The Navy's Helicopter Master Plan modernizes and recapitalizes the rotary wing force, but the question now is how to organize the helicopter community to maximize warfighting capability and best support Navy power projection and forward presence.
Under the leadership of the director of the Navy Staff's Air Warfare Division, our helicopter requirement officers are modernizing and recapitalizing Navy helicopters in a leaner force structure called the Helicopter Master Plan (HMP). The plan decommissions the SH-2G and upgrades the three existing variants of the H-60 to the modern SH-60R, to better counter the quieter diesel submarines, patrol boats, and attack speedboats the Navy expects to face in the littorals. The HMP also replaces four aging helicopters with the new CH-60 to perform logistics, downed aviator rescue, and mine clearing for the brown-water Navy.
By defining the hardware capabilities and mission areas of future maritime helicopters, the Helicopter Master Plan builds two of the three cornerstones of a viable force structure. The third—organization—has yet to be set, but there are three options for structuring Navy helicopter communities: maintain the status quo, reorganize by aircraft competencies, or create a single helicopter community.
Present Force Structure
Understanding the history of the helicopter force structure is essential to shaping its future. Naval rotary-wing communities were born from two parent squadrons, one on each coast, that detached helicopters to support naval missions. As the requirements for plane guard and combat search and rescue, organic antisubmarine and antisurface warfare, logistics, and mine warfare arose, helicopters were spun off into independent communities with single-mission focuses. This evolutionary process forced rotary-wing aviation to diverge and adapt to different niches.
The Navy today operates eight types of helicopters: the SH-60B, SH-60F, HH-60H, CH-46, MH-53E, SH-2G, H-3, and H-1. These aircraft are operated and maintained within squadrons organized into four mission-specific communities:
- The helicopter antisubmarine squadron light (HSL) community operates the SH-60B Seahawk as an extension of the ship's Light Airborne Multipurpose System (LAMPS) to conduct surface and undersea warfare from Navy destroyers, cruisers, and frigates.
- The helicopter antisubmarine squadron (HS) community flies the SH-60F for undersea warfare and the HH60H for combat search and rescue and naval special warfare support from Navy aircraft carriers.
- The helicopter combat support (HC) community operates the CH-46 Sea Knight and H-3 Sea King and conducts logistics and search and rescue from amphibious ships and naval logistics vessels.
- The helicopter mine countermeasures squadron (HM) community operates the MH-53 Sea Dragon and conducts airborne mine countermeasures from forward bases or from the USS Inchon (MCM-5).
Reserve communities do not always mirror their active counterparts because of insufficient numbers of SH-60Bs and HH-60Hs. The HSL and HS reserve forces are having to phase out the SH-2G Seasprite, MH-53E, and H-3. The H-1 and H-3 perform air station and base search and rescue.
The Helicopter Master Plan will consolidate these missions on to just two platforms. The reductions will produce huge efficiencies in infrastructure and tangible savings. By piggybacking on the Army UH-60 contract, retooling the production line for marinized versions of the Blackhawk, DoD was able to avoid penalties for the early cancellation of the Army contract, saving "$31 million over the life of Navy CH-60 procurement through 2001." In addition, former helicopter requirements officer Commander Robert McGee announced that moving from eight helicopter type model series to consolidate missions into a two-platform force will result in $20 billion in operations and maintenance account savings from fiscal year (FY) 1998 through FY 2020. "The savings will come in reducing the enormous logistical burden of supporting today's diverse force with spare parts, training, and other infrastructure items," he explained.
The Objective Is Cost Reduction
Necking down helicopter types is the first step. The Helicopter Master Plan closes five helicopter type model series and builds the maritime helicopter force around the SH-60R and CH-60. These two airframes will have identical cockpits and 60% parts in common, which will allow air crews to reconfigure the aircraft to conduct a variety of missions.
