Exercise Chameleon 1-21 (UK Special Forces)

C-120 UK Call Sign Omen

By Pat Carty.

UK Special Forces have just completed their latest and longest Chameleon Special Force exercise when Chameleon 1-21 came to an end on March 19, 2021.

Run bi-annually, Exercise Chameleon provides the opportunity for Special Force units from the UK Army, Navy and Air Force, to train together on the land, in the sea and in the air, during both day and night sorties, which entail numerous scenarios from simple to complex.

For the first time in several years, and due to the Covid-19 restrictions, I was not afforded my usual privilege of being able to attend and view the exercise. However, by using various social media sources, I hope my report will also indicate how an unfriendly force could assemble pertinent information and procedures about a potential enemy, during peacetime.

Running 23 February through to 19 March, Chameleon saw the ground assets assemble at both RAF Leeming in North Yorkshire, and also some 230 miles further north at Leuchars airbase in Scotland; once home to the RAF, but now the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards.

On the morning of StartEx, two C-130 Hercules (call sign Omen) arrived at Leuchars, followed later in the morning by two CH-47 Chinooks (Lifter), which landed first at RAF Leeming in Yorkshire. These air assets became the main workhorse for the whole exercise and were flown by aircrews attached to 47 Squadron RAF Special Forces Flight, at Brize Norton, and 7 Squadron RAF, Joint Special Forces Aviation Wing, based at Odiham.

During the afternoon, Omen 1 was dispatched on a one hundred and eighty-minute return flight to Bournemouth in Dorset, where it collected members of the Special Boat Service, based at nearby Poole. Then, transported them back to Leuchars.

The last Leuchars movement of the day, which followed some air-to-air refueling practice by Omen 1 and 2 from an RAF Voyager (Tartan), was the arrival of a Shadow R1 (Snake) aircraft from 14 Squadron RAF Waddington. These very secretive aircraft were initially used for just electronic intelligence (ELINT) sorties, and manned by a mixture of military and some very special “civilian” aircrew. They were also used in parallel with the Sentinel R1, which was equipped with state-of-the-art mission systems to support Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions. However, since the retirement of the Sentinel R1 last month, the Shadow now performs both missions, therefore improving a commander’s awareness of what is happening both on the ground and in the air, and as I witnessed during Chameleon, by supporting SF ground assets. Listen to an audio of “Snake” talking with a ground element.

Chart: North Sea Para / RIB Drop Assets. Click here for larger view of image.

Day two of the exercise started early, and consisted of SF troops making Para drops into the North Sea, from “Lifter 1”. They were then collected by two Royal Marine Commando Assault Squadron Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats (RHIBs), which took them to the Diver Support vessels “MTS Terramare” and “SD Northern River”. I should add it was the first time for many years that the very special SF Support ship “SD Victoria” was absent from a Chameleon exercise.

The afternoon saw Omen making High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) Para drops over the airfield. The evening commenced with Snake making numerous orbits near the first assault target IP, of which there was a number during the month-long exercise.

Chart: Omen low-level route and heights. Click here for larger view of image.

The remainder of Chameleon followed a similar format, with the Omen 1 and 2 being used for standard day and night static line jumps, tandem jumps HAHO jumps and even dispatching RIBS along with the jumpers into the nearby North Sea. They also took advantage of treating their SF PAX in the rear to some very long and low-level flights around the UK, letting them experience what is far from a comfortable ride. Incidentally, Whilst Omen was away, an RAF C-17 (Comet) took the opportunity of using one of the DZ to make what I believe was the first Para drop by British SF troops from an RAF C-17. (See top photo)

Chart: First RAF C-17 Para Drop. Click here for larger view of image.

The Chinooks were also kept busy, by assisting with HAHO and standard jumps both over land and sea. What was conspicuous by its absence, was the usual MoD hired private Short SC-7 Skyvan. In almost all previous Chameleon exercises, it has been used for currency jump sorties.

In addition to the Leuchars airfield, Leeming airfield, Sculthorpe and Stanford training areas; both located in the East of England, the Arbroath Royal Marine barracks airstrip and the Barry Buddon ranges were also used as DZs. The later involved in one particular drop, whereby HAHO troops landed on the wrong DZ! That and another incident during a covert insertion mission later in the exercise, whereby a Shadow R1 door lock had problems, resulting in the crew declaring an In-Flight Emergency and diverting to nearby Mildenhall, were the only two exercise incidents I was aware of.

Incidentally, during the covert insertion sorties, troops were also supported by Chinook and Shadow aircraft, and when fire support was needed, by Army Air Corps AH-64 Apache helicopters (Viper).

One very special insertion was into the training ground of 43 Commando Fleet Protection Group, Royal Marines. It is located adjacent to the Royal Navy nuclear submarine base at Faslane and is a very popular target for Special Force training. I recall it being used sometime back when I was embedded with Danish SF on an exercise. I should add however that I was not permitted to watch the final assault. The reason given to me by the Exercise Director was that a lot of pride would be lost by the Marine Commandos, should the Danish succeed. Therefore the outcome would not be a pretty sight for me to see!

In addition to the covert insertion sorties, Chameleon also encompassed several “Combat SAR” training missions, whereby SF troops deployed “Behind enemy lines” to recover simulated downed aircrew.

During Chameleon 1-21, exercise planners issued restricted air space warnings (NOTAM) for a total of 31 areas. These covered fifty-five British counties during daytime and fifty-one counties during the night. In addition, many of the areas were for 24 hours. I personally feel this upset many commercial and civilian pilots, who had wanted to transit the areas in question, but could not, despite knowing the areas were not active.

Towards EndEx, senior SF Commanders along with some VIP’s flew from London and Credenhill; home to the British Special Air Service, to meet troops and take a close look at the exercise facilities and planning. Following the briefing, all that was left was for the SF troops to pack up their equipment, and head base. Some of them were lucky enough to ride Omen for their flight back to Cardiff – the nearest airport to the SAS base at Hereford and the Special Forces Support Group base at St Athan.

Chart: Omen / Snake insertion profiles. Click here for larger view image.

I have said in the past to numerous SF exercise planners and commanders, that I find SF exercise Chameleon very predictive. But, Chameleon 1-21 was different to any other Chameleon I have ever attended. However, whilst I may have missed the return flight to Bournemouth transporting the SBS, whilst sat in the comfort of my home many miles from the exercise, I was still able to covertly observe something in the order of two hundred and twenty-six airborne sorties. I achieved this by using PlanePlotter from COAA. A more advance aircraft tracker than your usual free FlightAware and other ADS-B trackers. It uses both Mode A and C to track aircraft, and in doing so I was also able to observe all Para drops and troop insertion sorties. Plus when and where the Secretive “Snake” aircraft were downloading ELINT and ISTAR data for troops and planning cells, miles from the action. I was also able to monitor extensive exercise comms, by using free online audio-streaming programs.

As for meeting the actual troops involved in Chameleon. For the first time in several years, I failed to do so due to Covid-19 restrictions. But would still like to thank all those elite SF troops from the Parachute Regiment Pathfinders, Royal Marine Commandoes, Special Services Support Group, Special Boat Service and Special Air Service, plus those from other countries on TD duty to the UK, for what they do, especially at this current time, when you take into account the various Covid-19 regulations.

Let us hope that later in the year when Chameleon 2-21 commences, Covid-19 will not be as severe, and the exercise can go ahead without such stringent restrictions.


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: C-130, call sign Omen 2, departing Leuchars during Exercise Chameleon 1-21 in March 2021. Photo Jack Green.