By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief | June 26, 2014
The question of new challenges ahead for a re-styled “expeditionary” Army, particularly as they will apply to U.S. Army Aviation, was the subject of an almost aptly named ‘Deep Dive’ session at this year’s 2014 Army Aviation Mission Solutions Summit (aka Quad-A) back in May in Nashville, Tenn.
Operating in the maritime environment was one of the primary topics of conversation during the session entitled Aviation Expeditionary Capabilities and Requirements. Hosted by Maj. Gen. Kenneth Quinlan Jr. (Ret.) and ably supported by the recently departed commander of the U.S. Army’s Special Operations Aviation Command, Brig. Gen. Clayton Hutmacher, the session sought to look beyond the heat and mountains of Afghanistan to other scenarios that might be encountered under the umbrella of expeditionary operations.
Hutmacher, speaking with the familiarity that an earlier command of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) would allow, made the point that maritime deployments were now a distinct possibility for regular Army aviators and, although challenging, the skills required could be adapted for Army helicopters and mastered. He said deck landings were just a matter of gaining the skill then maintaining the currency – and with a dry wit added that they were not nearly as challenging as a night landing at a “hot” landing zone (LZ).
One of the backdrops to this discussion is that the U.S. Army conducted maritime training exercises from U.S. naval vessels in the Persian Gulf last year, particularly Apache missions against small, fast-moving raider type of boats that were unidentified and outside the close protection range of the ship’s defensive armament. This year, the 7th Fleet will incorporate U.S. Army Aviation training scenarios with allies in the western Pacific/Asia. This is with the backdrop to President Obama’s “pivot” toward the Pacific.
Conducting missions from naval vessels adds its own problems to the management of the Army’s operational tempo during conflict. For one thing, communications were often at a premium, so some kind of independent communications for the Army was vital. This was not only limited to electronic communications off the ship, but also the challenge of physically keeping track of where your unit, or elements of your command, were throughout the ship. They could be spread through several levels he reminded session delegates.
In addition, there was the question of usable space. Naval ships are tightly designed and finding space within Army Aviation’s own logistics pile and MRO areas will certainly not be as big as they are used to – again, it is difficult to spread the gear out on a ship. Even the coordination of getting parts and spares to the vessel – especially at sea, posed another set of challenges.
With experienced gained from commanding the 160th SOAR, Hutmacher said that because of the potential effect of salt water corrosion, the Regiment’s helicopters usually had engine flushes at least once, if not twice, per day.
Moving to international operations, from Afghanistan down to international disaster recovery missions, one National Guard Brigade commander mentioned how difficult it was as a new arrival to get “ramp space” for his own forces within a scenario of joining a composite air-wing. He observed that the first units to arrive “on scene” will usually expand into any available space surrounding them, and that subsequent formations find that the area they thought had been allocated to them was in fact often occupied. This also applied to disaster relief operations such as Haiti, he observed.
Hutmacher noted that when on persistent operations, monthly crew flying hours needed to be closely tracked each month, together with daily work hours. This was particularly important during sustained night operations. It was imperative that crews got sufficient rest during the day. He added that technology had come a long way in reducing mission planning cycles. In the early 1990s it could still be spread over several days. Now with electric mission planning systems, “I have to know 45 minutes between being given a mission and being ‘out of the door.’” The technology exists to plan and print a map in nine minutes, where it took 24 hours before.
He also said that the technology within the aircraft was making a big difference. “The red illumination (red illum) cycle [when the moon’s light is at its weakest and hence hampers night vision flying] can become something of a non-issue in the latest digitally equipped CH-47F Chinooks and UH-60M Black Hawks.” He said that situational awareness in the cockpit has improved significantly.
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