On board the USS Winston Churchill (DDG-81), Strait of Hormuz: "General Quarters. General Quarters. This is not a drill. Numerous high-speed contacts inbound bearing 095."
TAO-Bridge: "Get the helo to ID the contacts."
What happens next in this scenario depends on decisions made by senior Navy leaders today concerning the arming of Navy helos and the weapons they will employ. On one hand, it could go like this:
Bridge-TAO: "The helo does not have forward-looking infrared [FLIR] and is unable to identify the contacts."
TAO-Bridge: "Prepare the helo to take defensive action if they continue inbound past point Zulu or display hostile intent."
Bridge-TAO: "The helo is unarmed."
TAO-Bridge: "Man all small-caliber guns, execute evasive maneuvers."
Bridge-Aft Lookout: "We've been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade!"
Or it could be:
Bridge-TAO: "Helo's FLIR has identified inbound targets as small boats with rocket-propelled grenades and small arms. Helo requests weapons free."
TAO-Bridge: "Helo is weapons free."
Bridge-TAO: "Helo reports destruction of 12 boats with rockets and is moving to engage with its machine gun... .Helo reports 14 boats on fire or sunk, 4 boats fleeing the scene."
Today, the Navy helicopter is transitioning from its traditional supporting role to a warfighting role in the battle group. In "Sea Power 21," the Chief of Naval Operations' (CNO) vision for the 21st century, helicopters play a critical role in Sea Shield (antisubmarine warfare, surface warfare, and mine warfare), Sea Strike (combat search and rescue, naval special warfare), and Sea Basing (logistics). In addition, the global war on terrorism has seen Navy helos take a large role in antiterrorism and force protection. The introduction of the global concept of operations will require helos to perform these missions as part of the carrier strike group (CSG), the expeditionary strike group (ESG), and the expeditionary strike force (ESF) when the ESGs and CSGs are brought together to fight a common enemy.
Providing these capabilities requires helos that are properly equipped, flown by crews that are properly trained. The first armed helicopters (from this recent initiative, and not including the SeaWolves' armed Navy H-Is in Vietnam) began appearing in the fleet in 1995 as a result of lessons learned during Desert Storm , but their number is only a small percentage of the overall population. This has caused a gap between battle group demand and the supply of aircraft and armed helo kits. The effect on mission capability and aircraft utilization rates is significant, but what is even more significant is that unless the Navy baselines helicopters as armed it risks developing a similar gap with its new helicopters in the future. This effectively reduces the capability we can provide the battle group commander. The good news is that there are ways to mitigate and improve current armed helo shortfalls and ensure future helicopters can perform the mission whenever and wherever the war fighter needs.
At present, there are 115 SH-60B and HH-60H helicopters capable of being fully armed (the aircraft have wiring and attachment points for an armed helo kit, defined as a FLIR, 50-caliber machine gun, and Hellfire launcher). To reduce costs, only 85 armed helo kits were purchased (at about $2 million each). This means at any given time only 85 of the total of 359 Navy helicopters are capable of meeting all mission requirements in surface warfare, naval special warfare, combat search and rescue, and antiterrorism/force protection. This marginalizes the employability of the remaining helicopters that do not have a kit available or installed.
A helo force structure of only 24% armed aircraft is straining to support the global war on terrorism today and will not be sufficient to support the capabilities of "Sea Power 21" in the future. This shortage has resulted in a significant shift in aircraft utilization rates and a bifurcated force split between mission capable and deployable armed helos, and unarmed helos that are not mission capable and remain stateside.
There are numerous reasons why the Navy has not invested in additional kits. First, there is the battle between modernization and recapitalization. Helos in service today will be replaced by the MH-60R and MH-60S beginning in 2006, so the Navy struggles with allocating funds to increase current aircraft capability versus recapitalizing with new aircraft. However, a close look at the Navy helo transition plan reveals that there is no need to pit current aircraft against future aircraft investments. Current aircraft will remain in service through 2015, because the procurement ramps for the MH-60R and MH-608 support replacement at only a limited rate. With the knowledge that current aircraft will be flying well into the future and that the demand for armed helos exceeds the supply, the Navy can take steps to resolve this issue and prevent it from reoccurring.
