Because of their availability, utility, and modularity, Navy helicopters easily adapted to support the joint force during the previous decade. By providing special operations forces (SOF) support, MEDEVAC, and combat search-and-rescue (SAR), helicopters provided a relevant capability for Navy leadership to engage in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. In addition to conducting missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, helicopters proved vital contributors to U.S. humanitarian assistance missions. First on station after disasters in Haiti and Japan, as well as in Pakistan and Indonesia, the Navy helicopter garnered media attention and became a symbol for the Navy mantra, “A Global Force for Good.”
As we approach lean budgets, Navy helicopter aviation is in an enviable position. While the service has already bought the majority of the MH-60 Romeos and Sierras we’ll need for the next few decades, many other communities aren’t so lucky and will inevitably face headwinds as procurement money dwindles. Within aviation, the Navy must continue to build double-digit strike fighters every year just to tread water, which doesn’t even account for the implications of the multi-billion dollar Joint Strike Fighter bill. The new P-8 Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft is a generational improvement over the P-3 Orion, but we’re not yet half-way through the procurement period for this aircraft.
The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye is in a similarly tough spot, and the service has been looking for ways to replace the C-2 Greyhound (carrier on-board delivery) for over a decade. Naval aviation will have to fight for a share of the Navy’s procurement budget with the submarine and surface communities, which are still trying to dig out of the procurement holiday of the 1990s. In short, the Navy is fortunate to own the helicopter platforms already, allowing the service to concentrate on employing the best payloads for its priorities. However, adaptive tactics must accompany these new capabilities.
The Small-Boat Threat
What, then, do our strike group commanders, fleet commanders, and the flags in the Pentagon want from Navy helicopter aviation? What worries them the most? Many would say protection from submarines, mines, and small boats. The Navy packs most of its firepower onto a few costly platforms that are increasingly at risk from asymmetric threats. The carrier strike group (CSG) now consists of only five ships and the amphibious ready group (ARG) three. Small boats and mines, at a few thousand dollars each, are an inexpensive way for our adversaries to confront these vessels. Even submarines are an affordable way for many nations to pose a threat to the CSG and ARG. Anti-surface warfare, like mine warfare and antisubmarine warfare, is a tactical engagement with operational and strategic implications.
Defense against the small-boat threat provides a good example of where improved tactics can make a difference, as the Navy must learn to operate under new fiscal constraints. Small-boat defense is primarily a time and distance problem, and investments against such threats are intended to compress the kill chain by disabling the enemy boat before it reaches its target.
The Navy continues to invest heavily in this warfare area through upgraded sensors, weapons, and survivability. Though the service is investing in other platforms to defeat this threat, the qualities of helicopters make them the best option. The Navy is paying about $65 million for the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) of laser-guided rockets that will augment the Hellfire as a precision weapon against small boats. This is relatively cheap compared with other means of countering the threat. Many lobbied to purchase the Low-cost Guided Imaging Rocket (LOGIR), an infrared-guided rocket. A true fire-and-forget weapon, LOGIR (if it works as advertised) would allow rapid engagement of multiple targets. The LOGIR, however, is too expensive and would enter the Fleet years later than the APKWS would, so the Navy chose to buy the latter instead and will introduce this new capability within the next two years. This decision allows the Navy to concentrate on building tactics for the Hellfire and APKWS, in addition to the 20-mm gun and crew-served weapons.
The Hellfire and APKWS both use the MH-60’s multi-spectral targeting system. Neither is fire-and-forget, and both require the operator to lock on a target, illuminate the target with a laser, fire the weapon, and hold the laser spot on the target until the weapon hits. When engaging multiple targets, the objective is to proceed through the sequence as quickly as one can, shift the laser in minimal time to the next target, and repeat. Testing shows that it takes about ten seconds to shift the laser from one target to the next. Adding this to the time of flight for each rocket means that a crew could conceivably hit five small boats closing in about a minute and a half. Without solid tactics, though, few crews will come close to this mark.
This is where tactics development makes a world of difference. How many helicopter crews can hit five small boats in 90 seconds? How many crews can even lock up and hit two successive 30-knot targets in one pass? In practice, crews face many variables. For example, how long does it take to find, fix, and target the first boat? Are you able to maintain lock throughout the missile’s time of flight? Are you able to lock onto each successive target in only seven seconds? Does your system work throughout the engagement? Are you taking fire? How long does it take you to maneuver to get back into position?