The SH-60R refurbishes the SH-60B, SH-60F, and HH-60H, adds 10,000 flight hours to aircraft that are reaching the ends of their service lives, and replaces the SH2G and H-3. The SH-60R also modernizes the radar, sonar, sonobuoy, and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors and adds the capability to fire Hellfire and Penguin missiles and Mk-46, Mk-50, and Mk-54 series torpedoes.
The aging CH-46, H-3, MH-53E, and UH-1 fleets are replaced by the new CH-60. Modular combat search-and-rescue and mine-hunting kits will allow quick reconfiguration of any CH-60 to fill the Navy's organic combat search-and-rescue and airborne mine countermeasures roles in addition to the vital logistics role.
Mission consolidation is the second step. The ten primary missions of helicopter communities today are:
- Undersea warfare—track, target, and if necessary, attack hostile submarine threats.
- Surface warfare—track, target, and if necessary, attack hostile surface threats.
- Information warfare—provide covert over-the-horizon communication capability and exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum for undersea and surface warfare.
- Search and rescue/plane guard—enable the safe and expeditious recovery of downed aviators over water.
- Combat search and rescue—enable the safe and expeditious recovery of downed aviators over land.
- Naval special warfare support—insert and extract special forces units.
- Airborne mine detection—facilitate the detection of enemy marine mines.
- Airborne mine countermeasures—facilitate the destruction or neutralization of enemy marine mines.
- Logistics—expedite the exchange of personnel, mail, and cargo to sustain U.S. Navy ships and Marine amphibious ships at sea.
- Base search and rescue/range support—safeguard personnel on DoD bases and provide for base logistics.
Secondary capabilities shared by all communities are visit, board, search, and seizure and maritime interdiction operations—e.g., airborne armed cover for Coast Guard or U.N. inspectors enforcing U.S. laws or U.N. sanctions at sea; medical evacuation; passenger transfer; vertical replenishment; helicopter in-flight refueling; night-vision goggles; and shipboard deck landing qualification.
Under the Helicopter Master Plan, undersea, surface, and information warfare will be SH-60R competencies, and search and rescue/plane guard, combat search and rescue, naval special warfare support, airborne mine detection and countermeasures, logistics, and base search and rescue/range support will fall to the CH-60. Both helicopters will perform the secondary missions.
The HMP also adds nontraditional missions to the future rotary wing force. With the removal of antisubmarine warfare systems from the carrier-based S-3B aircraft, the construction of Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyers without antisubmarine towed array sonar, and the transitory availability of maritime patrol aircraft, the surface action group, battle group, and amphibious ready group will rely on the indigenous helicopter for all organic antisubmarine warfare. Similarly, the removal of the over-the-horizon Harpoon antiship missile from surface combatants and the difficulty fixed-wing assets have in targeting attack speedboats will require helicopters to provide high-value unit surface warfare defense. In addition, moving mine hunting to the CH-60 will further consolidate the airborne mine detection and countermeasures missions onto the CH-60 fleet. The SH-60R and CH-60 will be the only organic search and attack platforms performing autonomous or cooperative undersea and surface warfare and airborne mine countermeasures. As a result, our high-value ships will become more reliant on the helicopter for protection.
Community reorganization is the third step. There are three major ways to approach helicopter force structure:
- Preserve the current organization.
- Reorganize around SH-60R and CH-60 competencies.
- Merge into a single community.
Regardless of how the HS, HSL, HC, and HM communities reorganize, their leaders must: (1) articulate the mission, major tasks, and competencies of the community; (2) provide a community vision that contributes to the Navy's strategy; (3) train, equip, and prepare the force for war fighting; and (4) grow future leaders, promote career development, and foster retention. Each reorganization plan must be evaluated in terms of these criteria.
