US Army Aviation Aggressor Training
THE SOVIET-MADE armour made contact with the American forces along the base of the mountains on the desert valley floor. A pair of AH-1 gunship helicopters popped up over a ridge nicknamed the «whale» and skimmed across the ground at 50ft. Using the dry river beds as cover, they approached the enemy positions.
Emerging onto the flat desert, the pilots began calling the targets, quickly firing at vehicles and troop concentrations. The enemy was dug in well and difficult to spot among the wreckage of the previous battles. Suddenly, the instrument panel lit up with warning messages, they had been hit. The pilots knew they were dead.
This is not a scenario for a computer simulation or an arcade video game. It actually happened. It didn’t take place in the deserts of the Middle East or Africa. It happened in the Mojave Desert of southern California. The Soviet armour and helicopters belong to the opposing force (OPFOR) stationed at the National Training Center (NTC) at Fort Irwin, California. The American crew was one of many on a training rotation at the NTC.
NTC was established in 1981 to provide a site for realistic training for brigade and regimental size units in a mid-to-high intensity combat environment. Visiting units, known as the Blue Force, spend 14 days fighting at the NTC. Their opponent, the OPFOR, is a 1,500 man unit trained to fight as a Soviet motorized rifle regiment. They are equipped with almost 200 vehicles that have been visually modified to look like Soviet tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and other combat vehicles.
Heart of the training system is the Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System (MILES), manufactured by Loral Electro-Optical Systems of Pasadena, California. Every weapon, from rifle to tank cannon, is equipped with a low-power laser that emits a coded message. Every soldier, vehicle, and helicopter participating in a battle is equipped with sensors, which receive the coded message from a laser, and sound an alarm and activate a strobe light when a lethal hit is made. This assures that a rifle can’t kill a tank. The victim’s weapon cannot fire its laser after he has ‘died’.
Each vehicle and one member of every squad carries a special transponder. Signals are picked up by some 30 mountain top receivers and relayed to a central control centre called the ‘Star Wars Building’. Here, consoles display the type and location of units, who is alive and who is dead, and record the progress of the battle Radio signals are also recorded for later review.
In 1984, it was decided to add to the realism by including helicopter assets for the OPFOR. A flight detachment of five UH-1 H Hueys was established in 1982 to support the NTC. In 1985, this was increased to 16 Hueys, four of which were visually modified to simulate Soviet Hind helicopters. Later, the unit was authorized 23 Hueys and became ‘C’ Company, 3rd Battalion, 159th Assault Helicopter Regiment. The Huey ‘Hinds’ became the 3rd platoon of the unit.
The major impact of the Huey ‘Hinds’ are not the kills they achieve, but their influence on the Blue Force ground commanders. They in fact don’t make a significant dent in the Blue Force but they do divert them from the ground attack of the OPFOR. This allows the OPFOR to get more kills and advance while the Blue Force’s attention is focused on the helicopters. The Blue Force learns the valuable lesson of not letting one aspect of the enemy attack dominate its thinking.
A secondary role is to allow the air defence artillery of the visiting unit to practise acquiring and tracking real helicopters. These units rarely get any realistic training and the MILES system gives them feedback on their performance.
What they are finding is that it is not as easy to kill a helicopter as they thought.
Loral performed the modifications to the Hueys which included a fibreglass nose piece, stub wings with weapons racks, and a Soviet camouflage paint scheme. Inside the cockpit, weapon sighting systems have been mounted for the pilots. The right seat controls the rockets and 30mm cannon. A powerful spotlight is used to simulate the muzzle flash of the 30mm cannon.
Simulated AT-6 Spiral anti-tank missiles are controlled from the left seat. A pair of gyroscopically stabilized binoculars are mounted to a fold-down frame above the pilot. One lens has been removed and replaced with the laser which fires where the pilot is looking. A smoke cartridge is fired to simulate the flash and smoke of the missile firing so the troops on the ground will see it.
MILES sensors are located on the nose, along the upper and lower cabin, and on both sides of the tail boom. The tail boom sensors are unique to the Huey ‘Hinds’. The Hind is a much bigger helicopter than the UH-1 so extra sensors were installed to present a larger electronic target to the lasers shooting at them. All helicopters involved, both Blue Force and OPFOR. are equipped with a brilliant orange strobe light mounted on the landing skid that is activated when the helicopter is killed.
Because of maintenance and repairs, the unit can usually only field two of the four ‘Hinds’. This makes it difficult to mimic Soviet tactics. «Ideally, we would like to field two sections of two helicopters each,» CW4 Bill Butts stated. «We use the same angle-off and distance between the pair as the Soviets, but two pairs would make things much more realistic.»
Because there are only two, and a real Soviet attack would have many, once the ‘Hinds’ are killed, they can be “reborn». The helicopters leave the battle area and set down for ten minutes. They are then free to rejoin the battle. A special key resets the MILES system.
