We Can Fix Combat SAR in the Navy

By Captain Michael T Fuqua

The Reserve forces initially made a good case for placement of the Navy's CSAR capability in their force structure. They maintained a small, but highly trained cadre of personnel in HC-9 until approximately 1989, when HC-9 was disestablished and two Reserve squadrons were established to conduct CSAR and Naval Special Warfare (NSW) Support. These squadrons were designated HCS-5, based at Naval Air Station Pt. Mugu, California, and HCS-4, based at NAS Norfolk, Virginia. Upon establishment, each squadron accepted delivery of eight of the Navy's new HH-60H Seahawks, a quantum leap in technology and capability over the old SH-3, which had low-infrared paint, a cargo-door-mounted M-60 (7.62mm) machine gun, flak jackets-and little else in the way of equipment.

The HH-60H, in contrast, has an infrared jammer, a hover and in-flight infrared suppressor system, night-vision goggle compatible lighting, an improved radar threat warning receiver, a missile plume detector, an automatic chaff and flare dispenser, Global Positioning System navigation equipment, the personal locating system for downed aircrew, an advanced communications suite, and two M-60 machine guns. Planned upgrades include the Hellfire missile system and a Forward-Looking Infrared (Flir) system. Additionally, it is faster, quieter, more reliable and has more range than the SH-3.

These squadrons are populated by 60% reservists and 40% active-duty officers and enlisted personnel who administer the squadron day to day. Each squadron maintains a two-aircraft detachment on a 72-hour alert to provide augmentation to active forces engaged in sustained CSAR/Special Warfare operations.

The active forces also have continued to develop their combat SAR capability in an evolutionary manner. Until the HH-60Hs arrived in 1990, their capability was limited to low-threat, day only, benign operations, which rendered them almost useless to a battle group commander. After the HH-60H came on the scene, each of the 10 active squadrons was assigned two aircraft and provided with increasingly sophisticated training. Today, a battle group commander will turn first to the active-duty forces organic to the battle group.

These two approaches have some complementary features that enhance the overall capability of combat SAR forces. They can and do exercise together to maximize training dollars, and there has been a healthy cross-community dialog established that benefits the professionalism of CSAR forces. But a major problem remains from the methodology that established the forces in the first place.

During the Vietnam War, the Navy was involved in a mostly littoral battle problem. Carriers operating in the Tonkin Gulf faced a minimum surface, sub-surface, or air threat from North Vietnam. Their operations were similar to today's concept of "Forward . . . from the Sea" in that they operated close to shore. Air wing and associated operations were concerned with linear vectors directed ashore. The concept of maintaining active Combat SAR forces aboard the ships to respond to unknown, ongoing, and varied threats was developed from necessity.

Post-Vietnam operations brought a shift in philosophy. The Navy concentrated on operations against the Soviet Union in a blue-water environment, and developed the Maritime Strategy to counter the surface, sub-surface, and air threat that Naval forces likely would encounter in an engagement at sea. A similar shift took place in the world of Combat SAR when the mission was given to the Reserves-a logical extension of the concept of operations developed to execute the Maritime Strategy.

A less than on-scene presence for something like Combat SAR was a tradeoff the Navy was willing to make when operating in a mostly open-ocean environment (or so the theory went). During several operations in the littorals in the intervening years, however, reserve Combat SAR crews have participated with and without their own aircraft. Until the arrival of the HH-60H, however, our forces were marginally effective and, in fact, the Navy's CSAR capability active and reserve-was rudimentary at best. Commander Michael A. Fackrell, U.S. Navy, in "Strike Rescue-Are we on the Right Path?" (Naval War College Review, November 1990), details the failures experienced by CSAR forces in Cambodia, Grenada, Lebanon, and Libya.

