Late last year, some held out hope that the Navy's budget would save two special operations helicopter squadrons.
It was not to be.
The Navy's released its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal, unveiled in early February, plans to shut down providing for the decommissioning of Helicopter Sea Combat Squadrons 84 and 85, the service's only dedicated units for Special Operations Command aviation support.
It's been a high-stakes tug of war over funding between SOCOM and the Navy, of budget hot potato, with two shadowy Navy squadrons hanging in the balance. The Navy argues that fleet squadrons can fulfill these missions using newer helicopters, but squadron fliers and some experts believe these specialized missions need more dedicated support.
The Navy has wanted to defund the squadrons move had been in the works for years, Capt. Brian Bartlett, commanding officer of HSC-84's Norfolk-based "Red Wolves," told Navy Times, but the decision wasn't easy to make.
"People come to the command wanting to do this mission because they feel like it matters and it has made a difference," Bartlett said in a rare Feb. 18 phone interview. "A lot of people are disappointed."
The Navy plans to save more than $27 million in fiscal '16 by shuttering the squadrons and sending their 24 HH-60H Rescue Hawk helicopters to the boneyard, according to its budget proposal.
Those flights hours for special operations forces training and mission support are to from the Navy will be made up by fleet squadrons flying MH-60s, and the budget provides for an increase in flight operations.
"Given the current fiscal environment, all assets are scrutinized, funding is prioritized and capabilities are optimized to meet mission requirements," Navy spokesman Lt. Robert Myers said told Navy Times on Feb. 12. "After careful review, the Navy determined that continued, yet limited, special operations support to address combatant commander priorities will still be achievable with the remaining HSC squadrons."
However, experts question whether the Navy can continue to support SOF missions and training with two dozen fewer helicopters at its disposal.
"I'm not sure how they're going to make up this difference," said retired Cmdr. Rick "Ozzie" Nelson, a 20-year helicopter pilot and former staffer at Joint Special Operations Command.
The back-and-forth has gone on for years. decision came after several years of back and forth between the Navy and SOCOM. The Navy didn't want to foot the entire bill for the squadrons because they are SOF-exclusive, but SOCOM didn't want to pick it up because they're Navy assets.
"It's a little bittersweet. I feel somewhat responsible, being in command," Bartlett said. "I was [executive officer] XO and CO when all of this was coming down, when this decision was being made."
HSC-84 and 85 — together with the Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, "the Night Stalkers" — are responsible for a third of SOCOM's training flights in the continental U.S. and OCONUS. The units are only able to respond to about 70 percent of SOCOM's requests.
Bartlett, an 18-year helicopter pilot, has orders to be the next operations officer aboard the aircraft carrier George Washington, out of Yokosuka, Japan, but things aren't as clear for his shipmates, he said.
Some already have follow-on orders for before Sept. 30, the squadron's official end date, but those who don't are concerned about their fate come October.
"And rightfully so, whether it means they have to move overseas, they have to move across the country, or they're going to stay local," Bartlett said.
Both HSC-84 and 85 are technically reserve squadrons. But they've been continuously activated for the past decade and are they're staffed by a mix of active-duty personnel, reservists on active orders and selectedive reservists.
Of about 240 billets at HSC-84, Bartlett said, 60 percent are reserve and 40 percent are active.
Most of the enlisted will probably go to other HSCs, he said, because they hold the H-60 helicopter enlisted classification.
For senior enlisted and officers, however, there is an extra concern about the change disrupting their career timelines.
"So you may have a chief that's been in the command for two years, he's progressed up through the rankings and he's going to be forced to go somewhere else before he has the opportunity to break out," Bartlett said. "And that's going to happen to the officers in the wardroom as well. It's so tough for guys now to promote or screen for command. Any hiccup can impact their career."
And then there are the selectedive reservists, some of whom have spent decades at the command.
"A lot of those personnel never leave," Bartlett said. "They stay there for a long time, so they build up a lot of experience that is passed down to new people that come into the command."
Fleet helicopter pilots train to the SOF mission as part of their rotation, but their experience is no match for the expertise at HSC-84 and 85, Bartlett said.
"The pilots that we have, none of them are 'nuggets,' " he said, the nickname for first-tour flyers.
He added that all of his pilots show up with about 1,000 hours of flying time from one or two fleet tours, plus perhapsmaybe weapons school or a fleet replacement tour as an instructor.
An HH-60H assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 85 retrieves pilots and air crew participating in an escape and evade drill in May 2013.
Photo Credit: MCSA Conor Minto/Navy
And joining the Red Wolves isn't just a matter of getting orders; pilots have to apply for a position and then be approved by the squadron.
On the plus side, Bartlett said, Their expertise will now seed fleet squadrons, hat expertise will disperse to the fleet, but the learning curve will be steep, Bartlett warned.
"I think fleet squadrons can do the mission," he said. "I don't think they can sustain long term like we can. They're not funded for it, they're not trained for it, they're not resourced for it."
It comes down to math, added Nelson, the retired commander who's now a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Either fleet squadrons will have to cut into their training hours to fit SOF flights, or they'll have to spend extra time and money adding more flight hours.
"If you're given X amount of flight hours to be proficient in anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, you can either add X number more hours so they can do SOF support, which puts greater strain on the pilots and the aircraft, because these aircraft do have airframe lives," he said. "Or you can have them take it out of their current allocation, in which case, proficiency might suffer."
End of Rescue Hawks
The other issue at play in the shuttering of these two squadrons is in the legacy HH-60H helicopter these squadrons fly. Most Navy squadrons transitioned to the MH-60R SeahHawk and MH-60S Knighthawk years ago.
Though they're newer models, Nelson said, they aren't nearly as suited to SOF missions as the older Rescue Hawks, which were designed with special operations in mind.
"One of the most important things about the HH-60 is that it had a cabin with space where you could put SEALs, special operators inside of it," he said. "The H-60R has a lot less cabin space because it's filled with equipment like dipping sonar and radar."
And while the new H-60s are adept at anti-submarine and anti-surface warfare, they're not ideally armored to insert special operators into a hostile environment.
"The MH-60 is not designed to do that," he said. "It's a standoff weapon designed to fire Hellfire missiles from a distance or to engage a submarine, which has limited capacity to engage a helicopter."
Despite the concerns, Bartlett said, he and his team understand the Navy's reasoning.
"We're all in the Navy. We understand that choices are made and we carry out our orders and do what we're told," he said. "To be honest with you, I think the Navy made a very good offer and the customer [SOCOM] said, 'No thanks.' "
SOCOM has plans to make up for what fleet squadrons can't cover, spokesman Kenneth McGraw confirmed.
"The reduced requirement for forward-deployed, special operations rotary wing aviation will allow the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to provide additional support for Naval Special Warfare Command," he said in a Feb. 20 statement. "Air Force Special Operations Command is completing the fielding of the CV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft and will also be able to provide additional support. "
Still Bartlett has hope that this isn't the last of the Rescue Hawk squadrons. On the other hand, he also doesn't rule out the possibility that the squadrons will come back one day, if budgets allow.
"I think these squadrons have been shut down and reborn several times, so maybe somewhere down the road, they'll stand us back up and one of my guys who is in the squadron now will get to come back and be the CO," he said. "That'd be nice."