Rotorheads and the Royal Navy in Maritime Security Operations
On August 11t h, 2011 the M/V Caravos Horizon was attacked by “sea bandits” in the Red Sea, just north of the Straits of Bab al Mendib. The distress call was picked up by Combined Task Force 151 and Expeditionary Strike Group 5, and they determined that there were two naval assets capable of responding in the vicinity. HMS MONMOUTH, a British Frigate, and USS BATAAN, an American amphibious assault ship, both swung into action. The crew of the Caravos Horizon secured themselves inside a “citadel” as six “sea bandits” boarded and took control of the bridge of the ship.
Bay Raider 45, an armed MH-60S Knighthawk from HSC-28 Detachment TWO, was airborne flying regularly scheduled Search and Rescue duty with the BATAAN Amphibious Ready Group at the time of the attack. The Knighthawk was brought back to the flight deck to top off the fuel. Expeditionary Strike Group 5 ordered the BATAAN ARG to send a helicopter toward the scene of the attack to provide intelligence, survelliance, and reconnisance (ISR) and to report information back to BATAAN. Bay Raider launched and headed south to provide assistance to the mariners in distress.
The purpose of this post isn’t to re-tell the story of the event. Both HMS MONMOUTH and USS BATAAN released reports of the incident which can be found in the open press. The PAO’s put hard work into these articles, read them for the story of a successful boarding to retake control of the M/V Caravos Horizon. Instead of rehashing the story, here at the USNI blog we’ll look at the larger picture…what lessons can we learn about counter-piracy and naval irregular warfare?
In October of 2010 I was lucky to be invited to speak as a panelist at the Naval Institute’s History Conference “Pirates on the High Seas” during a discussion of the history of piracy and counter-piracy titled “Blackbeard to the Barbary.” In my opening remarks I highlighted three things that stuck out from the 200+ year history of the USN’s counter piracy missions: Platforms, People, and Partnerships. Specifically, having the right “low end/high end” mix of hardware to do the job, having professional and aggressive junior officers to lead operations, and having competent and —allies to work with in the region. The combined Anglo-American response to the attack on M/V Caravos Horizon reinforces that these principles are as important in the twenty-first century as they were when Decatur, Porter, and Downes sailed in the nineteenth.
When it comes to the hardware involved in this successful operation, a key takeaway is the vital importance of rotary-wing aviation. Irregular operations rarely require the expensive, fast, sexy, high altitude TACAIR jets that you’ll find in Hollywood movies. They need the quiet professionals of the often overlooked naval rotary-wing community. Helicopters embarked on the ships that conduct counter-piracy operations are a force multiplier that provide the ability to respond rapidly, develop critical ISR, and finally to provide overwatch and maritime air support for boarding operations. Sending a ship on counter-piracy or irregular warfare missions without an embarked helicopter significantly degrades the unit’s capability.
The rapid response by the RN Lynx to the scene allowed for the development of early situational awareness which became a key factor for success. The follow on arrival of Bay Raider allowed the ISR net to be cast further away from the attacked vessel. It was able to find two skiffs, which they believed were the suspected “sea bandits.” Our Knighthawk remained overhead briefly as a visible deterrent, and the skiffs turned away from the shipping lanes and headed off at high speed. The two aircraft together could cover hundreds of square miles and help develop situational awareness far beyond the capability of a single surface combatant. When time came for the boarding, the ability to have Bay Raider provide armed overwatch and ISR while the Lynx conducted the insertion was an important element of protecting the boarding party and helping to ensure their success.
The MH-60S Block III Armed Helo’s that now deploy with amphibious assault ships like BATAAN come in the gunship variant. These aircraft have a wide range of armament options that make it a highly capable platform. You can buy nearly a squadron of them for the cost of one Joint Strike Fighter. The crews that fly them like LT Lee Sherman, LT Chris Schneider, AWS2 Joey Faircloth, and AWS3 Josh Teague, are trained in a number of mission areas that lend themselves to maritime security operations and irregular warfare. While the traditional mission of running the racetrack in the “Starboard D” holding pattern as the “SAR Bird” is still a central part of their job (after all, its where Bay Raider 45 started the day), the Armed Helo provides a widely expanded set of capabilities for Amphibious Ready Groups and is an ideal platform for naval irregular warfare.
