Join us

Arctic Role for Aviation Task Force 2

Sitting at a latitude of a little over 69˚ north, the Norwegian town of Bardufoss lies some 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle. As such it provides the perfect backdrop for the Royal Marines and other elements of Britain’s armed forces to learn, first how to simply survive as temperatures can plummet to -30˚C and beyond, and then how to fight in these most punishing of conditions. 

The training takes place under the Operation Clockwork banner and once the troops have learnt to deal with the icy terrain their new-found skills are severely tested in subsequent military field exercises such as Exercise Nordic Response.

This year Exercise Nordic Response formed one of the eleven sets of military manoeuvres that combine to create Exercise Steadfast Defender. Collectively, it is the largest multi-national NATO exercise in a generation running for 5 months and involving some 90,000 personnel of which 20,000 are from the UK’s armed forces.  

The scenario set for Exercise Nordic Response was that an aggressive adversary to the east had posed a threat and that NATO forces were responding to an Article 5 activation (should any ally member be attacked or invaded then the whole alliance will consider this an act of violence against all and react as one). The raison d’etre behind the NATO force intervention would be to prove that the Alliance can keep open the sea lines of communication across the Atlantic.

Of course, this region of northern Norway has a history that runs parallel with the scenario. Just north of Bardufoss lies Kåfjord where the German battleship Tirpitz was sunk by Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers. It too posed the same threat to those lines of communication. Also, the same strategic transatlantic shipping lanes proved invaluable for the Arctic convoys when, with a pinch of irony, the allies kept Russia supplied with arms and equipment.

We come here every year to train through Op Clockwork 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle, we do that because it is the most challenging environment that you will find almost anywhere on Earth. The training we get here is second to none and the skills gained are easily transferred to more benign environments.” Lieutenant Colonel Moore RM, Aviation Task Force 2

So, Exercise Nordic Response was predominantly a naval based exercise set around an UK-Dutch Amphibious Task Group with the Royal Navy providing the carrier-based strike capability from HMS Prince of Wales all working to a joint NATO military headquarters.

Providing the helicopter support for the amphibious manoeuvres was the UK based Aviation Task Force 2 (ATF2). This is a force designed for littoral operations (from sea to land combat) generated by its parent unit, the Joint Helicopter Command. A combination of both Army and Royal Navy helicopter units, ATF2 comprised of the Apache attack helicopters of 656 Squadron, Army Air Corps, the Wildcats of 847 and the Merlins of 845 Naval Air Squadrons (NAS).

ATF2 under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Ian Moore RM were tasked with supporting the Dutch 1* Headquarters aboard the naval landing platform vessel, His Netherland Majesty’s Ship (HNLMS) Johan de Witt. Two of the force’s squadrons, 845 (Merlins) and 656 Army Air Corps (Apaches) operated from the Royal Norwegian Air Force Base at Bardufoss whilst the Wildcats of 847 were embarked aboard the Dutch naval support vessel, HNLMS Karel Doorman.

The Merlins provided the lift capability to transport troops and to carry equipment and stores be that onboard or for the heavier loads, such as snowmobiles, underslung. Escort duties were conducted by the Wildcats of 847 NAS as well as being able to provide close air support to operations. The Apache attack helicopters with their fearsome fire power provided superior strike capabilities and were used for situations such as neutralising areas of air defence prior to landing troops in the Merlins.

Speaking of the exercise the ATF2’s Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Ian Moore RM said, “Nordic Response is part of a wider UK demonstration of its commitment to NATO and European security. It is part of Exercise Steadfast Defender and the most northern element of all of that activity centred on the high north and the North Atlantic. What it represents to us is the ability to train alongside NATO partners as part of a large-scale exercise promoting interoperability and cooperation.”

On the subject of what it is like to conduct operation in the high north, he added “We come here every year to train through Operation Clockwork 200 miles inside the Arctic Circle, we do that because it is the most challenging environment that you will find almost anywhere on Earth. The training we get here is second to none and the skills gained are easily transferred to more benign environments.”

For the troops out in the field and the ground crews who have to refuel and re-arm the aircraft the temperature variation can be vast, ranging from +10˚C to -30˚C. Consequently, there is a lot of specialist equipment and drills required to enable that. Not only is it about wearing the correct extreme weather clothing, but also the way vehicles are prepared right up to how the aircraft are maintained and prepared to fly in such conditions, all very different to how it would be done in a more temperate environment.

For the Apache AH64-Ds, belonging to the Army Air Corps’ 656 Squadron, more often referred to as the Mk 1 attack helicopter, Nordic Response was their final hurrah; on return to their homebase at Wattisham, they will become the last to be taken out of service and replaced with the far more superior Echo model. Whereas many of the Army’s Mk1 fleet will be sent back to the Boeing company to be stripped out and rebuilt as the replacement AH64-E, the four airframes on Nordic Response duty will survive in their current guise and be used as training aids for maintenance technicians and ground crew.