Exercise DARK BLADE 2019 Report

Tuesday 28th May 2019

Exercise DARK BLADE 2019 (DB19) took place at Náměšť airbase in the Czech Republic from 13th May to 1st June 2019. As part of the European Defence Agency’s Helicopter Exercise Programme, better known by their BLADE series name, DB19 saw multinational participation from across Europe come together to focus on key helicopter operational skills, hosted by the Czech Air Force, with a particular emphasis on night-time operations.

Sam Wise reports on the exercise from Náměšť airbase for UK Airshow Review.

DB19 is the 13th edition of the EDA’s annual Helicopter Exercise Programme. The exercise format sees the participating crews and aircraft involved in a huge range of different environments and scenarios with a main focus on improving interoperability at the tactical level between units in order to replicate the kind of challenges faced in theatres of operations that crews might be deployed to.

This is achieved through the Composite Air Operations (COMAO) concept, where varied units with different tasks and roles are placed under unified control with a specific objective. This allows crews to individually achieve goals and train in certain skills while also offering experience in working under combined operations.

For DB19, the primary objectives were to use the COMAO concept to enhance interoperability between helicopter units in a challenging environment, teach helicopter Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (both between helicopter units and against fighter jets and ground-based electronic warfare) and develop interoperability between the helicopter units and ground forces across a spectrum of scenarios. The exercise involved live firing and night operations with and without NVGs.

COMAOs took place at day and night and included missions such as Air Assault, Air Interdiction, Air Transport, Close Air Support, Personnel Recovery. Other operational skills as well as multinational formation and ground-based/special forces work were practised too, and the opportunity to enhance crew familiarity with HEP standard operating procedures and COMAO planning procedures was also available.

Six nations participated with aircraft, and a further four EDA members were present as part of the Mentor Team which supported the participating crews in preparation and execution of the COMAOs. A total of 28 air assets (24 helicopter and four fixed wing aircraft) took part as part of the exercise, which involved a total of 1200 personnel.

Participating Nations
Exercise DARK BLADE 2019 Patch
Belgium88A109 (x3), NH90 (x3)
Czech Republic900Mi-24/35 (4x), Mi-17 (4x), L-159 (x4)
Germany100CH-53G (x3)
Hungary50Mi-24/35 (x3), Mi-17 (x2)
Poland16W-3AE (x1)
Slovenia27AS532 (x1)

As well as the COMAO objectives of the exercise, participating nations brought their own goals and objectives to Náměšť as well. Lt Col Dominik Barth, one of the German CH-53G pilots at the exercise, outlined what the German Air Force hoped to achieve: “We’ve brought a couple of new, younger crews with us that we’re trying to get spun up for deployment. It’s been really good so far, they’ve had a lot of experience here in training with different countries and different aircraft and it’s come together quite nicely. The aircraft has been really reliable, the only obstacle has been the weather.”

The Slovenian Armed Forces, which was due to attend with a Bell 412 as well as the Cougar but was unable to due to serviceability issues, was the smallest air arm participating in the exercise and found the opportunities at DB19 invaluable, as Lt Col Branko Gorse, Senior Nation Representative for Slovenia at the exercise, explained: “This is a great opportunity for us to train our crews with combat flying, for example, we participate in all of the COMAOs and take part in live firing. We also have the opportunity to exchange our experiences with other crews and provide formation flights, which are of great benefit to us. There has been no problem working with the other countries - everything is in the English language and we spend lots of time together during the planning well in advance.”

The Czech Air Force applied to the EDA to host the exercise five years ago as part of their commitment to the Helicopter Training programme. “It is the Czech Republic’s first time hosting a BLADE exercise but before this we’ve hosted Ample Strike Exercises which are JTAC orientated training, so in terms of hosting it is quite similar,” Col Martin Jandourek, the 22nd Base Wing Commander and AIRBOSS for the exercise, told UKAR. “Regarding flying with different countries, there’s nothing new since we’ve flown with all these countries before, just not in the Czech Republic - especially with the Belgians with whom we have a long term squadron exchange program. We know each other well.”

Regarding the objectives of the exercise, Exercise Director Col Miroslav Svoboda explained how the HEP and the Czech Air Force works with the participating nations: “It was all done together. We put our teams together and they brought requests from the participating nations to the table. Then we look at the options, work out what is possible to fit into the schedule and what missions we can fly, and try to build up something which makes sense, which holds some advantage for everyone. The AIRBOSS and his team, who are responsible for the planning and preparation of the flying missions, have had to find a compromise to fulfil everybody as much as possible.” Col Jandourek elaborated, “For the COMAOs, the scenarios are pre-defined beforehand, ie multinational missions, and for the other flights, during the planning process the nations applied for what they want and need to train. And while they’re flying the tasks they need to train in, they cooperate with our ground forces and special forces for their benefit as well.”