By Pat Carty.
Yet again, my imaginary global ball which prompts me about future Special Force exercises, came up with duff information. The reason being that whilst I had almost packed my bags and booked my flight to Cyprus, to cover the latest UK Special Force exercise; “Chameleon 23-2”, that was not to be the case.
Exercise Chameleon is a bi-annual Special Force exercise involving various members and units of the United Kingdom’s Special Air Service and Special Boat Service, together with other essential SF Ground and Support units.
Whilst exercise planning is demanding, I admit I had no idea how the planners were going to cope with a serious situation involving Chameleon 23-2. A situation which I have never experienced in all the years that I have been privileged to attend SF exercises – the loss of an airframe instrumental in military operations – especially SF. Plus, no known proven replacement! The reason is that on 14th June this year, three Royal Air Force Brize Norton based C-130Js saluted the nation in a farewell low-level flypast over the country. The route included RAF stations and places of significance to the Hercules. It sure was an eye-watering occasion and a very fitting goodbye in preparation for its total retirement on 30th June 2023.
RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire is the largest RAF Station in the UK and encompasses some 5,800 Service Personnel, 300 civilian staff and 1,200 contractors. It is also home to the RAF Air Mobility Force. However, with the demise of the C-130, the UK Strategic and Tactical Air Transport element is now totally reliant upon the C-17 and the new “Atlas” A-400M, the final one delivered in May.
With regard to Para Ops from A-400s, the first trials took place a year ago this month and were performed by No. 206 Squadron, the RAF’s Heavy Aircraft Test and Evaluation Squadron. Assisting them were staff from the Joint Air Delivery Test and Evaluation Unit.
I then witnessed what I suspect was the very first HAHO drop from an RAF A-400, which took place during an SF exercise. I think the idea was not to draw attention to the event. However, I suspect the troops dropped were Para instructors, not SF personnel. Some months later, trials took place over Salisbury Plain Training Area, where non-SF troops from the 16th Air Assault Brigade made standard Para drops.
Photo: A-400 HAHO stick arriving over RAF Leeming (photo by Pat Carty 2023)
Whilst test para drops may have continued up until now, I have never seen any evidence that RIBS, along with troops, have ever been dispatched from A-400 aircraft. So, would the latest Chameleon exercise reveal the answer to this situation?
Just before Chameleon 23-2 StartEx, SD Northern River, a large multi-purpose Special Force auxiliary ship, operated by Serco Marine Services, headed towards the Welsh coast. It then moored up in anticipation of assisting with Chameleon Para drops.
Previously, Chameleon para-drops included SF troops dispatched during daylight from a C-130 over the sea, along with their RIB. The same sorties were then run at night. In addition to the sea drops, several drops were also made onto land, utilising both RAF C-130 aircraft and a Short SC-7 Skyvan, on long-term military hire from the Canadian company Summit Air.
However, for Chameleon 23-2, SF troops made just a few sea-drops over three days, from one of two RAF Chinook helicopters deployed for the exercise, and an A-400. But no RIBs were air-dropped!
Once in the sea, the jumpers were collected by SF jet-skies, accompanied by a small Royal Marine assault-craft, call sign CSB0012. Then, along with their chutes, were transported to the Northern River. A Royal Navy Auxiliary Patrol boat was also utilised to deter shipping from entering the DZ area.
Following those para drops, the exercise moved back to RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire, where over the next few days, several para-drops were made from Chinooks, the Skyvan, a C-17, and two A-400 Atlas aircraft. The sticks ranged from standard height to High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) drops.
Once the Leeming para-drops had been completed, multiple insertion-points were created in Sweden, where over the remaining two weeks, an RAF C-17 and two RAF A-400s made numerous return flights from Leeming. The reason being that several Swedish military training areas near Karlsborg (22 flights), Kiruna (24 flights) and Orebro (20 flights), were used as DZ’s, or insertion points.
Whilst I can accept that there was also another SF exercise running in Sweden at the same time, and supported by American C-130 Hercules, I find it unbelievable in this day of cost-cutting, that Chameleon 23-2 got away with some forty-four C-17 flights, one hundred and fifteen, yes one hundred and fifteen mostly long-distance A-400 flights. Plus, twenty-nine Shadow R1 ISTAR flights. Thus, making a total of two hundred and six flights over the three weeks. That total did not include the numerous Chameleon rotary sorties by Chinook and Apache helicopters. I would hate to have had to foot the fuel bill. I just hope the SF troops involved in Chameleon 23-2 reaped the benefit. The aircrew certainly added to their flying time.
As for the question “is the new A-400 cleared to perform over-sea para-drops with RIBs?” I guess I will have to wait until Exercise Chameleon 24-1 early next year, to find out.
Top photo: UK SF troops on jet skis heading to SD Northern River after parachute infiltration. (photo by Steve Morris, 2023)
Author: Pat Carty is a NATO accredited journalist who covers military news, events, operations, and exercises; including special operations forces. He is a contributor to SOF News as well as several other military defense publications.