Commando Helicopter Force
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Commando Helicopter Force (CHF) is a unit of the Royal Navy Fleet Air Arm and an element of the Joint Helicopter Command of the British Armed Forces. It provides Rotary-Wing (helicopter) support to 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and other force elements. CHF uses a combination of transport helicopters based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, England.
Commando Helicopter Force was formed in 1997 to consolidate command and control of the various Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marines helicopter squadrons which supported 3 Commando Brigade under Flag Officer Naval Aviation.
It is based at Royal Naval Air Station Yeovilton in Somerset, England; although aircraft are regularly deployed with 3 Commando Brigade, overseas and to the ships of the Response Force Task Group (RFTG); which includes HMS Ocean (Landing Platform Helicopter), HMS Bulwark (Landing Platform Dock)and other Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary (RFA) ships.
Elements of the force have operated in Northern Ireland (until 2002), Sierra Leone in 2000 and Bosnia; and it was an element of the amphibious force for Operation Telic, the British involvement in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, notably supporting the landings to secure the Al-Faw Peninsula. CHF was also a major part of Joint Helicopter Command's contribution to Operation Herrick in Afghanistan.
The force also supports the annual 3 Commando Brigade Cold Weather Warfare exercise in northern Norway.
In addition to Sea King HC4 helicopters, CHF operated Gazelle AH1s in utility and reconnaissance roles, as well as Lynx AH7 in light transport and anti-armour roles. In 2005, the Gazelles were retired, while the Lynx was later replaced with the Lynx AH9A variant.
Following the Strategic Defence and Security Review of 2010, the decision was made to transfer all RAF Merlin HC3 helicopters to the Royal Navy under the command and control of Commando Helicopter Force. On 30 September 2014, the aircraft were formally handed over from the RAF to the Royal Navy; with the first Royal Navy Merlin squadron, 846 Naval Air Squadron, standing up concurrently and relocating from RAF Benson to RNAS Yeovilton on 26 March 2015. The Merlin HC3 replaced the ageing Sea King HC4 as CHF's medium-lift transport aircraft when the Sea King HC4 retired on 31 March 2016. As part of the transfer of service, the Merlin HC3 is undergoing an upgrade to the HC4 standard which includes a full mid-life upgrade of the airframe and avionics; and will 'marinise' or more accurately optimise the aircraft for ship-borne amphibious operations.
Command and Control
CHF is a Fleet Air Arm asset and as such remains under the Operational Command (OPCOM) of Fleet Commander, while Operational Control (OPCON) is delegated to the Joint Helicopter Command, under Army Command, who will task assets in accordance with Permanent Joint Headquarters or Front Line Command requirements.
The Commando Helicopter Force has three Naval Air Squadrons with separate roles:
- 845 Naval Air Squadron - Medium-lift front line operations - Merlin HC3/HC3A
- 846 Naval Air Squadron - Medium-lift Operational Conversion Unit and Maritime Counter Terrorism - Merlin HC3/HCi3
- 847 Naval Air Squadron - Light-lift and battlefield reconnaissance - Wildcat AH1
845 Naval Air Squadron operated the Westland Sea King HC Mk4 helicopter; a variant that has been specially modified for medium-lift transport and flying in all sorts of weather conditions and terrains. 845 had at least two of it Sea Kings deployed to the Bosnian theatre since 1992. Besides Bosnia, they have operated in Albania, Egypt, Honduras, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. 845 NAS was temporarily stationed at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire as part of the Merlin transition until it relocated back to RNAS Yeovilton on 20 June 2016.
846 Naval Air Squadron operates with 845 NAS, but has not seen action in Bosnia, being more focused on the Northern flank of the NATO theatre. Until recently, 846 maintained a base in Northern Ireland that allowed it to become very proficient in cold weather and winter operations. However, squadron operations are not limited to northern flying conditions and it has operated in South East Asia, Australia, the United States, and Germany. Two of the squadron's aircraft were sent to Turkey following the major earthquake it suffered in November 1999. 846 NAS was temporarily stationed at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire as part of the Merlin transition until it relocated back to RNAS Yeovilton on 26 March 2015.
847 Naval Air Squadron operates Wildcat AH1 helicopters, in light transport and reconnaissance roles.
848 Naval Air Squadron was the Commando Sea King HC4 training unit for the CHF, and trained not only the aircrews but also the ground crews. In addition to the skills necessary to fly their missions, Commando Helicopter Force members are trained in small-arms use as well as tactics and survival fieldcraft. Being a naval unit that was directly tasked with supporting the Royal Marines, trainees are also schooled in shipboard and amphibious assault operations. A special unit within 848 Squadron, M Flight, was tasked with supporting the Special Boat Service (SBS) in their operations. 848 NAS disbanded in 2013 but then reformed on 1 May 2015 to continue operating the Sea Kings until they reached their out of service date on 31 March 2016. 848 NAS disbanded 24 March 2016.
845 and 846 NAS received Merlin HC3s/HC3As to replace the retiring Sea Kings in 2014 and 2015. 846 NAS took their Merlin HC3s on 30 September 2014; 845 NAS followed on 9 July 2015. Concurrently, 847 NAS has come to the end of the process of upgrading to the AgustaWestland AW159 Wildcat. The Merlin HC4 will have a grey colour scheme, not the dark green colour of the "Junglie" Sea Kings.
The unit is commanded by a Royal Navy Captain or Royal Marines Colonel. Squadron personnel are primarily drawn from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines however there are also exchange officers from the Army Air Corps, Royal Air Force, United States Marines Corps and the Royal Danish Air Force.
Aircrew, recruited from the Fleet Air Arm and Royal Marines, join the force already trained in helicopter operations, from the Defence Helicopter Flying School at RAF Shawbury. Type training for the Merlin is conducted by 846 Naval Air Squadron and type training for the Wildcat is conducted with the Army Air Corps.
Technician and engineer training is conducted within the single services as appropriate for the aircraft type; and supporting trades are filled by qualified single service personnel.
Squadrons conduct organic continuation training; and life support and security continuation training is supported from within the force, each squadron maintaining a complement of survival, military skills and cold weather warfare instructors.