The Sierras can deliver combat power, just as did multimission World War II patrol torpedo boats.
They have no idea what we actually do,” Lieutenant Drew Kollmann lamented while walking out of a typical meeting. “We’re basically a flying PT boat.” This is a perfect analogy—the MH-60S is a modern incarnation of the famed patrol torpedo (PT) boat, and the Navy will be better for using it as such. Like PT crews, those in Navy helicopters can perform the basic functions of maritime logistics, but it is the combat power that sets them apart. Surface warfare, personnel recovery, and support to special operations are the invisible glue binding today’s MH-60S crews to their PT counterparts of World War II.
Operating in the Pacific, Aleutian Islands, Mediterranean, and English Channel, PTs were highly effective against large numbers of smaller craft, but they also were credited with sinking corvettes, destroyers, and cruisers.1 The MH-60S brings a similar capability, tailored for relatively small threats but with the ability to land a critical blow against a frigate or destroyer given the right opportunity.
The MH-60S and the PT both have been relied on to counter explosive boats. The World War II Germans favored remote-controlled boats, while the Japanese preferred suicide attacks. Explosive boats were typically 18 feet in length, with 600 to 700 pounds of ordnance in the bow and possible speeds of 25 to 35 knots.2 After 75 years, today’s MH-60S crews face eerily similar threats, but now from different state and non-state actors.
PT crews rescued several hundred survivors from crippled ships, along with dozens of pilots who were forced to ditch or bail out. Many of these rescues took place under intense opposition. PTs made one such daring rescue of a downed carrier aviator on 16 September 1944, for which Lieutenant Commander A. Murray Preston received the Medal of Honor and four other crew members were awarded the Navy Cross.3 Twenty-four years later, Lieutenant Clyde Lassen, a Navy helicopter pilot, earned the Medal of Honor for a rescue in Vietnam.4 Today’s MH-60S crews trace their combat search-and-rescue lineage to these early heroes, and they stand ready to continue this legacy of service.
PTs landed raiders, scouts, and commandos at sites in the Pacific, the Mediterranean, and northern France. As Captain Robert J. Bulkley described the work of Normandy PTs during the summer of 1944: “The job of the boats was to land their passengers or to pick them up at precisely the right position on the coast, and to do it without being detected. The squadron completed its 19 missions without once making contact with the enemy, which is entirely as it should have been.”5 Clandestine shore insertions and extractions were the norm. These missions mirror the capability that MH-60S crews can provide, delivering silent warriors from the sea.
Rethink How to Use the MH-60S
Like the PT, the MH-60S can fight in blue waters, but it has the most impact within 200 nautical miles of the shore. To optimize this capability, the Navy must rethink how it deploys the aircraft. Being part of a carrier air wing is limiting, because the ship must be far enough from threats to manage risk, and this reduces the MH-60S’s effectiveness. Also, carrier-based helicopters operate around rigid fixed-wing schedules and requirements, which constrains the timeliness and capacity of helicopters’ employment. The carrier needs the logistics and combat power of the MH-60Ss, but the ship limits the helicopters’ potential use.
The MH-60S is not targeting the supply barges or German flak lighters that PTs sank in scores. The ideal target for the MH-60S is the modern guided-missile boat, and it would be a mistake to dismiss these vessels as irrelevant as we prepare and train for peer-level maritime conflicts. In 2016, Lieutenant Alan Cummings illuminated the lethality gap between U.S. and Chinese surface ships in his Naval War College article.6 By way of comparison, he used Commander Phillip Pournelle’s “strike-mile,” introduced in his 2015 Proceedings article, as a standardized measure of lethality.7
While all other eyes are on the Chinese Navy’s Luyang III and her impressive capabilities, the MH-60S community is watching the Houbei. It serves as the consummate example of a guided-missile boat, carrying the YJ-83 antiship cruise missile. There is no denying the combat power of the Luyang III: with five hulls, the class carries 30,670 strike-miles. Yet our Navy seems to overlook the 20,112 strike-miles carried by the Houbei class, a number that jumps to 30,335 when other missile boat classes are included, such as the Houjian, the Houxin, and the Jiangdao corvette.8
Regardless of which country has them, 118 hulls ready to shoot 100-mile antiship missiles requires a counter.9 The MH-60S is able to find and target missile boats hidden among shipping traffic or island formations with the precision necessary to avoid risk to civilians. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson directed in his recent white paper that the Navy “implement new ways of operating our battle fleet.”10 A new method is needed to manage the volume of missile boat threats. The appropriate force structure and operational employment model will maximize both flexibility and the number of MH-60S aircraft to counter the threat.
