CHF test battlefield helicopter support

The wings of the Royal Marines rolled out their full ground support team to ensure they are ready to back up helicopters in the field.

The Commando Helicopter Force is vital to the Royal Marines in action, acting as their eyes in the sky, ferrying supplies to the front line, carrying troops into battle and providing aerial cover for columns on the ground – vehicles or marching formations.

To do all that the two front-line squadrons based at Yeovilton (845 Naval Air Squadron flying Merlin Mk3/4s and 847 NAS, operating the smaller, nimbler Wildcat) require demands a comprehensive, rugged, battle-hardened support arm.

Four Merlin crews undergoing assessment across North Devon provided the perfect opportunity to roll out the Combat Service Support Squadron – a ‘one-stop shop’ which provides the fliers with everything they need on operations.

The three weeks of training across northern Devon, using the airfield at Chivenor as a forward base, allowed the combat support teams to test most facets of their assets

It’s an eclectic unit drawing upon both CHF units and the Commando Logistics Regiment based at Chivenor near Barnstaple, who provide the fuel in the form of large road tankers, either at more substantial forward bases or much more spartan tactical refuelling areas closer to the front line.

Scouting those sites falls to a small team of experts – the Mobile Air Operations Team – while a signals troop provides dedicated secure communications between the ground, the air and the green berets on the front line.

On top of that there are personnel the Joint Helicopter Support Squadron on hand; they specialise in setting up landing sites and helping to sling loads under helicopters.

Put all these together and it’s a sizeable force – either on the move in a convoy, or established in the field – so they are assigned a force protection troop, currently equipped with machine-gun-armed Land Rovers (being replaced early in the new year by Jackals).

It’s an impressive capability and when deployed for real, it’s expected to support the helicopters for up to five days in the field.

The three weeks of training across northern Devon, using the airfield at Chivenor as a forward base, allowed the combat support teams to test most facets of their assets – remote landing sites, refuelling points capable of topping up the tanks of two Merlins simultaneously, and portable fuel containers (large rubber ‘bladders’ slung beneath a helicopter, they give the aircraft a ‘one-time suck of fuel’ when there’s no other source of ‘black gold’ available).

The support columns ranged around the narrow lanes leading to Braunton Burrows and snaking through the barren hills of Exmoor, the force protection team was called on to fend off ‘enemy’ attacks and overall CHF’s logistical support enjoyed one of its most comprehensive tests of recent years outside front-line operations.

After the success of the 2019 workout, the CHF team hope to expand the 2020 test of their combat service support wing by introducing an amphibious element as the force is expected to operate from HMS Albion and supporting Bay-class vessels.