The Navy has only two secretive helicopter squadrons devoted to special operations forces support, but thanks to tightening budgets, they're at risk of being shut down next year.
Helicopter Sea Combat Squadrons 84 and 85 are caught in a game of budget hot potato, Navy officials confirmed, as the triangle between the Navy, U.S. Special Operations Command and the Defense Department argue , Navy officials confirmed,according to HSC-84's former commanding officer, over which organization should foot the bill for the Navy-manned and equipped squadrons that solely fly special operations units across all four services.
When sequestration hit home a year ago, and continuing resolutions started to put the squeeze on budgets across the military two years ago, the Navy had to start figureing out where to pinch pennies and singled outcame across these reserve squadrons that fly the HH-60H Rescue Hawk, a special ops workhorse that costs more than twice as much to fly as the MH-60R Seahawk.
"I think the [chief of naval operations], from a financial aspect, said, 'Hey we can save money a variety of ways,' " said retired Capt. Sean Butcher, former CO of HSC-84 said in a Nov. 18 phone interview. "One of the ways is to cut these two squadrons, because the Navy does not see special operations support as a dedicated mission."
It nearly happened last year, Butcher said in a Nov. 18 phone interview, but DoDefense Department intervened to fund the squadrons at 66 percent, "in hopes that SOCOM and the CNO would come to some sort of agreement."
The Navy has been trying unload the squadrons for years, said retired Cmdr. Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a 20-year veteran helicopter pilot and former staffer at Joint Special Operations Command, can remember.
"They were going to get rid of these, and then the wars happened and they decided to keep them around," said Nelson, now an associated at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, during said told Navy Times in a Dec. 2 phone interview.
"They had funding for them, but now that the wars are winding down, they're going to be back on-message, which is to divest themselves of these assets," Nelson added.
The squadrons are back on the chopping block this year, however, unless DoD orders the Navy or SOCOM to hat they must provide funding estimated at up to $100 million a year. Butcher estimates that number to be $75 million to $100 million a year.
Shuttering these specialized helo squadrons would be a capabilities setback for special operators, the retired helo pilots said.
"I think that these helicopters have, time and again, proven their use," Nelson said. "As long as the Navy has SOF elements that conduct a very specific maritime mission, they require assets that can support them."
DoD's budget requests are being finalized for fiscal 2016, so if DoD doesn't come up with another funding plan soon, HSC-84 and 85 are scheduled to shut down in fiscal year 2016. That would likely force fleet helo pilots to pick up special operations missions, which Butcher characterized as a problematic plan since these missions require specialized flight training and gear.
A SOCOM spokesman referred a request for comment to the Navy.
"We're continuing to look at all options as we formulate our FY 16 budget, but at this point in time these options are all pre-decisional," Navy spokesman Lt. Rob Myers told Navy Times Nov. 21. "As with our FY15 budget submission, we will balance requirements with affordability to ensure we are delivering the right capabilities to the operational commanders and support to our sailors in the fleet."
'Only so many'
Butcher, a former reservist helicopter pilot, came up through the HSC-84 "Red Wolves," then served as an operations officer and force aviator on staff at Naval Special Warfare CommandNSW, where he learned the ins and outs of the budget process.
He also learned about HSC-84 and -85's complex relationship with the Navy and SOCOM, further complicated by the fact that they fly under the radar, so to speak.
"They're reserve squadrons. You'd be surprised how many people in the Navy don't know them," said Butcher, who retired Oct. 31. "And that's fine. They work with special operations. We don't want our names in Navy Times, like on the big map where the ships are."
Despite the low profile, they are extremely busy. the HSC-84, for example, has been continuously deployed to U.S. Central Command since 2004, he added. Back then, Former SOCOM chief Adm. Eric Olsoen requested that the squadron become dedicated to spec ops.
In fact, Butcher said, together with the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, the "Red Wolves" and the "Firehawks," as HSC-85 is known, squadrons are responsible for about a third of SOCOM's training lifts in the continental U.S.
On the deployed side, he added, the three units are only able to respond to about 70 percent of rotary wing support requests as it is. Two Navy detachments are deployed continuously, flying about 1,200 hours a year, he said.
One sticking point, Butcher said, could be the squadrons' high cost. Because they fly HH-60H Rescue Hawks, the predecessor of the current MH-60s, they cost about $5,400 per flight hour versus $2,500, Butcher said.
"I think [the Cost Assessment and Performance Evaluation directorate] is very concerned about directing service or [combatant commanders] to do something," Butcher said.
Butcher said the Navy had been working on a plan to upgrade the squadrons, but their uncertain future has scuttled plans.
Nelson, the defense analyst, said the Navy has allowed the HH-60s to age without coming up with a firm replacement strategy.
"The reason why we're in the situation where the Navy is maintaining helicopters that are old and more costly is because the Navy hasn't committed to this mission," Nelson said. "They're trying to play both sides."
Whether the squadrons stay or go, or get upgraded or not, the mission demands will stay the same.
"I don't care how you do the math — there's only so many helicopter platforms," said Butcher, who had a decorated career as a helo pilot. The 48-year-old has earned four Meritorious Service Medals, eight Air Medals, two with Combat 'V' and six for strike/flight, and the Combat Action Ribbon among many other personal and campaign awards, according to Navy Personnel Command.
So what would happen if HSC-84 and 85 were shut down?
Those spec ops missions would be picked up fleet pilots, Butcher said, who are perfectly capable of flying helicopters but not proficient in NSW's special missions.
For example, a special operations forces unit can request support from a carrier-based helo squadron, but if those helos are deployed and working on carrier strike ops, they have no obligation to help out SOCOM.
"SOF or NSW doesn't own those squadrons, so they can't cast them," Butcher said.
The Navy is focusing on funding service-specific items like ships and submarines, Nelson said, rather than supporting SOF-specific equipment.
"I disagree with that," he said. "I think that these helicopters have, time and again, proven their use. As long as the Navy has SOF elements that conduct a very specific maritime mission, they require assets that can support them."
While fleet helo pilots check the box for spec ops training, Butcher said that it takes dedicated, regular practice to stay proficient.
"You can certainly take general purpose forces, but then you're assuming some risk," Butcher said. "I mean that with the most respect. Those guys are certainly capable, but if you haven't flown a lot of these complex SOF missions, you just can't go out there and free-form, and still fly the mission."
Pilots who are used to taking off and landing from carriers or other flight decks aren't necessarily prepared for low-flying, stealthy pick-ups and drop-offs of combat troops, with the threat of enemy fire from the ground.
"They have 14, 15 primary missions they have to train to with some sort of competency before they deploy to the carrier strike group," Butcher said. "So only a small fraction of it is spec ops. They're exposed, but the competency level is not there."
It would require a major shift to compensate for the loss, Nelson said.
"If the Navy is going to divest itself of these assets, it's going to have to make a change to the training curriculum and the readiness curriculum for helicopter pilots, so they can now perform these types of mission," he said.
For now, the Navy, SOCOM or DoD must step forward to pay for the reserve squadrons or they'll be shuttered. to decide who pays for what, if the squadrons stay alive.
"I've never seen as much attention put on any squadron, let alone two reserve squadrons, as I have with these two," Butcher said.