In this era of tightening defense budgets and limited assets, the U.S. Navy is forced to think of ways it can use available resources to achieve more efficient operations. The paradigms under which we operate must be challenged, and we must allow programs currently in place to mature. One example is the MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter.
Despite manifest increases in the capability of this aircraft since its inception, the Knighthawk still struggles to find employment for its tactical capabilities, particularly in the amphibious ready group (ARG) and Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) environment. Commanders are failing to fully employ this asset, which could markedly increase the lethality and effectiveness of the entire ARG/MEU. It will take a concerted effort by the Knighthawk community and the larger Navy to address the issues necessary for it to be the true thoroughbred aircraft it can be.
Only through increased tactical training, further integration with the Marines with whom they operate, and organizational adjustments within the ARG itself will the Knighthawks reach the point that both Navy and Marine Corps commanders will become familiar enough and trusting enough to fully employ them to the benefit of both services.
From HC to HSC Expeditionary
The Navy began to acquire the Knighthawk in 2002 to replace the aged fleet of Vietnam-era CH-46Ds of the helicopter combat-support squadrons (HC).1 Those aircraft were used primarily for two types of deployments: in vertical replenishment (VERTREP) detachments on board supply ships or as amphibious search-and-rescue (ASAR) detachments on board amphibious assault (LHD/LHA) ships. Generally, aside from search and rescue, the ASAR detachment’s missions were VERTREP and movement of passengers, mail, and cargo.2 Tactical employment of the CH-46D was limited because, though the crews had tactical syllabi, they were not exposed to the air-combat training continuum (ACTC)–type syllabi followed by the SH-60F/HH-60H-equipped helicopter antisubmarine squadrons in the carrier air wing.
When the Navy acquired the Knighthawk, it was a UH-60 model modified for naval operations and lacked the combat systems required for a platform to be a primary tactical aircraft. There was no forward-looking infrared sensor system, no forward-firing ordnance, nor even aircraft survivability equipment to protect crews from threats encountered on a tactical mission.3 However, the Navy did leave the program room to grow with the understanding that as the HC squadrons transitioned to the renamed helicopter sea-combat (HSC) squadrons equipped with the MH-60S, systems would be introduced in subsequent variants to make it suitable for tactical employment.4 Concurrent with that, various ACTC syllabi were introduced to standardize the level of institutional knowledge and experience necessary for a proper tactical aptitude.5
The Knighthawk community has continued to refine and improve in that respect. With the transition of the carrier-based HS squadrons to the MH-60S and their inclusion in the new HSC community, an alternative system of established tactical training and knowledge came with it. This was especially true with the inclusion of the H-60 at the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center and the creation of the Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Atlantic and Pacific Weapon Schools. With the standardization and training from these institutions, and with the addition of a weapons and tactics instructor (WTI) at the HC squadrons—now known as HSC expeditionary squadrons—the full range of missions for the MH-60S has become possible. The widespread use of Block IIIB aircraft and upgrades to the previous blocks have now supplied aircraft equipped with the systems and weapons necessary for tactical employment. Using Link 16, a multispectral targeting system, Hellfire II missiles, rockets, 20-mm cannon, aircraft-survivability gear, and GAU-21 .50-caliber guns, the aircraft is an effective and lethal asset for fleet commanders.6 The Knighthawk now has three primary mission areas that are addressed by the current ACTC syllabi: antisurface warfare, personnel recovery, and special-operations support. These specific missions include close air support; strike coordination and reconnaissance; combat search and rescue; noncombatant evacuation operations; helicopter visit, board, search, and seizure (HVBSS); convoy escort; nontraditional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and direct-action assault.7
A number of carrier air wings have capitalized on this new capability. With the integration of the radar-equipped MH-60R, the carrier-borne HSC squadrons have fit well into hunter-killer teams.8 The HSC carrier squadrons routinely fly in air-wing events at the Naval Strike Warfare Center, and consequently their potential is better understood by the strike-group leaders and the carrier air wing commanders. They continue to experiment and develop the tactical capabilities of the helicopter.9
The expeditionary squadrons, however, remain underused.10 Despite frequent efforts at education and briefing at the unit level, it is clear that some senior officers lack understanding of what the community is capable of accomplishing. They have failed to capitalize on the expanded mission sets that are now available. Clearly, the community must find a way to become more relevant to their seniors as well as have a clearly defined tactical mission that meets the needs of the Navy.