Retired Navy Captain Henry J. Hendrix wrote in 2009 about the need for the Navy to invest in cost-effective, flexible platforms that allow new technology to be integrated over time.11 He termed these “Fords, not Ferraris.” Five years later, he noted that the Navy had acquired the pieces necessary to enable his proposal.12 Missing from his vision was the mission capability brought by the MH-60S. Taking the ships from Captain Hendrix’s “influence squadrons” and integrating the capability of the MH-60S and MH-60R yields an entirely new type of surface action group (SAG), one that might be termed the Hendrix SAG.
A "Hendrix SAG" would reconfigure existing assets on board the expeditionary sea base (ESB). The ESB - shown here, the USNS LEwis B. Puller (T-ESB-3) has the space for this, as well as the maintenance and ordnance facilities. U.S. Navy photo (M. Young)
The Hendrix Surface Action Group
This SAG would be centered on the existing expeditionary sea base (ESB) as the command-and-control ship. The ESB has mission bay space for medical facilities, special operations teams, and support craft. Most important, the flight deck has four helicopter spots and a hangar, providing space for up to six MH-60Ss. This vessel has the maintenance and ordnance facilities necessary to support the full range of MH-60S combat operations.
At least two destroyers would augment the ESB, each with a two-helicopter MH-60R combat element to complement their onboard air-defense, antisubmarine warfare, strike warfare, and electronic-support capabilities. Because the Navy is accelerating those destroyers’ offensive surface warfare capability, the MH-60R’s radar, sonar, and electronic support measures would extend their reach by hundreds of miles from the ship.
The MH-60R is the ideal asset to direct sections of MH-60Ss for surface warfare, maritime interception, antipiracy, or counterdrug operations. One or two MH-60R aircraft teamed with four MH-60Ss can control large areas with the firepower to eliminate threats and the low-and-slow perspective that can more easily distinguish foe from friend or civilian.
As the littoral combat ships continue to mature, they can bring surface warfare, mine warfare, or antisubmarine warfare packages to the Hendrix SAG. All packages will bring additional MH-60S or MH-60R helicopters, and the surface and mine warfare packages will bring one variant of the MQ-8 Fire Scout unmanned system.
The Hendrix SAG should incorporate additional surface assets such as the new Mark VI patrol boats and the expeditionary fast transport (EPF). The Mark VI can partner with helicopters in conducting both littoral surface warfare and maritime interception operations. The EPF gives high-speed transport capability and incorporates a flight deck that allows her to race ahead of the main SAG and provide “lily-pad” refueling to the helicopters.
The Hendrix SAG would also be the perfect enabler of Commander Pournelle’s corvette flotillas.13 With combatants based on the Coast Guard’s Sentinel-class cutters, but outfitted with antiship cruise missiles, defensive weapons, and advanced radar systems, Commander Pournelle’s flotillas are an ideal fit.14
Operate It Forward
A Hendrix SAG would be able to support a wide range of naval operations. It can provide the perfect asset for national leaders to, as Admiral Richardson said, “help local populations recover from natural disasters, attack terrorist encampments, or suppress more sophisticated attacks.”15 The unique combination of ship and helicopter capabilities enables flexible operations not currently possible with a carrier strike group.