Option 1: Preserve the Current Force Structure
Option 1 is based on the current force structure, reorganizing three helicopter communities around the platforms on which they will deploy. The HSL and HS communities would remain as is, and the HC and HM communities would merge into the HCM community. HSL would continue operating as an extension of surface combatant sensors and weapon systems and would modernize its inventory of SH-60B aircraft into SH-60Rs to perform surface, undersea, and information warfare. The HS community would remain assigned to aircraft carriers and would replace its SH-60Fs and HH-60Hs with the SH-60R and CH-60. It would perform surface, undersea, and information warfare, as well as search and rescue/plane guard, combat search and rescue, naval special warfare support, airborne mine detection and countermeasures, logistics, and base search and rescue/range support. Deployed on logistics vessels or forward based, the HCM force would replace the MH-53E, CH-46, and UH-3 with the CH-60 to perform search and rescue/plane guard, combat search and rescue, naval special warfare support, airborne mine detection and countermeasures, logistics, and base search and rescue/range support.
The HSL and HCM communities could readily articulate their respective missions and would be able to focus on their aircraft competencies. It is doubtful, however, that the HS community would be able to master both the SH-60R and CH-60 competencies simultaneously—a significant drawback.
This option divides the Navy rotary-wing vision along three distinct community lines. The differing visions would produce competing priorities and funding requirements that inevitably would weaken the voice of the helicopter community as a whole. In addition, the inherent competition could create a shortsightedness within the communities, as each would focus on its own slice of the mission rather than on the total capability brought to bear by the helicopter force.
HSL and HCM war fighting would be enhanced because the communities would be able to focus training on their platforms' core mission areas. On the other hand, the HS community likely would not be able to provide the training hours to maintain warfighting capability across the full mission range of its two aircraft. The average flight training requirement for each of today's four helicopter communities is 28.4 hours per month. After eliminating redundant training, an HS pilot, performing all ten missions of the SH-60R and CH-60, would require 68.3 flight hours per month to achieve the highest combat readiness posture under today's training and readiness matrices.
Doubling flight hours is unaffordable unless we accept two assumptions. First, not all pilots need to be combat ready in every mission area. This idea is more acceptable to communities that deploy as squadrons with ten crews, but less so to communities that deploy as detachments with two or three crews. Second, readiness can be achieved with fewer flight hours and more ground training. This idea has merit, as full-motion or tactical trainers reduce the number of flight hours a pilot has to fly per month, but such trainers are costly, not deployable, and their current and projected throughput already is maximized. Computer-based tactical trainers costing $300,000 to $500,000 that are networked to allow pilots to practice coordinated operations may be the way of the future, but this capability still is unfunded in the SH-60R and CH-60 with no mission needs statement. The identical cockpits planned for the SH-60R and CH-60 will help streamline the training infrastructure.
Equipping and supporting two instead of eight platforms should help the existing support infrastructure greatly, provided we do not divide the focus of logistics from a single rotary wing community to two different platforms.
Another consideration is that merging the HM and HC force does not create an organic airborne mine-hunting capability for the carrier and amphibious fleet, which the HMP intended. The HM and HC communities deploy with carriers and amphibious vessels, but they do not remain married to the battle group or amphibious ready group, as they also must resupply regional forces.
Perhaps the only redeeming aspect of option 1 is that is preserves current command leadership opportunities.
Option 2: Reorganize by Aircraft Competencies
The second option is to reorganize the helicopter force into two communities built around the CH-60 and SH-60R. A helicopter sea dominance (HSD) community flying from escort ships would perform SH-60R competencies of surface, undersea, and information warfare. CH-60 missions—search and rescue/plane guard, combat search and rescue, naval special warfare support, airborne mine detection and countermeasures, logistics, and base search and rescue/range support-would be executed by a helicopter combat support (HCS) community flying from the aircraft carrier or logistics vessels or forward deployed. The communities would share the secondary missions.
This force structure optimizes mission focus, allowing each community to concentrate on the tasks and competencies of its platform.
This option still waters down the rotary wing vision, taking it in two competing directions. It does not produce a single coherent vision for maritime rotary wing aviation.