The ARG and the MEU
The HSC expeditionary community has obvious potential for greater integration into the ARG/MEU team. The legacy of the HC days is that the MH-60S detachment is made up of only two aircraft, and it is under the exclusive command of the LHD’s commanding officer.11 This reflects the thinking that the detachment is of no more use tactically than the CH-46D was, instead of realizing the potential that the new airframe and complete overhaul of the ACTC syllabus has provided.12 The commanders of the MEU feel unable to use the detachment, as the captain of the LHD sees this asset as intended for use only by that specific ship, instead of as an asset available to further the goals of the entire team. In addition, there is a mindset within the Marine Corps that the Navy should not be part of Marine operations, instead of operating as a combined team with the goal of winning battles. This is unfortunate, as the Knighthawk has a clear place in MEU operations.
The phasing out of the CH-46E in Marine Corps service in lieu of the MV-22 Osprey has created gaps in capability. The MV-22 brings some obvious benefits: It has a long range, the ability to refuel in flight, and it can go much faster. While these are great features, they do not integrate well with some of the other assets in the MEU.13 There are currently no shipborne organic in-flight refueling aircraft assigned to the MEU—only the land-bound KC-130s, which are limited in their ability to refuel the aircraft outside a set radius from their operating bases.14 The MV-22 is fast, without a commensurate increase in the speed of the rest of the aircraft in the Air Combat Element (ACE), which becomes a problem on any mission that requires escort from the much slower AH-1/UH-1.15 While the CH-46E was an excellent platform for rapid insertions, including fastrope, the MV-22 is unsuitable for such operations due to the greatly increased rotor wash of the tiltroter versus a normal helicopter, requiring highly trained aircrews and operators under ideal conditions for a fastrope insertion.16
This becomes an obvious liability when one considers the possible need to fastrope to a building top—a common occurrence in the increasingly urban warfare of the 21st century—or onto the deck of another ship or oil platform during a maritime raid. This hazard is further exacerbated considering that fastroping is safest at the lowest altitude possible for the inserting aircraft. But the Osprey’s rotor wash is greatest at such low levels and more dangerous to the ropers. To safely fastrope from an Osprey, the aircraft must remain at 30 to 40 feet, which leads to an increase in injuries.17 In addition, the aircraft has a greatly increased footprint in a landing zone compared to a Sea Knight at 84 feet, 7 inches width as opposed to 51 feet with approximately equal lengths.18 This limits the effectiveness of the Osprey by restricting available landing zones. The Knighthawk, on the other hand, has a smaller footprint, roughly the same size as the Sea Knight. This is especially useful for a confined area, such as an embassy compound or heavily forested environment.19
There are some who see an answer to the MV-22B’s limitations—and the counterpoint to greater MH-60S participation with the MEU—in the new UH-1Y variant of the Huey helicopter. While it already is in the Marines’ arsenal and has seen service for several years, the UH-1Y lacks many of the capabilities that the MV-22 was to overcome in the CH-46E. With a significantly smaller fuel load than the MH-60s, even when equipped with an auxiliary fuel tank, and correspondingly more limited range, the UH-1Y also carries half the number of troops.20 More significant, the Marine light helicopter attack squadrons do not focus on the missions that are required to address this issue. Even as a close air support platform, it is unable to use Hellfire II missiles and must carry only a limited number of rockets, which has a severe impact on its utility.21 Ultimately, while it is also a utility helicopter, the UH-1Y is a poor second best to the Knighthawk to fill the capability gaps that the MV-22B has left in the MEU.
The Future for Integration
While the Knighthawk has come a long way in its tactical capabilities, its true value to the ARG/MEU team will remain limited as long as it is unable to train and integrate with the MEU. No commander will employ an aircraft or system that he or she does not trust, and only through exposure to it and confidence in it will that trust be gained. The HSC expeditionary community can help to build that trust in several ways. An important step would be for WTIs from both the HSC wing and the Marine air wing to do exchanges to increase cross-community knowledge and further the sharing of tactics and techniques.
