Apaches at Sea?

So, Spill brings to my attention that the Army, as a part of the services “pivot” to the Pacific, is looking at increasing its capabilities to contribute to combat power in the vast reaches of the Pacific.

For the most part, the Pacific theater has widely been seen as the realm of the Navy/Marine Corps team, and to a lesser extent, the Air Force. That’s partly because there’s a lot of water, and not so much land. Part of that perception, though, is that historically, post-World War II, the Army has stressed its operations in Europe over those in the Pacific. Of course, that overlooks the fact that throughout the Pacific War, the Army greatly outnumbered the Marine Corps, and in fact, staged more amphibious assaults.

At any rate, the Army is looking at increasing the training and planning it does for operating its helicopters from Navy ships.

An Army AH-64D Apache attack helicopter lands aboard the afloat forward staging base Ponce in 5th Fleet in 2012. The Army is considering expanding operations off Navy ships.

An Army AH-64D Apache attack helicopter lands aboard the afloat forward staging base Ponce in 5th Fleet in 2012. The Army is considering expanding operations off Navy ships. (MC1 Jon Rasmussen / Navy)

The Army is considering certifying some of its attack helicopters to operate from ships — a mission historically conducted by the Marine Corps — as the service looks to broaden the role it would play in an Asia-Pacific battle.

Operating from ships at sea “seems to be a growth capability, and we do sense that there is increasing demand out there” in South Korea and U.S. Central Command, said the Army’s director of aviation, Col. John Lindsay, at an April 8 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.

The service has been running drills on landing AH-64 Apache helicopters on Navy ships in recent months, but “we’ve gotta make sure that we have the appropriate demand signal coming in from the combatant commanders,” Lindsay said, to determine “how much maritime capability does the Army need to invest in.”

Lindsay acknowledged that over the long term, “we still have some work to do” to determine how much the Army wants — or needs — to invest in operating Apache helicopters from naval vessels, but there is serious work being done.

Obviously, you can tell from the picture, this is not without precedent. More than once, the Navy has hosted Army aviation assets. But that has, in the past, been more an ad hoc mission, rather than a pre-planned or routine capability.

Now, there’s no obvious reason that the Army cannot operate from Navy ships such as carriers or amphibious warfare ships. But, as the article notes, there are drawbacks.

First, air operations in the Navy are governed by a program called NATOPS, or Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures. In short, NATOPS is the sum of over 100 years experience in how to safely and effectively fly from ships. Not surprisingly, Army Aviators have little or no experience with NATOPS, and what training they can get in addition to their normal unit training schedule barely scratches the surface. As a result of this shortage of training, the risk of accidents or other operational hazards goes up. How much? I don’t know. But the increase in risk is real, and must be factored into any decision to adopt sea-basing.

Second, Army helicopters are not optimized for operations aboard ship. The most obvious issue is corrosion control. Navy and Marine aircraft are designed with preventing salt spray from corroding them very much in mind.  Army aircraft have no such protection. And the salt spray at sea can do significant corrosion damage in a surprisingly short space of time.

Another issue is that Army helicopters have rotors that can only be folded manually. Navy rotorcraft have power folding rotors. It’s a a lot more work to fit Army aircraft onto a ship.

One issue that I am not sure about it HERO, or Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance. All ordnance and pyrotechnics aboard ship must be tested to be insensitive to the intense amounts of R/F energy that are commonly found aboard ships, what with their multiple radars and high powered radio transmitters. Most ammunition should be certified by now, as they are also used by the Navy or Marines, there may be some pyrotechnics that aren’t. Further, I seem to recall hearing that the 30mm ammunition for the Apache M230 gun was problematical in that environment.

There may also be issues with the avionics of Apaches or other Army rotorcraft operating with and around ships.

The challenges of operating Army aircraft at sea are by no means impossible to overcome. The question is, is this something we really need to do, or are we merely duplicating a capability already provided by Marine Corps air?

The Army has a lot more to contribute to the Pacific Pivot (and the nebulous concept of Air Sea Battle, as well) than is generally recognized. But much of that contribution won’t be in the form of direct combat power, and instead takes the shape of combat support and service support- the unsexy side of warfighting.

21 thoughts on “Apaches at Sea?”

  1. Most Army Aviation over water on board survival equipment tends to be notional as opposed to ongoing ops based. I believe that part of the NATOPS will be a necessary large shift for Army Aviation A/C. Then of course there’s that port/starboard thing….

  2. Apaches also generate an incredible amount of EMI as the Army and Navy approach this problem differently. Once, I heard, when the Army flew an Apache aboard a Navy ship, the ship’s CO ordered it to depart because of the EMI. We did try to sell a semi-navalized version of the Apache (AH-64B) but were not successful.

