Tempo of special operations takes a toll on air assets
A significant aspect of the Aug. 6 shoot-down of a U.S. Army Chinook helicopter by a militant's rocket-propelled grenade in Wardak, Afghanistan, which killed all 38 Afghan and American forces onboard—25 of whom were members of U.S. special operations—is that while the bird was on a special forces mission, it wasn't a special operations aircraft.
While such tragedies are a cost of war, and neither the helicopter nor the regular Army crew piloting it has been blamed for the incident, the shoot-down underscores two serious and long-standing concerns: inadequate protection for low-flying rotorcraft against gunfire and rudimentary rockets, and the lack of sufficient dedicated rotary-wing assets for special forces.
At a special forces technology conference in Tampa, Fla., this summer, commanders from U.S. Special Operations Command (SOC) said they were looking for more money from the services to invest in new rotary-wing aircraft. “We're going to hopefully guide the services into giving us something that is useful for us,” said Army Col. Doug Rombough, program executive officer for rotary-wing aircraft at SOC. “We certainly don't have the budget or funding to guide a whole new generation of aircraft.”
Special operators are putting more focus than ever on rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft needs, standing up the U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Command (SOAC) at Ft. Bragg, N.C., in March, with the goal of allowing the commander of the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regt. (SOAR) to focus on operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the SOAC commander focuses on the funding and equipping goals of special operations aviation. While theMH-47G Chinooks that are the workhorses of the spec op fleet are upwards of half a century old, there are much newer aircraft that spec op forces have been flying.
Beginning in 2009, the Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) started receiving the first of 50 plannedtiltrotor aircraft, delivery of which is scheduled to be complete by 2015. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review also laid out goals for spec op rotary-wing assets, including “165 tiltrotor/fixed-wing mobility and fire-support primary mission aircraft,” stipulating that the Army and SOC “will add a company of upgraded cargo helicopters (MH-47G) to the Army's Special Operations Aviation Regt., and the Navy will dedicate two helicopter squadrons for direct support to naval special warfare units.”
All this is happening as the incoming head of the command—Vice Adm. William McRaven—wrote in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in June that SOC's “current operations will pressure development and limit required modernization and recapitalization efforts” of its rotary fleets. This in turn is resulting in a “lack of vertical lift capability to train [spec op] ground forces and aircrew proficiency” and is hurting the overall health and readiness of the force.
The high-hot conditions and high operational tempo at maximum weights that the helicopters are working under in Afghanistan, Rombough said, have taken a toll on the fleet. “They're making only 15 years because of heavy use,” he said, which falls far short of the usual 20-year lifespan. When it comes to new platforms, he added, “we need game-changers . . . we are behind the power curve already if all of our aircraft hit at that same timeline.” While the Pentagon is looking for a rotorcraft capable of 170 kt., Rombough said special operators need “a minimum 200-kt. capability.”
Life cycle is one thing. Survivability in a combat zone is another. Last year, the(Darpa) launched an experimental program that borrowed a land vehicle-based gunshot detection system—Boomerang—and installed a version on a Black Hawk helicopter. Named the Helicopter Alert and Threat Termination-Acoustic (Haltt-A) program, the system's microphones “hear” a round leave a weapon and are capable of fixing the location of the shooter. Four Hallt-A systems are deployed to Afghanistan, according to reports. But if special forces operators are to take advantage of such efforts, it's going to be in a budgetary environment that is skeptical of new funding. SOC's fiscal 2012 budget request is $10.5 billion—with $7.2 billion coming in the baseline and $3.3 billion in the Overseas Contingency Operations budget. If enacted, this would be an increase of 7% over the fiscal 2011 budget request of $9.8 billion.
Even if spec ops doesn't have enough rotary-wing assets to fully train with, as McRaven says, those it does have are getting old. And while SOC has installed upgrades on its aging Chinook helicopters, the high operational tempo of a decade of nonstop combat has taken its toll on the fleet.
Updates have been coming, however. In March, Boeing delivered the 61st refitted MH-47G Chinook to SOAR, as part of a multiyear service life extension program that updated the aircraft from the D and E models. SOAR should also receive eight more G models by fiscal 2015. Boeing says the upgrades will increase the platform's life through the 2030s—when the aircraft will be almost 70 years old.
The MH-47G upgrades are significant. They give the helicopter higher-efficiency engines, improved avionics, an upgraded airframe, a suite of radio-frequency countermeasures and a refueling probe. Also included is a fully integrated digital Common Avionics Architecture System (CAAS), which allows special forces operators to take advantage of better communications, navigational technologies and situational awareness capabilities, including forward-looking infrared (FLIR) and multimode radar for nap-of-earth and low-level flight.
Overall, the 160th has 184 rotorcraft in its inventory: 51 MH/AH-6M Little Birds, 61 MH-47G Chinooks and 72 MH-60M Black Hawks. The most recent Black Hawk modernization program took's aircraft from Army stocks and added CAAS, wide-chord rotor blades, an improved electro-optical sensor system and 2,500-hp. YT706-GE-700 engines. The AH-6M Little Bird, a light utility helicopter, has been upgraded with FLIR surveillance systems and dual-flight controls.
When it comes to unmanned rotorcraft, Rombough said that while the special operations force is interested in unmanned vertical-takeoff assets—and is watching the U.S.program to develop an unmanned cargo helicopter—it is handing its A160 Hummingbirds to the Army's unmanned aircraft systems office. “We're done with our effort,” he said.
In January, SOC put out a notice advising industry that it was planning a “full and open competition” for a new mid-endurance unmanned aircraft systems platform to add to its arsenal of secret drones and surveillance equipment.
Draft versions of the request for proposals (RFP) came out in late March and early April, with a formal RFP released on April 28. Since almost everything about the program is classified—other than the fact that it exists—all that is left are hints dropped in the announcement.
Currently, the mid-endurance unmanned aircraft needs of special forces, as far as is known, are being met in part by the Boeing, which is referenced at the top of the solicitation. In 2009, Boeing and its subsidiary Insitu Inc. signed a deal worth $250 million to operate ScanEagle systems for special operations forces “for the next five years”—so it doesn't look like the Scan- Eagle is going anywhere.
But what kind of upgraded capability is SOC looking to get with this new program? The public solicitation says that SOC wants to award a single, three-year, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract with a projected award this summer. And it needs the winning bidder to be capable of providing the “near-real-time feed of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance product availability from 300-900 hr. per site monthly” using “non-developmental contractor-owned and contractor-operated unmanned aircraft systems.”
The ScanEagle, for its part, has proven itself remarkably effective across a range of missions, from the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Afghanistan to hunting pirates at sea—even flying from the USS Bainbridge while assisting in the rescue of the merchant ship Maersk-Alabama's captain, Richard Phillips, who had been taken hostage by Somali pirates in 2009 (a siege that ended with three Seal Team 6 snipers killing three pirates with simultaneous shots from the Bainbridge).
All of this operational experience adds up. In March 2010, it was estimated that ScanEagle was flying 22% of the 550,000 hr. logged by the U.S. military's unmanned aircraft annually. A few years ago, a Scan- Eagle was even launched off a special warfare boat by Navy special forces.
In the decade since 9/11, the manpower of U.S. special operations has nearly doubled, its budget nearly tripled and overseas deployments are up four-fold. While all this has happened, the force's rotary-wing assets have grown incrementally and upgrades have not kept pace with demand. With the end strength of the Army and Marines set to decline in coming years, and budgets expected to tighten while the operational tempo for SOC stays high, equipment will be further stressed, something that makes leadership nervous.