Who Defines Operational Necessity?

By K. Zelvin

In war, you go when they tell you to go, no questions asked. In peacetime, however, the sense of urgency is not there and many missions are open to question. The confusion as to who can authorize operational-necessity missions has been recognized by some naval leaders. Every now and then, a battle group commander will direct in a written or oral statement that they alone will determine operational necessity for the units under their command. Unfortunately, such statements by flag officers are far from the norm. While ambiguities or questions during battle group operations can normally be resolved using the "red" phone, this avenue of going up the chain is not always possible during independent cruiser, destroyer, and frigate operations or during flight operations ashore.

What kinds of operational-necessity missions are being considered during peacetime? Examples include (not all inclusive):

  • Night helicopter passenger transfers between air-capable ships.
  • Night vertical replenishment (VertRep) operations (SH-60B)
  • Helicopter passenger transfers to/from submarines.
  • VertRep to a ship that is not listed in the Helicopter Operations from Ships other Than Aircraft Carriers (HOSTAC) publication.
  • Flight operations when appropriate governing directives prohibit airborne operations.

So, if there is no guidance from flag officers and clarification or approval cannot be readily sought, who can authorize missions that might risk the aircraft and the crew?

Some ship captains or destroyer squadron commodores will attest that they can assign and approve operational-necessity missions for their embarked air detachments. After all, these aircraft are under their direct control and they should be able to direct them as they see fit. Unfortunately, many naval aviators often are uncomfortable with this answer and seem to prefer having a flag officer making that determination, since flags are perceived as omnipotent. But what happens when there is concern as to whether or not the spirit of operational necessity is being met? Who, based on the current definition, makes the final decision on whether or not to launch on a contested mission?

Naval aviators are taught at an early age that there may come a time in their career when they may decide to refuse to fly when they perceive that they are unreasonably putting themselves, their crew, or those entrusted to them at unnecessary risk. While these gut-wrenching scenarios don't happen often, many senior naval aviators can recount one or two stories about how they, or someone they know, handled an operational-necessity mission that they thought exceeded the spirit of OpNavInst 3710.

Remarkably, it is often these tales that guide junior officers when they try to determine how best to deal with an operational-necessity mission they are uncomfortable with. But are these critical and possibly life-threatening decisions always best left to junior officers and sea stories? Shouldn't there be more guidance from our leaders?

While it would be impossible to cover every peacetime operational-necessity scenario, the Chief of Naval Operations could provide more concrete guidelines. For example:

  • For lifesaving missions in peacetime where the patient's life or limbs are in risk, unit commanders/officers in charge shall authorize operational-necessity missions.
  • For helicopter passenger transfers in peacetime to or from air-capable ships, a captain (0-6 unrestricted line officer) shall authorize operational-necessity missions.
  • In cases where the aircraft is being directed to fly missions that violate published NATOPS/OpNav directives or that require a published operational-necessity mission, flag officer approval shall be required.

Until the CNO or the Navy staff provide more guidance in OpNav 3710, the ultimate decision on whether or not a naval aircraft conducts an operational-necessity mission will remain where it is—with the aircraft commander. Unfortunately, these lieutenant commanders, lieutenants, and lieutenants junior grade, may not find out whether or not they made the right decision until they are sitting at the wrong end of a long green table or at the bottom of the deep blue sea.

Lieutenant Commander Zelvin is the Officer-in-Charge of an SH-60B LAMPS III detachment at HSL-42, Naval Station Mayport, Florida.


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