Helicopters have always been a crucial asset for European forces and remain a key enabler in modern crisis management operations. Despite significant numbers of rotary-wing aircraft in European inventories, successive operations have been short of their vital support. The non-employability of helicopters is an issue that the EDA in consultation with Member States looked to address. Several contributing factors were identified; from a lack of training for the crews to a shortage of technical equipment for the aircraft. The EDA has been working with Member States to address European helicopter employability by putting the training element in focus.

Out of this consultation, the Helicopter Exercise Programme (HEP) was launched in 2009, with a formal programme arrangement signed in 2012. Today the HEP has 14 participating Member States (AT, BE, CZ, DE, EL, FI, HU, IT, LU, NL, PT, SE, SI, UK) and is one of the EDA’s flagship training projects and programmes.

Speaking about the involvement of Belgium in the HEP and its added value, BLACK BLADE Exercise Director Lieutenant-colonel Stéphane ROOBROEK stated, “Belgium is a small country with a small helicopter fleet. In operations, the integration into a multinational helicopter unit is the only viable option. For that reason, Belgian helicopter crews need to be trained to work in a multinational environment. The HEP is the best suited helicopter programme to make Belgian crews ready for operations”. Through the HEP, the EDA is working with participating Member States to develop, consolidate and share best practices in order to meet the challenges of flying helicopters in modern operational environments.

By enhancing the operating skills of helicopter crews across Europe, the HEP plays a significant part in increasing the deployable helicopter capability for contingency operations. As a ten-year programme, it has become and will remain an integral part of enhancing European rotary-wing capability and interoperability.

BLACK BLADE: Prepare, train and operate together

Since its launch, 9 training exercises have taken place under the umbrella of the HEP (See chart 1). For its 10th edition, a total of 14 air assets from 4 Member States (13 helicopters from Belgium, Slovenia and Austria and one Falcon aircraft from the UK) were deployed across the three week duration of BLACK BLADE. An average of 400 personnel (Helicopter Exercise Forces, Special Operation Forces, Exercise Direction, Logistical and Medical Support), plus observers (Italy) and mentors were welcomed by the host nation Belgium at Florennes Airbase.

The EDA Core Planning Team, comprised of two experienced helicopter pilots who are responsible for organising the annual HEP exercise with the host nation, supported the Belgian Exercise Directors during the planning, preparation and execution phase of the exercise. With the participants and teams in place an ambitious programme was created for BLACK BLADE. The programme was based on combined, joint and realistic scenarios following the overall exercise objectives of teaching and learning helicopter Techniques, Tactics and Procedures (TTP). During BLACK BLADE participants executed a range of operational tasks (low flying, formation, gunnery, etc.) and flew a diverse set of day and night training missions. Several national training and Composite Air Operations (COMAO) missions were also planned and executed by the participants.

The added dimension of BLACK BLADE was its designation as a Special Operations Forces (SOF) oriented helicopter exercise. The deployment and integration of 70 personnel from the Belgian SOF allowed the participants to undertake SOF operations and develop cooperation both in the air and on the ground.

The crews and personnel were further challenged by the aims of the exercise, planning, preparing and flying two COMAO missions on some days and undertaking personnel recovery and MEDEVAC missions. Pilots and aircrews also received the latest training on mission planning, night flying and air gunnery.

BLACK BLADE: Achieve and succeed together

Over the three week period, the combined air assets flew in excess of 360 mission hours across a combined 175 aircraft sorties. Enhanced interoperability at a tactical level was one of the major outcomes as Exercise Director Lieutenant-colonel Stéphane Roobroek outlined, “BLACK BLADE was an excellent demonstration of cooperation between helicopter units and land forces in the planning and execution of a COMAO in support of Special Forces. Interoperability at tactical level between helicopter units has been considerably optimised.”

The exercise demonstrated a real-world example of what can be achieved through European defence cooperation and highlights that at very low cost, immediate operational output can be realised. BLACK BLADE marked another step forward for enhancing training skills among European nations for flying in different environments, and to train for future European crisis management operations.

