Special operations forces have a dedicated fleet of tricked-out helicopters at their disposal, but as their workload grows, they are increasingly reliant on conventional aircraft to get their jobs done.
A high operational tempo in Afghanistan has married conventional and special operations forces like never before, forcing a heightened level of cooperation at all levels, from commanding generals to aircraft pilots and crews.
It wasn’t always so, especially when it came to sharing information and aircraft, according to Maj. Gen. Anthony Crutchfield, commander of the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence.
As a combat aviation brigade commander in Afghanistan, Crutchfield was once asked to provide aircraft in support of a special operations mission, he said at the Army Aviation Association of America’s annual symposium.
Seeking information from his special operations counterpart, Crutchfield was turned away because he “didn’t have a need to know.”
“That was not the right answer … telling that to a brigade commander who is supplying the aircraft for you to fly the mission,” he said. “Quite frankly, it pissed me off.”
Now the once-tense relationship has changed, at least from the perspective of Army aviation, which takes the lead on most rotary wing development and acquisitions. At least until the close of the war in Afghanistan, the services will be forced to continue that cooperation. At present, half of all special operations missions flown in that conflict are carried out using conventional aircraft.
“Since 9/11, special operations forces have become increasingly reliant on general-purpose forces to complete [their] mission,” said Brig. Gen. Kevin Mangum, commander of Army Special Operations Aviation Command. “We can’t do what we do without the great work our combat aviation brigades are doing on the battlefield.”
Special operators fly versions of the UH-60 Black Hawk and CH-47 Chinook that are upgraded to fly farther and faster and with better sensor capabilities than standard aircraft. They also fly the CV-22, a version of the tilt-rotor Osprey operated by Air Force Special Operations Command.
Both the conventional and special operations versions of the various aircraft are essentially the same when built. All the elite gear for SOF is added after the basic model is manufactured.
“You’re typically going to have improvements like extra fuel capacity, self-protection and additional sensors,” said Douglas Royce, an aerospace analyst with Forecast International. “Generally, it’s stuff that makes the aircraft fly farther and gives it greater situational awareness. But in order to create a special operations version of any aircraft, it takes money. This way, it is much cheaper to adapt an existing design than to develop a new aircraft.”
While many SOF aircraft are similar at the core, for many special operations missions, there are technologies required that are either too expensive or unnecessary for conventional troops. Aircraft flown by Navy SEALs and Marine Corps special operators have to be weatherized to withstand maritime environments, for example. The A/M-H6 Little Bird light attack helicopter was specially designed and is exclusively used by special operations forces. It is too small and expensive to be useful for large-scale operations by conventional forces.
The door swings both ways, however. Conventional ground forces often travel in larger numbers and shorter distances into enemy territory. Therefore it is to their advantage that their helicopters are not weighed down with high-end sensors and unnecessary add-ons like mid-air refueling nozzles.
Those unique capabilities on the “fringes” of overall helicopter design are where special operations aviation should focus its funding, Mangum said.
One of those SOF-unique equipment packages is the common aviation architecture system, built by Rockwell Collins. The CAAS cockpit will eventually be installed in all special operations Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters.
In 2001, when Rockwell Collins began working with special operations aviation, there were five different cockpit configurations in Chinooks and Blackhawks, said Daniel Toy, principal marketing manager for rotary wing systems for Rockwell Collins. The diversity of systems created logistical difficulties for forces that were, by definition, supposed to travel light and remain nimble.
With the installation of the CAAS cockpit, SOF aircraft are being upgraded and standardized simultaneously. The equipment provides an unprecedented level of interoperability while reducing logistics costs, according to Toy.
Chinooks are either newly manufactured or recapitalized by Boeing, at which point the specialized cockpit and other SOF-specific components are added. Blackhawks are delivered directly to the Army, in which case Rockwell Collins sends its equipment to an Army depot, where it is installed.
“The multi-function displays in their Chinooks are the exact same as the displays in their Blackhawks,” Toy said. “They’re interchangeable. The software recognizes which aircraft it’s in and reconfigures itself automatically.”