In 1992, with the development of the Navy's new strategic concept ". . . From the Sea" and subsequently "Forward. . From the Sea," the Navy shifted its emphasis from blue-water engagements to operations in the littorals, a change in strategic concept of operations that has had far-reaching effects on force structure, equipment, manning and rules of engagement in virtually every part of the Navy.

Because of the emphasis on crisis response and the need for the Navy to serve as the critical operational linkage between peacetime operations and the initial requirements of a developing crisis or major regional contingency, it necessarily follows that operations such as Combat SAR must be rapidly available to the on-scene commander, be that a joint force commander or a battle group commander.

Recognizing this requirement, the Navy has equipped active-duty helicopter antisubmarine (HS) squadrons with two HH-60H Combat SAR helicopters, which gives carrier battle groups an immediately available capability. The number of aircraft and the funding available for training and equipping aircrew, however, make this a very thin capability.

Two aircraft and a limited number of qualified crews to perform a two-aircraft mission is thin indeed for any sort of sustained operations. Interviews with naval aviation personnel in the fleet and on the staff of the Chief of Naval Operations confirm the need for redundancy in any successful aviation mission-especially in combat. To count on conducting any sort of sustained operations which call for two aircraft with only two aircraft assigned is flirting with disaster. The result almost surely will be either performing the mission with less than adequate assets or failing to perform the mission at all.

Of course, Reserve forces are available for deployment within 72 hours, but issues such as transportation inconsistencies, Presidential recall limitations, and operational constraints also must be considered.

While not specifically germane to the Navy's Combat SAR force-structure problem, concerns over the way naval forces fit into the joint picture are interesting because they probably will limit further the forces available to a battle group commander. Doctrinally, each service is responsible for performing Combat SAR in support of its own operations, consistent with its assigned functions. As a result of many scenarios, including the two-major regional contingency, Naval Reserve Combat SAR forces are available to augment the carrier-based active squadron; whether they will placed at the disposal of the battle group commander or assigned to the joint forces commander to be used as he sees fit is an important question.

Unfortunately, the other services have less than adequate Combat SAR forces to support a joint force commander in almost any scenario, worldwide. The presidentially appointed Commission on Roles and Missions took the Air Force to task for having an inappropriate active/reserve force mix and inadequate and improperly deployed forces, conditions that have necessitated tasking of Special Operations Command to perform Combat SAR functions-for which they are neither funded, equipped, nor trained. Without a doubt, Special Operations forces do a magnificent job performing the Combat SAR mission, but it's a zero sum game. While they are conducting Combat SAR, the mission for which they were designed may go wanting. The Marine Corps performs a very limited Combat SAR role in providing a tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP) package that is mostly associated with amphibious operations. The Army has no dedicated Combat SAR forces.

Because of these deficiencies and based on historical precedent in Operation Desert Storm, a joint force commander may well direct any Naval Reserve Combat SAR assets to a shore based location-leaving his battle group commander afloat only his organic assets to meet his specific Combat SAR needs. Desert Storm occurred coincident with the arrival of new HH-60Hs in HCS-4 and HCS-5, which deployed four HH-60s to the desert. These aircraft were assigned to a base in Saudi Arabia and never directed to augment sea-based assets. This is not to say that they did not support the battle group commander in a joint environment; rather, when used as an enabling force, CSAR capability should reside with strike assets at sea.

Of course, where you stand depends on where you sit. The Combat SAR force structure to which the Navy has evolved is based on several factors. Historical precedent and the difficulty in moving away from "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," play largely into the mix. HC-9 grew in almost mythical proportions as the heroic participants from the old HC-7 days transferred their allegiance and sea stories to their new home: the Reserves.

HC-9 was recognized as expert in Combat SAR, even though its contributions and, eventually, their expertise, became severely limited. The mythology outpaced reality and, as the squadron began accepting a new breed without Vietnam experience, the capability began to suffer. Couple this with the reality that most of the naval aviation establishment does not want to think about, much less budget for something that is never going to happen to them (or so they think), and the shift to the Reserves made all the sense in the world. In addition, the mission was a very attractive recruiting tool for pilots and aircrew looking for a mission more glamorous and reminiscent of the "good old days" than hunting for Soviet submarines in the middle of the ocean.

