Rene van Woezik/THE HAGUE
IT MUST SEEM TO THE DUTCH that rental was enormously cheaper than acquisition, at least as far as the Royal Netherlands Air Force is concerned. Its 12 leased Boeing AH-64As cost the grand sum of $12: its 30 AH-64Ds, deliveries of which begin in April 1998, will cost $750 million.
The start of AH-64D deliveries will effectively mark the full coming of age of the Netherlands' Tactical Helicopter Group (THG), established in July 1995. The THG was set up to address the emerging operational concept of air mobility, as evinced by the 11th Air Mobile Brigade .
The AH-64Ds will not be the only new helicopters to enter the THG inventory during 1998. A further six Boeing CH-47D Chinooks are also being procured to bolster the current fleet of seven helicopters in 298Sqn.
The Chinook unit is one of four squadrons within the THG. The 300 Sqn operates Eurocopter Cougars, 299Sqn is equipped with a mix of MBBBO105s and Aerospatiale Alouette IIIs, and 301Sqn operates the 12 leased AH-64As. A fifth Sqn, 302, will be re-activated with the receipt of the first AH-64Ds, before 301Sqn is re-equipped.
The A-model Apaches, leased from the US Army for two years, are being used to provide training for crews earmarked for the AH-64D unit, and to provide an interim attack-helicopter support capability.
The AH-64A Sqn was cleared to a limited initial operating capability (LIOC) in September 1997 within the THG. This meant that it could provide an attack-helicopter unit for the UN forces in Bosnia, if required.
The unit has also taken part in two large-scale exercises in Poland during 1997, aimed at looking at AH-64 support requirements and operational doctrines. The first Polish event was in April, when elements of the THG were deployed to the Drawsko Pommerski training area near Szczecin for exercise Rhino-Drawsko. AH-64s, CH-47Ds and BO105s were involved.
The RNAF's Chief of Operations and Commander Tactical Air Force, General Major Barry Macco, says: "The experience with the Apache in the field was good. There were some small problems with the electro-optical systems, because of damp conditions, but mechanically there were no real problems."
Macco adds that the majority of the sensor problems which emerged during the exercise were resolved by the ground crews within hours. The exercise also provided the AH-64 crews with the opportunity to carry out simulated night missions using night-vision goggles (NVG) and the helicopter's forward-looking infra-red system.
Macco notes that the performances of both systems were noticeably downgraded "in moisture and foggy conditions".
So far, the Dutch experience of using the Polish training ground to supplement the limited training areas available at home has been positive. Macco says that the THG will take part in further exercises in Poland, when live firings of the helicopter's Hughes AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missiles may be carried out.
The AH-64Ds will initially be fitted only with the laser-guided variant of the Hellfire. The Netherlands, however, has clear ambitions eventually to acquire the Longbow millimetre-wave (MMW) radar for its D-model Apaches, and this procurement may be accompanied by the purchase of the MMW-guided Hellfire.
One of the main aims of the THG deployments to the Polish ranges was to bring the AH-64A unit to operational capability. RNAF chief of helicopter operations, Col Anne Tjepkema, says: "The primary exercise target of the THG deployments were to work up the AH-64A Sqn to the LIOC status."
COUGARS IN EXERCISE
The second exercise, called Indian Falcon, was held in August, this time at Zagan, when the RNAF's Cougars were included. They had originally been destined to participate in both exercises, but delays in their introduction resulted in the unit being left at the RNAF base at Soesterberg for Rhino-Drawsko.
The RNAF received the first of its AS532U2 Cougar Mk IIs in May 1996, equipping 300Sqn. The primary task of this unit is to provide a transport capability in support of the Air Mobile Brigade. Of the total of 17 helicopters on order, 15 have so far been received by the air force.
The Cougar variant being taken has hybrid cockpit displays. While most information is displayed on "glass", engine data are displayed on traditional clocks and dials.
Maj Philip Whittle, 300Sqn commander, says that the general view of the Cougar hybrid cockpit is favourable. He says that the cockpit is NVG-compatible, adding that"-we have only experienced minor NVG problems with the navigation and anti-collision lights. With the exception of these, the system works well."
The Cougars are also being cycled through a modification programme, with two aircraft a month being returned to Eurocopter for the installation of AlliedSignal weather radars.
The Cougar purchase was initially viewed by some within the defence ministry as an interim procurement, pending the availability of the NH Industries NH90 tactical helicopter. Delays to this project, coupled with funding limitations, have resulted in the Netherland staking an increasingly long-term view of the Cougar's service life.
Senior air forcesources point out that, as the Cougar remains an effective design, its service life is likely to stretch over the next two decades, before a replacement eventually enters service.
The service has stepped beyond the Cougar's hybrid glass/conventional cockpit display with its CH-47Ds. The seven aircraft from 298Sqn are fitted with Honeywell ACMS glass cockpits.
These displays were fitted to the secondhand CH-47Ds as part of an upgrade following their acquisition from the Canadian armed forces.
Major Ed Roelofs, commanding officer of 298 Sqn,says: "We are very pleased with the glass cockpit. So far it has been excellent, and it's also fully NVG-compatible."
The Netherlands has what is in effect a rolling upgrade programme for its Chinook fleet, with the core requirement to provide the CH-47Ds with as comprehensive a defensive-aids systems as can be afforded.
According to Roelofs, improvements will include the acquisition of radar-warning receivers, probably APR-39s. These are expected to be fitted to the fleet during 1999. Also under study is the acquisition of missile-alert and warning systems, to be installed fleet-wide between 2000 and 2003. The master plan is to upgrade the Chinooks, providing them with what the air force describes as a "complete aircraft-survivability-equipment package".
The squadron will receive its extra CH-47s at the rate of one a month from March 1998.
The Chinooks, Apaches, and Cougars form the core of the THG's modern fleet, but the older BO105s and Alouette IIIs of 299Sqn are still used in operational roles. The BO105s, which entered service in the 1960s, are used as utility transports as well as for command and control (C2) roles.
The suitability of the BO105 for C2 is limited in part by its size, and by its lack of a datalink. This was highlighted during the Polish deployments, and the RNAFis beginning to look at modifying some of its Cougars for C2.
Also retained in 299Sqn are nine of the original 77 Alouette IIIs. The aircraft have been kept for VIP transport, as well as medical evacuation and calibration-flight needs, although they may eventually be transferred to 300Sqn.o
The RNAF's AH-64As currently provide the punch for its Tactical Helicopter Group
Source: Flight International