The Hinds’ perform several types of missions. A vast majority are ground attack missions against armour and infantry concentrations. They also radio back situation reports on the location and strength of the Blue Force and are used to insert and extract Division Recon Teams on mountain tops around the battlefield. In addition, they perform sweeps to kill Blue Force recon teams.
One of the latest missions is the air assault of a company of OPFOR infantry. Due to the demand of NTC personnel for helicopters, there have never been enough Hueys available to do an air assault. Command staff at the NTC decided that it was important enough to dedicate some flight hours on each rotation to perform air assault missions. Initially, eight to ten aircraft were needed. Eventually, they want to be able to move an entire company in one lift which would require 12 to 14 aircraft. The ‘Hinds’ fly as armed escorts and suppress ground fire at the landing zone.
Air-to-air missions are currently not permitted at the NTC. OPFOR and Blue Force aircraft simply ignore each other. No attempts at evasion or concealment are made. Asked to comment on this restriction, Capt Joseph James, Commanding Officer of C Company 3/159th, said, «I think it’s an important tool for the OPFOR and Blue Force to use against each other. There has been work on rules of engagement that would make it safe. We need to be able to engage other aircraft in chance encounters as opposed to a planned mission. We should be able to engage targets of opportunity as long as rules are established that ensure the safety of everyone involved.» Captain James hopes these rules will be placed into effect in the near future.
The desert is a harsh and unforgiving environment. The terrain at the NTC includes wide, flat valleys as well as barren mountains up to 6,000ft high. Dry lake beds cover thousands of acres and every flat piece of ground is covered by a fine, powdery sand. High winds are common, which stirs the sand into huge clouds that can ground aircraft for days. Summer temperatures can easily exceed 48°C which plays havoc with density altitude takeoffs and payloads.
Flying in this type of terrain presents unique challenges and requires special techniques. Using the normal landing technique can be harrowing at the least and fatal at the worst. A thick dust cloud envelopes the helicopter whenever it hovers within a few feet of the ground. Helicopters equipped with wheels, such as the UH-60 Black Hawk and AH-64 Apache, have an advantage in that they can make a running landing and stay ahead of the dust cloud they create.
The technique is much like a fixed-wing aircraft making a carrier landing. The helicopter must come in fast enough to keep clear of its dust cloud. The nose is held up and the tail lowered so the tail wheel touches first. Then the helicopter is slowed and rapidly settles to the ground as the dust cloud reaches the cockpit area. Takeoff is also quick. Instead of picking up into a hover and then departing, the pilot quickly pulls in power and launches into the air before it can be enveloped by dust.
Attempting to create a realistic battlefield scenario, much of the flying is done at night. This can be hazardous in desert conditions. Flying under Night Vision Goggles (NVGs), a pilot has very little sense of altitude over the flat, featureless desert. The dry lake beds are the worst. A pilot cannot tell if he is five feet or fifty feet above the ground. It would be easy to become disoriented and fly into the ground under these conditions. A radar altimeter and a good measure of caution are the only cure. Even then, many pilots stated their unease with practising night landings on the lake beds.
Cross country flight over the NTC at night is also difficult. There is virtually no man-made illumination in the region, just the moon and stars. When there is no moonlight, the area is like a black hole. Using the older AN/PVS5 NVGs, the pilot must stay within 50ft of the ground to see any details (like the ground rushing up at him). If the pilot has to pull up to avoid an obstacle, he must slowly descend to 50ft to see the ground again. Obviously, the speeds the helicopters are flown at under these conditions are greatly reduced.
However, using the new generation ANVIS-6 NVGs, the pilots stated that they experienced no such difficulties. The ANVIS-6s allow flight at 200ft above the ground under moonless conditions and give excellent visibility. Pilots say they can even see the horizon and distant mountains which makes for much easier flying.
Since the visiting units are only flying for a short time in these conditions, they don’t experience the long term maintenance problems of operating in a desert environment. For the units based at the NTC, however, the desert has a very real effect on the helicopters. Main rotor blades that normally would last 2,000 flight hours only last about 500 hours. Windshields, which normally last 8,500 hours, need to be replaced here, on average, every 250 hours because of the sandblasting they receive. Tyres need to be changed frequently due to rocks and running landings. The same goes for wheel brakes. The engines seem to do well. One crew chief even said the sand was good for the engines because it scours them out and keeps them clean.
Every rotation, an aviation task force accompanies the ground forces to the NTC. U.S. Army aviation is usually a division-level asset and units rarely get to work together in numbers as large as at the NTC. The Blue Force can number from 3,500 to almost 5,000 depending on the type of unit. During AFM’s visit to the NTC, 55 helicopters accompanied elements of the 9th Infantry Division from Fort Lewis, Washington. When the units travel to the NTC, they use the same deployment plans as if they were going to war. Most of the helicopters self-deployed the 950 miles from Fort Lewis to Fort Irwin. A few were airlifted by USAF C-5 aircraft to nearby Norton AFB.
