NATO Training Article 5 Text and photography: Patrick Dirksen and Joop Zandbergen of Tristar AviationWithin NATO countries, ‘Article 5’ is a well-known phrase, meaning an attack on one NATO member is treated as an attack on all members. 16 When Drachten Airfield is turned into a Forward Operating Base, a large group of the Air Task Forces immediately uses it as a staging point from where the next mission of the ground forces at nearby Havelte can be supported.With the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the resulting war, Article 5 has been frequently mentioned in the media. And an Article 5 scenario is exactly what was the theme of Exercise Falcon Autumn 2022, which was held in the Netherlands at the end of last year. The biennial combined air mobility exercise was not held in 2020 for well-known reasons, but this edition was larger than ever. It enabled Dutch armed forces to train with foreign counterparts in large-scale airborne operations, during which air and ground forces of different militaries had to work closely together.After being refuelled, this AS.532U2 quickly leaves the FARP at Ginkelse Heide in a spectacular wayFor three weeks the Dutch 11 Luchtmobiele Brigade (LMB, Air Mobile Brigade) and the Defensie Helikopter Commando (DHC, Defence Helicopter Command) operated together as the 11 Air Manoeuvre Brigade (AMB). In total, more than 1,000 soldiers were deployed. The Air Task Force consisted of four brand new CH-47F MYII CAAS Chinooks, two NH.90s, two AS.532U2 Cougars and five AH-64D Apaches from the DHC, as well as three Polish Mi-8M/MT Hips from the 25 Brygada Kawalerii Powietrznej (25th Air Cavalry Brigade, 25 BKP) at Tomaszów Mazowiecki. Arriving a few days after the start of the exercise, and participating for one and a half weeks, was the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade (12 CAB) of the US Army, based at Katterbach Army Air Field in Germany. They formed a second Air Task Force with another five CH-47Fs and six AH-64Ds, as well as eight UH-60M Black Hawks.

The setting of Falcon Autumn was a classical Article 5 scenario: NATO member Altravedo (situated in Southern Germany) got in conflict with neighbour Wislania (Northern Germany). Other NATO members came to assist Altravedo and did so operating from Obsidia (the Netherlands). Obviously, Altravedo was not happy with this and invaded Obsidia from the north. The mission of the 11 AMB and its allies was to fight back and push the forces of Altravedo back over the border.
A Polish Mi-8M is preparing for departure while a Dutch AH-64D is taking off to provide air cover.During the first week of the exercise, small missions were flown so participating forces could become used to each other and to their surroundings. This culminated in a large operation where the lock area at Ossesluis, a tactically important piece of infrastructure keeping the area dry, had to be liberated. Attack helicopters, transport helicopters and infantry worked closely together and overwhelmed the enemy, conquering the canal lock. During the fighting an L-39ZO Albatros of Skyline Aviation conducted reconnaissance and aerial photography, thereby providing real time information to monitor the progress and success of missions. This would be done by F-16s or F-35s during a real conflict. After spending the night on location, all troops were exfiltrated again either by air (including many vehicles that were sling loaded) or by road.A CH-47 Chinook can take a large amount of fully equipped soldiers, as is visible here.During the next week, the frontline was pushed further back north. The airfield of Drachten was used by enemy forces, and the task for the 11 LMB was to reconquer this airfield. Lt. Col. Laurens van Leussen, commander of the 13th Infantry Battalion of the 11 LMB, was clear about the value of Falcon Autumn, “Training is needed to make sure procedures are clear. When an actual conflict happens and we have to be deployed, there is no time for that anymore.” He continued, “In NATO, we are used to working together, therefore we have standard procedures. But it is good to do the fine-tuning beforehand, instead of when you are actually deployed.” When asked about the challenges regarding taking back Drachten Airfield, he explained, “The success of the mission was not conquering the airfield in itself, but using no more force than necessary so the airfield and especially the runway could be made operational as soon as possible.” The task was not an easy one. After a few reconnaissance flights the nights