By By Andrew Drweiga, Military Editor | April 26, 2012
U.S. Special Forces have been committed into the fight against al Qaeda since Sept. 28, 2001—a mere 17 days after 9/11. “Since then, and for the last 10 years the fight has been continuous,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, Commander, U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation, speaking to delegates at Quad-A, the Army’s annual gathering held in Nashville in early April.
He noted that the force deployment to Iraq—eight years and eight months—had been about the same as the deployment during the Vietnam War. Mangum was quick to praise the mutual support and operational commitment between Special Forces Aviation and U.S. Army Aviation, particularly necessary during the overlap between Iraqi and Afghan commitments. But he said that there was still a need for “a high-end, specially trained and equipped force to take on high risk missions—whenever and wherever needed.”
During this period of high overseas deployment, Mangum said that special force aviation had been operational in 60 countries on six continents conducting a variety of missions, “some of which you will never read about, and one you have read too much about.”
Transformation has also occurred during this time, with the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command (ARSOAC) being officially stood up on March 25, 2011.
“From a fight perspective, one of the purposes of standing up my headquarters was to take the generating force functions off the Regiment commander and let them get on with the warfighting.” ARSOAC will be responsible for organizing, manning, training, resourcing and equipping Army Special Operation Aviation units.
The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) has seen significant growth: “It has doubled in size, the budget has tripled but we have four times as many missions,” confirmed Mangum.
Growth of 160th SOAR
Aircraft, Pre-9/11: 142 Current: 192
Personnel, Pre-9/11: 1,604 Current: 3,241
In terms of aircraft type and number, the 160th SOAR will soon be down to three aircraft types from 10 several years ago. The fleet will comprise:
51 (30) A/MH-6M
72 (60) MH-60M (still Ks and Ls)
69 (56) MH-47G
Mangum highlighted the capability that the 160th SOAR is gaining through its systems being plug and play. “If we take a multifunction display out of a Chinook and put it into a Black Hawk—the system knows just what happened,” he said.
“The MH-60M with the engines that they’ve got is going to be a game changer,” he added. “In Afghanistan for many years, arguably we have been doing Black Hawk missions with a Chinook with a Black Hawk-size load as the Black Hawk couldn’t get to those elevations. That will change with the MH-60 Mike.” [The special operations version of UH-60M features the Rockwell Collins Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS) glass cockpit and more powerful General Electric YT706-GE-700 engines].
Mangum also drew attention to the development of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) within special operations command: “We will have almost 300 UAS after the fielding of the latest two Grey Eagle companies in a couple of years,” he noted. The impact of UAS has made a large difference to find and fix operations in the operational theater, either in terms of locating the enemy for someone to hit or for a direct attack from the UAS: “I don’t know the total number of kills with Hellfire off Grey Eagle in Afghanistan, but it is significant. Whether killing someone or finding and fixing them for someone else, it is having an effect.”
ARSOAC Allows Unit Commanders to Focus on the Fight
“We are transferring functions from the 160th to our ARSOAC headquarters piecemeal,” briefed Mangum. “I haven’t established timelines for this—it has all been conditions based. It has been frustrating for many people—for some it has been too fast, for others too slow. The point has been ‘get it right not get it fast’.”
The systems integration office recently transferred but the challenge, said Mangum, was the need to maintain the magic of systems integration as well as the acquisition process: “They need to be nimble, fast and responsive to the warfighter.”
He added that the modernization process was currently focusing on a number of key areas including hostile fire indicating systems and technology that could lessen the difficulties encountered by crews operating in degraded visual environments [notably brownouts]. “The symbology now present in the cockpits of the MH-60M and CH-47F provides a great tool to help mitigate the degraded visual environment. The digital automatic flight control system (AFCS) is another game changer for us and it will help to reduce the amount of damage that is caused on virtually a daily basis in Afghanistan by landing in the dirt [brownout].”
Signature management (not signature reduction, which is part of signature management) was also on the shopping list for operational improvement. “We want to manage and manipulate our acoustics so we can get in and out more easily,” he added.
FVL and SOF
“We are working closely with the Army on Future Vertical Lift (FVL) and our goal is to integrate as many of our requirements into the baseline platform as we can. Before we were taking Army platforms and modifying them but we want to build as much of our own requirement in from the beginning,” revealed Mangum.
“One of the form factors [in new platform procurement] is the question of how many aircraft we get into a C-130? If a small aircraft [a new FVL] can fly as fast as a C-130, then do we need a C-130? The fact that we would not need C-130s to get a force of Little Birds to a target for an airfield seizure or a forcible entry is a huge bonus. The amount of gas the joint force would save, added to the reduced size of the footprint of the force are very important,” he said.
“We always look at how can we mass a force on target—we don’t talk about days here, we talk about periods of darkness. So how far can we go in a period of darkness—and how fast? The first mission we did into Afghanistan in October 2011 took 13.5 hours and the joint force used a million gallons of gas, two company-sized elements onto two targets. If we didn’t need all those C-130s and tankers it would have been a hell of a lot shorter night. That’s the power and magic of Future Vertical Lift.”