Helicopter crews with the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) have worked on multiple amphibs in recent months, including the dock landing ship Oak Hill and, pictured, the amphibious assault ship Peleliu. (MC3 Dustin Knight / Navy)
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ABOARD THE DOCK LANDING SHIP OAK HILL — Army Special Forces teamed up with the Gator Navy in April for training and managed to pull off a seemingly unprecedented feat: Simultaneously launching six helicopters from a two-spot dock landing ship.
The Oak Hill, while in the Atlantic, served as the landing pad for the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), better known as the “Night Stalkers,” who also practiced fast-roping to the ship from helicopters.
That’s the sort of tactic used to board noncompliant ships — a mission traditionally run by Navy SEALs and Marine Corps’ Maritime Raid Forces, in the latest sign the Army is boosting its amphibious operations as it emerges from a decade of land warfare.
Landing on a ship is not common for these pilots — nor was it a cakewalk for the ship’s crew. Multiple flight deck waivers were required due to having “way more birds than we would normally spot,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 William East, the ship’s boatswain who oversaw the flight operations.
Many Oak Hill sailors were at sea for the first time, having earned their flight deck qualification only a few months before.
“We went from freshman level to pro overnight, but it was good,” East said in a mid-May interview on the ship. “We were doing some wild stuff that even I hadn’t seen. That was pretty cool.”
The Night Stalker operations, detailed here for the first time, are pushing the Navy’s envelope of the possible — but some are concerned that the Army is encroaching on the Marine Corps’ turf.
“They are spending money right now re-creating a Marine Corps because the Army thinks that they’re missing out on the current game of counterterrorism,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., a former major in the Marine Corps Reserve. “I think everybody needs to relax and keep the Army as is.”
'Starting from scratch'
Leadership from both sides laid out the operations, beginning with what was theoretically possible and boiling it down into a game plan to get it done, said Cmdr. Bryan Carmichael, Oak Hill’s skipper.
The puzzle went beyond operating more than two helos on Oak Hill’s aft helicopter pads. The flight deck crew had to determine approach angles for the Army’s MH-6 Little Bird, MH-60M Black Hawk and MH-47 Chinook.
Different gradients and turning radii had to be taken into account. The ship drivers also had to maneuver the ship to provide acceptable wind envelopes for different helicopters during a simultaneous launch. In fact, the crew had no wind envelope data for the Chinook and used a template from a similar bird as the baseline, East said.
“A lot of the stuff we came to, there was no written procedure,” East said. “We were starting from scratch. So you had to break out the old Mark 1, Mod-0 common sense and go, ‘Does that make sense to me?’ And you had to apply that. If you are scared to apply that, you’re not going to be able to make that next step, which is to transition over.”
With waivers approved, the flight ops started with a steady pace under clear skies, low wind and calm seas. By the time it was over, they were catching multiple birds of different varieties at night — and eventually nailed the simultaneous launch of four Little Birds and two Black Hawks tightly packed on the ship’s two helicopter decks.
In the end, the biggest challenge was not in the physics of flight but the basics of communication.
“It’s almost like speaking a different language,” East said. “When we said to an Army bird coming in, ‘You’ve got a green deck,’ he was like ‘Uh, does that mean I’ve got permission to land?’ Yeah, that was a big learning process, but that was handled at the [E-7] level and above. For my guys, it was just chalk and chain it, and shut it down.”
While the combat pilots were able to land their birds, reading the bull’s-eye was a different matter, Carmichael joked. But in the end, he counted the event a success.
The Night Stalkers conducted similar training with the amphibious assault ship Peleliu in late April. The big-deck amphib hosted Army CH-47 Chinook troop carriers as part of exercises for the ship’s upcoming deployment.
While these training events have focused on special operations, there is no question that big Army wants more team-ups with the Navy.
The Pentagon says it can no longer afford to train, modernize and maintain an Army geared toward large, prolonged stability operations, with the new defense strategy shifting toward small-scale contingencies.
The Air-Sea Battle Doctrine, a centerpiece of the new defense strategy that relies mostly upon warships and bombers, has drawn opposition from the ground-pounders.
The Strategic Landpower Task Force — a joint endeavor with the Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command — argues that future conflicts demand expeditionary ground forces. The rapid deployment model used by Army brigades now looks remarkably similar to that of a Marine expeditionary unit.
Army leaders say these changes are an adaptation to emerging threats. But some analysts and lawmakers are critical of the moves, arguing the Army is neither trained nor equipped for the expeditionary operations — missions better left to the Marines.
“The Army is very much needed,” said Hunter, the California Republican who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. “The last thing you want to have to do is make everybody a Marine Corps. Then you have a big land-based war and do not have heavy artillery, tanks and the ability for prolonged, protracted engagements against a conventional force. That is what the Army is for.”
On the other hand, the Army has plenty of expeditionary experience, dating to World War II. Soldiers participated in the Normandy landings and the Pacific island-hopping campaign, among many other landings.
Furthermore, others see a benefit to greater expeditionary capabilities by the Army and want to see the tactics evolve. One of them is Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., who favors a quicker, lighter and more adaptable Army.
“I understand where [Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno] is coming from,” said Wittman, who chairs the HASC Readiness Subcommittee.“The Army is going to need to be flexible and able to move in and out of theater quickly, but it’s not going to do that like the Marines.”
So how does the Marine Corps feel about the Army doing this?
“I’ve never been on a crowded battlefield,” Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force and US Marine Corps Forces Japan, told the Defense Writers Group on April 11. “I’ve never been anywhere where I said ... ‘There’s too many guys here.’ ”
While the Army is “making strides in learning how to operate” at sea, Wissler said there is an “unknown, hidden cost” associated with operating aircraft in saltwater environments.
“[Marine Corps] helicopters are different than [Army] helicopters,” he said. “The maritimization of an aviation platform is a very extensive, technical thing. If you don’t do it, you suffer significant challenges.”
Marcus Weisgerber and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.