Those aircraft that deploy with the armed capability are the workhorses of the sea combat commander and are expected to support maritime interdiction in the Persian Gulf, leadership interdiction in the Arabian Sea/Indian Ocean, and localization and identification of drug smugglers in the Caribbean, to name just a few routine missions. The gap between battle group commander demand and the supply of armed helos cannot be filled, but it can be mitigated. The purchase of 31 additional kits would increase the number of armed helos by 25% for a cost of about $62 million. Navy leaders have recognized these additional kits are a priority, but they remain an unfunded priority on the CNO's Fiscal Year 2004 Unfunded Requirement's List.
If this is so important, why has this item not been funded? The threat certainly is real, as demonstrated by the attack on the USS Cole (DDG-67) and terrorist threats in the Strait of Gibraltar. In addition, swarming small boats are a significant emerging danger. The Navy helo armed with the right weapons can provide significant defense against all these.
It is not possible to give every ship a tactical air (TacAir) escort at all times, and, more important, resources dedicated to the surface warfare role will come at the expense of strike and close air support. In addition, 90% of the surface warfare mission is the search for and detection, localization, and identification of critical contacts of interest; the attack phase accounts for only a tiny fraction. Development of the surface picture and the continuous force protection role is a 'round-the-clock helicopter mission (especially with the sundown of the S-3B in fiscal year 2009).
TacAir does have a role in the protection of ESF assets; however, that role is primarily weapon delivery not persistent intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance. Clearly, developing and maintaining a recognized maritime picture is the responsibility of the helicopter, and the key to this mission is the FLIR and its ability to provide identification of all contacts in the vital area and the classification identification engagement area (CIEA). An important lesson from Desert Storm and to a lesser extent Operation Iraqi Freedom is to give the sensor platform a weapon capability to meet time critical demands and reduce the number of assets required to perform a single mission. Combining the FLIR with weapons makes the helo capable of performing any Sea Shield mission in the CSG or ESG.
Another roadblock to mitigating the armed helo shortage is the kit mentality, which holds that any kit can be transferred to any aircraft capable of receiving it; therefore, equipping every aircraft would be not only costly but also unnecessary. The kit mentality gets capability to the fleet while making budgeteers grin. The flaw in this philosophy is that moving kits between aircraft has proved easier said than done. In addition to the operational problems involved with not having the "right" helo at the right time, there is a significant negative effect on mission readiness as a result of failures caused by swapping sensitive equipment between aircraft at sea. The result is that the fleet never has enough kits deployed or back home for training. In truth, the whole concept of providing a kit to fulfill an aircraft's primary mission is flawed. If it made sense to buy kits for critical items, we would buy engines, seats, and radios in kits.
Even more challenging than budgets and warfighting roles has been achieving acceptance of armed helicopters by Navy leaders. If not for former CNO Admiral Jeremy Boorda's directive to arm Navy helos with Rapid Deployment Kits and current CNO Admiral Vern Clark's sustained support, we probably still would be debating the need for the program. However, this institutional reluctance is beginning to wane. Since the first armed helos appeared in 1995, a great many battle group commanders have deployed with five or six of these aircraft in their battle groups and have seen their supply officers scrambling to cross-deck the kits. These commanders and others who have deployed with armed helos are now taking over senior Navy positions. Their experiences may have the most profound impact on arming our helos, current and future.
The extent to which the new MH-60R and MH-60S helicopters should be armed is a constant topic for debate. The MH-60S will be modified through the Block 3 upgrade in fiscal year 2006, which will make all aircraft after number 80 armed helo capable. The next question is: How many kits do we need? Considering the lessons learned from current aircraft, the armed helo should be the baseline for the new aircraft.
"Sea Power 21" and the global concept of operations require all MH-60R and MH-60S to be fully armed because these aircraft will be dispersed throughout the ESGs and CSGs to where they are needed most. This might be forward deployed on a guided-missile destroyer as part of a theater ballistic missile defense surface action group or on the littoral combat ship as a key component of its surface warfare or special operations mission module. Navy leaders must recognize the mission restrictions that will result from not having the right helo with the right kit at the right time. The primary role of helos in Sea Shield and the antiterrorism/force-protection requirements of the global war on terrorism demand that the MH-60R and MH-60S be baselined as armed helos just like any other helicopter with a primary warfighter role. The Marine Corps would never consider buying kits for Cobras and having some armed and some not. Neither should the Navy.
