In a repeat of history, the US Navy is poised to re-learn hard lessons from the past. The Department of the Navy has recently ordered the only two naval helicopter squadrons dedicated to Special Warfare support, HSC-84 and HSC-85, to prepare for decommissioning by the end of FY-15 (September 30, 2015).
The ‘Red Wolves’ of HSC-84 (formerly HCS-4) have a long history of supporting Special Operations Forces. During OIF/OND, they executed over 13,000 flight hours, exclusively to SOF-support. Nearly 7,000 of these hours supported over 1,600 Direct Action missions in Iraq to capture or kill insurgent targets.
In 2010, a second squadron, the ‘Firehawks’ of HSC-85 were ordered to re-mission to support SOF in response to a SOCOM request, just a few short years after the Navy terminated that capability when it decommissioned HCS-5. Currently, HSC-84 is deployed to support CENTCOM and HSC-85 to support PACOM Combatant Commanders’ emergency response force capability.
Both units have been the topic of budgetary squabbles between the Navy and SOCOM for over a year and a half as a result of the Budget Control Act (sequestration).
The Seawolves of Helicopter Attack Light Squadron THREE [HA(L)-3] flew SOF-support and CAS missions throughout the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The unit was created to fulfill a direct-support requirement at the request of the SEALs operating in Vietnam. They attained a legendary status for their skill and bravery during the conflict. Whether it was flying CAS for pinned-down SEALs or Riverine boats caught in an ambush or performing covert infil/exfil of Special Operations troops across the border in Cambodia, HA(L)-3’s performance was exceptional.
That unit – and the amazing personnel who operated it – will always have a place of honor in American military history. Not realizing a need for their continued existence, the Navy decided to decommission HA(L)-3 as the Vietnam conflict was drawing to a close. In service from 1967-1972, they were one of the most decorated military units of the Vietnam conflict. Their story, in part, is captured in the book “Fire From the Sky.”
By the mid-1970s, the Navy realized the need for continued NSW support and commissioned HA(L)-4 and HA(L)-5 in 1976 and 1977, respectively. These units trained to provide SOF-support and CAS for the NSW community.
In 1989 the HA(L) units were redesignated Helicopter Combat Support Special Squadrons FOUR and FIVE (HCS-4 & HCS-5). This redesignation was accompanied by an equipment upgrade from the HH-1K to the HH-60H, a Blackhawk variant known as the Seahawk.
From 1989 to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, HCS-4 and HCS-5 provided 55% of all sourced rotary wing training support to NSW. These units also deployed for a CSAR role in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and then redeployed for Operation Restore/Uphold Democracy in 1994.
HCS-5 was the first of the squadrons to deploy into Iraq. Initially, they operated from Kuwait in March 2003 but moved to Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) once the city was captured. During the invasion phase, HCS-5 flew coalition SOF and performed CSAR alert. After the invasion HCS-5 flew Direct Action missions targeting the Iraqi Ba’athist party’s former power players and other Former Regime Elements, including Saddam Hussein himself. They quickly developed a strong operational rapport with both US and International SOF units.
HCS-4 and HCS-5 swapped Iraqi-theater responsibility until 2005, when HCS-4 assumed it permanently. Under the Navy’s helicopter re-alignment plan, HCS-5 was to decommission in FY-06 and HCS-4 was to re-mission as a Fleet support squadron under the designation HSC-84. Given the under-sourced SOF rotary wing in OIF, an agreement was reached that left HSC-84 in Iraq supporting SOF until their capability was no longer required. HSC-84 would remain in Iraq throughout OIF and to end of OND in 2011.
HSC-84 continued to provide consistent and effective support while operating under the Combined Joint Special Operations Air Component (CJSOAC) in Iraq, enabling SOF to pursue and capture insurgent high value targets during nighttime raids, many of which were time-sensitive. Although thousands of HSC-84 (and HCS-4/5) missions will never be read about, they are mentioned in the book “Honor and Betrayal” as the unit that supported the SEAL team on the mission to capture the infamous ‘Butcher of Fallujah.’ By the end of OND, HSC-84 had not only completed the longest combat helicopter deployment in US Naval history, but the squadron was also the most highly decorated and combat-experienced Naval Aviation squadron in the Global War on Terror.
After the Iraq conflict drew to a close, HSC-84 transitioned to a CENTCOM crisis response role. In 2013, after several years of training for the SOF mission, HSC-85 began its first SOF commitment as crisis response for the PACOM AOR. During HSC-84’s commitment at the Crisis Response Element for CENTCOM they have been able to re-deploy in theater to support numerous ongoing classified operations.
Furthermore, the squadron was called upon to provide the primary vertical lift component for the SOF reaction force safeguarding President Obama during his 2013 Middle East trip. The squadron and the specialized SOF soldiers that made up the reaction force would have been the first on the scene in the event of a crisis involving the President during the extended trip. Additionally, they have participated in numerous partner-building exercises in the region, growing the capacity of our partner forces in fighting AQIM, AQAP and ISIL.
