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.
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.