War fighting would be improved in option 2 over option 1. The HSD and HCS communities would be able to train and equip based on their primary mission areas and not be distracted by the competing requirements of a second platform. Training duplication still could arise unless the communities regard the CH-60 and SH-60R as fundamentally the same aircraft. The pilot-machine interface will be identical in the SH-60R and CH-60 cockpits and the airframe and power train are very similar, so training up to the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) check and instrument check could be performed at the fleet replenishment squadron in either platform. Because lower projected cost per flight hour and greater numbers make the CH-60 more available, initial NATOPS and instrument training should be conducted in the CH-60. Mission-specific training for HSD squadrons would be in the SH-60R and advanced mine countermeasures and combat search-and-rescue training for HCS squadrons would be in the CH-60.
Equipping this force for war fighting should be easier because 60% of the airframe and power train components will be interchangeable. Parts commonality would allow a single logistic support infrastructure that focuses logistics, manages assets for all rotary wing airframes, lessens training requirements for maintenance technicians, and reduces the number of Navy enlisted codes required to support Navy helicopters. This single logistics infrastructure will underpin the success of the HMP regardless of how the communities reorganize.
Leadership and command opportunities could be threatened. If we have fewer squadrons with greater numbers of helicopters or if squadron commands are removed from carriers and replaced with detachments, command and post-command opportunities for rotary wing aviators will be reduced significantly. There are three reasons to avoid this. Reduced command opportunity: (1) makes it more difficult for commanding officers to nurture, train, and groom their replacements; (2) distorts the upward mobility of helicopter officers in relation to other Navy communities; (3) creates a significant dissatisfier that can adversely affect helicopter pilot retention.
A proposed modification to the option 2 force structure is to outsource or commercialize the base search and rescue/range support infrastructure. Another proposal is to divert older SH-60B and HH-60H assets to the reserves instead of providing fully modernized CH-60s and SH-60Rs. Over the long term, however, this would obviate the life-cycle cost savings of a two-platform infrastructure for the Navy as a whole.
Option 3: Merge into a Single Helicopter Community
The third restructuring option is to merge all helicopter communities (HS, HSL, HM, and HC) into a single helicopter sea dominance community. This would force together squadrons that fly dissimilar airframes and perform different missions, but aircraft component commonality, an identical SH-60R/CH-60 cockpit layout, and a single man-machine interface will make it easier for rotary wing leaders to manage both SH-60R and CH-60 competencies—much like the F/A-18 community has managed its fighter and attack missions.
Organizationally speaking, the helicopter force structure up to the type-wing level would be similar to that in option 2. At the type-wing level, commodores would be responsible for articulating platform-specific mission statements and identifying and prioritizing platform-specific requirements. Squadron commanding officers would be able to focus on the core competencies of their respective platforms.
The primary difference from option 2 is that this structure places helicopter type wings under the leadership of helicopter wing commodores. This would allow a single, multimission rotary wing vision to be articulated and cross-platform resource requirements to be better prioritized. With a common vision, rotary wing leaders would be able to provide a uniform direction for the entire force.
The greatest challenge here is preserving warfighting effectiveness. With insufficient resources to train pilots in all mission areas, aircrews would be expected to master only the competencies of their SH-60R or CH-60 squadron. A Common Required Operational Capability and Projected Operational Environment Document would have to be approved and the current warfighting paradigm would have to change. Training and readiness matrices would include the ten primary SH-60R and CH-60 mission areas, but squadrons would be responsible for maintaining a C1 readiness rating only in their specific platform competencies. The Status of Readiness and Training program also would have to reflect the combat readiness of the squadrons in aircraft-specific mission areas rather than trying to keep all mission areas at C1.
The key to maintaining rotary wing warfighting capability in this force structure is logistics. The current wing maintenance infrastructure is not set up to handle four times the volume of transactions. Focused logistics would require significant automation, tracking, and around-theclock attention, and that might require the establishment of dedicated maintenance support squadrons ashore.
