Branch Chief’s Corner / By MG David J. Francis: It was 0320 hours and the lead troop of the squadron had just made it through their passage point across a low saddle with heavily wooded hilltops on either side.
It added a couple of extra minutes to the route, but it avoided a built up area and more importantly this saddle gave them a gap they could exploit where the threat systems could not “see” them, either visually or with their advanced tech. Sure, their cutting-edge Aircraft Survivability Equipment could acquire and defeat almost anything on the battlefield…almost anything. But in any fight, being seen at all is not a good thing and just like the ground forces, using the cover and concealment provided by the surrounding environment is your best bet. For helicopters that translates into – terrain flight.
The Kentucky National Guard’s Company B, 2nd (Assault Helicopter) Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment conducts an air assault May 29, 2019, at Udairi Range near Camp Beuhring, Kuwait./ U.S. ARMY PHOTO BY 1LT ERIC JUNGELS
Flying and fighting rotary wing aircraft in any kind of combat is a complex endeavor, but the profile we fly in combat is always based on one thing: the threats we face. The peer and near-peer threats we face today have had the time and luxury of watching us fight and have developed systems and tactics with the intent of countering the asymmetric advantage Army Aviation brings to the fight. It’s safe to say that in order to remain asymmetric, we have to adapt to future threat capabilities. A significant part of process entails regaining our ability to fly against high-end threat systems. To accomplish this, we have to return to a mode of flight that presents the enemy with the least likely probability of “seeing” us – terrain flight.
As we start to come back down from altitude to avoid the known threats, we need to focus on the known and sometimes forgotten threats that we encounter in terrain flight. Like everything else we do, the focus is all about the way we train. We know that in order to have the enemy lose us in the clutter, we have to be in the clutter – both manmade and natural. This places considerable emphasis on terrain flight mission planning. And while the steps to this planning process are numerous, the three that jump out at me are the enemy, the terrain and the rehearsals.
Understanding the enemy we face, how they array their systems, and what those systems are capable of drives everything. With that understanding, we can evaluate the terrain and begin looking for any gaps, seams or dead space we can use to execute our mission and get to and from our objective. En route to our objective, the higher the threat level gets, the lower our mode of flight gets, and the lower we fly the less time we have to react.
And while we will always have to react to unexpected situations, the intent of rehearsing is to discover, think through, and eliminate as many of these situations as possible before launch on the mission. Rehearsals and crew coordination for terrain flight start with each aircrew at the basic level of – who’s flying with eyes outside the entire time, and who is inside monitoring systems and navigation. With the progression from crew briefs to sand tables, and ideally digital simulation rehearsals, the level of detail involved accelerates significantly. By the time you get done with the Combined Arms Rehearsal (CAR), you are sometimes surprised at how many unexpected situations you had to react to.
When you’re flying low and fast in the dark, not only does reaction time to external threats become significantly reduced, reaction time for internal threats are drastically reduced. Everyone knows that when something goes wrong onboard your aircraft the first thing you do is continue to fly the aircraft. There are a handful of emergencies that require immediate action, but you still must fly the aircraft. We are currently looking closely at all the emergency procedures for every aircraft to determine what needs to be changed with an eye on how we recognize and react, especially in the terrain flight environment. Another project that we recently completed is the development of a Training Support Package (TSP) that specifically addresses low level flight in Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO).
The transition from training for COIN to training for LSCO does not happen overnight. Aircrews and planners must learn, or refresh their knowledge, through a deliberate gated training strategy. Accidental and tactical risk must be balanced through proper training techniques in order to safely, but fully, unlock the capabilities of our Soldiers and our technologies.
It is crucial to understand what the operational environment looks and feels like in order to shape our application of combat power and how we train to meet these challenges. We have proven time and time again that our aircraft are survivable on the battlefield and that is largely because of the men and women who fly them. And as we remain focused on training and refining our terrain flight skills and capabilities, we will continue to increase our ability to dominate across the battlefield as part of an ever more complex Combined Arms Team.
Above the Best!
MG David J. Francis is the Army Aviation branch chief and commander of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence and Fort Rucker, AL.