Rotary Wing Operations in the Arctic
By Lieutenant Colonel Miklós Szabó, HUN AF, JAPCC
‘NATO needs realistic training, where we can combine operations in the air, at sea and on land. In Norway we get everything, this is one of the best places to train in Europe … The cold climate also brings extra challenges for the soldiers that hones their skill.’
General Mercier on Exercise Trident Juncture 20181
‘Beating Cold’ is a companion article to a piece previously published in the JAPCC Journal (‘Beating Brownout’), that discussed rotorcraft operations in a degraded visual environment.2 If not considered, seemingly negligible circumstances can make the difference between a ‘win’ and a ‘fail’ in rotary wing operations. In this article rotorcraft operations in an Arctic environment will be put under the magnifying glass.
Although the Arctic region did not gather a great deal of attention from the public or the military in the last couple of decades, things have changed in recent years. Recognizing their modern advances in the area, it’s evident that the Russian Federation considers the Artic a renewed strategic interest and worthy of deliberate engagement. The resurgence of old military3 and scientific bases north of the Polar Circle, extensive development of infrastructural facilities and development of different sea-borne and air assets that are specifically designed to withstand extreme cold conditions mark their intention to reinforce and/or project power at their northern border, and beyond.
The area holds a significant portion of untapped oil and natural gas reserves, and it is the most abundant source of fresh water of the world. Strategically important sea lines of communication and fishing areas overlap the inner area of Arctic Circle. Being the most prominent territorial claimant in the region, Russia has intensified its activities and investments in the last few years. This has in turn energized the attention of ‘neighbouring’ countries (all five happen to be NATO nations4) towards elevating their presence and situational awareness in order to counter or balance the Russian advance.
Recent NATO strategic studies have stated that NATO has to be prepared to take actions practically anywhere in the world under various climate conditions.5 As a result, much emphasis is being put on the ability to conduct missions, with the support of helicopters, in extreme conditions like hot and high or desert environments. Arguably, it may also be wise to take a closer look at what the Arctic would look like as an area of operations, and the associated challenges to rotary wing support.
Rotorcraft – The Unmatched Mission Enabler
Due to their unique ability to reach practically any part of the battlespace many times faster than ground assets, helicopters can be used to support or conduct a wide variety of missions. These range from routine logistic resupply or MEDEVAC6 missions to more complex tasks like the recovery of isolated personnel, tactical support of ground troops, supporting of special operations units, or detection of submarines. Because rotary wing assets are so integral to military actions across the services, they have to be reliable and available, despite whatever unfriendly climatic and geographical conditions an area like the Arctic would offer. When it comes to NATO, rotorcraft are needed quickly and in relatively large numbers to respond to potential/escalating situations. At the same time, establishing a sufficient number of rotary wing assets in a newly opened area of operation is always a long and challenging enterprise. This is especially true when it is necessary to satisfy special needs, such as operating in extreme conditions or contested environments at distant locations. So what are some significant factors NATO and member countries have to consider before deploying to the Arctic with helicopters?
Operating Rotorcraft in the Arctic
Once deployed to the Arctic, both personnel and equipment are often very exposed to the grim conditions. Logistic support, maintenance and flight operations may be challenged, first of all, because of the physiological effects of extremely cold temperatures, which reduces human performance by orders of magnitude.7 Not only can the cold be physically debilitating, but the effects of the extreme northern latitude can provoke other changes in personnel. Over the course of the deployment, perpetual daylight – or the darkness even more so – may have deteriorating effects on the psychological and mental condition of personnel. Secondly, aircraft and servicing equipment also require special materials and handling in this environment. Unlike in some less-demanding climatic conditions, Arctic helicopters must be stored correctly, either in a hangar or covered. Appropriate and adequately handled fuel, special lubricants designed mainly for cold weather use, and durable batteries are needed to allow seamless start up and flight. To prevent ice accumulation on critical parts, such as rotor blades and engine intakes, as well as to avoid misting of windshields, optic lenses, weapon systems or sophisticated electronic equipment, effective pre-flight and on-board de-icing and heating have to be available.
From an operational aspect longer reaction times have to be considered both for pre-planned missions and readiness tasks such as MEDEVAC. Planning of the latter requires even more attention, taking the fact into account that longer reaction times, combined with the unforgiving nature of the environment, reduces the chances of survival of wounded personnel, suggesting careful reconsideration of the ‘Golden Hour’ rule8.
Also, under cold weather conditions, troops are heavier, thanks to their winter gear and survival equipment. In some cases, this may necessitate reducing unit size on one aircraft or trading off useful load and fuel. In addition, troops move slower, and embarkation as well as debarkation may take longer than usual.