The Knighthawk pilots and aicrewmen of the Helicopter Sea Combat community are trained for a wide range of missions and skills which lend themselves to successful naval irregular warfare. These include anti-surface warfare and special operations support, as well as the traditional rotary-wing missions of search and rescue and logisitics support.
It is important to note that the “deckplate” leaders of the operations were all junior officers that had been extensively trained and prepared to make combat decisions. Lt Harry Lane RM, commander of the Royal Marines boarding team, Lt Chris Easterling RN, aircraft commander of the Lynx, LT Chris “Texas Pete” Schneider USN, of Bay Raider, are three individuals quoted and identified in the press releases. That wasn’t simply because they were the ones that the PAO could find because they weren’t on watch. These junior officers, along with LT Lee “Chunk” Sherman who was the aircraft commander of Bay Raider 45, demonstrated that when tactical level leaders are given the ability to make decisions and to temper their aggressive nature with solid tactical risk management, operational level success is around the corner.
The partnership element to this operation is obvious. The USN and RN have been working together since nearly our service’s founding to combat piracy and threats to maritime security across the globe. During the First Barbary War the British bases in the Mediterranean were opened to American ships in support of our fight against the Corsairs. In the West Indies in the 1820’s and 1830’s American squadrons teamed with the Royal Navy to help fight the piracy from Cuba. At the end of the 19th century we supported one another in the rivers and coastal waters of China. Sharing the same battlefields over the past decade has helped bring tactics, techniques, and procdures closer together across the range of military operations.
What struck me was the quote from LT Schneider in the BATAAN article about the seamless nature of the combined operation. It mirrored a comment made by LT Sherman during debrief after the mission. He said that working together with the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, “was like we had done it all together before.” Seamless was a word used by both pilots. Our two ships have never seen one another, we never spoke before the moment that Bay Raider checked in with the Lynx over the radio, yet common procedures and decades of experience in combined operations allowed the junior leaders to adapt and flex for a rapid and effective operation.
There are other partnership elements of the mission that are also worth considering. The coastal states of the region are relatively quick to give permission for operations within their territorial waters when it is counter-piracy. This is a commonly overlooked element, during the 1820’s when the Spanish weren’t as cooperative off Cuba it made the work of the USN’s West Indies squadron much more difficult. The ability of the myriad of staffs and command organizations working in the region to work together is also vital. In today’s world of networked battlefields it can be easy for the networks to get overlayed on top of one another, and potentially tangled. With American and multi-national staffs all working the same geography and sea space, the ability to keep it straight and to respond efficiently in order to make decisions between the staffs is vital.
So Others May Live…Or Die.
The operation to secure the M/V Caravos Horizon demonstrates the critical role of the amphibious fleet and rotary-wing aviation to maritime security and American policy around the world. It also reinforces the idea that the right platforms, purposely trained and led people, and strong global partnerships are central to success in naval irregular warfare and in the hybrid maritime conflicts that the United States Navy may face in the coming decades. It must be said that for each aircraft and pilot there are dozens of maintenance professionals and supporting personnel that make our Navy’s global reach possible. Maintainers are the bedrock of the rotary-wing team that successfully completed this mission.
The motto of HSC-28 Detachment TWO is “So Others May Live…Or Die.” Whether as a search and rescue aircraft or a helicopter gunship, DET 2 is a best friend to mariners in distress, worst enemy to those who aim to disrupt maritime security in the regions where we operate. The pride that I feel in being associated with DET 2’s maintenance team, naval aircrewmen, and our pilots is endless. After four and a half months supporting maritime security and contingency operations off the coast of Libya, we have moved southeast, and for the foreseeable future we remain on station…
The opinions and views expressed in this post are those of the author alone. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other department, unit, or agency.
Lieutenant Commander Benjamin “BJ” Armstrong, USN, is an active duty MH-60S helicopter pilot who is currently serving as a squadron maintenance officer in Norfolk, VA. He is a frequent contributor to Small Wars Journal, Proceedings and Naval History. He holds a masters degree in military history from Norwich University and was a panelist at the 2010 USNI History Conference “Piracy on the High Seas.”