The Pacific Fleet has begun to experiment with deployment designs outside the traditional carrier strike group, amphibious ready group, and independent deployers. By teaming a group of destroyers together in what has been labeled the Pacific Surface Action Group (PACSAG), the Navy has taken what Third Fleet Chief of Staff Captain John Beaver called “a good first step in learning how to project power outside the carrier strike group concept.” He said PACSAGs will be operated in a new “3rd Fleet flag-level organization—Commander, Task Force 30 [CTF-30]—to command future ‘3rd Fleet Forward’ deployments.”16
Admiral Scott Swift, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, intends to combine these destroyer groups with an expeditionary strike group (ESG) to create his “up-gunned ESG.”17 Deploying a Hendrix SAG under the control of the new CTF-30 would complement the capability of both the enhanced ESG and the traditional carrier strike group. Admiral Richardson has called on the Navy to “get more capability out of what we already own, and bring new technologies and platforms into the mix as rapidly as possible.”18 Because the core platforms and technologies in a Hendrix SAG are already in the fleet, the Navy can soon deploy one under the control of CTF-30.
The MH-60S community is watching the Chinese Houbei class because these guided-missile boats carry YJ-83 long-range antiship cruise missiles.
Accelerate the Capability
The MH-60Ss could be deployed with a Hendrix SAG by next year, but the Navy can grow its capability in other key ways as well. First, the service should invest in the same weapons mounting system for the MH-60S that the Air Force and Army already use. This external gun mount system allows the MH-60S to mount its weapons without blocking the cabin and rescue hoist, thereby dramatically improving operational flexibility by allowing the aircraft to perform rescues or insert/extract missions while still carrying destructive ordnance.
The PT used a simple smoke generator to conceal itself from enemy gunners during egress after attacking a target. The tools of survivability have grown since then, but the principles remain the same. The MH-60S needs a new survivability suite that allows it to keep pace with adversary threat systems. By combining emerging digital technology with the low, slow, cluttered environment in which the aircraft operates, the MH-60S can hide from adversary systems. Doing so will allow it to operate safely inside the enemy’s weapons range, thus preventing denial of the airspace and inhibiting an unexpected attack.
In the long run, survivability also saves money by protecting the Navy’s investment and allowing the use of “dumber” weapons. Using standoff for survival necessitates a weapon that can fly over the horizon and still hit the right target. This requires robust propulsion and very sophisticated guidance systems that will ultimately be destroyed. Instead, the MH-60S should be equipped to fight inside the engagement zone, letting the crew be “smart” while they employ much cheaper and less complex weapons. This is especially important when facing hundreds of possible target vessels.
Within a year of the Pearl Harbor attack in World War II, all PTs were equipped with radars, vastly improving their effectiveness. Today, each MH-60S needs a single electronically scanned radar panel on the nose to allow self-vectored attacks, detect and track small manned or unmanned aircraft, and support radar-guided weapons. An MH-60S with such a system can work together with the omnidirectional radar of the MH-60R in the same way that the Navy’s F/A-18 platforms work with the E-2C/D to find and attack targets.
MH-60S missile systems were never intended for use against ships, but weaponeering data shows they can be effective in this role. The Navy should prioritize antiship design in the missiles that follow the Hellfire on the MH-60S, and MH-60R, without sacrificing the number of projectiles, because the number of serviceable targets is a specific advantage of both MH-60 platforms.
The MH-60S’s modular nature is the perfect canvas for future development. Unmanned-aircraft threats can be countered by the AIM-92 air-to-air Stinger missile.19 The AIM-92 has been mounted on helicopters and used against unmanned targets.20 This configuration dramatically increases the envelope in which the MH-60Ss can counter new threats. Pod-based systems for electronic warfare are an easy addition, as well as tools for passively providing targeting data for other shooters. As new technologies are fielded, the MH-60Ss can take them to sea with a Hendrix SAG and challenge potential adversaries.