Flying is not any easier than doing other activities in the Arctic. As white-out conditions during manoeuvres close to the ground are likely to occur, air and ground crews have to be highly trained to overcome such situations safely. Helicopters should be equipped with systems that allow for safe operations when the visual environment is degraded. It’s common to encounter featureless terrain with few, or practically no, references when moving towards higher latitudes, which can offer the feel of flying under IMC9 in any season, especially during the half year-long night. Adding to that, there are other peculiarities involved in navigating around the pole, be it visually or on instruments. The Earth’s magnetic field is highly distorted. Because of ionization interference and the low elevation of positioning satellites on the Arctic horizon, it is fair to say that satellite-based navigation is not as accurate as it is south of the polar circle. While this can be mitigated by ground-based and/or on-board navigation equipment, it may mean that Doppler or inertial navigation systems (i.e. non-GPS) may become primary assets to get from point A to point B.
NATO’s Rotary Wing Resources
As we recall how NATO’s mission in Afghanistan started with regards to helicopters, we must remember that it took quite a while until the Alliance alleviated the primary discrepancies and reached a sufficient level of readiness and effectiveness of its rotary wing fleet.10 In the beginning, it was not common practice for many contributing nations (which offered helicopters and their crews) to fly and land at the high altitudes found in the Afghan mountains or land in brown-out conditions common in the dry and dusty terrain. Likewise, some of the nations’ assets were significantly restricted, simply incapable of, flying on hot summer days. With that in mind, it is worthwhile to review what NATO has, and what it does not have, on hand in case the Alliance’s interests have to be protected in the high north.
When talking about resources, it is not only the sheer number of assets or personnel that have to be considered. Conducting sustained operations in the high north requires robust infrastructure and logistics. Assets have to be fit not only for the operation but for the ability to overcome environmental effects that are endemic in the Arctic. Air and maintenance crews, both personnel and units, have to be trained to operate, and just as importantly, to survive and maintain physical and mental fitness during their deployment.
NATO’s Potential to Operate in the High North
As was mentioned earlier, there are five NATO nations which have territorial interests in the Arctic; USA, Canada, Denmark, Iceland and Norway. Four of them (as Iceland does not have military forces) would likely constitute the first echelon of reacting forces if the situation necessitates. These four nations hold the most relevant knowledge and experience in the environment and their geographic locations allow them to react quickly. Generally speaking, all four countries have the right type of equipment and facilities available, and they regularly train, exercise and operate under cold and snowy conditions.
Additionally, while the United Kingdom does not have territories in the region, its forces have a long history of training and exercising there. For the last 48 years, the Joint Helicopter Command (previously: Commando Helicopter Force) has been deploying to RNoAF Bardufoss in Norway to conduct their ground Cold Weather Training and learn the necessary skills to fly and operate in the Arctic.
The list of nations would not be complete without mentioning two non-NATO partners who have extensive cold weather aviation experience, namely Finland and Sweden. Their regular cooperation in training and exercises with neighbouring Norway has established a robust repository of knowledge and experience.
Although for most of the other Alliance nations the Arctic looks to be outside of their sphere of interest, when we talk about deterrence and collective defence, they have their part to play, too. The good news is that many of these nations, especially those which have higher mountains with longer snow seasons, conduct varying levels of cold weather-related environmental training, including survival and flight training. Many nations’ operators are familiar with Arctic-like conditions such as the detrimental effects of white-out or swiftly changing weather conditions. However, they may not be accustomed to midnight sun or polar nights11, or the difficulties experienced when operations need to be sustained for a long time under such extreme circumstances. By leveraging the collaborative ability of the Alliance, as was indicated in a 2012 JAPCC study12, even smaller nations can prepare for flying and operating under ‘unusual’ conditions, by partnering with countries where such training can be conducted. Consequently, exercises in appropriate locales should precede any sizeable rotary wing deployment.
Rotary Wing Exercises
As an Alliance, we seemingly have all the Arctic rotorcraft puzzle pieces in hand, but the comprehensive picture still has to be realized through cooperation and training. Based on lessons from our recent past, we must recognize that rotorcraft involvement in large scale and/or sustained operations may require the contribution of other allied nations. Except for the US, no other nation has the dedicated assets to conduct the full spectrum of helicopter training and operations on their own13. It is fundamental within the Alliance that collaborative actions in the area of operations have to be preceded by common training and exercises. However, we have to admit that there is currently no such thing as a comprehensive ‘NATO Helicopter Exercise’, where knowledge among nations can be shared, interoperability is improved, and thus better operational capability is achieved. Nonetheless, there are some recent examples of rotorcraft exercises that NATO might consider emulating.
Within the ‘Blade Series’ Exercises the European Defence Agency Helicopter Exercise Program (EDA HEP) has dedicated helicopter exercises, usually based on different scenarios and organized in areas of Europe offering different environmental conditions. In the spring of 2016, Finland hosted the Cold Blade 2016 exercise providing the possibility to practice various tactical scenarios under cold weather conditions.
