Commander William Earl Fannin, Class of 1945, Capstone Essay Contest
reball that exploded upward and outward had claimed the lives of eight American servicemen, operating on a mission the world knew was coming, but not when or how. The operation was christened Eagle Claw, and today, 35 years later, it is remembered as one of the largest botched hostage-rescue attempts in the history of the U.S. military. More often referred to as “the Debacle at Desert One” (the code name for the rendezvous point where the incident occurred), Operation Eagle Claw was the April 1980 American effort to free the hostages that had been held by Iranian revolutionaries at the American Embassy in Tehran, Iran, since 4 November 1979. Yet, as the ad hoc team of U.S. Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps assets were secretly staging in the desert outside of Tehran, calamity struck. A Marine pilot flying an RH-53 Sea Stallion collided with an Air Force EC-130 parked at Desert One as they were preparing for the rescue attempt. The EC-130 was loaded down with fuel bladders, and the entire operation, literally and figuratively, “went up in flames.”
As a result of the losses at Desert One and the failure of Operation Eagle Claw, the U.S. military rushed to initiate a number of special operations programs to ensure that similar future missions would meet with success. The Navy’s SEAL Team Six, the CIA’s Special Activities Division, and the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) were all founded after Desert One to provide dedicated counterterror assets in the event of other crises such as the Iranian hostage situation. However, there was a glaring omission from these new tier-one units: a dedicated naval rotary-wing squadron that would integrate with naval special warfare (NSW) SEAL teams to effectively deliver the operators to the target. The U.S. Navy needs an active-duty rotary-wing aviation squadron whose primary mission is to provide support and operational capability to the full mission profile of NSW.
Changing Landscapes, Increased Demand
The nature of modern warfare has changed. Today’s wars increasingly are characterized by regional conflicts in which airstrikes and special operations dominate the battlespace.1 Special Operations Command (SOCOM), the overarching command structure that includes special operations forces units from all service branches, is busier than ever. The naval component, NSW, trains and deploys SEAL operators who are capable of conducting missions on the land, air, and sea. To achieve this, the NSW SEAL teams incorporate a large number of support personnel. For underwater operations, they operate from Ohio-class guided-missile submarines, which are specially adapted to launch and recover the SEAL delivery vehicle, a miniature wet submarine that can transport SEALs to the target. These are two major assets dedicated almost exclusively to the NSW mission profile. Overland, SEALs use desert-patrol vehicles, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs), and a host of other resources. Yet there are no dedicated, organic naval air assets that operate exclusively with the NSW mission in mind. The sea-air-land mission, it can be argued, is only two-thirds complete.
Until recently, the helicopters used for NSW missions have come from a hodgepodge of sources. First, SEAL teams sometimes operate with conventional naval helicopter squadrons possessing limited training in NSW tactics, specifically for missions launched from U.S. Navy surface ships or low-intensity operations. Another source of rotary-wing (RW) support for the SEALs has come from two Navy Reserve Squadrons—the HSC-84 “Red Wolves” and HSC-85 “High Rollers.”2 These are the closest the Navy has come to realizing a full commitment to a dedicated NSW RW support squadron.3 Finally, the most prevalent source of RW support for NSW comes from the Army’s 160th SOAR, the Night Stalkers: the pinnacle of the helicopter community. The Night Stalkers specialize in low-level flying during foul weather conditions and fully indoctrinate their pilots and crew into special operations tactics.4 And they operate almost exclusively at night.
Three Is Not A Crowd
At this point, one might argue that given those three resources, a dedicated NSW helicopter squadron would be unnecessary. However, even among the Night Stalkers, Red Wolves, and High Rollers, only 70 percent of SOCOM’s requests were met.5 Conventional units with limited training or assets from the Air Force’s Special Operations Command picked up the slack. This is a critical weakness in the NSW triad. In fact, as far back as 2009, retired Admiral Eric T. Olson, then commander of SOCOM, foresaw this issue when he wrote in a memo to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) concerning the Red Wolves,
I am deeply concerned that this magnificent operational support has not been institutionalized. To my knowledge, there is no formalized agreement by the Navy to continue or expand RW support for either training or operations. In fact, NSW command’s validated requirements for Navy RW support are significantly under-resourced. I believe that assigning selected active and reserve RW assets in direct support of SOF for both training and deployed operations would positively resolve much of the current shortfall.6
For a time, former CNO Admiral Gary Roughead’s orders to maintain an RW squadron dedicated to the NSW mission was realized in the Red Wolves and the High Rollers. Five years later, with the demand for special operations units—specifically NSW—higher than ever, the Fiscal Year 2016 Navy budget disestablished funding for HSC-84 and HSC-85. In this, the Navy saved $27 million. Yet their actions could prove costlier in the future by leaving NSW without its own RW component.