Small-boat defense is a prime example of why tactics matter more now than ever, whether for ASUW, ASW, or MIW. Innovative tactics will give back a few valuable seconds by better positioning the crew to find, fix, track, target, and engage the enemy while defending the helicopter. A crew that doesn’t find the threat in time or isn’t close enough to engage may miss an opportunity against several targets, and a crew that has to turn to re-attack will miss a few more. The strike group cannot afford to let one boat get through.
Bringing clarity and focus to maritime missions doesn’t mean that we in helicopter aviation should abandon our other missions. Squadrons will still have to be proficient at surface surveillance, logistics, search and rescue, and a number of other tasks. Tighter budgets and a renewed emphasis on the Navy’s sea control role mean that we must allocate a higher percentage of our scarce training opportunities to these maritime missions. Squadrons, weapons schools, and NSAWC must carefully weigh the risk of training for daily missions against those that could have severe operational and strategic implications. Tactical and operational commanders will also have to review this risk when employing helicopters.
Fleet squadrons must collaborate with training and support providers (the wing, weapons schools, NSAWC, NMAWC, and Test and Evaluation) and the users (the ESG and CSG commanders) to develop and continuously improve maritime tactics. Incremental improvements add up, and these small changes lead to more efficient and more lethal warfighters in the maritime environment. Many of our helicopters’ systems are new and developing. The Navy cannot afford to wait for top-down improvements and adjustments to tactics. The input that drives the best practices in tactics will come from three levels: squadrons, centers of excellence, and tactical commanders.
Fleet squadrons must go beyond improving tactics for the next cruise; they must communicate with each other and contribute to the tactics manuals by which we are trained and evaluated. The tactical experts in your squadron will quickly realize that the books don’t contain all the answers, especially for new systems or new threats. Though the Navy sends exceptional aviators and aircrewmen to the weapons school and NSAWC, neither has the resources that Fleet squadrons have. Skippers will quickly find that the experts are in their ready rooms, and they owe it to the Fleet to spread that experience.
Squadrons must also provide early, detailed, and continuous feedback on the gear. Many of the Romeo and Sierra systems were developed spirally for emerging requirements and pushed rapidly to the Fleet, meaning that such systems didn’t benefit from thorough operational test and evaluation (OT&E) before arriving in squadrons. Evolutionary acquisition only works when the program managers and testers have ample feedback and data to improve the systems. Squadrons must not assume that the experts at NSAWC, Naval Air Systems Command, and the OT&E force have all the same information that they do. Squadron aviators are now part of the OT&E.
As laboratories of change, squadrons should evaluate every aspect of the kill chain and scrub every detail of tactics. As discussed in the small-boat example, the squadrons will determine the best position to find and fix the target, the best altitude to engage, and the best use of section tactics. The squadrons should lead the way on how to integrate with other platforms and systems. They must write the manuals, then turn them over to Warfare Centers of Excellence to immediately validate those tactics and publish them as quickly as we publish Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) and safety changes.
Centers of Excellence
Of course the best tactical employment goes beyond the squadron, and there is a valuable role for the wings, the weapons schools, our experts at NSAWC, and the rest who support the squadrons going to sea. These organizations all have their plates full, and now is a good opportunity to evaluate where Navy helicopter aviation should focus its valuable training. NMAWC is not properly staffed to develop helicopter tactics, especially for ASW. NSAWC deserves credit for devising ways to accelerate tactics to meet emerging threats, but this continues to be a challenge as our tactics training organization is still designed to fight over land.
NSAWC, our tactics center of excellence in Fallon, Nevada, is a few hundred miles from the ocean. Seventy-five percent of our Seahawk weapons and training instructor course is overland, and the weapons schools spend 60–80 percent of squadron tactics evaluations testing proficiency in overland missions. We spend much more time teaching mountain flying, landing-zone section tactics and overland ground-hugging terrain following routes than we spend on over-water missions. Even the majority of our 20-mm, crew-served weapons, and Hellfire training are conducted overland. Hitting a hot CONNEX box with a Hellfire doesn’t make you proficient at hitting a boat moving at 40 knots or bobbing up and down behind waves.
