Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Helos in the Littorals

The Navy is heavily invested in helicopters from a tactical perspective and few people even pause to consider the limits of their applicability.  Before I go any further, let me state that I, too, see the obvious capabilities of helos.  However, I also see their limitations.  Let’s look at bit closer at the use of helos in a littoral combat zone since helos will be a major, or perhaps the major, weapon system of the LCS. 

SAM - Counter to the Helo?
Regarding the littoral surface warfare scenario (ASuW) and setting aside the question of why we would be there, as discussed in a previous post, I’ve often heard comments that a couple of helos will make short work of a swarm of small craft and, to be fair, in an otherwise permissive environment, that’s probably a true statement.  But think about it …  Is there anything in a littoral zone, and a small craft swarm scenario, that might negate the effectiveness of a helo?  How about man-portable surface-to-air missiles (SAM) like the Stinger or SA-16/18/24 family?  Such missiles have max ranges of around 5 miles and effective ranges of 3-4 miles.  Compare those ranges to the helo’s air-to-ground (AGM) weapons such as Hellfire (5 miles) or Griffon (3 miles).  The opposing ranges basically overlap.  If one’s in range, so is the other.  SAMs can be fired from shore, from hiding in civilian/commercial small craft or, in what should be an obvious tactic, from each boat in a swarm.  The other obvious danger to helos, since we’re going to be fighting in someone else’s littoral zone, is aircraft from nearby airfields.  So, absent a permissive environment, the helo versus swarm is hardly the one-sided affair that many visualize.  Throw in a helo’s limited number of weapons and possibility of mechanical unavailability when needed and the situation is further complicated.  Finally, what about good old fashioned surprise?  If the helo is not in the air when an attack begins, the attack will be over by the time the helo can get airborne.  Helos are not a rapid reaction weapon system.

The above comments also apply in general to littoral ASW.  In the ASW role, helos made their reputation, and deservedly so, during the Cold War sub hunting days in the open ocean which did, indeed, constitute a permissive environment.  In the littoral zone, as described above, the helo is capable of being targeted multiple ways and may well find itself at high risk.  One wonders if this may have been part of the rationale for the original LCS conceptual ASW module consisting of multiple, off-board unmanned underwater and surface vehicles – an attempt to reduce dependence on easily targeted helos.

Helo - Endangered Species?

In summary, the helo is a powerful weapon system but is not the invincible platform that many make it out to be.  The closer helos operate to shore and shallow water with its fleets of small civilian boats, any one of which may harbor a man with a Stinger, the more at risk they are.  For the helo, operating near shore is analogous to the Army fighting in a city.  Snipers can hide anywhere and blend in with the population.  Stingers can be anywhere and can hide amongst the civilian craft.  One has only to look at the Soviet's Afghanistan experience to see how helos fared against Stingers.

The point of this little thought exercise is that we should not become overly dependent on the helo alone.  The LCS (or any ship attempting to fight in the littoral zone) needs a range of options which should include a small ship-launched Griffon/Hellfire-like missile with a range of several miles or more as well as a robust gun arrangement with multiple guns and fields of fire to the stern so that the LCS can use its speed as a tactic to maintain separation.  What’s needed for shallow water ASW is a topic for another day.


  1. As a guy who knows what goes on inside the cockpit of a helicopter in the environment you mention I agree with your analysis. (maybe we have the same pedigree). Chaos and confusion come to mind. Fighting off a swarm with a single helicopter, or even two, would be tough, which is why Ships remain offshore away from the swarms when possible. LCS is vulnerable without weapons that keep war boats at bay.

  2. Exactly spot on the LCS has helicopters! people ignore the fact that any FAC or even patrol boat will mount AA missiles now.

  3. Small boats may carry SAMs, but will they be able to use them effectively? How hard is it to sight a MANPADS from the deck of a small boat moving at speed? The helo typically has far better fire control and sensors and can, in theory, make better use of its long-ranged weapons. Of course a helo may not ID a boat as hostile until it sees the smoke trail.

    MALE/HALE armed UAVs may be a better option long-term. They can stay safely out of VSHORADs range and have a better vantage point.

    Short-term, I wonder if we are over-reliant on largish helos (i.e. the MH-60). Perhaps more numerous, smaller armed helos would provide greater resilience in the face of losses, mechanical down time, and so on.

    The Navy is building a larger version of Fire Scout based on the Bell 407 helicopter. At one time, the Army considered a 407-derivative for it's OH-58 replacement program. Maybe the Navy should adopt a manned (or optionally manned), armed 407 helicopter for anti-swarm duties? I bet you could fit four or five in an LCS hangar.

    1. B.Smitty, you make a very good point about helo size. The -60s were, in large part, a result of the Cold War, open ocean experience where a large helo with greater range, endurance, and weapons capacity were needed. For littoral use, it may well be that a smaller helo would be quite suitable. Whether the benefits would be enough to justify another helo supply/training/maintenance train is an open question.

      I'm still quite dubious about the value of helos in the anti-swarm role. If you have sufficient warning time to have the helos properly armed and in the air, they'll have a chance to be effective. Otherwise, it's just not possible to get helos armed and up with little or no warning time.

      How hard is it to use a SAM from a small boat? Good question! I have no idea. Even in the worst case, it would only take seconds to slow/stop a boat long enough to fire off a SAM. Regardless, it would be an icy cold, steely-eyed helo pilot who would continue to go about his business methodically while SAMs are whizzing past, secure in the knowledge that the enemy shooters PROBABLY didn't get a good lock on him! More likely, helo operations would be greatly disrupted by the mere threat of a SAM. Remember that a swarm attack will be over fairly quickly and disrupting the helos work is as good as a kill.