After more than a year in limboof back and forth, the Navy has decided to shutdown one of its only two dedicated save one of its last special operations-only helicopter squadrons, in a money-saving reorganization to retain the service's spec ops expertise. that would TKTKKT consolidate in a deal with Congress that will shut down one squadron and stand up two tactical support units in a bid to maintain the service's long history of spec ops expertise.

In March, the Navy will shutter Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 84 in Norfolk, which, along with HSC-85, has flown a decade of shadowy missions in war zones with aging helicopters. The active-duty and reserve aircrews that fly these HH-60H Rescue Hawks are the Navy's equivalent of the Army's renowned 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known as the "Night Stalkers." In their decade of continuous deployments, HSC-84 aircrews have earned three Distinguished Flying Crosses, 13 Bronze Stars, 120 Air Medals with Valor, among other awards.

The two reserve squadrons have been providing special operations forces support for decades, but the Navy has wanted to shut them down because of budget concerns, the Navy planned to shut them down and farm out missions like SEAL training and insertion to fleet squadrons to save as much as $27 million a year. But some argue that missions like nighttime raids and special patrol insertion/extraction are dangerous and rare, demanding highly specialized aircrews rather than fleet pilots who juggle this training with routine missions like search and rescue. and highly specialized nighttime 

The HSC-84 "Red Wolves" are to decommission in March, while the Now, the Navy's Norfolk-based SOF squadron is scheduled to decommission in March, while HSC-85 "Firehawks" remain open in San Diego. The service plans to stand up two tactical support units on each coast to assist and a TSU on either coast will prop up fleet squadrons, Navy spokeswoman Lt. j.g. Kara Yingling told Navy Times. The TSUs will be able to embed personnel in pre-deployment weapons school, Yingling added, but further details on how the units will operate were not available. The TSUs will switch to the MH-60S Knighthawk.

HSC-85 will have 353 total billets, Yingling said, and there will be opportunities for those who have served in 84 to make the switch. The squadrons are part of the Navy Reserve, however, so the squadron's weekend warriors are unlikely to switch coasts for those opportunities.

However, In order to retain that East Coast talent, a TSU will stand up as a shore tour to keep around highly trained pilots and aircrew.

"The TSU construct is still being finalized, but each TSU might have up to billets for 79 officers and enlisted," Yingling said.

But a former commanding officer of the Norfolk-based HSC-84 is skeptical of the Navy's plan for the TSUs, arguing that the plans for the transition are vague and may plans aren't yet in place for the transition and that the plan may flounder down the road.

"There's no concept of operations," said retired Capt. Sean Butcher, who has kept a close eye on the state of the squadrons throughout this year's budget and National Defense Authorization Act negotiations.

That vagueness concerns Butcher.

"[U.S.Special Operations Command] SOCOM agreed to this concept by the Navy because they thought that would be getting, not HSC-84/85, but something better than what the fleet can provide," said retired Capt. Sean Butcher, who has kept a close eye on the squadrons through this year's budget negotiations. "Without any guidance, they all shook hands and went back to their jobs."

Butcher argued that the setup sounds more like a manpower tool, to use those pilots and aircrew outside of special operations forces missions.

And relegating them to a support unit could strip away career opportunities: For SOF experts assigned to the East Coast TSU and working at Helicopter Sea Combat Wing Squadron Atlantic, Butcher asked, will there be opportunities to ascend to commanding officer or officer-in-charge?

"There's no concept of operations," he added.

"The details of the TSUs integration within the HSC weapons schools are still being finalized," Yingling said.

Sundowning the Red Wolves

HSC-84 and 85 have been in limbo for years, but managed to survivemake it through each budget cycle because of advocates on Capitol Hill and at the Defense Department.

This year appeared to bring the final death blow for both squadrons, and by fall, they had prepared to shut down. HSC-84's forward-deployment detachment returned in October and the squadron brought back its forward-deployed detachment and prepared to transfer its aging HH-60H Rescue Hawk helicopters to the West Coast or to the Navy's aircraft boneyard in Arizona.

HSC-85 took its own paused its in operations to prepare for a shutdown. The squadrons printed up commemorative "Sun's Down, Guns Down" decommissioning patches.

Now, HSC-85 will spin back up, but it's unclear whether it will take over 84's role maintaining as a deployed force.

"Once fully reconstituted, HSC-85 will maintain the ability to provide an enduring forward-deployed detachment if required by the combatant commanders," Yingling said.

In the meantime, fleet squadrons will take over that role, with the TSUs at home to help train them on tactics for special missions. on the special SOF skills.

Still, these missions are rare and require highly specialized skills. That's why some like Butcher argue its better to maintain a cadre of highly trained fliers, rather than spread out these missions to fleet aircrews that must balance them with training for routine missions. Even then, trading an And even then, he added, it won't be a one-for-one swap with an experienced SOF helo pilot with a newly-qualified fleet aviator isn't a one-for-one swap.

"Just because you have a junior officer that flies with a pilot from 84 for two events a week doesn't necessarily mean that he has the golden ring," Butcher said.

These skills problem, Butcher said, is that those skills take years to hone and because of time and budget constraints, Butcher warns the Navy may not be able to get those pilots up to speed as quickly as it would like to. 

"The fleet aviators today don't fly nearly as much as the last generation and my generation, as well," he said. "When I was a junior officer, you had 1,000 hours in model after your first fleet tour. Today it's like 650, 700 or less."

More money and more scheduled events are needed to complete that training without cutting into the rest of the syllabus at weapons school, he said.

There will also need to be a new syllabus, as 84 and 85 have been flying a SOF-only program for Rescue Hawks, while the TSUs will be transitioning to the MH-60S Knighthawk.

"All these things were kind of sold to the [House Armed Services Committee] HASC and SOCOM as way to lessen the loss of a squadron, in a seamless way," Butcher said. "It’s just a veneer. Underneath the surface, it’s a mess."

Butcher predicts ionis that the TSUs will fail, and the service will but that the Navy will reroute the pilots and aircrew into squadron augmentation units with the HSC community's fleet replacement squadrons, so that new personnel get SOF training at the ground level.

"I'm not sure if they'll figure it out. Our little organization on the outside is just watching," he said, and working to raise these issues with Congress and in the service. "You have to give the Navy a little time here to swallow this thing. "

Meghann Myers is the Pentagon bureau chief at Military Times. She covers operations, policy, personnel, leadership and other issues affecting service members.

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