As the exercise concluded, participants praised the usefulness of BLACK BLADE in building trust among multinational crews, strengthening operational interoperability and enhancing European helicopter capabilities in view of future multinational operations. The participants also pointed to the benefits obtained on a tactical and operational level. Special thanks were expressed to Belgium as the host nation. The results of the exercise will now be thoroughly analysed and adopted into future planning by the EDA. The exercise demonstrated a real-world example of what can be achieved through European defence cooperation and highlights that at very low cost, immediate operational output can be realised. BLACK BLADE marked another step forward for enhancing training skills among European nations for flying in different environments, and to train for future European crisis management operations.


Distinguished Visitors Day (DVD)

BLACK BLADE concluded with a special Distinguished Visitors Day (DVD) on November 30, that was attended by Head of the EDA, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy / Vice-President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini. The DVD was also attended by EDA Chief Executive, Jorge Domecq, Chairman of the European Union Military Committee (CEUMC), General Mikhail Kostarakos, Vice-President of the European Parliament, Ioan Pascu MEP, Belgian Chief of Defence, General Marc Compernol and VIP political and military representatives of the EDA Member States.

Ms. Mogherini took the opportunity to witness at first hand the latest developments in joint European helicopter training. Upon arrival she received a briefing on the EDA’s HEP and training activities by the Director of the EDA’s Cooperation Planning & Support Directorate, Mr. Roland Van Reybroeck. Exercise Director Lieutenant-colonel Stéphane Roobroek also briefed the Head of the Agency on the mission and objectives of BLACK BLADE.

Ms. Mogherini toured the participating helicopters and took time to talk with some of the air crews and SOF involved. Speaking to the press in front of one of the participating helicopters, Ms. Mogherini described BLACK BLADE as “European cooperation in practice”, and outlined how European defence efforts were at a crucial juncture following the release of the EU Global Strategy and the European Defence Action Plan. She also stressed the importance of joint training as a key enabler, stating “by increasing interoperability, training together –which is what our teams are doing here [at BLACK BLADE], - the benefits come directly to operations. But we can and have to do more.”

The DVD concluded with a live demonstration and simulated exercise which was attended by Ms. Mogherini, Member State and military representatives and members of the press. The air-crews and personnel put into practice the joint operations procedures and the SOF cooperation enhanced over the duration of BLACK BLADE. The participants demonstrated some of the skills honed, from insertion and extraction procedures to fast-roping skills, over the previous three weeks. The audience were particularly impressed by the demonstration of the Special Patrol Insertion/Extraction (SPIE) procedure. The live demonstration vividly underscored the importance of interoperability and joint training for European forces. A fly-by of the participating helicopters was a fitting and impressive end to an extremely successful 3 weeks for the air-crews, personnel, organisers and hosts of the 10th EDA HEP exercise.

Over 50 members of the press attended the DVD at Florennes Airbase, generating significant coverage in international, local, EU and specialised outlets. More from BLACK BLADE? There are over 300 photos on the EDA Flickr page!

Next Steps

In building upon the success of 10 editions, the EDA will continue to support the development of a European training framework among Member States that focuses on high-end capabilities, harmonised training curricula and making the best use of national training centers.

With the rationale, objectives and value of the HEP now well established, the EDA will work to ensure the programme reaches a level of maturity whereby it can begin to explore the possibility of a Member State adopting and running the HEP, thus ensuring its long term continuity.

This progression will allow the EDA to develop and launch future training initiatives in consultation with its Member States. The EDA has already applied this logic to fixed-wing exercises, with the progressive transfer as of 2017 of EDA Tactical Airlift Exercises developed under the European Air Transport Fleet project (EATF) to the European Tactical Airlift Centre (ETAC) in Zaragoza, Spain. In the meantime, future editions of the HEP are expected to take place in Hungary (2017 - Exercise FIRE BLADE), Portugal (2018) and the Czech Republic (2019).

Enhancing European capability

Joint training will remain an integral part of enhancing European capability and interoperability, directly impacting on the European ability to participate in future multinational and crisis management operations. The continuity of the HEP will ensure that Member States air-crews have a forum to share, learn and develop the training skills required to operate whenever and wherever they are called upon.