With the arrival of the HH-60H, a credible machine with which to conduct legitimate operations, Reserve lobbying to continue to be the Navy's Combat SAR force intensified.

While Reserve forces are critical in our total force, it is fair to say they have a smaller role in Naval forces than in the Army or Air Force. The Navy has relatively small numbers and specialized capability in its Reserves. Nevertheless, one of the strongest lobbies on Capitol Hill is the Reserve lobby for all the services and that includes the Naval Reserve. It is very difficult to adjust Reserve force structure or implement active force use of Reserve assets. This would require concerted efforts by both the active and Reserve forces in proposals to Congress, an effort which is not likely to occur.

When the active forces first jumped into the Combat SAR business in a big way about 1990, they looked to the Reserves for training and assistance. Both sides have fostered cooperation, but it has been wary because of the aspects of turf interference. In addition, there has been reserve integration into active units deploying overseas. Navy air wings operate on an 18-month cycle-3 months of stand down, 9 months of training/workup, and 6 months of deployment. All training/workup effort in Combat SAR is devoted to honing the air wing's capability to perform the mission on its own. Reserve assets have difficulty fitting into this training cycle because of the limited number of training sorties.

A significant problem with this situation is that the Reserve forces are underused in their stated role as an augmentation force, given inadequate training time, and remain underappreciated. Conversely, active forces are over tasked, do not have enough equipment or funding, and are being asked to perform a two-aircraft mission with only two aircraft per squadron.

Providing the Navy with a robust, credible Combat SAR capability immediately available to battle group commanders and able to rapidly integrate, if necessary; into a joint contingency should be the goal of Navy planners. To achieve this goal will require innovative thinking. Admittedly not conducive to the bureaucratic restrictions that have built up over this and other issues of force structure, my solution offers both active and reserve forces a continued input into the Combat SAR/Special Warfare world.

First, Reserve forces should drop Combat SAR as a primary mission and assume the Naval Special Warfare support mission. The Navy's Special Warfare community for years has been practically begging for better aviation support. To perform this mission, a much smaller and focused force structure, even more suited to the reserve role, would be required. The Reserves could downsize, refocus, and relocate their HCS squadrons and transfer six to eight HH-60Hs to the active forces. These remaining reserve squadrons would be able to fill a gap in aviation support to NSW forces which has long been ignored. These new squadrons could be based at Norfolk and San Diego with the SEALs and would be fully employed. The reserves then could focus their training and equipping efforts in a narrower vein and increase their expertise accordingly. The additional aircraft provided to the active forces would increase the inventory to the point that each squadron would be able to deploy with three aircraft, which should be the minimum to support a two-aircraft mission. The issue of training and equipping Combat SAR forces would be more focused and likely would garner more understanding and support.

But this would be only half of the solution-because it would result in a loss of billets that the Naval Reserve would be loath to relinquish. These billets could be relocated to resurrected reserve Squadron Augmentation Units (SAU) in the HS community. This is an old idea that has application today. Providing an augmentation unit for each coast would enhance capability as well as continuing the horizontal reserve integration that is a bedrock of the Naval Reserve. In addition, since horizontal integration is the goal of the Naval Reserve, it is time to bring HS-75, a Naval Reserve squadron, into the fold. The squadron is still flying the SH-3H, while all active units have transitioned to the SH-60F/HH-60H. HS-75 should be reequipped with Seahawks expeditiously to provide Carrier Air Wing-20 with the capability it requires.

The many details notwithstanding, today's fragmented and minimally acceptable level of Combat SAR support for our battle groups must be improved. Any solution must take the parochialism and bureaucratic politics out of the equation and come up with a logical and employable solution best for the Navy as a whole.

 

 
 

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