Two AH-64D Apache helicopters from the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade and two riverine command boats from Coastal Riverine Squadron 4 conduct exercises in the Persian Gulf alongside the afloat forward staging base Ponce. (Sgt. Mark Scovell / Army)
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Soldiers don’t generally spend much time aboard Navy ships. But this summer, some Army aviators got to spend days and weeks at a time living and working with sailors in the Persian Gulf.
The Texas Army National Guard’s 36th Combat Aviation Brigade has been testing Army helicopters’ capabilities in a littoral combat environment, taking off from Navy ships, firing on targets and practicing deck landings, to see what Army aviation might be able to contribute to the future of maritime surface warfare.
From March through August, the soldiers spent time aboard the amphibious transport docks Ponce and Green Bay, dock landing ship Rushmore and aircraft carrier John C. Stennis.
Experts say Army aviation and the Navy have always worked together, but as current land wars draw down and the military turns focus to the Asia-Pacific region, while maintaining security in the Middle East, the services are looking at more ways to work together over water.
“What we are are trying to do now is continue that lineage of maritime operations,” said Maj. Scott Nicholas, the 36th CAB future operations chief.
“We’re trying to develop tactics, techniques and procedure for the littoral fight” — specifically, he said, TTP for countering fast-attack craft and fast-inshore-attack craft, or small boats that might approach a larger Navy ship along a coastline.
The soldiers fitted video cameras on moving and stationary targets to capture ballistic and video data on the AH-64D Apache Longbow’s attack capabilities. Pilots also tested UH-60L Black Hawks used to transport supplies and VIPs or run medevac missions.
Lt. Col. Jim Nugent, 36th CAB’s operations officer, said his soldiers are breaking new ground in gaining their sea legs.
“Up until now, the Navy has been real good about using naval aircraft, Marine aircraft, working with Air Force aircraft,” Nugent said. “We’re not really mature in utilizing Army helicopters in that environment, and we are getting a chance to kind of write the books on what our capabilities are.”
Other services’ aircraft can defend a ship, but the Apache can do some things other attack helicopters can’t, Nugent said.
“The Apache gives the naval commander a direct-fire weapons system that’s highly maneuverable and very lethal, that can respond in a very powerful way that perhaps his onboard systems and organic systems may not allow him,” he said.
These Apache systems include a 30mm cannon that fires high-explosive projectiles, area-fire rocket systems that are capable of employing flechette rockets (pointed steel projectiles) for anti-personnel, and most importantly, the Apache’s most effective weapons system — the AGM-114 Hellfire missile.
The joint exercises found that its precision and high kill ratio are perfectly suited to fire on small boats in shallow water.
“What we’re doing is preparing us for a wave of increased littoral operations and maritime operations, potentially in the Pacific Rim,” Nugent said.
Soldiers from the brigade also spent time living aboard Ponce.
The ship, crewed by a mix of sailors and civilians, was scheduled to be decommissioned in March 2012. At the last minute, a rushed contract was issued to retrofit the ship to stage people and equipment in 5th Fleet, which is responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea and coast off East Africa as far south as Kenya.
It was many soldiers’ first experience working with sailors.
“We are actually going down to the crew level, becoming familiar with shipboard operations, what it’s like to land on Navy ships,” Nugent said. “We are not used to doing that.”
Nicholas echoed that sentiment.
“What these exercises are doing is, they’re making us stronger, they’re making us more capable. Part of that is the human relationship,” Nicholas said. “You know, going on a boat, just because we’re Department of Defense, that doesn’t necessarily mean that we really understand each other.”
In addition to learning naval aviation procedures — for example, chaining an aircraft down as soon as it lands, which isn’t necessary in most Army operations — soldiers got a glimpse of what life is like underway.
“As far as living conditions, the chow is 100 times better than Army food,” Nicholas said. “The sleeping arrangements we all got a kick out of because, you know, we’re used to cots in the field and a tent, or whatever the case may be.”
Navy customs and courtesies were also new to the soldiers. One morning early on, Nicholas was grabbing coffee in the enlisted galley, briefing with a few other pilots, when one of the chiefs onboard politely asked him to take it over to the officers’ mess.
“That was something that we recognized was of importance while we were on the ship,” he said. “We just don’t have that in the Army.”
The Army-Navy rivalry was alive aboard the Ponce, of course.
“I slid into the cockpit to fly a mission one day and someone had taken my kneeboard and put ‘Go Navy, Beat Army’ on it,” he recalled.
So can sailors and soldiers expect to deploy aboard the same ship in the future?
“Army helos making deployments on Navy ships — I don’t see that happening any time soon,” said Cmdr. Jason Salata, 5th Fleet spokesman. “I do see us operating as a joint expeditionary force near shorelines. So, operating with forward-deployed Army units while we are deployed in a theater is very likely to continue.”
For now, plans are geared toward familiarizing soldiers with onboard operations.
“The key thing for us is the communication. Landing a helo on a ship — most of the time, that’s usually not the biggest issue,” Salata said. “The biggest issue probably, from an operational standpoint, is making sure that everyone can talk to everyone else, and that the terms of reference and the integration of different capabilities and tactics all fit to go after different threats.”
Col. Rick Adams, 36th CAB commander, said his unit is working with a mix of National Guard and active-duty soldiers, and that exercises will likely continue that way.
Soldiers and sailors might not be living together, but it’s likely they’ll spend more time working together.
“As the United States is moving in a direction of a leaner, more lethal and capable force, the most important thing to make that smaller force still be the premier global power is to have the joint interoperability working,” Adams said.