“In this world, the unseen has power”
– Apache proverb
Apache over Libya
by Will Laidlaw
There are a lot of very good aviation books out there – but not many as good as this. To tell the truth, I’ve been putting off writing my review of it, purely out of fear that I wouldn’t do it justice. (And I still might not.)
From his position as Squadron Leader, 656 Squadron, British Army Air Corps Will Laidlaw tells the story of that unit’s involvement in the 2011 fight to overthrow Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi. But to treat this as a simple combat record, or a personal memoir for that matter, would be shameful.
Without breaching the security of the myriad parties involved, this is a comprehensive account of a watershed British helicopter deployment – one that completely resets the template of attack helicopter operations.
So even if the book was written in the dry, impenetrable MIL-speak of an official report, it would still be a required study for leaders and students of modern combat.
Fortunately, it’s much more readable than that! And it’s lessons should be instructive to a far wider community.
Buy this book and take notes
‘Poisoned chalice’ might be too strong a term, but in late 2009 Will Laidlaw was certainly handed a bitter drink: His brief was to remove his squadron from the Army’s cycle of Afghanistan deployments and convert it to a training and ‘contingency operations’ outfit. What that second item meant, exactly, was unclear. Get ready for the next war, basically – whatever it might look like.
As if that wasn’t difficult enough, Laidlaw would have to chart his own course against the great tide of Afghan operations. As he says, everything was geared to that theatre – thinking, training, resources. He would have to scrounge and argue for anything he wanted. And he’d have to do it all while delivering on his over-riding mission, which was to function as a training squadron.
I read the next chapter with my jaw on the floor. Laidlaw’s approach to this realm of nay-sayers, unbelievers and fence-sitters is an object lesson in best-practice management.
Business leaders: Buy this book and take notes.
Despite the fact no-one had done it before; there were numerous technical, operational and safety reasons not to; and (literally) an army of people saying it couldn’t or shouldn’t be done, Will Laidlaw and 656 Squadron successfully adapted the Apache for maritime deployment.
Any strategy that can successfully have the British Admiralty giving the British Army use of an aircraft carrier to train for a deployment that isn’t even required should make getting your new office copier a cakewalk.
And so, by successfully prosecuting their role of training for both actual and hypothetical engagements, Laidlaw and his team found themselves aboard HMS Ocean in April 2011; on a Mediterranean training cruise, and on track to write helicopter history.
By this stage, the British Government had already taken the decision to support anti-Gaddafi forces in their ‘Arab Spring’ uprising, deploying RAF Typhoons with a comprehensive command and control infrastructure to help protect civilians and neutralise the dictator’s armour advantage.
However Operation Ellamy wasn’t delivering a tide-turning result, and the uprising was deteriorating into a murderous stalemate. What was needed was a game-changing intervention; and 656 Squadron had just arrived in the right place at the right time, with all the right training.
They also had the world’s pre-eminent attack helicopter.
The British Army operates its own variant of the venerable Apache AH-64D Longbow, built under licence by AgustaWestland and designated the Apache AH Mk.1 (or just Apache AH-1). The key differences are more powerful Rolls-Royce Turbomeca RTM322 engines (2,270 shp versus the AH-64D’s 1,890 shp T700-GE-701s), a world-beating suite of defensive aids and folding blades.
It was the folding blade feature that made maritime deployment even possible, and that super-sophisticated defensive suite that helped ensure zero losses over Libya. But it was a near-run thing.
The crews endured numerous missile launches; the constant danger of operating over water, always at low level and always at night; and even one terrifying occasion when, low on fuel, the ship was nowhere near where they expected to find it.
Swift and deadly
In 2011, Libya was probably the most dangerous helicopter battle-space that has ever existed anywhere. Pro-Gaddafi forces had the full range of Soviet anti-aircraft systems at their disposal, from radar controlled 40mm cannon to highly mobile shoulder-launched systems, to advanced infra-red and radar targeted SAMs – and they had lots of them. To counter those, the British Apache crews had that defensive suite, traditional chaff and flares, and their incredible skill.
