An Army AH-64D Apache attack helicopter lands aboard the afloat forward staging base Ponce in 5th Fleet in 2012. The Army is considering expanding operations off Navy ships. (MC1 Jon Rasmussen / Navy)
WASHINGTON — The Army is considering certifying some of its attack helicopters to operate from ships — a mission historically conducted by the Marine Corps — as the service looks to broaden the role it would play in an Asia-Pacific battle.
Operating from ships at sea “seems to be a growth capability, and we do sense that there is increasing demand out there” in South Korea and U.S. Central Command, said the Army’s director of aviation, Col. John Lindsay, at an April 8 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
The service has been running drills on landing AH-64 Apache helicopters on Navy ships in recent months, but “we’ve gotta make sure that we have the appropriate demand signal coming in from the combatant commanders,” Lindsay said, to determine “how much maritime capability does the Army need to invest in.”
Lindsay acknowledged that over the long term, “we still have some work to do” to determine how much the Army wants — or needs — to invest in operating Apache helicopters from naval vessels, but there is serious work being done.
The Asia-Pacific region, an area of increased focus for the U.S. military, is primarily maritime. The Pentagon has said it does not envision prolonged land wars in its future after more than a decade in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is planning to shrink the Army. Experts say the Pacific is a theater geared more toward Navy and Air Force capabilities, due to the sheer size of the region.
So how does the Marine Corps feel about the Army doing this?
“I’ve never been on a crowded battlefield,” Lt. Gen. John Wissler, commander of III Marine Expeditionary Force and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Japan, told the Defense Writers Group on April 11. “I’ve never been anywhere where I said ... ‘There’s too many guys here.’ ”
But there would be challenges. While the Army is “making strides in learning how to operate” at sea, Wissler said there is an “unknown, hidden cost” associated with operating aircraft in saltwater environments.
“[Marine Corps] helicopters are different than [Army] helicopters,” he said. “The maritimization of an aviation platform is a very extensive, technical thing. If you don’t do it, you suffer significant challenges.”
Col. Frank Tate, the Army’s chief of aviation force development, said he is preparing to head to Fort Rucker, Ala., in mid-April to attend a conference that would discuss the effects of seawater on the Army’s rotary-wing aircraft.
“The Army is not new to this idea of maritime operations and ship operations,” Tate said at the same event.
In a nod to Marine Corps sensitivities over the issue, Tate was quick to point out that flying Army helicopters from the decks of ships isn’t new. He was involved in operations in Haiti in the early 1990s, when the Army flew Apaches off the back of Navy frigates.
But Wissler noted that the deployment to Haiti had “significant impacts to helicopters and readiness” across Army aviation since they were not built to operate from ships.
“They had a mission, they met the mission, they went and executed the mission and that’s what we all do,” he said.
Wissler said the Marine Corps does not have a shortfall in sea-based aircraft; however, the number of amphibious Navy ships is limited.
The ship shortage has restricted the types of training Marine Corps pilots can do at sea.
Wissler also said there are challenges to operating in an amphibious environment, and that adding the Army to the mix would require in-depth planning.
“That’s easy stuff; we’ll sort through that,” he said.
“If the Army has a capability to bring in an amphibious environment, a capability that we need as a joint war-fighting team, good on them,” Wissler added. “I just think there’s challenges to it. I say that because I know they know there are challenges to it.”