Red Hawk and Black River: two exercises in one

Lt. Pedro Fernández Vicente
First published in
SFOR Informer#136, April 11, 2002

The French Battle Group (FRBG) conducted exercise Red Hawk within its Area of Responsibility March 27 to 29. Red Hawk involved all of the Multi-National Army Aviation Battalion (MNAAvBn), which, as part of Red Hawk, also undertook exercise Black River. Black River was the MNAAvBn's opportunity to train as an integrated group to provide helicopter support to the FRBG.

Gacko - Using helicopters tactically to improve their combat drills proficiency was the FRBG's mission in exercise Red Hawk. The training was especially focused on a large-scale helicopter lift of one infantry company into a new area of operation; the lift of a tactical command post; the under-slung lift of a reconnaissance platoon; the insertion of a platoon-sized engineer intervention force and medical evacuation measures. All of the missions were developed in accordance with MNAAvBn's operational tasks.

Multi-National training was the goal
"It is a constant preoccupation, to increase common training at different levels of the units, from air patrol to upper units. The training at patrol level has been carried out in our bases in Ploce and Rajlovac. All this training is aimed at improving our interoperational capabilities in order that we have fully operational tactical groupings of helicopters with which we can cover all the needs of the MND-SE. At the same time we can improve our capabilities in all types of missions," said Lt. Col. Jean Marc Imbault, commander of the MNAAvBN.

A long time to make it true
"Preparing a tactical helicopter group for a mission is not an easy task. The weather is very different from Sarajevo to Ploce; aircraft availability due to maintenance requirement and the high number of missions assigned to helicopters by the division from the different battle groups. We have never been able to count on using all of the aircraft at the same time before," commented Imbault. To ensure aircraft availability, the divisional G3 and the FRBG began planning exercise Red Hawk two months ago. "One month later there was a meeting with the German, Italian and Spanish squadron commanders at which the leaders all agreed with the idea of carrying out Exercise Black River as a vital part of Red Hawk," Imbault continued.

Co-ordination critical for successful mission
"The last step was to gather all of the units (helicopter and ground troop commanders) to talk about co-ordination matters concerning the different countries flight regulations. With that done, the scheme of the aerial movement was finished and with it, the planning of Black River Operation. A big briefing was conducted on the evening prior to operations beginning. Every unit and crew involved in Red Hawk was present in order to co-ordinate last minute details. It was the first time that everyone taking part in the operation could be seen together," said Imbault.

The Action
The first rays of daylight triggered the activity on the Ploce apron. Each mechanic went to his helicopter to begin his pre-flight check. The first to arrive was the German technicians for the big CH-53 Stallion (the Lillis). The CH-53 is the largest helicopter in BiH and one of largest in the word. They were the first because their pre-flight operation, which includes the deployment of the main rotor and the tail boom, takes the longest time. Other technicians followed: the Spanish, for the Cougar (Eagles); the French, for their Pumas (Buffalos) and Gazelles (Scorpions); and the Germans for the BO-105. While the technicians were at their tasks, the pilots received briefings on the missions including the range of different radio frequencies to be used. By 0750 everything was ready. The high-pitched whistling of the Scorpions' engines broke the calm of morning and announced the beginning of Black River.

"We left an hour before the main aircraft formation, we checked the route in order to guarantee that it was free. We arrived at the Forward Ammunition and Refuelling Point (FARP) in Gacko, where the patrol refuelled. This area was chosen as a landing, assembly and embarkation area. There we made contact with the FRBG operations officer and he gave me a new mission for my patrol. We had to augment an ongoing search for groups of six armed persons in the exercise area," explained Lt. Jerome Diwo, leader of the Scorpions' scout patrol.

"It was a simple but very interesting exercise because it was the first time where we went to work together. Black River has been the first step in preparing us to carry out a more complex operation in the future. Everybody thought that co-ordination would be our main problem, but in the end this difficulty didn't appear. From my point of view it has been a good and successful exercise. And it is really incredible to see the big German CH-53 fly as low and as fast as us," said Capt. Ivan Aubree, chief of the Buffalos.

Feet on the ground
"This was the first time during this tour that we have worked as a heliborne unit. In this exercise we had full training as a heliborne force and its special features such as working without our armoured vehicles and relying on support from the helicopters. There are two main problems when you are heliborne: during the aerial movement you lose contact with the evolution of the battle zone and at the same time your unit has been fragmented and you never know what you will find in the landing zone. In this area there is an extremely critical point, the reorganisation after disembarking. You have to develop a procedure that allows you to retain situational awareness.

Because if you try to do anything before recovering control of your unit you will lose." commented Capt. Thomas Mollard, commander of a French infantry company.
"A heliborne operation is not easy to plan and even more difficult to carry out in the right way."

Related links:
Nations of SFOR: France

Training and Exercises

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Photos: PO Andy Gedge

HU-1H allows for very fast disembarkment.


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Capt. Mollard balanced his company between tactical necessities and technical requirements.


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The CH-53 is a heavy-weight asset that commanders rely on to solve transportation concerns.


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In the last phase of the raid, helicopters use the NOE (Nappe Of the Earth) flight technique. That means they fly as low and as fast the mission allows.


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With so many aircraft moving in close proximity, co-ordination is essential.


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The loss of their vehicles will require new combat drills from these men.


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At the beginning of the raid, the tactical formation is right wing and the flight is at a low level.


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A period of uncertainty begins with the helicopter's arrival.


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Feet on the ground, you just have to follow your combat drill.


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The tense waiting is over when they receive the signal to embark.


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Planning and combat discipline will give you an advantage in a critical situation.