Text and photography by Mike Freer, additional photography by Stuart Freer
“Ugly 51”, you are now cleared to land at the FARP”. This was the radio command instructing an incoming Apache helicopter approaching the Forward Arming & Refuelling Point set up on Salisbury Plain during the exercise ‘Pashtun Jaguar’. On a bitterly cold day, ground crews hurried to meet the incoming helicopter. Temporary landing pads had been established supported by a number of refuelling vehicles and in no time the Apache had been hot refuelled and re-armed with rotors still running.
‘Pastun Jaguar’ was the Joint Helicopter Command (JHC) Mission Rehearsal Exercise (MRX) running from 24th January to 13th February in support of 3 Commando Brigade deployment to Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK. While in Afghanistan, the crews and helicopters will be based at Camp Bastion and embedded with the US Marine Corps as part of the Joint Aviation Group (JAG) at Camp Leatherneck.
Helicopters involved were Chinook HC2/HC3 ; Merlin HC3/HC3A ; Sea King HC4 ; Apache AH1 and a number of AAC Lynx AH7/AH9 helicopters and a Gazelle AH1 of 665 Squadron based at Aldergrove in Northern Ireland. The latter was of interest as it was fitted with the MX-15 electro-optical and infrared surveillance system and was used to simulate a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). An important asset to the battle group based in Helmand province is that of ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target acquisition & Reconnaissance). An important part of this role is performed by UAVs and because they are not licensed to fly in UK airspace, that role was undertaken by the agile Gazelle AH.1.
An important part of the exercise has come to be known as “Judgemental Training” and involves a number of troops dressed in Afghan clothing using Taliban weaponry and vehicles setting up ambushes and planting IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).
Forward Arming & Refuelling Points (FARP) allow the Battle Group to operate forward of their fixed bases. The concept was developed during the Vietnam War and allowed fuel and ordnance to be delivered to stationary forward fire bases. The idea was to create greater mobility and to support agile attack. The concept was honed to perfection during deployments in Kuwait and Iraq during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
The lessons of the past will no doubt be put to good use during future operations in Afghanistan.