U.S. Army Attack Helicopters Could Take on Iranian Missile Boats
Apache crews train for missions in the Persian Gulf
by JOSEPH TREVITHICK
For two days in August, Iranian patrol boats challenged American warships in the Persian Gulf. Though the two countries thankfully didn’t come to blows, the Pentagon made it clear that it would defend itself if attacked in the intentional waterway.
“What we see with the Iranians is not particularly responsible,” U.S. Army Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of the Pentagon’s top headquarters for operations in the Middle East, told reporters on Aug. 30 regarding the incidents. “It can lead to situations where where we may not be able to deescalate in a time before something happens.”
If an actual conflict erupted in the Persian Gulf, the U.S. Navy and Air Force would likely respond with the full weight of their forces in the region. But on top of that, another less obvious group would likely rush to the scene — Army Apache attack helicopters flying from both nearby ships and bases on land.
For at least the past four years, the Army’s gunships have actively trained for just this sort of crisis.
Though not widely appreciated, the Army has an established history of flying choppers into combat from Navy vessels. And much of that experience actually derives from previous clashes with Iranian boats.
During the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran tried to strangle Iraqi oil exports by attacking tanker ships, including those sailing under the flag of other countries.
After the United States agreed to let Kuwaiti ships fly the American flag for their defense, Washington became committed to taking the Iranian navy apart. During Operation Praying Mantis in April 1988, the United States attacked Iranian ships in the largest U.S. naval surface engagement since World War II.
The U.S. Navy was the obvious choice to lead the mission, but American sailors had trained to fight large Soviet warships and submarines. U.S. ships lacked weapons and other gear better suited to finding nimble, rocket-armed Iranian speedboats and small landing craft turned into deadly mine-layers.
So, the Pentagon rushed MH-60 Black Hawks and AH-6 Little Birds from Task Force 160 — the predecessor of today’s famed 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment — to the Persian Gulf. The choppers flew from Navy destroyers and modified oil-service barges. Eventually, Army aviators flying some of the first versions of the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior took over from the special operators.
But skills are like muscles — they need regular exercise or they will degrade.
During the 1990s and the 2000s, the Army had few opportunities to practice or deploy these skills again. The Army kept official training manuals on operating over water, but the service rarely reviewed or updated them.
At the same time, long-standing enmity between Washington and Tehran didn’t make the Persian Gulf or the particularly narrow Strait of Hormuz — a potential choke point in any conflict — any less contentious.
Between December 2007 and January 2008, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps speedboats made provocative maneuvers near a number of Navy destroyers and other vessels. During one of the December 2007 incidents, the amphibious ship USS Whidbey Island fired warning shots to chase off the boats.
Four years later, Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Rahimi threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz to international shipping and foreign warships, prompting a series of competing American and Iranian military exercises.
By 2012, the Army was moving back into the over-water mission in the Gulf — this time with Apache gunships. Armed with laser-guided Hellfire missiles, rockets and a 30-millimeter cannon, an Apache helicopter can easily take out small Iranian boats if they ever try to swarm around an American ship.
Though most U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, the Pentagon continued to send soldiers for temporary stints in nearby countries such as Kuwait and Bahrain. The ground combat branch routinely deployed UH-60 Black Hawks and AH-64 Apaches to Kuwait.
Still, the service found that few of the aviators in these units had any real experience flying missions out to sea.
“How do you train for a mission you have never executed?” U.S. Army Lt. Col. Henry Perry and Maj. Brian Hummel, the commander and executive officer respectively for the 4th Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, wrote in an article about their own experience in the October-December 2013 edition of Aviation Digest.
“Where do you start?”
To prepare their battalion for the upcoming missions, the officers met with their counterparts from the South Carolina Army National Guard who had recently returned from Kuwait. The Army aviators took classes from the U.S. Coast Guard on flying over the open seas.
They trained with the Navy and studied its manuals on how to take off, land and otherwise fly from ships. They flew mock missions over the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Southern California.
While the troops from 4–227th prepared to go to the Middle East, the Texas National Guard’s 36th Aviation Brigade busily conducted training missions in Kuwait. These included so-called “deck landing qualifications” aboard Navy ships including the unique, floating “sea base” USS Ponce.
In 2002, the Army, Navy and Air Force agreed to a single set of requirements for training pilots to land on ships, according to a piece by Army Maj. Randall Stillinger in the July-September issue of Aviation Digest. Aviators needed to pass a course on dry land and successfully practice the landing maneuvers five times.
Afterward, they needed to make another five touchdowns on actual ships to become certified in the procedure. Even more training was required to land on ships at night. Stillinger lamented that Navy ships were not always available to train the 36th’s pilots. And bad weather in Kuwait could easily ground the choppers.
But the Army pressed on with the concept. When the 4–227th arrived in Kuwait in August 2013, the unit found itself teaming up with the Navy, other services and American allies for a variety of wargames.
From a temporary home at Ali Al Salem Air Base in Kuwait, the battalion’s Apaches flew to the country’s Failaka Island and blew up a mock enemy command center. Along with AH-64s from the United Arab Emirates, the gunships attacked more mock water targets in the Persian Gulf and landed on the amphibious ship USS Harpers Ferry.
Both of these practice sessions simulated a possible real-life conflict with Iran. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps has command posts and bases on a number of small islands in the Persian Gulf — defended by a fleet of small boats armed with missiles, rockets and torpedoes.
The 4–227th met regularly with other Army and Navy units. To help with surveillance missions, the troops worked out how to transmit the feeds from their powerful cameras to screens aboard Navy ships and land-based command posts.
Since 2013, the Army has only stepped up this sort of training.
In March, Army aviators from the California and Washington Army National Guard practiced landing AH-64s and CH-47 Chinooks on the Ponce and taking off again. The experience of flying out and spending time on a ship was still obviously new to many.
“We learned that everything, when it comes to business on the flight deck, is taken very serious,” Army Spc. Andrew Hinojosa told a public affairs officer from the California Guard. “We definitely got to experience life in confined quarters, stacked four-high on some racks living in a hallway.”
While its unlikely that Washington will find itself in a full scale war with Iran, incidents in the Persian Gulf still have the potential to become dangerous.
In January, the IRGC detained 10 U.S. sailors after their boats drifted near Farsi Island.
“This is, in my view, is not about the Iranian people,” Votel said in his August briefing. “ It’s about the Iranian regime and their desire to continue to do these types of things that stoke instability or attempt to stoke instability in the region.”
Along with the Navy and the Air Force, the Army’s gunships are prepared to help out if these incidents turn into an actual skirmish.