Operation Earnest Will, during the Tanker Wars of 1987-89, showed that the most effective action against mine threats in contested waters is to attack the source of the mines. Earnest Will demonstrated that light helicopters armed with rockets and forward firing guns are a useful tool against mine-laying ships. These aircraft also worked against small boats. Modest improvements similar to those done by SOCOM's 160th Special Operation Regiment will tremendously enhance the value of the MH-60S.
Researcher Carl Builder identified cultural differences between the services, along with distinctions within each one. 1 He held that they prefer their own mission areas over those of other services, and that in the Navy, carrier aviation is the pinnacle of a hierarchy, with other units, including helicopter aviation, held in lesser esteem.
Such cultural biases and distinctions drove senators Sam Nunn and Bill Cohen to amend the Goldwater-Nicholas act to include USSOCOM under Section 167 of Title 10. But the problem persists today, meaning that to endure, any NSW helicopter unit must be controlled by SOCOM.
This makes it "special." 2 Special forces approach problems in an unorthodox manner. They are exceptionally skilled at what they do, and their missions are those that conventional forces cannot carry out (or not while operating conventionally). This definition is intended to exclude forces that are conventional and that operate temporarily with special operations, even though they also may be exceptionally skilled.
Before we can address creating a special unit, Navy helicopter aviation must acknowledge its own cultural distinctions. The 160th Special Operation Regiment is special and enduring, because of its warrant officers. The Navy has attempted to achieve a comparable level of excellence with reserve forces. But such a model is not sustainable, because of activation limitations and because, relative to the 160th, its manpower costs are high.
A way forward for the Navy and SOCOM is to transfer Helicopter Sea Combat (HSC) Squadron 84 to NSWC while building a foundation for a future community with two or three active squadrons that are also under NSWC. The active and reserve personnel assigned to HSC-84 could be used to start these converted squadrons, while the Navy's flying warrant program ramped up to populate the NSW helicopter community. The result should be a viable group with career potential for its members up to flag officer.
Every time another mission is added, crews must train to it, often at the expense of expertise in other mission areas. It would be better to advance the airframe in a proven manner while using research and development resources to find a more suitable platform for mine countermeasures.
2. Colin S. Gray, Explorations in Strategy, Contributions in Military Studies, no. 164 (Westport Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996), extrapolated from his discussion of the utility of Special Operations Forces.