Tuesday, June 04, 2019

Bureaucratic Self-Harm and the Seawolves

One of the great tragedies of the obsession with Joint, Goldwater-Nichols - and to no small measure petty budgetary parochialism - was the loss of the Navy's ability to quickly create inside its own lifelines capabilities to meet the requirements to support combat operations as we encountered them.

We saw it in Iraq, we saw it in Afghanistan, we continue to see it today. Heck, not just USN, but USAF has the same problem. Just look at the bureaucratic slow roll of a capability I heard people screaming for in C5F as we clawed our way up the Kandahar Valley in late 2001 - the Light Attack Aircraft.

Examples are legion of when Navy has needed a capability, but had to wait or get none simply because the other services' "high-demand/low-density" assets simply had more important things to do. That is an arrangement that fits an "efficiency" mindset, but fails the "effectiveness" requirement in war.

Of course, I'm talking today about the capability our Navy grew pre-Goldwater-Nichols out of whole cloth in the body of Helicopter Attack Squadron (Light)-3 and her sisters. A great article over at USNI Proceedings re-introducing their story to a new generation.
One of the principal avenues for resupplying communist Viet Cong fighters was the populous Mekong Delta. The most productive agricultural area in South Vietnam, it featured a web of waterways that were used to infiltrate the region. To stem the flow of supplies, the U.S. Navy initiated Operation Game Warden in late 1965, establishing Task Force 116—a fleet of amphibious vessels and armed river-patrol boats collectively known as the “Brown Water Navy”—that patrolled the delta’s inland rivers and search suspicious vessels. The delta soon became a hotly contested and wide-ranging arena of warfare, where Navy small craft, SEALS, and Army ground forces faced danger at nearly every turn along the jungle-lined waterways.

With the commencement of Game Warden, the Navy concurrently adopted a new designation for its rotary-wing community: the helicopter combat support squadron (HC). These units largely operated as part of the blue-water Navy, performing the utility and plane guard duties that were established missions for helicopters operating from carriers and surface ships. With the exception of search-and-rescue missions, day-to-day operations tilted more heavily toward the support part of the squadron designation and less on combat.

This changed in 1966, when Rear Admiral Norvell G. Ward, Commander Naval Forces Vietnam, offered General William C. Westmoreland, Commander, U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam, much-needed air support for his riverine forces. Army helicopters had been performing those missions on a temporary basis, but Admiral Ward proposed to provide Navy crews if the Army contributed helicopter gunships, which did not exist in the Navy’s aircraft inventory.

The resulting agreement brought members of HC-1 in country to fly UH-1B Iroquois helicopters, with the first contingent arriving on Independence Day 1966. Training under Army pilots and crews included familiarization with the aircraft, armament, and the vast area of operations. On 19 September, the first HC-1 detachment arrived on board the USS Tortuga (LSD-26), one of the collection of amphibious vessels, including tank landing ships (LSTs), that served as bases of operation for HC-1 and later HA(L)-3. The Navy men also received a new nickname—the Seawolves.
Yep, this is the Navy I know.
Aviation Structural Mechanic Third Class Joe Crutcher recalls himself and a fellow maintainer borrowing black paint from an Australian unit that they mixed with green paint provided by the Army to give the HA(L)-3 UH-1Bs a different look. Commander Robert Spencer, the squadron skipper, directed them to paint “NAVY” in white letters on the tail booms, saying, “I want the Army to know the Navy is here.”

One thing not lacking was personnel willing to serve in the squadron, even knowing what they faced. “If you go to HA(L)-3,” retired Captain Brian Buzzell recalled of the squadron’s reputation among those coming out of flight school as helicopter pilots, “you are going to get shot at and maybe killed.” Those pilots joining stateside trained under the tutelage of the Army (initially at Fort Benning, Georgia, and later at Fort Rucker, Alabama), learned how to fire and clean an array of weapons, and completed the Army’s demanding SERE (survival, evasion, resistance, and escape) school.
Read it all.

Of course, in spite of the example they gave, we did not have the same spirit or ability to adjust due to the bureaucratic adhesions from DC and "other priorities" of senior leadership than supporting Sailors under fire. Navy gunships did survive on life support in the USNR, but neglected and never expanded, they finally were allowed to starve to death in 2016. What a disgrace.

There is some good news for history though, there is a documentary;
Jeff and Shannon met with the president of the HA(L)-3 Seawolf Association, Mike Dobson, in 2012 and proposed making a documentary. With Jeff traveling the world filming the World Surfing League, not until 2014 during a squadron reunion in Dallas, Texas, did the couple dedicate themselves to beginning work on the film.
You can get more details here.

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