EXERCISE SALAMANDER IN SOUTHWEST FRANCE
French and American airmen joined forces on this combat search and rescue training exercise. They shared a mission and worked on standardizing procedures, but their aircraft remain very different. Read on for a closer look at Exercise Salamander.
A FEW UNUSUAL VISITORS HAVE TAKEN UP RESIDENCE IN THE PARKING LOT OF CAZAUX AIR BASE SOUTH OF BORDEAUX: THE FAMILIAR PUMAS AND H225M CARACALS OF THE 1/67 PYRENEES HELICOPTER SQUADRON (EH) SIT SIDE BY SIDE WITH THREE HH-60G PAVE HAWKS BEARING THE COLORS OF THE U.S. AIR FORCE’S 56TH RESCUE SQUADRON. THE AMERICAN HELICOPTERS (THE SQUADRON HAS FIVE TOTAL) HAVE BEEN BASED IN LAKENHEATH, U.K. SINCE 2006. THESE THREE HAVE MIGRATED OVER 500 MILES SOUTH FOR THE DURATION OF EXERCISE SALAMANDER. THREE WEEKS OF COOPERATION DURING WHICH EVERY ASPECT OF THE COMBAT SAR MISSION (ALIAS “RESCO”) IS REVIEWED DOWN TO THE LAST DETAIL.
A Black Hawk fitted with cutting-edge equipment
Resco, which aims to retrieve teams downed behind enemy lines, is a complex and dangerous mission. It can be carried out day or night, in unknown territory, and most often under extremely hostile conditions. While the helicopters are the spearhead of this type of operation, they never go it alone: they have support from a wide range of specialized aircraft (fighter jets, electronic warfare, command and control and refueling aircraft, etc.) capable of escorting them and clearing the way. Coordinating all these resources is what makes Resco such a complex mission. And its complexity— particularly in-flight helicopter refueling—explains why Resco is such a rare specialty within NATO. In fact, only two units in Europe have the expertise to execute air refueling: the U.S. Air Force’s 56th Rescue Squadron and France’s 1/67 Pyrenees Helicopter Squadron.
The 56th Rescue Squadron is one of 12 USAF squadrons equipped with HH-60G Pave Hawks. “Pave” is a USAF program identifier relating to electronic equipment—so by name alone, we know that the HH-60G boasts remarkable navigation and communication equipment. On the outside, the HH-60G is easy to distinguish from the Black Hawk thanks to its weather radar, electro-optical tower and air refueling probe—equipment that enhance weather resistance and endurance, which are particularly important for the Resco mission. Two large auxiliary fuel tanks take up the back of the cabin, which means the helicopter can fly for up to five hours without refueling. However, the limited space in the cabin means there is little room for commandos: in addition to two pilots and two defensive weapons specialists, HH-60Gs usually only carry a small team of three pararescuemen or PJs.
The ceiling of the HH-60G is outfitted with two brackets for rope suspension. There are also hooks in the floor for attaching a rope ladder or rappel ropes. M3M 12.7mm machine guns are positioned on either side of the fuselage. The ammunition boxes are mounted on the outside of the cabin to free up space inside; they also function as running boards for reaching the rotor. The ammunitions boxes are placed in line with the guns’ loading axes, which helps to prevent jamming. The weapons can also be locked for forward attack only, in which case the pilot can fire them from the cyclic control. The short, stocky Pave Hawk with its spiky equipment and sensors gives off an undeniable impression of solidity and toughness. This article won’t go into detail on the H225M used by the French Air Force, since we have elsewhere. For example, Helicopter Magazine 78 took a close look at its air refueling capabilities. We will simply say that thanks to this aircraft—its performance and the capabilities of its navigation system— the 1/67 Pyrenees Helicopter Squadron is at least as well equipped as its American counterpart. With a maximum take-off weight nearly identical to that of the Pave Hawk (approximately 11 metric tons), the Caracal offers a much roomier cabin than the USAF’s HH-60G. The French unit has developed remarkable expertise as well after 10 years of intensive use of its H225M all over the globe, from Lebanon to Afghanistan by way of Mali, Libya and Chad, where, at the time of publication, two of them are still based as part of Operation Barkhane. The 1/67 Pyrenees currently has nine H225Ms, as well as half a dozen Pumas for the next few months. The latter are progressively leaving Cazaux, migrating to Corsica and the Solenzara Squadron. By the end of 2017, the 1/67 Pyrenees will work exclusively with Caracals.
Shots and missions
Exercise Salamander afforded the French and American airmen three weeks to bring together their different equipment and expertise and harmonize their procedures by engaging in joint training exercises of increasing complexity. Following a first week of instruction on the ground, the second week saw crews in the air for a first-hand look at their respective aircraft. The 50 or so pilots and technicians of the 56th RS were accompanied by about 50 commandos from the 57th Rescue Squadron. American pilots and commandos boarded H225Ms while French teams took off in HH-60Gs. The helicopters then went on to fire several rounds at the Captieux firing range. “We took advantage of the exchange to familiarize ourselves with the M3M machine gun mounted on the Pave Hawks, which we will be installing on Caracals in 2017,” explained 1/67 Pyrenees airmen. For the moment, Caracals are equipped with MAG58 7.62mm machine guns.
Tactical training in the purest sense of the word took place during the last week, with increasingly complex missions organized day and night in a “hostile” environment. An E-3F (Awacs) watched over the teams from above while Rafales and Mirage 2000s played French forces fighting a simulated ground-to-air threat. American and French airmen completed identical missions one after the other, then debriefed together, to analyze similarities and differences in the ways they handled the problems they encountered. Exercise Salamander’s last mission combined the two squadrons’ forces, confirming the ability of the two air forces to work together, while also incorporating additional complexity into the tactical situation. Since several of the missions required air refueling, the U.S. Air Force also sent two Lockheed Martin MC-130J Commando IIs from the 67th SOS, based in the U.K. The next joint training exercise between the two combat SAR units has not yet been set.
In 2017, the 56th RS will undoubtedly be very busy with its move to Aviano, Italy, which places it nearer potential operation zones around the Mediterranean. As for the 1/67 Pyrenees, which will be saying goodbye to its last Pumas in 2017, who knows where its missions will take it …
Copyright : Frédéric Lert