With the upgraded aircraft, SOF can deploy with a mixed detachment of aircraft and only have the need for a single set of common cockpit components.
The scheme is typical of how special forces in all services retrofit their aircraft, including the most secretive projects that don’t show up on budget documents. The stealth helicopters used in the raid to kill Osama bin Laden were developed under such a cloak. The equipment that went into those aircraft has been speculated upon but not confirmed, said Royce. Still, the stealth aircraft were not newly developed platforms, but modified versions of the Blackhawk and Chinook.
“But that was in the black budget,” said Royce. “It is possible that they are continuing to develop these super-secret aircraft under that cover, but we’ll never know about it. Because the black budget is so big, it’s possible for them to have these sorts of programs.”
Even the portions of SOF’s budget that the public is privy to are getting a boost where rotorcraft are concerned.
In an effort to meet demand for SOF aviation and in anticipation of a future U.S. military strategy that relies heavily on special operations, the command’s fiscal year 2013 budget request includes increases in nearly every rotary wing line item.
Of a total aviation procurement budget of $761 million, more than half will go to rotary wing platforms. That $475 million will buy 16 MH-60M Blackhawks, bringing the total production to 62 platforms. It also calls for procurement of seven MH-47 Chinooks and four CV-22’s, for a total fleet strength of 48 for that aircraft.
Rotary wing upgrade and sustainment jumped by nearly 100 percent from $41.4 million in fiscal 2012 to a $74.8 million request for the current fiscal year. Flight operations funding, which is a portion of the overseas contingency operations budget, also increased by $195 million to more than $1.1 billion for fiscal 2013. Though that total includes fixed-wing aircraft and funding for unmanned aerial vehicles, it is an indication of the high demand placed on special operations aviation in Central Asia.
Research and development did take a hit in 2013, however. That line item fell by more than half, from $51.1 million in fiscal 2012 to a requested $24.4 million in the current fiscal year.
In all, the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review supports 165 tilt-rotor and fixed-wing mobility and fire support aircraft. It calls for the addition of a company of upgraded Chinooks to the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and two dedicated helicopter squadrons for direct support to naval special warfare units.
But all of that procurement is still within the realm of traditional helicopter technology that is often deemed slow and dangerous. The only new-start platform in the past 25 years in the special operations’ inventory is the CV-22 Osprey.
Looking to the future, aviation commanders from both conventional and special operations aviation are putting their heads together to develop the future vertical lift platform — a revolutionary technology that will begin to replace existing helicopter fleets by 2030.
The Army, on behalf of all services that use vertical-lift aircraft, leads that ongoing development effort. For the first time, a special operations aviator is working directly with Army aviation leaders to ensure the final product is a common airframe that can be used by both SOF and conventional forces with minimal retooling.
“We’re not developing a special operations aircraft and a conventional aircraft,” said Crutchfield, who oversees FVL.
The aircraft that results from that program should be designed to ferry special operators deeper and faster while keeping them safer than any aircraft available today. It will likely also differ slightly from the versions of FVL used by conventional forces, but as cooperation between the two groups continues to mature, the differences should diminish, he said. There is the added difficulty that it will be required to be as aerodynamic as possible, meaning that its systems and weapons will be designed into the aircraft itself. The current practice of bolting new systems and weapons to the outside of the aircraft likely won’t be an option.
No one yet knows what the aircraft will look like — whether it will be an advanced helicopter, a tilt-rotor or have a hybrid fixed-wing/rotary wing design. The Army is looking at all three possibilities, aided in research and development by several companies, including Boeing, Bell Helicopter, Sikorsky and Lockheed Martin. It plans to build two test aircraft by 2017.
Whatever the result, it will amplify the effectiveness of special operations, said Mangum.
“The speed and lift of that FVL will provide us will be an absolute game changer,” he said. “We will be able to operate over a distributed battlefield where we can cover a huge area with a much smaller force.”