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Royal Black Hawk Text and photography by Roelof-Jan Gort of flyhighaeromedia.com
Late last year, the 1st Regiment of Artillery (1st RA) of Bourogne, based in northeast France, organized the eighth edition of the Royal Black Hawk exercise, in which more than 400 soldiers and a dozen combat helicopters participated. The exercise has quite an interesting history. While studying at the United States Military Academy, perhaps better known as West Point, a French cadet and American cadet joked that they wanted to organize an exercise together in the future. What started as a joke became reality in 2013, when the first Royal Black Hawk exercise was held.
Since 2013, Royal Black Hawk is an annual air combat exercise organized by the 1st ra near Belfort, France, and its surroundings for about two weeks. It has brought together foreign aircraft and teams of support specialists, which has enabled units of the regiment to maintain their operational capabilities.
The most recent edition of the exercise involved more than 400 French, Belgian and British soldiers, engineers, artillery, as well as combat helicopters of the French and United States Army. French helicopters of the 1st Combat Helicopter Regiment were able to operate alongside various helicopters of the US Army’s 12th Combat Aviation Brigade (cab). As with previous years, the exercise remained realistic and faithful to its objectives. Teams of observers and maneuvering troops participated in various missions, such as air assaults, medevacs (medical evacuations), close combat attacks, close air support from jtacs (Joint Terminal Attack Controllers) and forward air traffic controllers. All this while experimenting with innovative new procedures. For the French Army, it was also an opportunity to train with their allies according to standard nato (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) procedures used in operations. This exercise is well-established in its region with training phases in the area between Belfort, Besancon and Valdahon.
The 1st Combat Helicopter Regiment participated with two nh90 Caïman and two ec665 Tiger helicopters. The French Air Force also participated in this exercise, by contributing Dassault Mirage 2000ds from ba133 Nancy and Dassault Rafales from ba113 Saint-Dizier. The French Navy also contributed a Bréguet Atlantic from the 21F Flotille based at ban Lorient/Lann-Bihoué. The U.S. Army in Europe was represented by four ah-64d Apaches, two uh-60m Black Hawks and two ch-47f Chinooks of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade. The Apaches and Chinooks were based at Ansbach Army Airfield, while the uh-60m Black Hawks were based at Wiesbaden Army Airfield in Germany.
During the exercise, the Citadel of Belfort was captured by soldiers. This was an exercise in civilian settings with ground troops and helicopters, carried out with a favorable ratio of three to one in terms of manpower. With each edition of the exercise, realism increases.
During the exercise one of the ch-47s illustrated its ability to carry a 120 mm mortar internally, along with about fifteen troops. Current Caïman variants are unable to do this, as its floor is too fragile. The American helicopters also have better self-defence equipment than the French helicopters, with a much better passenger carrying capacity on the Chinook than the nh90 Caïman.
I spoke with Major Antonides of the 12th cab and Captain Guillaume of the 1st ra about the exercise and their experiences. Major Antonides, who has about 1,600 flight hours on Apaches, explained that the attack helicopters’ main task was to support nato allies and help them to facilitate some of their training. According to Major Antonides, “We did that trough interoperability training, speaking with the jtacs from the uk, Belgium and France. It was great for us to talk to someone on the ground and just work on those skills, especially with our nato allies”.
Apache brought a third element to the exercise. For example, the Artillery Regiment is used to working only with other ground forces, but now they had a third element in the air. Major Antonides explained, “Of course they can shoot their artillery, but with Apaches in the air, we can add extra firepower to the scenario and we can also add some complexity for their training, and that they have to think about other assets out there.” Capt. Guillaume of the 1st ra, who is the organizer of this exercise, told me about future plans for the exercise. He said that he would like to improve the exercise by including French Reaper unmanned aircraft, and by expanding the exercise in general. I would like to thank Press Officer Gabriel, Major Antonides, Capt. Guillaume and the crews of the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade and the 1st Combat Helicopter Regiment for their hospitality and help during my visit.