China and the United States are inching ever closer toward a fight for Taiwan and the contested islands in the East and South China Seas.1 With this increased focus on island warfare, and considering the recent developments in naval amphibious warfare and the Navy and Marine Corps’ emphasis on greater naval integration, there is an imperative to expand the role of the MH-60S Knighthawk in amphibious ready groups (ARGs) and Marine expeditionary units (MEUs) for a high-end conflict.
With the ARG’s advancements in maritime employment, the helicopter sea combat (HSC) community needs to evolve and adapt to remain a relevant warfare element. While it has provided three-aircraft MH-60S detachments to ARG/MEU deployments for more than a decade, the detachment commander seemingly has to reaffirm the HSC role at the beginning of each deployment cycle to ensure the MH-60S’s capabilities are fully considered in planning ARG/MEU missions.
The HSC community is a customer-oriented “jack-of-all-trades” organization with a wide range of missions. When asked what the HSC community does, an MH-60S pilot should respond that it has capabilities that enhance and complement many naval missions, including manned and unmanned maritime attack, combat support, and airborne mine countermeasures. HSC is one of the most flexible and versatile options available to Navy officers in tactical command.
However, this versatility is not well known in the amphibious warfare community, among either Navy or Marine Corps officers. An HSC squadron can excel in naval amphibious operations as a lethal, forward-deployed aviation force, if its capabilities are fully understood among battle staff officers and incorporated into ARG/MEU standard operating procedures (SOPs) and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron (MAWTS) doctrine.
Toward Better HSC-ACE Cooperation
The current ARG/MEU SOP is derived from an outdated publication titled MEU2: The Marine Expeditionary Unit SMARTbook. Because the publication primarily focuses on Marine air combat element (ACE) platforms, the ARG/MEU SOP marginalizes HSC capabilities for amphibious operations, omitting the MH-60S from most standing and deliberate missions.
Providing information about mission assets, force packages, and basic capabilities, each SOP revision offers an excellent opportunity for the HSC community to advertise its vision, goals, and capabilities. On the West Coast, throughout ARG/MEU workups, advisors from Expeditionary Warfare Training Group, Pacific, and Carrier Strike Group 15 constantly reference the ARG/MEU SOP in training both composite warfare commanders and the officers in tactical command. As a flexible, armed helicopter option, the MH-60S can easily contribute to rotary-wing strike missions, surveillance and reconnaissance infiltrations, helicopter visit, board, search, and seizure missions, and tactical recoveries of aircraft and personnel. Once fully accounted for in the ARG/MEU SOP, the HSC mission capabilities will make the community a primary aviation fighting force asset to be considered.
The HSC community sells itself as an armed helicopter detachment with similar capabilities to the ACE’s AH-1Z Cobra or UH-1Y Venom and carrying the same ordnance. In fact, the HSC Seahawk or Knighthawk weapons and tactics instructor (SWTI) and Seahawk weapons and tactics program (SWTP) qualifications ensure detachments are properly prepared for the fight. However, ACE leaders often challenge HSC detachments about the level of pilot and crew qualification for weapons and tactics employment. This becomes acutely evident during the rapid response planning process whenever the ACE does not endorse an HSC course of action that already has been accepted by a Navy officer in tactical command. And even though Navy amphibious squadron staffs have a helicopter element coordinator to manage rotary-wing assets, he or she often lacks current flying experience, tactical knowledge, and SWTI course qualification. To help bridge this communication gap between the Navy and Marine ARG/MEU aviation leaders, HSC ARG detachment leaders should be sent to audit MAWTS syllabus training early in the workup cycle. Integrating early with the ACE WTIs will help MEU leaders be more familiar with and apt to employ HSC capabilities.
The HSC community can also improve the relationship with the ACE through more integration with Marine ground assets away from traditional Navy workup cycles. Working with Marine battalion landing teams and maritime raiding forces prior to embarking as an HSC expeditionary detachment, MH-60 crews can showcase close-air support, rotary-wing escort, and assault platform capabilities, along with the traditional MH-60S missions in exercises such as the Realistic Urban Training Exercise.
Currently, the HSC wing is enhancing the battle staff position of the amphibious squadron commander comparable with that of the carrier air wing commander (CAG). As part of carrier strike groups, CAG staffs “perform major functions in directing and administering the employment of embarked aviation squadrons.”2 Commonly, CAG staffs have an HSC level IV mission-qualified representative to advocate for HSC capabilities and requirements within the carrier strike group. This representative also flies with the assigned HSC squadron. If amphibious squadron staff had a similar flying SWTI billet, this expert could properly inform the ACE and ARG/MEU commanders on HSC capabilities.
As a former assistant officer in charge for HSC-21 Detachment One’s 2019 deployment with the ARG/MEU on board the USS Boxer (LHD-4), I have taken to heart the need to educate the battle staff and to fight for both squadron and community capabilities to be codified in the ARG/MEU’s mission. With the HSC community’s commitment to increase its representation in ARG/MEU SOPs, participate in the MAWTS syllabus training, and strengthen the amphibious squadron staff billet, it can increase its contribution to a future littoral fight—one commensurate with its full capabilities. For now, HSC detachments continue to showcase the MH-60S to officers in tactical command while playing their part to ensure the United States maintains the competitive advantage in the struggle for sea power superiority.
1. Ryan Pickrell, “China Built a Stealth Amphibious Assault Drone for Island Warfare, and It Could Be Headed to the South China Sea,” Business Insider, 17 April 2019, www.businessinsider.com/china-builds-first-stealth-amphibious-assault-drone-for-island-warfare-2019-4.
2. Norman M. Wade, The Naval Operations & Planning SMARTbook (Lakeland, FL: The Lighting Press, 2010), 1–8