Leadership and command opportunities would have to be managed to ensure proportional upward mobility for the helicopter community. This option doubles the number of commanding officers deploying with aircraft carriers and amphibious ships, but with a commensurate reduction in the number of detachments that would have to be fielded from shore-based installations. Shore-based squadrons would be required only to fill the decks of independent deployers and forward-deployed squadrons. Future helicopter squadrons would be tied to battle groups and amphibious ready groups to provide sea dominance for high-value units. By providing protection for the Navy's forward presence, power projection, and operational maneuver strategies, rotary wing leaders would be able to compete at sea and earn operational flag commands.
Option 3 provides the greatest leadership opportunities for the HSD community. Aircraft carriers and amphibious ships requiring both the SH-60R and CH-60 would be challenged to fill both competencies from a single squadron. We could increase the number of crews per squadron to ensure overlap in platform competencies, but the larger wardrooms would reduce command opportunities. A better solution is to place one SH-60R and one CH-60 squadron commanding officer on the carrier or amphibious ship with responsibility for all group SH-60R and CH-60 assets, respectively (Figure 2). With the maturity of information technology, commanding officers can manage their squadrons just as easily from the decks of our capital ships as they can from the beach.
Implement option 3. One approach is to create SH-60Rand CH-60-specific type wings to manage tactical-operational level mission-specific issues. These type commanders in turn would report administratively to helicopter wing commanders, who would provide the operational-- strategic level guidance and vision for the community as a whole. This force structure places an SH-60R and CH-60 commanding officer on the carrier or amphibious ship to manage his respective deployed aircraft. The remaining independent deployers, base search and rescue/range support, and vertical onboard delivery detachments would be provided by forward-deployed detachments from shore-based squadrons. Combat search and rescue, naval special warfare support, and airborne mine detection and countermeasures capabilities would remain organic to the carrier by installing the corresponding kits on CH-60 aircraft.
Initial pilot training through NATOPS and instrument qualification would be performed in one of three CH-60 fleet replenishment squadrons (FRSs), followed by assignment to one of two SH-60R advanced sea dominance FRSs, two combat search and rescue/naval special warfare support weapons training units, or two airborne mine countermeasures weapons training units. After completion of intermediate training in the TH-57 a typical fleet replenishment pilot would complete initial CH-60 training at the CH-60 fleet replenishment squadron and then proceed to the advanced sea dominance FRS or one of the advanced weapons training units. Upon graduation the pilot would be assigned to: (1) a SH-60R squadron performing surface, undersea, and information warfare; (2) a carrier-based CH-60 squadron trained for plane guard, combat search and rescue, naval special warfare support, and logistics missions; or (3) a logistics vessel or shore-based CH-60 squadron trained in logistics, airborne mine detection and countermeasures, and base search and rescue/range support.
The Navy helicopter community's vision must encompass all mission areas, embrace the Navy strategy, and rally support for the future. "Forward ... from the Sea" abandons the Cold War approach of complete blue-water sea control for localized brown-water sea denial and access assurance for capital ships. It tasks the Navy to provide forward presence, power projection, and support the Marine Corps' operational maneuver from the sea. The helicopter vision must be to dominate the sea and protect combat power for the Navy to execute its three-pronged strategy.
Helicopters married to surface ships will continue forward presence missions. Sea dominance is the foundation for safe and effective operations of our high-value units and power projection assets in the littorals. The undersea and surface warfare battlefield can be defended by the naval helicopter from low, slow flying threats over the sea, patrol and small boat threats on the sea, and submarine and mine threats under the sea within the high-value unit's inner to mid-zones. This frees strike aircraft from their traditional tether to the capital ship's inner zone to enlarge strike packages. In addition, with dominance of the sea, amphibious forces can more safely conduct ship-to-objective maneuver. The rotary wing vision, coupled with the theater ballistic missile defense and air defense capabilities within the carrier and amphibious ready group, will create a force protection bubble for Navy-Marine Corps forces in the future. Within this bubble, logistics support provided by the rotary wing community will be a force multiplier. By providing power protection and sea dominance, the helicopter force will be the foundation for forward presence, power projection, and Navy-Marine Corps team operations in the 21st century.
Commander Latrash is a Navy helicopter pilot and recent distinguished graduate of the Naval War College.