  3. To note, the Brits already fly their Apache AH.1 off amphibs. Its probably worth the effort for the Army to study the issue, but I doubt it will go much beyond t.

  4. To note, the Brits already fly their Apache AH.1 off amphibs.

    This may go as far as some deck trials, but I doubt it will go much further than a study. Making this concept work would require marinization mods to future Apache versions, and I doubt there is enough money or will power to operationalize the capability. But its probably worth doing the studies just so the Army can get familiar with the problems of ship basing helicopters in general.

  5. I don’t think it would hurt to produce a navalized version of the Apache. I don’t know how much weight it would add. The Apache is larger than the Cobra, but more capable. I understand why USMC has retained the Cobra, but the capability for Army Aviation to operate off ships, I think, is needed.

    The big question is what would it take to navalize the Warthog?

    1. The Warthogs need to go to the Army. The AF hates the things and has been wanting to ditch them for better than 20 years. Send all TacAir from the USAF to the Army.

    2. Back in the late 1970s or early 1980s I recall a two-seat version of the A-10 was proposed, equipped for night work. The AF turned it down, unsurprisingly. During the Gulf War A-10 pilots were using the imaging IR heads on Maverick missiles to get close up views of things they spotted with their night vision goggles,

      Back in the early 1970s I was buzzed on the Long Island Expressway by a Warthog prototype out of Republic in Farmingdale. On an earlier occasion I had seen an F-14 out of Grumman in Bethpage. It was flying low, lighting up the afterburners and climbing like the proverbial bat out of hell with the wings sweeping back. Both of those companies are gone from New York. During WW2 these firms cranked out thousands and thousands of P-47s and F6Fs. Of course every one had to be test flown. I am told that ‘dogfights’ were a common sight over Long Island. 🙂

  6. Another problem for army helos operating on naval vessels: rotor brakes. Most army helicopters do not have rotor brakes (although I think the 160th had some MH-60s and MH-47s with rotor brakes.) If the ship is rolling and pitching (which it is, 95% of the time), you really need a rotor brake to stop the big fan (or fans, for the Chinook guys). If you let the rotor coast down the way you do on land, you get dangerous situations for the deck crew and damaged rotor heads when the blades start banging stop-to-stop with the motion of the ship. The Pave Lows that I used to fly had rotor brakes and it really paid off when we did ship ops.


    1. An Apache has a rotor brake…don’t know about a ’60 though.

      The Army has been operating with the Navy in Korea for many years now, usually not landing or basing off the ship, but in the late 90’s 6th CAV began to work jointly with SH-60’s and Destroyers off the Korean coasts to interdict small boat traffic in the event of war.

      I would guess that most Army aviators would rather skip the experience of life aboard ships at sea. I would also guess that there are things that would need to be changed and things that people are guess about that are just fine the way they are.

  7. I worked on the production line for the fuze used on th LW30’s HEDP round. It is totally mechanical – a pretty cool system of springs, weights and seals that sense acceleration and spin to arm the round. While I wasn’t involved in its design (quite a bit before my time) I don’t think it has HERO issues

  8. The first use of Army aircraft off of carriers was the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in 1942. Widely believed to be of propaganda value only (although a lot of that) it actually had a noticeable effect on the war. To prevent further raids, the Japanese occupied most of the Chinese coast to deny landing sites. This stretched lines of communication and made them much more vulnerable to submarine attack, an opportunity exploited to the hilt.

    The Japanese action prevented a planned second raid. A squadron of B-24s manned by volunteers was to have attacked Tokyo on July 4. When this became impossible, the aircraft had just reached Libya on their journey around the world. Instead of Tokyo they were assigned another daredevil target – the oilfields of Romania, primary source of fuel for Germany! The range was so long that the flight had to be made at treetop level to conserve fuel. Many such raids were to follow, sometimes massive ones, and often with serious cost. Due to this and efforts elsewhere, lack of fuel was to be a major factor in Germany’s defeat.

    Another springboard digression from sag.

    1. IIRC, the Ploesti raid was made at low level, but flying the entire distance from Libya to Romania would have seriously compromised range. They flew across the Med high to conserve fuel.

    2. QM, you are correct. There would have been little point in flying that low across the water since there were mountains to climb ahead of them. They went down on the deck after that to conserve fuel, to avoid early detection and to maximize bombing accuracy. To emphasize that they really flew at treetop level, there were a few cases of leaves and small branches found inside bomb bays, caught as the doors closed.

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