Automate Vertical Logistics to Create Warfighting Capacity: Part I

Lieutenant Ben Foster, U.S. Navy

Commander Thomas had led a successful HSC crew deployment to Iraq in 2016 to provide personnel recovery support to friendly troops fighting in Operation Inherent Resolve. He reported that his detachment was not replaced by another Navy unit, however. He said, “Recently there have been multiple [requests for forces] that have popped up, requesting Navy rotary-wing assets for [personnel recovery] and [special operations forces support] missions that have been denied somewhere in the Navy chain of command.”

Admiral Shoemaker did not shy away from the question. He acknowledged the success and the value of the deployment, but quickly pointed out what he saw as the challenges. “We’ve got a mission set that’s looming,” matching helicopters with littoral combat ships (LCSs), “and if we turn those [requests for forces] into enduring requirements then we end up having . . . challenges meeting requirements,” he said. Committing assets to joint requests indefinitely would eventually interfere with the LCS mission. However, Admiral Shoemaker was not categorically opposed, adding, “I’d support it everyday, but we have to be realistic about what could potentially turn into enduring requirements, and whether we have the capacity to support it.”

It was not the answer the room wanted. The admiral’s response was as disappointing to the crowd as it was well founded. As much as the crews present had hoped to hear more support for getting into the fight where they are critically needed, the admiral’s concerns were hard to refute.

But the admiral’s expression of support, with its caveat about capacity, is encouraging. Any good lieutenant knows it is only a problem if there is a solution, so it is time to offer one.

Creating Capacity

The Navy should accelerate the use of unmanned systems for logistics to free HSC assets for combat and combat-related assignments. The Navy can capitalize on the operational experience and lessons learned from a proven model currently in use in active combat zones, to field rapidly a small fleet of prototype unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) to support fleet logistics. These prototypes will pave the way for future growth of autonomous logistics and help define fleet requirements, while creating HSC capacity to support combatant commanders’ requirements for combat helicopter support around the world.

Though the Navy has moved away from dedicated logistics helicopters, it has not lost the need for helicopter support on supply ships. As a result, the MH-60S, by training primarily a surface warfare asset, serves supply ships, as well as supporting personnel recovery and maritime special operations. At a minimum, a crew flying off the supply ship will have had 18 flight hours of combat mission training, but a more typical crew will have had more than 72 flight hours’ worth of Air Combat Training Continuum qualification training. 2 HSC aircraft and crews are equipped and trained to fight, but are largely performing a non-combat utility role. The Navy is not getting its training dollar’s worth from these crews. It is time to shift the balance.

At present, Navy supply ships use detachments of two helicopters from aircraft carrier-based HSC squadrons. The problem is this construct anchors those aircraft to that carrier-based squadron even during the carrier’s maintenance phase, when the squadron does not support any fleet logistics requirements. The Navy should move the logistics footprint out of the continental U.S.-based carrier squadrons and into the expeditionary squadrons. This will allow aircraft not currently deployed, or preparing to deploy, to be used for other operational requirements, and to allow our crews to conduct more regular and focused training in our warfighting mission areas.

With eight continental U.S.-based carrier squadrons, this would let the Navy pull 16 aircraft from those carrier squadrons and put them into expeditionary squadrons. Since there are rarely more than four carrier strike groups either deployed or working up to deploy, the baseline would be four supply ship detachments. These detachments would each include one MH-60S and one prototype autonomous air logistics system. This would require four of those 16 MH-60S airframes to equip the detachments, leaving the remaining 12 available to provide the capacity for which Admiral Shoemaker was looking.

These small logistics detachments, one manned aircraft and a limited crew teamed with one or more unmanned aircraft, might not be the best use of a mission lead qualified department head as officer in charge (OIC). Instead it would provide an opportunity to take the best Fleet Replacement Squadron instructors and return them to the fleet as OICs instead of moving them out of the aircraft to fill typical disassociated sea-tour billets.

To determine the requirements for a full program of record and help shape the concept of operations for autonomous fleet logistics the Navy should adopt as a prototype system an aircraft already in use by the Marine Corps: the K-MAX unmanned aircraft system built by Kaman helicopters and integrated by Lockheed Martin. The K-MAX system has several unique aspects that make it the perfect platform for this task.

More about the K-MAX tomorrow.

Lieutenant Foster  is a Seahawk weapons and tactics instructor at the Helicopter Sea Combat Weapons School Pacific. In 2013, he deployed as a member of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 6 on board the USS  Nimitz  (CVN-68). He is a graduate of Oberlin College.

1. Livestream, May 11, 2017.

2. Based on the minimum required crew of a Helicopter Aircraft Commander, a Pilot Qualified in Model, a Utility Aircrewman and an additional Aircrewman. This assumes an average crew would include a Level 3i Aircraft Commander and a Level 2 Helicopter Second Pilot.

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