The European Defense Agency (EDA) has been organizing a series of multinational helicopter exercises and instructional courses to increase the number of interoperable crews available for operations. The latest training event, Exercise Green Blade 2012, was held in eastern Belgium from Sept. 18 to Oct. 5.

The exercise was hosted by the Belgian defense ministry at Kleine-Brogel Air Base, together with the special operations forces (SOF) Exercise Pegasus 2012, organized by the Belgian special forces group. The two exercises involved 550 participants, plus 200 Belgian role players and support personnel, aided by 15 helicopters: five Belgian A109BAs, six German UH-1D utility helicopters, two CH-47C transports and two A129C attack rotorcraft from Italy. Belgium provided air support via two C-130Hs, two B-Hunter unmanned aerial vehicles and up to four F-16s. SOF were provided by Belgium, Italy and Spain.

Green Blade consisted of three modules. The combat enhancement training/force integration training allowed participating helicopter units to familiarize themselves with Belgian airspace, air rules and exercise-specific operating procedures; perform cross-training, rehearsing common drills, techniques, tactics and procedures between helicopter and supported ground units; and conduct non-tactical training flights using night-vision goggles and flying low.

During the second and third modules, units analyzed, planned and executed SOF missions—insertion/extraction, hostage rescue and personnel recovery—and more conventional missions such as airmobile operations, medical evacuation and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. The second module was conducted from Leopoldsburg barracks, a Belgian army base 20 km (12.4 mi.) west of Kleine-Brogel, while the third module launched from a forward operating base in southeastern Belgium, from which helicopters performed forward arming and refueling procedures.

Pegasus included major SOF helicopter support and missions such as insertion/extraction, hostage rescue, direct action and day/night personnel recovery using one or more helicopters. The commandos practiced fast-roping; insertion/extraction with harnesses from helicopters hovering just above the ground; parachuting from balloons and C-130s; medevac; forward air control operations; and combat search and rescue.

The exercise was much smaller than the last EDA rotary drill, Hot Blade 2012, which was hosted by Portugal in July and involved 44 helicopters and 3,000 personnel from seven countries. Royal Air Force wing commander Andy Gray, who manages EDA helicopter training, told Aviation Week this was because Hot Blade involved regular forces, unlike Green Blade's SOF, and Portugal is a larger country than Belgium. A German helicopter crewmember added that his country had to cancel participation of three of its NH90 troop transport helicopters in Green Blade because of the grounding of the entire fleet due to problems with the auxiliary power unit. Germany's SOF did not take part because they were involved in a national exercise.

Gray said what began as an ad-hoc helicopter training plan has become a decade-long program to 2022. Still, exercises since 2009 have been held in France, Spain, Italy and Portugal. The exercise program so far has involved 123 rotorcraft and trained 227 crews. Green Blade was the first of these exercises run by a new core planning team created to steer the program over the long term based on lessons learned.

The program also includes a helicopter tactics course in the U.K., which has trained 18 crews so far. Luxembourg, which has been financially supporting the exercises, is hosting the next course this month.

The European-qualified helicopter tactics course—an Anglo-Swedish train-the-trainers initiative aimed at creating a recognized rotorcraft tactics instructor cadre across Europe—will start later this year. EDA members have also started to harmonize helicopter flight training, and trial courses have been carried out in English. Later this year, EDA plans to conduct a concept demonstration on the use of distributed simulator training, which is less expensive than flight training.

Belgian defense minister Pieter De Crem cast Green Blade in the wider context of pooling and sharing in a fiscally austere environment. EDA chief executive Claude-France Arnould explained that it was not only cost-effective to train together, but it also promotes interoperability. In this context, Gray said the EDA's helicopter training program is aimed at addressing the shortage in operational helicopters in Europe by building a foundation for international coalitions: “We have to train together because we have to fight together.” And when deploying on an operation, “you will see a face you can trust.”