Acquiring additional rotary wing (RW) support for SOF missions has been a long-standing challenge for U.S. Special Operations Command. In the past, SOF RW support has been handled almost exclusively by the Army “Night Stalkers” of 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR). Navy support has been limited, and only the “Firehawks” of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron (HSC) 5 (now disestablished) and the “Red Wolves” of Helicopter Sea Combatant Squadron (HSC) 84 have had any consistency in completing SOF missions in theater.
In 2009, Adm. Eric T. Olson, commander USSOCOM, expressed his concern in a memo to the CNO regarding 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, Naval Special Warfare 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.”
The formal agreement that Olson spoke of is now becoming a reality. Recently, the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead authorized Commander, Naval Air Forces to dedicate two helicopter squadrons to the cause. The “Red Wolves” of HSC-84 and the “High Rollers” of HSC-85 will support SOF missions. The two reserve squadrons will each deploy a detachment of four helicopters OCONUS.
What it provides, more than anything, is the ability to insert and extract SEALs and special operators safely
While deployed, the four helicopters from each squadron will be assigned missions through Joint Air Asset Allocation and added to the assets of the 160th SOAR in support of SOF.
“The hope is that we can focus on the maritime environment which lends to more SEAL use, but it will not be exclusive,” said Cmdr. Keith Reams, WARCOM’s operations officer.
The remaining aircraft INCONUS are under the operational control of Commanders, 2nd Fleet for HSC-84 and 3rd Fleet for HSC-85. Dedicated SOF support has many advantages, one of which is mobility. Experts agree that mobility is one of the most important factors in the acquisition. Helicopters provide a way of getting into tough locations as well as avoiding IEDs.
“What it provides, more than anything, is the ability to insert and extract SEALs and special operators safely,” said Reams. “What we are finding out is that most of our deaths overseas are from IEDs … guys getting hurt or killed moving in or out from an operation using ground mobility. Although it could happen, I’ve never heard of a helicopter landing on top of an IED and getting blown up. You do hear that happening to cars and jeeps, Humvees, and people all the time.”
Mobility not only means getting over tough terrain and avoiding IEDs, but also getting to more time-sensitive targets. Cmdr. Michael Macenas, former WARCOM operations officer who worked on the acquisition from 2006 to 2009, explained that getting to time-sensitive targets can be challenging.
“If you have a high priority guy that you are targeting, and you know that he is going to be at a certain place at a certain time, then that is a time-sensitive target,” he said. “Helicopters can often help you make a time-sensitive target that would be out of range by foot or by driving,” said Macenas.” However, in theater, targets are prioritized by importance. Let’s say that NSW has the number four priority target and he’s going to be at a place at 7 o’clock. Then a second group calls in and says they have the number two guy and he’s going to be at a different location at 6 o’clock. The first group is going to get the assets. With more assets, we may be able to get down to the number four target.”
Macenas also explained that dedicated support will mean much more than simply dropping off and picking up guys, but also becoming part of an integrated support team.
“They will be able to call for fire support and mission support, not just a bus that takes them some place, but sticking around and being a part of the airborne command and control structure,” he said. “Being a part of that structure means they may be in play with UAVs, gunships, providing air intelligence on current activity and providing casualty evacuation support.”
Flying SOF missions requires skills that go beyond flying maritime missions.
“We have to make sure these guys are trained well for the types of missions that they will be conducting,” said Reams. “Just because it spins on the top and can go faster than a truck is good, but if they guy can’t hover as guys are fast-roping, then he’s more danger than he is worth.”
Reams explained that instead of trying to recreate the wheel with a new training program, they will put the two squadrons through the 160th Regiment’s Techniques Training and Procedures manual to get them up to speed.
“They are really the model for special operations support,” he said. “Our current planning and operations have been modeled after what we’ve learned from flying combined missions with the 160th, said Cmdr. Bob Arseneault, executive officer HSC-84. “The adaptations we’ve made over the past several years have more aligned us with how the 160th operates. We’ve made provisions to adapt their training documents and align our training to theirs.”
Although two squadrons have been authorized to do SOF missions, only one of the squadrons is currently capable of doing the job. HSC- 84 has the assets and personnel to train and complete SOF missions.
In fact, HSC-84 has been completing SOF missions for the past few years, but has been doing it without being recognized as an “official” SOF asset.
Currently, HSC-84 is exclusively conducting SOF missions as well as training for future missions at Fort Bragg and United States Air Force Fighter Weapon School for combat search and rescue training.
In fact, HSC-84 has been completing SOF missions for the past few years
“CONUS training will likely increase, but probably not appreciably,” said Arseneault. “While we’re in a support role, we also have training requirements that need to be met to include gun flights, calls for fire, ISR training, HRST, insert/extract and others.”
In contrast to HSC-84, HSC-85 has many obstacles to overcome before they will be ready to support SOF missions. They must transition from flying MH-60S Nighthawks to HH-60H Seahawks as well as shed their current mission. The current plan is for HSC-85 to turnover its torpedo recovery mission to Helicopter Anti-Submarine Squadron (HS) 10 to allow them to focus on SOF support.
“This is a pretty difficult transition for our squadron,” said Cmdr. Gagne, HSC-85’s commanding officer. “We have to take the primary mission that we currently do and hand it to another unit at some point here in the next year as well as transition aircraft and grow people and start training for our new mission.”
HSC-85 is currently billeted for 268 personnel but is projected to go to 423 by the end of the transition. Additional billeting will begin in Oct. and the command should see its first two HH-60H Seahawks in Dec.
“The word as of now, given to us by SOCOM is that we will be a fully deployable unit by first quarter fiscal year 2013,” said Gagne. “If we could move our current mission out of the squadron about a year from now, it would give us about a year and a half to train and be ready for that date.”
Although there are many challenges ahead, Gagne is confident in the squadron’s personnel and believes strongly in the new mission.
“We have a very good group of people who are very motivated by the future mission. My hope is that as they begin to understand the mission a little bit more and see how special it is and how big of an impact we will could have on the world, that everyone will have the same level of excitement about our mission. Personally, I think this is the best mission in the Navy; especially being a helicopter pilot… there is nothing better.”
- MC2 John Scorza