Aviation News Journal
Host Nation Support: More than Just a Phrase
Text and photography by Patrick Dirksen and Frank Mink of Tristar Aviation
In October, the hustle and bustle of Vlissingen harbour in the south of The Netherlands escalated, not with the usual ships but with helicopters and vehicles from the United States Army.
No less than 300 personnel are present to unload the helicopters and ready them for their journey. Here the tail rotor of an HH-60 is being put in the correct position.
The 1st Infantry Division Combat Aviation Brigade, or 1 ID CAB of the US Army, is deploying to Europe to bolster support for European allies and partners, taking over from the 3 ID CAB currently stationed in Europe. The last time 1 ID CAB was deployed in Europe was in 2021. According to Col. Chad Corrigan, the commander of 1 ID CAB, "We have trained diligently over the past year in preparation for our deployment. The Demon Brigade is more than ready to deploy to support this mission and continue to strengthen our established relationships with our European allies." The United States has maintained multiple military bases and deployments in Europe since World War II. Post the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the number of military units increased, marking an initiative under Operation Atlantic Resolve. This operation entails rotational deployments of combat-credible forces to Europe, showcasing American commitment to NATO, enhancing readiness, increasing interoperability, and fostering bonds between allies and partner militaries. Under this initiative, a Combat Aviation Brigade is continually deployed to Europe, rotating every nine months.
A UH-60M Black Hawk is doing a ground run, during which all systems are tested.
Deploying approximately 50 helicopters, 1,400 vehicles, shipping containers, and supporting personnel is no small feat. This massive task necessitates support from other nations, ushering in the role of Host Nation Support. All NATO members pledge to assist other members when deploying troops via their territories, as needed. Host Nation Support is described as 'civil and military assistance rendered in peace, crisis, and war by a Host Nation to Allied forces and NATO organizations located on or in transit through the Host Nation’s territory'. During such deployments or transits, the host nation is accountable for safety and security at all times. Moreover, logistics like fuel and food supply, as well as overnight accommodations, are organised by the host nation.
While this CH-47F is still waiting to be assembled, in the back one of the Black Hawks is almost ready for its flight to Woensdrecht Airbase.
The Netherlands is pivotal in military deployments to Europe, serving as the 'gateway to Europe' due to its strategic western coastline location, excellent infrastructure, and logistics expertise. For this autumn's deployment, a Dutch team of around 75 individuals, encompassing both air force and army staff, was formed. Col. Michiel Verlinden leads the coordination, and upon receiving a request from the US government, they kickstart the preparations: identifying required gear, items to be brought along, and what will be supplied. A suitable location is selected—in this case, the shipping terminal of Verbrugge. This area is transformed into a temporary military establishment, secured by the Dutch army. Extensive safety measures are undertaken, with sniffer dogs scanning for explosives and Dutch navy divers doing the same underwater. The premises are fenced off, with two layers of empty shipping containers limiting external visibility. Both reserve and active-duty military personnel guard the area around the clock. Within the harbour area, the Koninklijke Luchtmacht (Dutch air force) establishes an FOB (Forward Operating Base), providing essential aviation services including a fire crew, a Mobile Air Operations Team (MOAT), a flight safety officer, and a meteorological officer.
An HH-60M MEDEVAC Black Hawk is moved to a spot for maintenance.
The 1 ID CAB's usual base is at Marshall Army Airfield in Kansas, right in the heart of the USA. Their helicopters journeyed the 1,200 km to Beaumont, Texas, where preparations for a sea journey commenced. The rest of the equipment and vehicles were transported there by train. The voyage to Europe was undertaken on the American Roll-On Roll-Off Carrier (ARC) Endurance, an enormous vessel boasting around 25,000 m² of usable floor surface spread over 12 decks, seven of which were utilised for this trip. About 300 personnel essential for unloading and preparing the helicopters for flight were flown to Eindhoven airbase via commercial airlines, then bussed to Vlissingen. The US Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command (SDDC) managed the American side of the preparations, with the 597th Transport Command overseeing operations in the USA and the 598th Transport Command handling the European side, both being subdivisions of the SDDC.
Apart from the 49 helicopters, some 1,400 vehicles and containers are offloaded in Vlissingen. From here they will continue their journey by road, mostly on flatbed trucks.
Unloading the ship was a round-the-clock operation for five days, and within 36 hours of arrival, the first helicopter was airborne from the harbour. In total, 27 H-60 Black Hawks of various subtypes, 16 AH-64E Apaches, and 6 CH-47F Chinooks landed in Vlissingen. Additionally, another batch of around 30 helicopters entered Europe via a Greek harbour. Due to environmental concerns, no fuel is supplied in Vlissingen harbour; instead, the helicopters are ferried to nearby Woensdrecht airbase during regular working hours by dedicated crews. This airbase serves as an Intermediate Support Base (ISB) for the operation where helicopters are fuelled, checked, and if necessary, repaired by US maintenance crews with Dutch support. Once ready, the helicopters are flown by their crews first to Illesheim in Germany, then onward to their temporary bases in Germany, Poland, or Latvia. Meanwhile, other vehicles and equipment continue their road journey from Vlissingen, mostly on low loaders, on a 24/7 basis, albeit restricted by German law that prohibits heavy road transport on Sundays. Dutch responsibility for their safety and security ceases once they cross the German border.
An AH-64E Apache is being returned to flying status. Sixteen of these combat helicopters have been unloaded in Vlissingen.
UH-60M Black Hawk co-pilot Jerome shared that they've undergone specific training for the harbour conditions here. "At home, we engaged in academic lessons with senior aviators, including terrain mode rehearsals aided by iPads. The take-off entails a high hover, avoiding several high obstacles," he explained. The deployment will span nine months, providing Jerome a splendid opportunity to explore and traverse Europe, whilst reinforcing NATO presence in Eastern Europe.
The first helicopter to leave Vlissingen is this UH-60M Black Hawk, seen here arriving at its next stop Woensdrecht. Here it will be refuelled before it continues into Germany.
Once the 1 ID CAB departs Vlissingen for their temporary bases, the 3 ID CAB will commence their homeward journey, ferrying around 55 helicopters to Vlissingen, then onward to their home base in Savannah, Georgia. One might wonder why the equipment isn't left behind, with only personnel rotation post-deployment. However, this practice has a clear operational rationale: it serves as a realistic rehearsal for relocating substantial troop and equipment contingents, a vital preparedness measure for potential future necessities. Hence, various harbours have been employed in the past, with onward transport executed via road, train, and water. Despite the training aspect, both American and Dutch authorities regard this entire deployment as an operation, not merely an exercise, and one that hinges significantly on Host Nation Support.