Furthermore, increasing the exposure to the Air Combat Element during its training cycle will build familiarity between the crews and allow for experimentation among the ACE and HSC detachment to see what missions the Knighthawk would be well suited for within the ACE construct. The ability to train together across a variety of missions would demonstrate to the MEU commander the capabilities available to him or her in a way that is not met by the few relatively short training opportunities currently used prior to deployment.
Indeed, the Osprey’s inability to conduct helicopter rope-suspension techniques has already led to integration of the Knighthawk with the MEU during HVBSS insertions, demonstrating the path forward for further integration of the HSC detachment into the ACE.22 This additional training and exposure will help demonstrate to the Marines the utility of the Knighthawk to complete their missions. Overcoming the Marines’ traditional insistence on using only forces from within the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) is only possible when the Marine commanders and troops come to trust their counterparts to measure up. That is not an easy task and requires the Navy to prepare the detachments as well as possible and provide the most thorough and efficient training with the MEU to prove that they do in fact meet the MAGTF standard. But it also requires Marine Corps leadership to have an open mind and learn to trust.
The Navy has also been responsible for several organizational errors that persist in the underuse of the Knighthawk. The HSC detachment continues to fall under the control of the captain of the LHD. Thus, tasking for anything beyond the ship’s needs requires negotiation between the various elements within the ARG. The far better solution would be for the HSC detachment to be under the operational control of the amphibious squadron commodore, retaining SAR duty as a primary responsibility within the ARG, but also making it more readily available for inclusion in ACE training and operations while afloat.
Another limiting factor of the HSC detachment is the retention of the two-aircraft detachment model. This reflects the organization of the HC days and sharply restricts the possible employment of the Knighthawk. With only two aircraft available, the detachment is unable to support tactical operations while maintaining a SAR posture, forcing a choice of either not using the Knighthawk or using some other asset for SAR duties.
This also generally supports a “two to make one” model of balancing operations and required maintenance, where one aircraft may not be in a flight status for an extended period while either awaiting parts or in a phase-maintenance period. Increasing the number of aircraft on the detachment to either three or four would significantly improve the ability of the detachment to support operational and training evolutions. With one aircraft on SAR duty, a section of aircraft would still be available for tasking with the ACE. Allowing the detachment to participate in training exercises and evolutions of the ACE would continue to build the teamwork and coordination necessary for combat operations. This is especially important, as the two-aircraft section is the basis for MH-60S tactics. This would take up more space on an already crowded LHD flight deck, however, requiring better use of the ship’s hangar deck, which is normally used only for long-term aircraft maintenance.
Updating this paradigm has been proposed previously, but the community is at last starting to get traction. In fact, HSC-21 deployed a three-aircraft detachment from San Diego this spring on board the USS Essex (LHD-2). In addition, HSC-28 will deploy a three-aircraft detachment from Norfolk this fall.23 Likewise, there has been a push to place the detachment under the amphibious squadron, but this remains on a case-by-case basis rather than a doctrinal standard. The Navy must move to make this the model—which requires official sanctions from the Naval Air Systems Command and Commander Naval Air Forces—instead of forcing lower-level commanders to request it every time and make them fight for it.
The Best ‘Insertion Platform’
Ultimately, the MH-60S will best serve the MEU outside its present duties by becoming an insertion platform when the MV-22 is unsuitable. Direct-action operations, in conjunction with the force reconnaissance platoon of the MEU, are the most likely employers of the aircraft. The ability to fastrope from two points simultaneously while having a vast increase in carrying capacity and range over the UH-1, means that the Knighthawk is the clear helicopter for those operations.24 The H-60 is a proven combat vehicle that is safe, reliable, and well fitted to these missions. Obviously, there are several mission sets in which the ACE’s current inventory is superior to the Knighthawk—for example, the close air support role that is so admirably filled by the AH-1/UH-1 teams. Yet, if the Marine Corps continues to ignore the capabilities of the Knighthawk and the weak points of the Osprey, it will be denied an asset that could greatly increase flexibility and lethality.