Just three years removed from HCS-5’s de-commissioning in 2006, Admiral Olson, Commander of USSOCOM, authored a memo in April 2009 to then Chief of Naval Operations Gary Roughhead about HSC-84 and the Navy’s contribution to SOF-support rotary wing. In this memo he stated, “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 [rotary wing] 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.”
In response to Olson’s memo, the Navy instituted a solution that reflected the mid-echelon leadership’s lack of enthusiasm. Another squadron, HSC-85, was re-assigned to support SOF. Instead of outfitting them with new mission-capable helicopters, Naval Aviation leaders outfitted the squadron with the legacy (circa 1987) HH-60H, despite the fact that fleet-support units received new helicopters (MH-60S) in 2006. Although conversion to the MH-60S was discussed, Naval leadership insisted if the units accept the MH-60S, they would have to take them as is…no unique upgrades or modifications would be approved.
Other than being plagued by structural airframe cracks, resulting in a reliability problem, the MH-60S didn’t have a Communication Suite or Navigation System that was compatible with the requirements of performing SOF missions. Nor did it have the capability (without modification) to equip the M-134 for protection of its valuable human cargo. Squadron leaders hoped that a near-term solution would present itself as various entities, including members of NSWDG, were making a case for an equipment upgrade on behalf of the squadrons.
The Budget Control Act, also known as “sequestration,” put in motion the budgetary battle that has resulted in the decision to decommission HSC-84/85. Soon after sequestration went into effect, the two squadrons were identified by Naval leaders for decommissioning in order to reconcile the sequestration-reduced budget. This then led to a dispute between the Navy and SOCOM. Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) directed that the Navy resource HSC-84/85 at 66% for FY-15 allowing for Navy and SOCOM to come to a long term solution in resourcing the two squadrons.
With the Navy unwilling to continue to fully fund a capability that it views as outside its core mission and SOCOM unwilling to absorb another expensive helicopter unit or any part thereof, even in the face of the requirements of the Global SOF Posture, no agreement was reached. In November 2014, OSD decided not to intervene in order to direct a funding solution.
As a result HSC-84 and HSC-85 continue down the glide path to decommissioning at the end of FY-15. This is despite the fact that both the CENTCOM and PACOM Combatant Commanders have requested the two squadrons be funded and their capability allocated to their respective Combatant Commands.
The consequences of cancelation have already commenced. The units have already begun the process of transferring their airframes to long-term preservation at the Davis-Monthan AFB boneyard. Soon, their CENTCOM and PACOM missions will cease and their deployed personnel and equipment will return to CONUS in order to disestablish their commands, which is to be complete by September 2015. It is important to note that no replacements have been identified and the crisis response mission capability is in serious jeopardy. SOCOM is experiencing a roughly 40% reduction in medium-lift airframes due to HSC-84/85 going away and therefore thousands of hours of training and operational support will go unsourced in the future.
The laser-sharp maintainers that keep the birds in the air will be transferred out to other aviation units, and the ‘mission-first’ culture ingrained into the mechanics and technicians that kept the sortie launch rate at 98% during OIF/OND will be lost. Being able to launch all deployed birds simultaneously at that high of a rate only comes through an unmatched dedication, professionalism and talent. That culture is institutional, and it will disappear.
The operational knowledge of the crews, who still benefit from pilots, crew chiefs and gunners with real-world operational experience and a uniquely tailored training pipeline that instills that operational expertise into the next-generation of highly capable crews will be lost. However, that expertise will not be absorbed by the other aviation commands. Once a decade of institutional knowledge is lost, it will be lost forever. Should the capability ever be reestablished, which history indicates it will, the personnel will have to start at square one.
The real losers in this scenario are the operators and aircrews that will be exposed to elevated levels of risk on future helicopter-supported SOF missions. Although the Army’s SOAR and the Air Force’s AFSOC units will certainly be tapped to fill the gap, Combatant Commanders already face a deficit of SOF-qualified rotary wing assets and this deficit will only expand due to decommissioning HSC-84/85.
US Special Operations Forces have unfortunately learned time and again, purposely trained helicopter aircrews, who are highly adept in the dynamics of SOF operations, can make or break an operation or even mean the difference between life and death. In the post-OIF/OEF world, when Special Operations are deployed around the globe in order to deter and target international terrorist networks and support other national priorities, OPTEMPO has decreased dramatically but operational risk hasn’t gone down.
On the contrary, it has gone up. Future operations will rely more heavily on the skills of the personnel to mitigate the risk presented by lower-confidence intelligence than was enjoyed during OIF/OEF. While conventional wisdom might suggest that there should now be a reduced need for such skill sets since the major wars have drawn to a close, now is precisely the time that these advanced skill sets are most critical to operational readiness. Instead of canceling this capability, the Navy and SOCOM should be cultivating and expanding it.
Contributing Author: Capt. Sean Butcher (USNR, retired) contributed statistical data and provided editorial review. Capt. Butcher is a 26-year Naval Officer and Aviator. During his distinguished career he served as Commanding Officer of HSC-84, NSW Transition Officer at HELSEACOMBATWINGLANT and Current Operations Officer and Force Aviation Officer at NAVSPECWARCOM. Additionally, he served as a mission-lead pilot for both HCS-4 and HSC-84. He is a graduate of Auburn University and The Naval War College.