Air Detachment or Air Department?

By Lieutenant Matthew A. Lisowski, U.S. Navy

LAMPS III primary mission areas are surface warfare (SUW) and undersea warfare (USW). The aircraft are capable of detecting, classifying, and destroying contacts individually or in coordination with the host ship. Additional mission areas, which directly support the ship, include search and rescue, medical evacuation, vertical replenishment, naval surface fire support, and communications relay. LAMPS IIIs extend the range of the ship's sensors. All SH-60Bs can employ the Mark 46 torpedo for sub-surface engagements and follow-on models carry the Mark 50 torpedo and Penguin missile for air-to-surface attacks. The ship provides tactical direction, acoustic sensor processing, redetection, and evaluation in the execution of the SH-60B's primary and secondary roles.

The LAMPS III detachment featured here was deployed on both a Ticonderoga (CG-47)-class Aegis cruiser and a Spruance (DD-963)-class destroyer. The detachment flew a rapid deployment kit (RDK) variant of the SH-60B, which is a standard SH-60B with special modifications for littoral surface warfare and Gulf operations. It has a high-powered forward-looking infrared radar (FLIR) capable of relaying video data to the ship, an equally high powered targeting laser, four Hellfire missiles, and a .50 caliber door-mounted machine gun. All things considered, the SH-60B RDK is one of the most lethal, multi-mission sea-borne rotary wing aircraft in the world.

The "Aegis Mindset"

The detachment embarked on the Aegis cruiser for a major exercise involving undersea and surface warfare. The ability of Aegis cruisers to detect, track, and classify air contacts is impressive, to say the least. So powerful are its sensors that such ships routinely control the air warfare picture and act as the Air Warfare Commander in battle groups. Ironically, Aegis cruisers—the undisputed antiair warfare (AAW) leaders—notoriously under-employ their SH-60Bs.

Many cruisers have the "Aegis mindset," meaning that they focus solely on their SPY-1 radar to the detriment of their other sensors. Employing the SH-60B is almost an afterthought for many cruisers with the Aegis mindset. A specially qualified operations specialist (OS), known as the antisubmarine warfare/antiship surveillance and targeting (ASST) tactical air controller (ASTAC) and specifically trained to control the LAMPS III, is so far displaced from the tactical action officer (TAO) that his position (and, more important, his function) becomes almost irrelevant to the TAO. The cruiser TAO's attention never waivers from the SPY-l's tactical picture displayed in the combat information center. While not displayed on the TAO's tactical picture, FLIR video is linked from the SH-60B RDK to the ship and is displayed on a monitor at the ASTAC's station, which permits real-time visual identification of contacts.

During one exercise involving this particular cruiser, the surface action group's mission was to protect the Blue forces from many high-speed surface vessels coming from the north. The cruiser decided to use her SPY-1 to track all high-speed contacts and sent the SH-60B to conduct a FLIR search. Using the helicopter's radar, the crew quickly identified several contacts and used the FLIR to classify several as targets. At this point, had the TAO walked over and looked at the FLIR video at the ASTAC's station, he could have identified targets well beyond the horizon as hostile and asked for authority to engage. He had the opportunity to engage the targets within minutes of contact by the SH-60B, but disregarded the opportunity completely because it was "not on SPY." Only when the SPY-1 radar saw the targets did the TAO become interested in the FLIR video. Then he did not give the helicopter clearance to engage the contact with Hellfire missiles, but elected instead to fire the ship's Harpoon missiles. The TAO failed to capitalize on the helicopter's ability to conduct operations at significant distances from the ship to minimize the ship's vulnerability to attack. This example was just one of many where the enemy could have been detected, targeted, and engaged in a timely manner had the ship used her LAMPS III to its full capacity, but it highlights the Aegis mindset.

The Air Detachment

Regrettably, when the detachment embarked in the guided-missile cruiser the air det's members were treated like ship riders instead of ship's company. The reasons for this were:

  • Inability to integrate with officers and crew (a function of command climate)
  • The TAOs' lack of helicopter employment experience

The ship's officers and crew seemed inconvenienced that they had to carry the airdales. The pilots and aircrew were not consulted on air-specific issues, such as vertical replenishment and cross-deck landing qualifications. Aside from the basic air-safety brief given when the detachment embarked, no other training was provided concerning SH-60B employment. When ships treat their detachments as ship riders and detachments act the part, the connection between ship's company and LAMPS detachment personnel that is required for an effective ship-air team will never happen.

The Air Department

Contrast this experience with the same detachment's deployment on the Spruance -class destroyer, which made a concerted effort to treat the LAMPS III detachment as her Air Department—the initial step toward integrating the ship-air team. The destroyer considered the SH-60B RDK as an essential weapon/sensor platform for employment by the ship. The commanding officer, executive officer, and department heads stressed to their division officers, chief petty officers, and leading petty officers the importance of properly employing the SH-60B RDK. The command climate of knowing and understanding each and every weapon system enabled the Air Department to train its junior officers and department heads to employ the helicopter properly. The Air Department became the focal point for all air-related issues, such as operating with the carrier and controlling of other aircraft, as well as a key element in the areas of undersea and surface warfare operations.

