Monday, May 28, 2018

RCAF Griffons Still Busy Over Iraq

By: Chris Thatcher, Vertical Magazine 

The battle for the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and an offensive in the Hawija pocket further south may have concluded in the summer and fall of 2017, but the whirl of Canadian helicopters continues to resound over the region.

Iraqi security forces, with the assistance of a coalition of international partners, broke the four-year siege of Mosul by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in July and have continued a sporadic fight against pockets of ISIS, also known by its Arabic name, Daesh, and its supporters across Iraq’s northern provinces.

CH-146 Griffon aircrews have resumed conducting four to five missions per day, seven days a week, a pace similar to the height of the pre-Mosul campaign. Skip Robinson Photo
CH-146 Griffon aircrews have resumed conducting four to five missions per day, seven days a week, a pace similar to the height of the pre-Mosul campaign. Skip Robinson Photo
Though the scope of the conflict has changed, Canadian Special Operations Forces (SOF) continue to train, advise and assist the Kurdish Peshmerga as part of Operation Impact. In support of that effort, a tactical aviation detachment comprised of four CH-146 Griffon helicopters and around 50 aircrew, maintenance, logistics and headquarters personnel continue to provide tactical transport from an airbase near Erbil, carry Canadian and coalition SOF, equipment and ammunition between forward locations.

“There is really no change to that part,” said Maj Sylvain Lapierre, commanding officer of the fifth rotation of the detachment. “We still provide them with liaison, reconnaissance, and material support, and we are on standby for casualty evacuation if it were to be required.”

In the months following the ouster of Daesh from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, the aviation detachment saw what Lapierre calls a “tactical pause” in coalition SOF operations. But it was only a brief respite. As winter turned to spring, Griffon aircrews have resumed conducting four to five missions per day, seven days a week, a pace similar to the height of the pre-Mosul campaign when special forces helped Iraqi troops establish blocking positions around the city.

“We are task-tailored for 12 hours a day and we routinely do about 16,” said Lapierre of what remains, despite the disintegrating enemy force, a remarkably high operational tempo. In fiscal 2017, the detachment flew over 3,000 hours. “We would have no difficulties surging to 24 hours a day if we needed to.”

As with all commanders since the tactical aviation detachment was first deployed in October 2016, risk management remains the biggest concern.

Lapierre, a helicopter pilot with two tours in Bosnia and one in Afghanistan, as well as two years as a liaison officer with the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence in Fort Rucker, Alabama, said the threat of enemy rocket, mortar and small arms fire is still a threat. But the variable weather, which can quickly reduce visibility, and man-made obstacles, also have to be mitigated.

“Lots of towers, lots of power lines-they are everywhere,” he said. “And they are not necessarily marked to the same standards that we are used to in Canada.”

Still, “rogue actors” in the form of Daesh or their sympathizers remain the preeminent threat to both helicopters and special forces. Aircrews routinely change flight profiles and rely on well-honed tactics, techniques and procedures to transit potentially risky airspace and to protect the aircraft.

Potentially complicating matters further, Turkey, a NATO ally, has been conducting offensive operations across its southern border against Syrian Kurdish militia. While the fighting has not affected the detachment’s missions-it’s a conflict to be addressed at the political level, Lapierre noted-it nonetheless is one more issue to keep an eye on.

“We obviously monitor everything that happens in the region from an intelligence perspective,” he said. “But nothing has really changed the way we are flying or how the [detachment] is operating in the area.”

However, before granting mission acceptance and launch authority, air task force commanders routinely use a risk assessment scorecard that has its origins in the helicopter missions of Afghanistan. The evolving tool forces leaders to deliberately evaluate the level of risk they are being asked to accept by assigning a score to the nature of the mission, how it is organized, the number and type of aircraft involved, the types of passengers, the degree of reliable intelligence, the availability of supporting enablers, and the environmental conditions.

“When we are looking at communicating the aspects of flight safety, it has become a very important supervision tool,” said Lapierre.

Many of those risks are mitigated by the fact that, although most of the tactical aviation detachment are on their first operational tour, all of the aircraft commanders (AC) are veteran pilots of multiple tours.

“I find myself in a privileged situation,” Lapierre acknowledged. “It makes the risk management aspect a little easier. And they have become outstanding mentors for the newer generation of aircrew that are rotating through theatre that may not have [served] in Afghanistan or on a previous mission. There is great sharing of information, not just among the aircrews but also within the maintenance organization.”

Exercises might train and validate the competency of an air task force, but the repetition of missions on an operation can make it easier to absorb instruction in a way that isn’t always possible in complex exercise scenarios, he observed.

“Sometimes coming to a theatre where the focus is different brings new opportunities to learn. Here we have the opportunity to train our younger aircrew in a real theatre, with real tasks and real control measures, with real users. In some ways it caps everything. What you have learned before as a young aviator, this is the sum of it.”

Despite temperature swings that have ranged between 35 C and below zero since the rotation began, the CH-146 Griffon has exceeded expectations. The detachment, which slimmed down from around 60 to 50 personnel last fall, is largely self-sufficient, managing most aspects of maintenance and logistics, and yet has had little trouble keeping the almost 20-year-old helicopters flying.

“I have outstanding serviceability here,” said Lapierre. “We haven’t seen any loss of performance. Like any other helicopter, there comes a point in the very high heat of the summer where we have to get into the books, look at the performance charts and find efficiencies, which we can do by managing the missions and the timings for the tasks. I think we are doing very well with this aircraft.”
Leading the way

Since the detachment was first stood up in 2016, three squadrons have assumed the leadership, beginning with 427 Special Operations Aviation Squadron from Petawawa, Ont., and then 430 Tactical Helicopter Squadron (THS) from Valcartier, Quebec.

Like Lapierre, many of the current detachment are from 408 THS in Edmonton. But over the course of his more than seven-month tour, he has seen members from every tactical aviation squadron in 1 Wing, as well as 417 Combat Support Squadron from Cold Lake, Alta., deployed to Camp Erable, home to Joint Task Force-Iraq Detachment Erbil, a headquarters staff of approximately 30 personnel and a Canadian-led Coalition Role 2 medical facility.

The commander admits he wasn’t sure how well a diverse group would gel without a lot of pre-deployment training. To his surprise, the different helicopter organizations clicked together almost immediately, proving the flexibility the Royal Canadian Air Force tactical aviation detachment concept.

“It’s one of those cases where one plus one equals three,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of synergies with different units. Everybody brought something and it made the sum of everything greater.

“It proves that we have a great deal of interoperability. Regardless of which unit people were coming from, it was easy to integrate them,” he observed as he prepared to hand over command to 430 THS in late May.

“[It’s also] a testament to our level of readiness and how strong and mature our SOPs (standard operating procedures) are. That is one thing I’ll be passing on, that we maintain our solid SOPs and work practices back home-they transfer well into theater.”

If anything, he’s realized how difficult it is to deliver such a high level of service for so long a period.

“One of my challenges is going to be to go back home and maintain the 100 per cent focus people have here,” he said. “Whether it’s maintenance, flying, logistical support-everyone has worked hand-in-hand to make these missions happen.”

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