Sailors aboard the cruiser Lake Erie direct an Army OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter off the coast of Hawaii during joint training operations Dec. 9. An Army unit is expected to participate in more training exercises in 2014. (MCC John M. Hageman/Navy)
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Sailors working in the Pacific can expect to bunk with Army helicopter crews soon, if all goes according to plan.
That’s the word from Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific commander Rear Adm. Rick Williams and Army Col. Kenneth Hawley, whose 25th Combat Aviation Brigade helo crews have been getting their deck-landing qualifications aboard Navy ships for the past few months.
The next step, Hawley said, is to start bringing helicopter crews to stay on the ships during training exercises lasting several days.
“There’s a lot of goodness in a combined approach,” Williams told Navy Times. “We’re all trying to optimize resources, we’re all trying to optimize our time together, and we’re all finding the opportunity to combine these efforts.”
Army OH-58 Kiowa Warriors and UH-60 Black Hawks have landed aboard the cruiser Lake Erie and destroyers Chung-Hoon, Michael Murphy and O’Kane, Hawley said.
Army helicopter crews have also worked with the destroyers Halsey, Hopper and Chafee, MIDPAC spokesman Bill Doughty confirmed.
The exercises are a spinoff of operations performed by the Texas National Guard’s 36th Combat Aviation Brigade and 5th Fleet, which practiced deck landings last spring and summer aboard two amphibious transport docks, a dock landing ship and an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.
While Kiowas are lighter and carry fewer weapons and equipment than the AH-64 Apaches used in the Persian Gulf exercises, they can play a similar role in littoral missions, Hawley said.
“It’s light, it’s maneuverable and it has an attack capability,” he said. “So we’ve got that [to] offer to the Navy, to deal with any kind of fast-attack boats that an adversary may want to bring to attack one of the DDGs or a cruiser that’s out there.”
Navy and Marine Corps helicopters are more than capable of carrying out the Navy’s missions, Hawley said, but there are some unique aspects to Army helos.
For instance, the Kiowa’s Level II Manned-Unmanned system can transmit video from the helicopter back to the ship’s captain, he said.
“For example, if the [captain] sends us out there to take a look at some ships, before he allows us to engage, he can see exactly what those pilots are seeing so he knows that we’re looking at the right thing, and if he wants us to engage or not, we can do that,” he said.
Exercises in the Pacific have emphasized humanitarian relief, as well as search-and-rescue operations.
“As you’ve seen, that’s unfortunately turning into a growth industry,” Williams said. “There’s a disaster or a storm or some type of response — just like we saw in the Philippines here — a lot more frequently, so that’s not something that we can ignore.”
Black Hawks come in particularly handy for these types of missions, transporting personnel or supplies to and from hard-to-reach sites following a disaster. Navy Seahawks are more than capable, Hawley said, but Black Hawks can offer an extra boost.
“We can augment any kind of vertical replenishment if the Navy needs that support,” Hawley said. “If the Navy needs help bringing passengers to and from ships, just based on the workload of what our helicopter squadron has here, we can do that with our Black Hawks.”
Pearl Harbor’s fleet is focused mostly on smaller ships such as cruisers and destroyers, Hawley added, but they have been able to use the decommissioned amphibious assault ship Tarawa to practice landing CH-47 Chinooks, a massive transport helicopter that requires a lot of deck space.
“We would love to be able to increase that to other ships,” he said, including carriers and amphibious transport docks, as crews have done in the Persian Gulf.
During those exercises, the helicopter crews also spent a few days living on the ships, learning the ropes of life underway. The 25th CAB hasn’t had a chance to do that yet, Hawley said, but they’re hoping to set something up for early next year.
Hawley recently brought some of his leaders aboard Michael Murphy and Erie, to show them what life on a ship is like. He’s also invited the Navy to come out to Fort Shafter, Hawaii.
“We’ve asked the Navy’s helicopter squadrons to come out to [Hawaii’s] Wheeler Army Airfield to give us some professional development on how we would maintain aircraft, flow our parts into the ship and any other tips,” he said.
Neither Hawley nor Williams could confirm whether there’s a future for Army helicopter crews forward-deployed with Navy ships, beyond short stints for training exercises.
For now, both sides are working on including the 25th CAB in the Navy’s Koa Kai exercise this spring, which brings ships to Hawaii to practice integrated flight operations, anti-surface and anti-submarine training, and dynamic ship maneuvers.
“I really do believe that disaster relief and humanitarian assistance is obviously a growth mission,” Williams said. “I was in the [Superstorm] Sandy rescue effort last year when we deployed up to New York. This can happen anywhere, we need to be ready for it.
“All of our joint partners realize it, as well. We’re not waiting for the training to happen after the event. We’re getting ahead of it.”