By Pat Carty.
Since 2006 I have attended a particular exercise in the UK, which has been very special for me. The reason being it has involved only helicopters from a foreign Air Force.
Exercise TAC Blaze, run by the Dutch Defence Helicopter Command (DHC), is based at Carlisle Airport. However, as TAC Blaze aims to train and qualify aircrew in low-level flying techniques, it utilises the vast areas of Cumbria and Northumberland. In addition, as its other aim is to train crews in Electronic Warfare, it centres itself on the Electronic Counter Measures Range at the nearby Royal Air Force Spadeadam.
The latest TAC Blaze, which incidentally has not been run in the UK since 2019, due to a reorganisation within the Dutch military, and then the outbreak of Covid, flew missions’ day and night and over the hilly terrain, and at very low altitudes. It also involved a variety of scenarios which simulated missions against potential adversary threats, whilst performing evasive manoeuvres and other tactics to defeat the enemy.
The first indication that TAC Blaze 23 was going ahead, was reports that 2 AS532U2 Cougar helicopters, call sign Wildcat (300 Squadron), 5 AH-64D Apache helicopters, call sign Knife (301 Squadron) and 4 CH-47F Chinook helicopters, call sign Sabre (298 Squadron) had departed from their Gilze-Rijen Air Base in Holland. After quick refuels at Northolt and Mildenhall, the formations arrived at Carlisle, delighting the locals and aviation enthusiasts who had gathered to welcome their arrival.
Photo: “Sabre” and “Wildcat” enroute to the IP during Exercise TAC Blaze 23. (photo by Duane Hewitt)
Ground support for the exercise had arrived previously by road, having crossed the North Sea. It consisted of up to 250 troops and 80 vehicles. Air support also arrived at Newcastle International Airport, using T-057, a Dutch Air Force A-330 (MMF39).
Once established at Carlisle, the Dutch aircrews flew a complex variety of day and night missions, co-ordinated with RAF Spadeadam. Incidentally, Spade covers some 9,600 acres (38.8km2) and was available from 14.00 to 23.00 hours.
Once the “Familiarisation Brief” had been completed each Monday, morning and afternoon missions were flown. Mondays were also used as “range familiarisation” by the weapons instructors, who then trained any new crews.
Between Tuesday and Thursday, afternoon and evening sorties were flown. However, Fridays were scheduled for daytime flying only.
The second week tended to be a copy of the first, with the addition of new crews joining the exercise. These also needed to get familiar with the terrain, the systems, the hazards and the numerous antennas at Spadeadam.
Whilst at Spadeadam, crews flew evasive manoeuvres against the range radar systems. This consisted of the helicopter flying at higher altitudes, thus giving radar systems a chance to lock-on to the helicopters. Once the radar had locked- on, crews would fly much lower to attempt to lose the radar lock. Crews also practised how and when to deploy “chaff”. These aluminium-coated glass fibres stripes can either swamp a radar screen with multiple returns, or confuse guidance systems.
The Wednesday and Thursday sorties saw all three aircraft types flying together, starting with relatively small formations. For example, a single Apache would initially enter the landing zone, whilst attempting to evade radar detection. During these sorties, the Spade jamming facilities could also be used to disrupt the aircraft’s FM, VHF or UHF radios (and GPS if required). With the landing zone secure, Cougars or Chinooks could then touch down, simulating the insertion of Special Forces troops.
Photo: Lt Col Bob Oostrom, Exercise TAC Blaze 23. (photo by Duane Hewitt)
During TAC Blaze, I had what I thought would be the pleasure of interviewing Lieutenant Colonel Bob “Sleeer” Oostrom; Head of the Helicopter Warfare Centre at Gilze-Rijen Airbase and the TAC Blaze Exercise Commander. However, when I asked him what types of aircraft he had flown during his military career, the RAF Spadeadam Media Communications Officer raised her eyebrows and said: “You don’t want to go into personal things like that”! Due to her interruption, no way did I wish to continue the interview, especially discuss his units SF future. So, I thanked Lt Col Oostrom for the interview, and for providing one of each aircraft type for myself, a TV News cameraman and a local BBC radio reporter, to photograph. Then, after thanking Wing Commander Andrew Tidmarsh, the Station Commander, RAF Spadeadam, also Officer Commanding the Spadeadam Aggressor Squadron for attending, I left!
Incidentally, Lt Col Bob Oostrom’s flight name – Sleeer, is Dutch for a sleigh. Hence Bobsleigh.
All was not lost, the reason being that after talking unofficially to several crews, I now know TAC Blaze taught them a lot. That they enjoyed the exercise, and also enjoyed both meeting both the local people and seeing the local area.
Were SF troops involved in this Tac Blaze? The previous exercise saw SF troops embedded within the exercise and based at Spade. However, as I did not venture into Spade this year, I cannot comment. I will also not mention those troops inserted by helicopter into Spade during this TAC Blaze, whilst gunfire could be heard. Then extracted!
As for the 300 Squadron. They were scheduled to disband in 2011. However, that decision was gradually rolled-back due to the delayed entry of the NH Industries NH90 helicopter, and the planned mid-life update of the Dutch Boeing CH-47 Chinook. Both of which created a shortage in the Dutch transport helicopter capacity. In 2017, it was decided the squadron would remain operational until at least 2030 and, depending on future decision-making, receive a new dedicated mission; Special Operations Forces Air (SOF-Air). Since then, they have worked very closely with Dutch SOF.
On the 6 June 2023, the Dutch State Secretary Christophe Van Der Maat announced that 14 new H225M Caracal helicopters have been ordered, replacing the Cougars from the beginning of 2028. So, there are now a lot of happy faces within SOF.
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.
Top photo: “Wildcat 1” and “3” into Spadeadam during TAC Blaze 23. Photo by Duane Hewitt.