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Apache over Libya

Will Laidlaw

 

Pen & Sword, 4 April 2016

 

I found this  book surprising in many ways – all of them positive. It is unusual in being an “I was there” story written by a squadron commander. It therefore imbues the Boys Own action with a more considered view of the underlying strategic implications of what has happened and might happen. Secondly, it is very well written. “Laidlaw” has the quick-fire style of many military men, underscored by sardonic wit. But all along the punchy narrative carries an understanding of the wider issues. Moreover it is educational throughout; some observations carry wider import:

Conflict is unpredictable. It often arrives quickly and by surprise. And all you have to respond with is what comes to hand. You cannot wish more people, planes, ships, helicopters, guns, tanks or whatever out of thin air. Conflict is a come-as-you-are activity”…

 

This is the story of 656 Squadron Army Air Corps going to war over Libya in the summer of 2011. They were part of Op Unified Protector – the campaign to weaken Colonel Gaddafi’s regime so  much that the rebels could topple him. It is a tragedy of 21st C warfare that post-conflict reconstruction is so weak. That the rebels were not able to form a strong and democratic government is no reflection on the great work by the military men described in this tome.

 

Laidlaw’s book sets out the degree of focus, the operational flexibility, and the unwavering professionalism, that characterises most of Britain’s armed forces. Prior to this campaign, the AAC had limited experience of operating the Apache from ships – the type was never designed for a maritime environment. It has a narrow undercarriage, and its centre of gravity is too high, with a heavy (but useful) mast head radar being in the wrong place in this context.

 

The book also shows the hazards of 21st C warfare. The degree to which politicians back in the UK call the shots, the heavy oversight by the top of the command chain, the insertion of military lawyers into the process. And also the prevalence of the media. HMS Ocean, on which 656 was embarked, also carried some ‘embeds’, and 656, as all other units, had to keep them sweet.  ‘Laidlaw’ is sardonic when required:

Media speculation over Libya in May and June 2011 went like this: ‘stalemate, desperation, helicopters, escalation, they will crash, British airmen, (they didn’t know we were soldiers) will die, NATO is failing’. Even Private Eye and those venerable military thinkers Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan had an opinion.

 

What sets this book apart is that the conflict was one of the few in recent times when British forces have been subject to a widespread surface to air missile threat. And the regime was not afraid to use it. The descriptions of missions when missiles were launched at the Apaches will make the hairs on your neck stand to attention, particularly if you are an aviator.

 

It is staggering in retrospect that this task was launched with only 5 two-man Apache crews. However they were very experienced with an average 4560 flying hours and 310 deck landings each. I was also appalled to read that for the initial phase of this operation the missions were flown with no effective combat search and rescue cover: that is to say, if they were shot down they almost inevitably would face Gadhafi’s hospitality. Other disappointments: the crews, indeed the whole units (engineers and all), were not given the operational allowance for all troops in theatre, because they were based on Ocean, sufficient miles offshore not to be deemed in danger. Ludicrous! More lamentable behaviour from the MoD – only two (modest) awards were made to the squadron for this campaign -  a Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service to the CO, and a MiD for WO1 Jonathan Lane.

 

This being a  multi-national campaign, it is always interesting to read how our men interact with other nations. In this case, a mission was severely compromised by a French ship not obeying orders….

 

I was surprised that this book saw the light of day. It describes action by a very modern asset – the Apache will be in service for many years to come. It describes current tactics. No doubt it has been through the censors in Main Building. But why was it written?  I conclude there are several reasons.

1.It was probably based on a post-campaign analysis written as some sort of staff paper.

2.It adds stature to the Apache Force within our Services.

3.It gives recognition to the deeds of the Squadron.

4.It sends a message of our capability to those that might threaten us.

 

“Will Laidlaw” is very probably a pseudonym. Major Mike Neville was the CO of this unit in this period, and my guess he is the author. My reading of the book was enhanced because at the time  I was a guest of another UK rotary squadron, this time within the Commando Helicopter Force.  The description of tactics in this book rings true. Indeed one of the book’s key characters – ‘Big Shipper’ – is now on this CHF squadron.

 

Altogether a cracking read that fills a useful gap in the lexicon of modern warfare.

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