Some argue that the complexities of orchestrating overland combat SAR or a SOF insert/extract develop valuable skills for numerous other missions. While that’s true, our aircrew can also develop valuable skills in the complex maritime environment by coordinating with a ship, an overhead platform, and other helicopters to defeat a surface or undersea threat. Recent procurement of mobile surface and undersea targets offers the opportunities for complex, realistic training.
The tactical and operational commanders own a large piece of driving best practices in tactics, and it’s the job of the helicopter squadrons to educate them. These CSG and ESG commanders need to know the best way to train and employ their helicopters to accomplish the daily missions (primarily surface surveillance, logistics, and SAR) while optimizing the force to protect the strike group.
SAR, for example, is a necessary mission, and helicopters are by far the best platform we have to execute it. However, the chances of needing a SAR have diminished while other threats have increased. Across the Navy and Marine Corps, the naval aviation Class A mishap rate has decreased from over 700 per year in the 1950s to 15 in 2012. Of those 15, only one was within 10 miles of a carrier or big-deck amphibious ship from which SAR assets operate. In coming years of reduced resources, tactical commanders must weigh relative risk while they employ helicopters for multiple missions.
The ESG uses its Navy helicopters less efficiently than the CSG. ESGs often count the Marine Air Combat Element (ACE) as part of their ASUW solution, as they should when the ACE is embarked. But the purpose of the amphibious ready group (ARG) is to deploy Marines ashore in a conflict. Today, in our phase zero operations the ARG spends much of its time without Marines and operating in the highest-risk areas. Not only does this put the ARG at risk, but spinning in an ARG box isn’t efficient use of a valuable Navy asset. ESG maritime tactics have developed very little since the Cold War. ESGs must continue to plan for scenarios and develop requirements in which the Marine Expeditionary Unit is not embarked or otherwise employed to meet maritime sea-control requirements. Better employment of Navy helicopters for missions like defense of the amphibious task force will make the ESGs more flexible and more lethal.
Commanders at the flag level often lack awareness of the capabilities that Navy helicopters contribute to the maritime fight. Not only has the threat developed rapidly since the last time many of these leaders commanded their own squadrons or ships, but the continually improving nature of spiral development acquisition means that leadership doesn’t know what they have nor do they hold helicopter aviation accountable. This constrains employment, training opportunities, and even acquisition. Continuing the ASUW example, it is not uncommon for flag officers to think of Cobras, Apaches, and Hornets as equal contributors. Of course these platforms should be part of the joint solution in a major combat operation, but the Navy is procuring capabilities specifically for the maritime mission, capabilities that these other platforms don’t have. Navy helicopter pilots must demonstrate that they are the preeminent experts in these maritime mission areas, and the helicopter community should be held accountable for demonstrating proficiency. This will have the added benefit of freeing these other assets for additional missions for the joint fight.
Positioned for Success
Navy helicopter aviation is in a positive place. With most of the needed Sierras and Romeos aquired, we are now spending money wisely to target maritime capabilities. Systems like 20-mm guns, APKWS, Mk-54 torpedoes, airborne low-frequency sonars, automatic radar periscope detection and discrimination, airborne mine neutralization systems, and SeaFox will bring considerable improvements if paired with focused tactics development. The Pentagon is beginning to see that better maritime training systems and targets are critical for these new capabilities. In the coming years the Navy will be looking for ways to expand the capabilities of existing platforms wherever possible. These improvements are cheaper than buying additional platforms but will still have to compete in a tight fiscal environment.
Squadrons, strike groups, and the schoolhouses are already making strides. The helicopter wings have recently mobilized to capture and build on the tactics used to employ these new weapon systems and sensors. NSAWC’s latest commendable effort to develop a comprehensive Seahawk tactics manual could pay outsized dividends. CSGs are making MIW, ASW, and ASUW exercises more complex; small-boat exercises now involve several more mobile targets than they did even a year ago. Still, these efforts face challenges as lower operating budgets will decrease underway and flight time, adding to the urgency to share and record best practices and prioritize training.
Helicopter aviation will be increasingly valuable over the next decade as the Navy refocuses on the maritime environment. This community will have to improve in ASUW, ASW, and MIW to meet our sea-control demands during a time of declining budgets. Spiral development is rapidly pushing affordable capabilities to existing platforms to meet these threats. Such new payloads come with a burden, and our squadrons, warfare centers of excellence, and tactical commanders all share responsibility to develop the best tactics to employ these weapons and sensors to protect our strike groups.