The Knighthawk presents the potential for a vast increase in the missions and capabilities over the CH-46Ds of the past, but its continued underemployment by the ARG/MEU team shortchanges the Navy and Marines. Only by addressing institutional-level inertia and finding greater recognition and understanding can the HSC community bring those assets to the table for the ARG/MEU. This will require greater outreach and cross-training with Marines to build relationships necessary for greater inclusion into the ACE, for what can be a far more efficient and beneficial partnership.
1. CDR Jan Jacobs, USN (Ret.), “U.S. Naval Aviation and Weapons Development in Review,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 137, no. 5 (May 2011) 78. CAPT George Galdorisi, USN (Ret.), and Scott Truver, “Helicopter Procurement: Playing with Fire,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 133, no. 9 (September 2007), 64.
2. CDR Tom Jones, USN (Ret.), “From Early Amphib SAR to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum: A 20-year Adventure,” Rotor Review magazine, no. 127 (Winter 2015), 62.
3. U.S. Department of the Navy, MH-60S Naval Aviation Technical Information Product (NATIP), (Patuxent River, MD: 2013), 1-1.
4. Galdorisi and Truver, “Helicopter Procurement: Playing with Fire,” 64.
5. LT Nick Schnettler, USN, “The Armed Helicopter at Sea,” from Fly Navy: Celebrating the First Century of Naval Aviation, Erik Hildebrandt, Ed. (Stillwater, MN: Cleared Hot Media, Inc., 2011), 81.
6. U.S. Department of the Navy, NATOPS Flight Manual Navy Model MH-60S Helicopter, (Patuxent River, MD, 2012), 1-24.
7. Ibid., 1-1.
8. LT Diane Kruse and LT Richard Grant, USN “The Helos of CVW-8: Leading the Way I Rotary Wing Integration,” Rotor Review magazine, no. 127 (Winter 2015), 24.
9. LCDR Ben Newhart and LT Diane Kruse, USN, “US Navy Returns to Rotary Wing Attack,” Rotor Review magazine, no. 122 (Fall 2013), 12. LT Mary Hesler, USN, “In With Guns,” Rotor Review magazine, no. 122 (Fall 2013), 58.
10. CDR Ben Reynolds, USN, “Time to Think Tactically.” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 139, no. 9 (September 2013), 28.
11. U.S. Department of the Navy, LHA/LHD NATOPS, (Patuxent River, MD: 2011), 2-1.
12. Jones, Rotor Review magazine, no. 127 (Winter 2015), 62.
13. MAJ Chris Niedziocha, USMC, “A Marine Aviation Mulligan.” Marine Corps Gazette, vol. 98, no. 2 (February 2014).
14. Adam Holmes, “KC-130S: An Expeditionary Asset.” Marine Corps Gazette, vol. 80, no. 7 (July 1996).
15. Douglas Sanders, “MV-22 Escort.” Marine Corps Gazette, vol. 93, no. 8 (August 2009).
16. CAPT Jason Deane, USMC, ”Night Raid: A 500-mile MAGTF Experiment,” Marine Corps Gazette, vol. 98, no. 1 (January 2014).
18. U.S. Department of the Navy, NATOPS Flight Manual Navy Model MV-22B Tiltrotor (Patuxent River, MD: 2013), 1-12. U.S. Department of the Navy, NATOPS Flight Manual Navy Model CH-46E Helicopter, (Patuxent River, MD: 2012), 1-3.
19. MH-60S NATOPS, 1-1.
20. CAPT Ryan Renbow, USMC, ”The UH-1Y was a Mistake: An Argument for the MH-60S,” Marine Corps Gazette, vol. 99, no. 1 (January 2015).
22. MC1 Phil Beaufort, USN, “HSC-22 and 26 MEU Team up for VBSS.” www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=52987.
23. CDR Edward Johnson, USN, Interview with author, 5 February, 2015.
24. Renbow, ”The UH-1Y was a Mistake: An Argument for the MH-60S.”
Lieutenant Roscoe is an instructor pilot at HT-18. A 2009 graduate of the University of Michigan, he flew the MH-60S at HSC-28, where he deployed with Amphibious Squadron 4/26th MEU in 2013 on board the USS Kearsarge (LHD-3).