THE CHALLENGE OF A FULL 24 HOUR CAPABILITY FOR THE ROTARY WING AVIATOR
By COLONEL PETER EADIE,
LATE ARMY AIR CORPS, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR CAPABILITY DEVELOPMENT, UK JOINT HELICOPTER COMMAND
Military forces are constantly seeking ways to dominate operational space 24 hours a day in all environments. This presents huge technical and human challenges, not least of which are experienced by rotary wing aviation. My intent is to describe our current difficulties, majoring on the problems of piloting aircraft in extreme environments, give a résumé of newly developed capability, look to the future and present a challenge to our industrial partners. This requires us to examine three distinct areas; surveillance, targeting and pilotage. All have specific needs, both in terms of technology and training, and all present unique challenges to both helicopter operators and industry.
Current helicopter operations in Afghanistan require us to fly in virtually any conditions. Weather extremes are the norm, ranging from minus 25 to plus 50 degrees celcius across our area of operations. These variations have a marked effect on aircraft and human performance and reduce the effectiveness of aircraft sensors. Then there is the harsh physical environment; every take-off and landing away from a firm base exposes the aircraft and its systems to a battering from highly abrasive dust. These factors make operating 24/7/365 extremely difficult, however, to provide our ground troops with the seamless rotary wing support they need and deserve, we must continue to strive to overcome them.
Rotary wing surveillance capability is well-advanced. It is predominantly focused on electro-optical (EO) and Infra-Red (IR) equipment, an area in which we routinely see rapid technological advances. EO/IR devices are installed on many of our medium and light helicopters, including Sea King, Puma, Lynx and Merlin, with the Army’s light fixed wing aircraft being ideally suited. Our Royal Navy, Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force aircrew have capitalised on extensive corporate experience in Northern Ireland and have developed excellent modern tactics, techniques and procedures for the use of EO/IR equipment. In addition to the EO/IR capability, which can be down-linked in real-time to ground troops, a number of our aircraft are fitted with an Infra-Red Laser Illumination capability, or “Sparkle”, visible only through Night Vision Goggles (NVG). All these devices offer outstanding situational awareness. Coupled to the man-in-the-loop, in this case rotary wing aircrew who are ‘in the mind’ of the ground commander, helicopters provide ‘eagle eyes’ and ‘sharp ears’ that add another battle-winning dimension to land operations.
True round the clock surveillance comes from systems that offer a dual capability; optical (within the visual waveband) and thermal imagery (TI). Rotary wing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that state-of-the-art EO/IR devices not only enhance operational capability, they also save lives. The ‘eye in the sky’ gives our forces the edge over our enemies, while also ensuring that identification of friend, foe or non-combatant is more effective, thus minimising collateral damage.
Future developments in airborne surveillance will see further improvements to TI equipment, offering still greater stand-off ranges and thus operational security, while incorporating technologies such as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR). As they increase in ability, these systems will help us to fight the very current and much-publicised battle against Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). We need to see what the enemy is up to but, if that is not always possible, we need equipment that will allow us to see where he has been and to be able to analyse his activity. Technology added to flexible rotary wing platforms, coupled with effective training, will enhance operational effect and save lives.