Army-Navy Tag Team Trains to Defend Persian Gulf

Aviators in Kuwait ready to fly from ships in a crisis

Army-Navy Tag Team Trains to Defend Persian Gulf Army-Navy Tag Team Trains to Defend Persian Gulf
Army aviators in Kuwait spent much of 2013 training for an unusual mission—flying from Navy ships. This new mission is a major shift for... Army-Navy Tag Team Trains to Defend Persian Gulf

Army aviators in Kuwait spent much of 2013 training for an unusual mission—flying from Navy ships. This new mission is a major shift for the ground combat branch in the Middle East … and elsewhere.

Before 2003, the Army’s primary worry in the Mideast had been another Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The U.S. military first set up shop in the emirate in 1991 after liberating the country from Baghdad’s forces.

Now American troops in Kuwait mainly worry about the Persian Gulf—especially the Strait of Hormuz. The narrow waterway is a key route for commercial ships in the region. But it’s hardly the place for the ground forces’ infantry, tanks and artillery.

Officially, the Pentagon’s current mission—Operation Spartan Shield—is all about hunting down terrorists. However, the Iranians often threaten to close the Strait of Hormuz. Counter-terror ops in the area can shift quickly to dealing with Tehran.

These days, Navy ships and Air Force warplanes guard the Persian Gulf. But low-flying Army helicopters are better for hunting the small boats that Iran favors.

In the late 1980s, the Army and Navy services teamed up to fight similar threats. Army helicopters flew from Navy ships to fend off the Iranian boats during the so-called “Tanker War.”

That ’80s partnership was temporary and ad hoc. The Army and Navy have been working hard to make joint ops more permanent and routine.

In 2002, the Army outlined new formal requirements for pilots operating from Navy vessels. Six years later, the ground branch included “seabasing”—flying from ships instead of traditional land bases—on the list of things its helicopters might end up doing in the future.

An AH-64 Apache assigned to the 36th Combat Aviation Brigade hovers above the USS Ponce’s flight deck during Exercise Spartan Kopis. Navy photo

Army aviators gained vital experience last year while training regularly with the Navy in the Gulf. The sailing branch’s ships also refueled Army rotorcraft on their way to other training exercises.

U.S. allies in the region have also gotten in on the game. AH-64 Apache gunships from the United Arab Emirates joined American Apaches for target practice over the Gulf last summer.

The Army’s efforts culminated in a major Navy exercise last December. Exercise Spartan Kopis brought together the Navy, Marine Corps, Army and Air Force—and even the Coast Guard.

Army helicopters flew practice missions from the USS Ponce, a sort of prototype sea base. Navy destroyers and patrol craft and Air Force bombers also participated.

Now the ground combat branch is rewriting the book on flying from ships—literally. The existing Army manual on the topic is almost 17 years old.

The Army is already applying what it learned. The service’s helicopters flew from Navy ships during exercises off Hawaii earlier this year.

This is important. Pundits have questioned the ground branch’s role in the Pentagon’s pivot toward the Pacific. The military’s new Air Sea Battle doctrine places heavy emphasis on ships and planes.

The Army clearly wants to be able to participate in these sort of “maritime contingency operations” on a regular basis in the future. The Army-Navy tag team could help the ground branch prove its worth at sea.