«What makes the training at the NTC so different is the level of realism,» commented Capt Calvin Owen, Commanding Officer of D Troop, 1st Squadron, 9th Air Cavalry. «Here we have an actual enemy to go against who employs Soviet doctrine. The terrain is unknown to us which enhances the realism. There is smoke, dust, jammed radio communications, and an enemy that moves with incredible speed.
One of our greatest difficulties has been sustaining prolonged operations in the field. Adequate logistical support and long lines of communication have been especially challenging. We have had good aircraft availability, but only because our maintenance people have been working around the clock.”
Evaluating and assisting the Blue Force units are observer-controllers (OCs). They also conduct after action reviews (AARs) to point out mistakes and teach the Blue Force how to do the job better with fewer casualties.
Aviation OCs use OH-58s to follow the units. “What I like to do,» commented Capt Chuck Jarnot, «is stay behind the commander and monitor his radio. I try to stay off his frequency and see how well he is commanding and controlling his mission. I want to see if he sticks to his plan.»
One of the major objectives of the NTC is to expose units to the confusion and pace that the crews would face in a real war. One comment from the Blue Force that Capt Jarnot hears time and again is the unexpected speed with which the OPFOR strikes and how quickly the situation can change.
Sensory overload is very common during the first few battles. The pilots are amazed at how much information they have to absorb and process. They have to learn what is important and what is not, and to delegate duties to other crew members. Jarnot said he can tell by watching a helicopter when the pilot is overloaded. He will begin to fly higher and higher as he concentrates more on communication and less on flying. This usually leads to the pilot being shot down. One of the key points that the NTC wants to teach pilots is that true nap-of-the-earth flying will keep them alive. By the end of the rotation, pilots are usually flying missions at half the height above the ground than when they started the rotation.
Adding to the sensory overload is the tendency for aviation units to bite off more than they can chew at one time. “They are very enthusiastic and aggressive, which is commendable,” Capt Jarnot said, “but they have to learn how to evaluate their own abilities and limitations and not take on the entire OPFOR alone.»
Another aspect that takes several days for the Blue Force to master is air-ground co-ordination and cooperation. «Days one through to three, there are a lot of disconnects,» explained Jarnot. “Sometimes aviation will kill friendly tanks or troops and vice versa. By days five through to seven, there is a meeting of minds. The staffs realize they have to meet face to face to create good co-operation. By the end of the rotation, things are working pretty smoothly.»
On the plus side, Jarnot commented on the high level of initiative found in the aviation units.
In almost every battle, the OPFOR is successful in finding and jamming the aviation units radio frequencies. The pilots tend to carry on the mission based on the briefing and the goals and objectives of the mission. The level of aggressiveness tends to remain high. As an example, Jarnot stated that if an air cavalry unit’s mission is to gain and maintain contact and send back reports, the unit will find a way to get the reports to the ground staff, even if it means detaching a helicopter to find a vehicle on another radio net and pass the information along.
Not only is the pace of the battle new to most of the pilots, so is the length of the war. After a week or so of constant flying and fighting, fatigue begins to set in. Rarely will crews fly as many hours in such a short span of time as at the NTC. They are up late for briefings and up early to fly. People start to forget things, briefings become shorter, reports become less formal, and sometimes information is lost. For the most part, the commanding officers and the senior pilots recognize these symptoms and make sure safety is not compromised.
Once the battle is over, the OCs become teachers. Formal AARs are conducted two or three times every rotation. Senior staff and commanders from the aviation units review the information provided by the MILES instrumentation. Radio communications are recorded and video cameras placed on the battlefield record the action. A summary of every battle is made for the units to take home which helps them develop training programmes to improve performance.
Jarnot conducts AARs on an informal basis after every battle on the company level. He brings together 15 to 20 aircrews and goes over the battle. «I want them to discover their own mistakes,» Jarnot said. «It is not meant to point fingers, it is a learning exercise. By letting the crews find their own mistakes and what alternatives might have produced better results, they will retain the lessons much better than if I told them what they did wrong.”
It appears that the lessons are taking hold. Jarnot has seen units do much better on their second rotation. They adapt to the tempo of the battle much faster and have much better co-ordination with ground units. “As an example,» Jarnot explained, «D Troop of the 1/9 Air Cav has two senior pilots who conducted home station training based on their experiences at the NTC. On this rotation, they have suffered as few as 10% casualties in some battles which is excellent.»
The National Training Center offers a unique opportunity for ground and air units to fight realistic battles. They can train in large units and formations under conditions that are unavailable at their home stations. They can die over and over again so they can learn how to live in a real war.