Shape the Rotary-Wing Forces
The Navy’s rotary-wing platforms are the centerpieces of a Hendrix SAG. The production line for the MH-60S is closed, but a force structure model exists that provides enough airframes for the initial Hendrix SAGs. Specifically, the MH-60S footprint on aircraft carriers should be reduced; eight such airframes in each carrier-based squadron is not an efficient use of a combat-capable fleet. A four-airframe footprint in each carrier squadron is sufficient to meet the maritime logistics and combat needs of the air wing, because Hendrix SAGs will bring a better rotary-wing capability to any theater. Also, having the aircraft intended for the combat logistics force (CLF) in each carrier-based squadron results in very poor capitalization rates for those airframes.
Reducing each MH-60S carrier squadron from 8 airframes to 4 frees 32 airframes between the two coasts. Eight of these aircraft should be assigned to the expeditionary squadrons to source the CLF detachments. The remaining 24 can be used to stand up the first two squadrons on each coast that are dedicated to deploying on the Hendrix SAGs.
Admiral Richardson has instructed the Navy to take advantage of “hot” production lines. The MH-60R line will be open until summer 2018.20 By acquiring additional MH-60R aircraft to replace the two MH-60S airframes removed from the carrier, the strike group can retain the same rotary-wing capacity and be better configured for carrier operations. Production lines are also hot for the expeditionary sea base, the Arleigh Burke–class destroyers, and the littoral combat ships—all the components of a Hendrix SAG.
Deploying Hendrix SAGs in every theater will maximize surface and rotary-wing capabilities, create scalable operational resources, and distribute our force with less reliance on carrier strike groups. Leveraging the unique strengths of the MH-60Ss and MH-60Rs will give Hendrix SAGs capabilities not possible with a carrier strike group.
Commanders can position a Hendrix SAG off the Horn of Africa to provide antipiracy operations, support for special operations, and personnel recovery. It can be placed near restricted waters to escort military or civilian vessels or close a strait to protect friendly assets on the other side. It can patrol contested waters, keeping threats at bay while conducting maritime interception operations, and still be ready to assist after a national disaster or terrorist attack. The Hendrix SAG can do all this without the costs and political implications associated with positioning a carrier strike group.
There has been a great deal of talk about innovation. The time for action is now.
1. Robert J. Bulkley, At Close Quarters: PT Boats in the United States Navy (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1962).
2. Bulkley, At Close Quarters.
3. Bulkley, At Close Quarters.
4. U.S. Navy, USS Lassen Official Site, n.d., http://www.public.navy.mil/surfor/ddg82/Pages/Namesake.aspx#.WTe97BPyvPA
5. Bulkley, At Close Quarters.
6. Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns,” Naval War College Review, vol. 69, no 4 (2016).
7. CDR Phillip E. Pournelle, USN, “The Deadly Future of Littoral Sea Control,” Proceedings 141, no. 7 (July 2015).
8. Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns.”
9. Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns.”
10. ADM John Richardson, USN, “The Future Navy,” U.S. Navy, white paper, 2017.
11. CDR Henry. J. Hendrix, USN, “Buy Fords, Not Ferraris,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 134, no. 4 (April 2009).
12. CAPT Henry J. Hendrix, USN, “Influence Squadrons Are Here, But Will We Use Them? Proceedings 140, no. 5 (May 2014).
13. Pournelle, “The Deadly Future of Littoral Sea Control.”
14. CDR Phillip E. Pournelle, USN, “Combined Arms in the Littoral Environment,” U.S. Naval Institute blog, June 2016, https://blog.usni.org/2016/06/12/combined-arms-in-the-littoral-environment.
15. Richardson, “The Future Navy.”
16. C. Johnson, “PACSAG Integrates, Strengthens Force,” Surface Warfare Magazine, vol. 53 (2016).
17. Johnson, “PACSAG Integrates, Strengthens Force.”
18. Richardson, “The Future Navy.”
19. See “OH-58D Kiowa Warrior Firing AIM-92 Stinger Missile,” YouTube, 4 July 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fyLUZuSUTEE.
20. “Stinger Missiles with Proximity Fuzes Destroy UAVs in First Ever Test,” Raytheon Corporate Communications, News Release Archive, 18 April 2015.
21. Richardson, “The Future Navy.”