LAMPS MARK III—Extension of the Ship

During operations in the northern Arabian Gulf, the Spruance ship quickly realized the dividends of SH-60B RDK employment. TAOs regularly consulted with the airborne tactical officer (ATO) in flight to keep the helicopter in the tactical picture. The ship relied heavily on the SH-60B aircrew's ability to use FLIR and radar to control the ship's rigid hull inflatable boat during boardings of suspected U. N. sanctions violators. The commanding officer's trust in the capabilities of his SH-60B, his Air Department, and the boarding teams allowed for multiple successful non-compliant boardings and seizures of violators. Complete ship integration permitted sustained flight operations, improving the ship's ability to detect, track, query, and deter the transport of illegal oil on merchant vessels from Iraq.

Growing Up Aegis

A whole generation of surface warfare officers is growing up without working with the LAMPS III on a regular basis. Crews of Flight I Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class guided-missile destroyers, which cannot deploy with a LAMPS III embarked, generally do not understand the nuances of employing the system. Only when a LAMPS III capable ship is in the vicinity do these destroyers get the opportunity to work with an SH-60B. Their ability to integrate the LAMPS III into their battle plan is poor at best. The first-tour surface warfare officers serving in these ships have no concept of sustained LAMPS III operations.

Recently, an Arleigh Burke —having allowed her undersea warfare qualification to lapse—requested an SH-60B crossdeck to update her vectored torpedo qualification. Not only did the ship show a lack of experience in operating with the LAMPS III, her ability to conduct basic helicopter operations was sorely lacking. The USW officer, a first-tour junior officer, had little experience with LAMPS III undersea warfare capabilities, which was highlighted by the ship's inability to establish HawkLink with the helicopter. Without HawkLink the ship's ability to observe the USW tactical picture was extremely limited. The ASTAC, also unfamiliar with the LAMPS III, showed little knowledge in how to employ its sensors. During the exercise, the TAO never attempted to communicate with the LAMPS III aircrew; instead, he chose to relay his commands through the ASTAC. In the end, only the ship's sensors were used to detect, classify, and track the target, relegating the SH-60B to a weapons-delivery platform—a rather limited use of such a capable system.

It was obvious that the destroyer's inability to employ the LAMPS III was directly related to the crew's lack of LAMPS III experience. The advent of the Flight II DDGs with a helicopter hangar, however, will expose their crews at last to LAMPS IIIs and offer them an opportunity to work with an Air Department and exploit the capabilities of its airborne weapons and sensors.

Full Integration

The first step in integrating an embarking detachment is for commanding officers and executive officers to accept the Air Detachment officer-in-charge as an aviation authority. They also should also recognize that LAMPS III detachments at times are caught between responding to at least two chains of command—ship and parent squadron—with sometimes conflicting expectations. LAMPS III detachments are manned at the minimum possible level and the Air Department will have barely enough personnel to maintain their SH-60B. This can lead to conflicts if the Air Department is called upon to provide watchstanders (other than shore patrol).

The Air Department in turn must participate enthusiastically in every aspect of the ship's professional and social life. The goal, after all, is to increase the ship's combat potential. Recognizing the common goals shared between the two will ensure that the embarked detachment becomes as integrated in the command as any other rating or officer billeted to the ship.

The Future

Major improvements to the LAMPS III are en route; the SH-60B RDK is but the first step. The follow-on SH-60R, with its upgraded sensors and weapon suite, will be a still more powerful tool for the ship to employ.

It is hard to believe that a commanding officer or tactical action officer would ignore the LAMPS III's ability to provide a mobile, elevated platform that provides detection, classification, targeting, and damage assessment well beyond a surface vessel's radar horizon—yet it happens. At the risk of descending to cliché, the cruiser navy (or any ship not fully integrating its LAMPS III detachment) needs a paradigm shift. Intelligence officers believe that there is no better intelligence than from the man in the field. It is the capability to provide first-hand information that makes the LAMPS III such an asset.

With the drawdown of the Navy and the decommissioning of many frigates and destroyers, LAMPS III detachments will find themselves more often than not on an Aegis ship. Whether these ships exploit fully such capabilities as an extension of the ship—or look at it as just another helo—will depend on the command's ability to integrate the detachment as its Air Department, from the top down. If the ship is willing to accept the premise, they will have found a winner.

Lieutenant Lisowski , assigned to HSL-15 at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Japan, is the Maintenance Officer of Detachment One. He has deployed with several LAMPS III detachments on ships ranging from frigates to destroyers and cruisers. He graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1991.


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