Although the greatest issue with armed helos is ensuring we have the right number to climb into the ring against any threat in the unpredictable near-shore battle space, arming Navy helos is not just a supply-and-demand problem. The helos' weapons must be capable of combating a range of threats, from swarming small boats to fast patrol boats armed with antiship cruise missiles.
Improvements to both current and future Navy weapon systems need to focus on increasing lethality, precision, and survivability. Today's weapons were not optimized for the emerging threat. Hellfire missiles were designed as antitank weapons, and the crew-served 50-caliber machine gun suffers from lack of accuracy. Targeting small boats over water with laser weapons is a challenge.
The Hellfire replacement will be the joint common missile (JCM). An Army program, JCM will be similar in size to the Hellfire but with greater range and a trimode seeker. This is a great improvement, but it is not the answer. The future is imaging infrared technology, which allows operators to designate, fire, and forget. The low-cost guided rocket (LOGIR) brings this new technology to bear with five times the rounds of the legacy Hellfire system. LOGIR is an imaging infrared seeker on a 2.75-inch rocket that will enable the helo to deliver at least 19 and up to 38 rockets. This will have a significant effect against the swarming small boat threat by providing great accuracy and large numbers of rounds. In addition, it has great potential for use by unmanned aerial vehicles. However, LOGIR remains only a project at China Lake. For approximately $27 million, the program could be fully funded to bring about an initial operational capability in fiscal year 2008-2009. LOGIR is technology we should be pushing through the CNO's new Sea Enterprise process, because it needs funding and a sponsor or it will remain a "cool" idea that never reaches the fleet.
The crew-served 50-caliber machine gun is not accurate and suffers from field-of-fire limitations. However, it can be effective against small boats, if we can make every round count. Changing the mount to allow for a fixed forward firing capability and installing a targeting device such as a mono-heads-up-display (HUD) would improve accuracy sixfold, which in turn would eliminate the need for such large ammunition loads. Combined with LOGIR, this could increase the helo's lethality against a small boat dramatically (depending on the threat, as much as tenfold).
The fixed forward firing gun and mono-HUD already are in use on Army H-60 helos in the form of 50-caliber and 30-mm weapons. That capability could be installed easily and inexpensively on Navy helos if we adopt a systems engineering commercial-off-the-shelf approach that bypasses costly and time-consuming acquisition processes. With the commitment of senior leaders, the Navy could get this to the fleet on every armed helo in less than a year. Infrared-guided rockets are not as mature, but they too could make it to the fleet sooner with adequate funding and a sense of urgency. The alternative is using weapons that were not designed to counter the new threat, decreasing our antiterrorism/force-protection capabilities and putting our sailors at risk.
Commander, Fleet Forces Command, has said all deployed helos will have a machine gun for force-protection capability. In addition, most sea combat commanders would advocate that every deployed helo have a FLIR. These two systems are the predominant parts of the armed helo kit; only the missile launcher is missing. The missile launcher accounts for only about $200,000 of the $2 million armed helo kit expense. It only makes sense to include it and purchase a full kit for every helo.
In fact, even those current aircraft that are not capable of being fully armed should have at least a capable and modern machine gun and a FLlR for force protection. Today, many helos rely on the antiquated M-60 machine gun. For relatively low cost, all helos could be outfitted with a common M-240 machine gun, for much improved reliability and firing rates.
Why all the fuss over armed helos now? Because things have changed. "Sea Power 21," the global concept of operations, and the S-3B sundown have altered the playing field, and it is time to fix the armament problems with current helos and to plan properly for the next generation.
The CNO's approval of the Naval Helicopter Concept of Operations increased the number of helos in the carrier strike group. They will be required to be armed and ready to move to and from any ship in the strike force. With the procurement of new helos, the Navy has the opportunity to move away from the flawed kit mentality and baseline all deployable helos with an armed capability. In the end, making this decision now, rather than trying to buy kits and aircraft modifications later, will increase the return on investment for the taxpayer's dollar.
Many of these weapons already are flying on the H-60 in other services. We know how to do this; we just need to make it a priority and get it done.
Captain Tunick is a naval aviator and SH-60B pilot. Lieutenant Weaver, a naval aviator and graduate of the New York State Maritime University, is flag lieutenant to Commander, Carrier Group Two in Norfolk.