Operating in pairs, they also had a policy of not letting an attack go unpunished. Gaddafi supporters would learn that firing on an Apache always brought a swift and deadly retaliation. However the role of the British Apache was not to draw fire, but to deliver surgical strikes of their own.
The author does a brilliant job of recounting each individual action and the intricacies of operating the Apache both at sea and in harm’s way. His descriptions of routinely dodging high tension lines and more while flying a twin engined helicopter with FLIR and data in the left eye and Night Vision in the right, while navigating a fluid war zone and heaving ocean at night, while managing pop-up lethal threats and onboard weapons systems, while accomplishing the mission as briefed, while interacting with the command and control structure, while… Well, you get the picture.
You’ll quickly develop an enormous respect for the ability of these aviators. It’s not a wonder that two fully trained crew are needed to operate the Apache; rather that only two are needed!
Their intricate ecosystem
But, for me, the attention this book gives to the squadron’s extensive support system is equally enlightening. For once, we get a glimpse of the incredibly complex and carefully managed operation that war has become..
Networked communication is an integral part of every mission – fuelled by a heightened awareness of the strategic picture, tactical opportunities, multi-force operations, and even media issues. The immeasurable cost of an Apache loss was a constant influence on planning, risk assessment and mission approval. Clearly, this is the ‘new normal’ for modern warfare, and we are given a rare look at how commanders and crews function within their intricate ecosystem.
Support isn’t just a military function either, and Laidlaw has the insight to include a diary entry written by his wife, describing her feelings about his deployment. It’s harrowing enough, but we know she’ll soon face the emotional hammer-blow of his month-long training cruise becoming indefinite and deeply hostile.
With all due respect to ‘those who stand and watch’, those who stay home and wait serve as highly as anyone.
Grip on reality
Will Laidlaw is clearly an intelligent and sensitive leader. It shines out of his writing, and his mindfulness raises Apache Over Libya far above the ‘just another war story’ level. Along with his wife’s perspective, we’re given honest insights into his own fears and doubts – and there are moments that would have been truly terrifying.
He also lays out the psychological goals of the mission, and how he leverages the Apache’s awesome strike capability to achieve the broader goal of ‘getting into pro-Gadaffi’s head’, eroding their morale in order to hand Free Libyan Forces the military and mental advantage.
It’s an aspect of military strategy that’s often glossed over.
Another is killing. With their goal of attacking morale as much as militia, the Apache crews realised that they’d achieve more by leaving shocked survivors than cadavers. However, inevitably, there were kills. Laidlaw doesn’t shy away from the fact, but describes several fatalities with stark realism. He clearly isn’t out to glorify his role as a commander, warfighter or pilot; rather, he clearly wants it recognised that every trigger pull has horrible consequences.
There’s an equally insightful passage about the realities of projecting and gaining political power, which he could have easily left hidden behind the veil of ‘supporting democracy’ (as most commentators have done). Here’s a man with a firm and informed grip on reality.
A rare, privileged glimpse
To cut a long review short, I can’t recommend Apache Over Libya highly enough. And I usually go for things a bit more historical and a lot more fixed-wing!
This is a rare, privileged glimpse into the real world of modern warfare, and a book about so much more than war if keep your eyes open. It’s also an edge-of-your-seat showcase for the awesome power and technology of the Apache and its crews.
Above all though, it’s a testament to the courage, dedication, super-human skill and absolute professionalism of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces. Our freedom is bought and paid for by people like Will Laidlaw, his colleagues around the world, and all their silent-suffering partners.
And, as if that wasn’t selfless enough, all proceeds from the sale of Apache Over Libya are being donated to Combat Stress: The Veterans Mental Health Charity; and SSAFA, the UK’s longest serving veterans’ charity.
About This Review
I wrote this review at the invitation of the publisher, Pen & Sword Aviation. Pen & Sword were kind enough to provide a review copy of the book, but no money has changed hands and the views I’ve expressed are entirely my own.