positions as the helicopters prepared for a rapid departure , getting away from any remaining ground threats in the area. As the sound of the Merlins and Pumas diminished, the unmistakable sound of the Chinook became more apparent and in mere seconds, they were visible heading into the airfield with underslung loads, bringing in valuable support to the ground personnel. Almost as soon as they were sighted, they were expertly setting down and releasing their loads of Land Rover Wolf and WMIKs on the airfield before rapidly departing.
At this point, the ground troops of 16 Air Assault Brigade swept into action, bringing the Wolfs and WMIKs into the fight and starting to suppress the insurgents on the ground with .50 cal fire and simulated Grenade Machine Gun (GMG) fire, as well as a significant amount of small arms rounds. A perimeter was quickly established on the north eastern end of the airfield, and the northern edge was patrolled whilst the Apaches continued to provide top cover for both the vehicles and assault team spearhead occupied with attacking the buildings to the South West.
The northern edge of the airfield was quickly secured and a perimeter established, and more Chinooks were engaged to bring in additional troops and vehicles – including dog search units, quad bikes and trailers of personal equipment and munitions. With the immediate area around the HLZ secure, two Army Air Corps Lynx AH9s came into the airfield to drop off the Brigade HQ element, setting up their headquarters facility.
Over the course of the next two hours, a ground battle ensued and the buildings to the south west were thoroughly searched by the dog teams as the last pockets of resistance were neutralised. During this time, the Apaches remained overhead and had rotated through to ensure maximum coverage, with just three aircraft remaining on station whilst others returned to refuel and prepare to escort the next wave of transport helicopters – as well as providing top cover for any medical evacuations (MEDIVACs) that may be required.
After the airfield was all but secured, the Merlins and Pumas returned with a combination of underslung and internal loads of personal rucksacks, further equipment, weapons and ammunition for the protracted defence and offensive fight that was to follow on Salisbury Plain. They were shortly followed by the Chinooks bringing light plant equipment, fuel bladders and other equipment required to establish a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP) to support ongoing operations.
After the airfield was finally secured, elements of the Tactical Air Traffic Control Party were brought in by Lynx AH9 and started to co-locate with the brigade HQ and over the next hour, set up their portable TACAN aerial and other equipment required to operate as an advanced airfield.
Some 8 hours after arriving on location, the Apaches in the overhead declared “Bingo” status , and the control of the Restricted Operating Zone and thus the airfield, was handed over to Tactical Air Traffic Control, who began to provide information on the upcoming fixed wing units due in. After around a 1 hour delay, two C-130J Hercules’ appeared at low level on 5 mile final to complete tactical circuits and landings to offload further personnel at the airfield, before departing again in short order.
Controlling Keevil was but the start of the 16 Air Assault Brigade campaign in Exercise Joint Warrior – following the seizure of the airfield, the Apaches returned to St Athan to strike additional simulated enemy positions on the Pembrey Sands range, whilst 2 Parachute Brigade jumped onto the STANTA ranges in Norfolk to conduct an airbourne assault on a village there.
Brigadier Nick Borton DSO MBE, Commander of 16 Air Assault Brigade, said:
“Joint Warrior provided an excellent opportunity for 16 Air Assault Brigade to work alongside the Royal Navy and RAF in its role as the British Army’s very high-readiness formation for contingency operations. This realistic and well-resourced training reflects the type of operations that the brigade could be called on to do, both in terms of the tactical challenges and their expeditionary nature. The missions that we had to achieve in a very short space of time are a powerful demonstration of the unique flexibility, reach and agility of airborne and air assault troops.”