On an invitational basis, some of the Nordic nations open up their national exercises to allow other nations to practice with them, such as often happens with Norway’s Joint Viking or Cold Response exercises. Although these particular events are not explicitly designed for helicopters, there is a significant participation of rotary-wing assets as these remain critical enablers of many kinds of operations. Likewise, Trident Juncture 2018, a large scale live NATO exercise, will also be held in Norway. Although these exercises give rotary wing crews a somewhat limited chance to train and operate together, they are the best that are currently available. Tellingly, many experts from the rotary wing community believe that helicopter-specific international exercises and/or establishing a training facility similar to the fixed wing community’s Tactical Leadership Program, are the missing link(s) towards better performance of rotary wing forces.
Two decades ago, many of the NATO nations did not anticipate that in few years they would deploy to countries other than their homeland. Fifteen years ago many of the countries still did not realize that they would soon have to operate in desert or high mountains, facing challenges provided by flying dust, low air density and high temperatures. For most nations today, a scenario in which they would deploy to the Arctic seems unlikely. However, if the volatility of history is any gage, and keeping the NATO strategic guidance on worldwide, out-of-area mission capabilities in mind, nations have to be prepared to operate in this austere environment.
In the future, operating in the Arctic will likely be less and less the ‘privilege’ of Arctic nations. The good news for non-Arctic nations is that they do not have to start from scratch and that various skills can be practiced without actually travelling near the North Pole. For example, a significant number of NATO nations have been flying in a degraded visual environment or high mountains for a long time, and mountain (winter) survival training is within reach for most. In addition, some countries described earlier as ‘the first echelon’, have vast experience and a knowledge repository to share with others. However, what the Alliance desperately needs is a forum to share knowledge, improve interoperability and uncover hidden discrepancies, be it a school house or a series of exercises in general, but also with specific regard to Arctic operations.
With the past as our guide for the future, clear technical, training and capability requirements have to be laid down to avoid a repeat of the situation NATO faced when the Alliance took command over ISAF. Indeed, the Arctic is no place to start rotary wing operations ‘cold’.
1. ‘Preparing for Trident Juncture 2018: NATO Focuses On Its Core Mission.’ Available at: http://www.sldinfo.com/preparing-for-trident-juncture-2018-nato-focuses-on-its-core-mission/ (Accessed: 15 Jan. 2018).
2. Cdr Maurizio Modesto, ITA N, JAPCC: Beating Brownout – Technology Helps but Training Remains Key.
3. Russia lifts veil on new Arctic military base, but secrets remain; https://www.arcticnow.com/voices/analysis/2017/05/05/russia-lifts-veil-on-new-arctic-military-base-but-secrets-remain/ (Accessed: 15 Jan. 2018).
4. USA, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, however Finland and Sweden (non-NATO) also have major interest in the region.
5. NATO Allied Command Transformation – Framework for Future Alliance Operations 2018.
6. Medical evacuation of wounded personnel.
7. Impacts of cold climate on human heat balance, performance and health in circumpolar areas (Accessed: 14 Feb. 2018, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.3402/ijch.v64i5.18027).
8. ‘Golden Hour’ – MEDEVAC and advanced trauma care assets must reach the casualty within one hour of wounding.
9. Instrumental Meteorological Conditions.
10. Aviation Week Report: NATO Accelerates Search For More Helicopters For Afghanistan Operations (Accessed: 14 Feb. 2018, http://tonyprudori.pbworks.com/f/NATOPush4Choppers-AvWeek-25Nov07.pdf).
11. The midnight sun is a natural phenomenon that occurs in the summer months in places north of the Arctic Circle or south of the Antarctic Circle, when the sun remains visible at the local midnight. Polar night is the opposite phenomenon during winter, when the sun stays below the horizon throughout the day.
12. Enhancing NATO’s Operational Helicopter Capabilities; JAPCC, Aug. 2012.
13. Ibid., p. 20, 4.2.6.
Lieutenant Colonel Miklós Szabó
is a 1989 graduate of the Hungarian Defense Forces (HDF) College of Military Aviation, holds a Master’s Degree from Hungary’s National Defense University, and is a graduate of the US Army Aviation Officers Advanced Course. He held different positions as an Mi-8/17 helicopter pilot, flight instructor and test pilot. He further served as unit flight safety officer, squadron commander, and commander of a transport helicopter battalion. He was a senior helicopter SME at the HDF General Staff, developing operational requirements for helicopter procurement and strategic concepts for military aviator training. His operational experience includes domestic disaster relief operations as well as an ISAF Mi-17 Air Advisor tour. He is currently the Helicopter SME of the JAPCC Combat Air Branch.