The RW Squadron’s Task
As previously stated, an NSW RW squadron’s primary mission would be to provide support for the full mission profile of NSW. To achieve this, the entire squadron would fall under the command of NSW and be fully funded by the SOCOM budget. It would be a unit organic to the SEALs. They would integrate, train, and deploy with the same SEAL team and provide all the rotary-wing air support required by that team.
The RW squadron training would be modeled on that of the Night Stalkers. Navy helicopter pilots selected for training all must have attained the pilot-in-command designation and apply for selection to the squadron. They would train on the Navy’s MH-60 and MH-53 airframes. Following the example of their Army counterparts in the 160th SOAR, NSW helicopters would be modified to support the special operations mission set. Both aircraft would have cockpits sharing a common design, weatherized to withstand the harsh maritime environments, and incorporate sound-dampening designs and materials to increase stealth.7 They would be upgraded with state-of-the-art sensing equipment and additional fuel capacity to allow the helicopters to travel farther with better awareness. Furthermore, the crew spaces would be enlarged to better accommodate fully loaded SEALs and their equipment. In short, they would become specialized for SEAL mission requirements.
Operationally speaking, pilots would initially mimic the training of the Night Stalkers. Emphasis would be placed on accumulating thousands of hours in nighttime and low-light environments using night-vision goggles.8 However, pilots would retain their aptitude for flying over the water and the skills associated with operating around and on top of surface ships, submarines, and maritime structures such as oil platforms. As the squadron became operational, training would adapt to suit the changing needs of NSW and the conflict in which it is engaged. The end state would be a fully integrated, organic naval RW unit that caters to the needs of the SEALs and delivers them to the target safely and effectively.
Helicopters provide an invaluable tactical advantage on the battlefield. They give fast passage over roads packed with improvised explosive devices to locations and targets that would otherwise be inaccessible. They can operate over land or water and be configured in numerous ways to adapt to the requirements of the mission. But dependence on this asset comes at a cost. Some of the most deadly incidents in the history of aviation and special operations have involved helicopters. They are prime targets for the asymmetric combatant. It is expressly for that reason that the U.S. Navy must prioritize the establishment of an organic NSW RW squadron. The safety of our operators and their importance to America’s 21st-century strategy in regional conflicts demand it. The helicopters are the missing link. It’s time for the U.S. Navy to complete the chain.
1. Jaden J. Risner, “Fish or Cut Bait: If the Navy Is to Be a Full Partner in Special Operations, It Needs a Dedicated Organic Helicopter Unit.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 134, no. 9, 1 (September 2008), 38–42.
2. Dan Parsons, “Special Operations Boost Demand for Helicopters,” National Defense Magazine, May 2012, 1–4.
3. MC2 John Scorza. “Navy SEAL Air Support—Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85.” NavySEALs.com, 13 April 2013, http://navyseals.com/2227/navy-seal-air-support-helicopter-sea-combat-squadron-85.
4. Brandon Webb, “TF 160th: JSOC’s & The World’s Best Pilots—Who’s Flying the Best SOF Units into Harm’s Way?” SOFREP.com, 9 March 2012, http://sofrep.com/4533/tf-160th-jsocs-the-worlds-best-pilots.
5. Meghann Myers, “Navy to Shutter Two Special Ops Rescue Hawk Squadrons.” Navy Times, 22 February 2015.
6. Parsons, “Special Operations.”
7. “160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment,” GlobalSecurity.org, 5 Jun 2013, http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/agency/army/160soar.htm.