before, during which scouts identified and assessed potential helicopter landing sites, insertion of more than 300 troops was done during the night. Divided in multiple groups, they were dropped between 5 and 8 km from the airfield so the helicopters could not be heard by the enemy. Next the airfield had to be approached without being noticed. But the task force succeeded, and the airfield was quickly turned into a Forward Operating Base (FOB) for the ground forces that were following shortly. Part of these ground forces were soldiers qualified for air traffic control, who established ground-to-air communications as soon as the airfield had been secured. Within one hour, the first aircraft landed, a German M-28 Skytruck performing a casualty evacuation or CASEVAC, followed by multiple helicopters.Lt. Col. Laurens van Leussen, commander of the 13th Infantry Battalion of the 11 LMB at Drachten Airfield after his men have fulfilled their mission.Not surprisingly, the ongoing war in Ukraine was a hot topic during the exercise. According to Van Leussen, “When Russia invaded Ukraine, within two days my unit was one of the first to be deployed to the Eastern border of Romania as part of the NATO deterrence force. We exercised with Romanian and US troops, giving a clear signal to Russia and also the Romanian people. Since then, we have been following the conflict closely to see what lessons are learned there. How do they use their unmanned systems, their air force, how do they move and operate?”International cooperation at its best: a US Army CH-47F with a Dutch army vehicle as underslung load.All lessons learned were put in practice in the last week of Falcon Autumn, when former Valkenburg Naval Air Station had to be liberated from the enemy. A large force was again dropped off by the transport helicopters, including para jumpers, while AH-64s arranged cover from the air. After some fierce firefighting, the airfield was cleared from enemy troops.Two Dutch NH.90-NFHs of 860 Squadron skimming the treetops on their way to OssesluisAs logistics are a critical part of every military operation, a lot of attention was given to that during the exercise. Main camp was dormant De Peel Air Base, nowadays called Lieutenant General Best Barracks, in the south of the Netherlands. Lt. Col. Roy Hemmelder, commander of 300 squadron in daily life and, during the exercise, commander of the Air Task Force with the Dutch and Polish helicopters, said, “At De Peel we have built a complete camp from scratch on a grass field. Here we are fully self-supportive… We also have multiple locations spread over the country where we can pick up troops or refuel our helicopters and get additional arms and ammunition.” Deelen airbase was used as a hub for the forces that deployed to the north while at the Ginkelse Heide and the Arnhemse Heide Forward Arming and Refuelling Points (FARP) were created. “These facilitate the big advantages of aerial operations: quick reaction and large reach, while being unpredictable.”Polish special forces boarding one of their Mi-8sHemmelder is also convinced of the value of the exercise: “During Falcon Autumn we can train all procedures we have within NATO. If you want to be good at something, you have to practise. As a military force we don’t participate just for participating, but we participate to win if needed. And during this exercise we see it is very important to train these kind of complex operations.” Asked whether the Netherlands is not too small and crowded for such a big exercise, Hemmelder was clear, “’Freedom isn’t free,’ I heard an American soldier say, and that is important to remember. We often go abroad for exercises, to export noise and also to learn working in different circumstances. But sometimes it is needed to exercise in your own country; that makes it more real. The motto of the Dutch Defence is ‘protecting what we hold dear’ and nothing is more valuable than your own country and its allies. Here we make that motto reality!”One of the US Army UH-60M Black Hawks. The tactical code 1-5 in the window was specifically applied for Falcon Autumn, enabling the ground troops to easily find their ride.Although one can only hope Article 5 will forever act as a deterrence and won’t have to be called into action, it is reassuring to see that NATO looks ready to step into action if needed!A US Army CH-47 arriving at Ossesluis. In the background a group of soldiers who are waiting for the next ride.
Unlock This Issue for Free
This issue can be unlocked by providing a valid email address