PACIFIC OCEAN (July 30, 2022) U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Humberto Alba, a naval aircrewman tactical-helicopter, attached to Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron (HSM) 37, deployed on U.S. Coast Guard Legend-class cutter USCGC Midgett (WMSL 757), looks down at a USCGC crewmember after taking off during flight operations during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Taylor Bacon)
The Drive reported on Cutter Midgett’s participation in RIMPAC 2022 with a look at flying Navy MH-60R ASW helicopters from the National Security Cutters. I wanted to talk about why this might have been done, but first let’s clarify something.
This and other reports may have left the impression that a Coast Guard Officer leading a task force at RIMPAC was a first and that it was the first time a Navy H-60 had flown from an NSC. Neither is not really the case.
- During RIMPAC 2020, USCGC Munro embarked a Navy MH-60S, the surface warfare and logistics counterpart to the MH-60R. It is not clear if they ever hangared it.
- Reportedly USCGC Bertholf headed a Task Force during RIMPAC2018.
- In RIMPAC 2014 USCGC Waesche also headed a task force. “The maritime interdiction operation involving the Chinese destroyer, frigate and oiler was referenced in December by the Navy as being under the Coast Guard cutter Waesche and including two Royal Brunei Navy ships, a French frigate, a U.S. frigate and the Pearl Harbor-based cruiser USS Port Royal.”
Since NSCs are skippered by Captains, while the US Navy and our allies captain Burke class DDGs and similar ships with commanders, it is not uncommon for the Coast Guard commanding officer to be the senior officer among the captains of a group ships, if there is no commodore assigned. So, frequently, the Coast Guard CO is task force commander by default. This happened to 327 skippers early in WWII as well. For a period, Spencer’s CO was an escort group commander until the Navy assigned a Commodore. Fortunately Spencer got some good training allowing her to sink two of the less than 40 U-boats sunk by US surface ships.
So what was the reason an ASW helicopter was embarked on Midgett? The Coast Guard’s motivation and the Navy’s?
Could be as simple as because they could, but I don’t think so. Both services expected to get something out of this.
Interoperability is always nice, so Navy helo on CG cutter allows both to get some training. Still think there must be more to it than that.
The Navy wants to more widely distribute their forces so this might have been something of a dry run to see what they could do in terms of command and control from a Frigate sized ship and crew.
For the Coast Guard, it could have been an opportunity to get used to operating an H-60 with folding tail from a Bertholf class. It was certainly a rare opportunity to exercise LINK 16. We might have wanted to find out if a system included in the MH-60R should also be included in Coast Guard H-60s.
Or it might have been a first small step toward reviving a Coast Guard ASW mission. Unless the National Security Cutters could operate an ASW helicopter there would be no point in trying to add an additional ASW capability such as a towed array. Confirming ship/helo compatibility would be a first step, along with identifying what changes might be necessary to provide for the helicopters’ additonal needs for weapons, sonobuoys, etc.
Maybe Supporting MH-60R helicopters is reason enough
The US Navy has alot of H-60s. The numbers I have seen are 237 MH-60S (the surface warfare and logistics type) and 291 MH-60Rs (the multi-mission/ASW type). It is probably a bit less than that now, but about 500 plus the MQ-8 helicopter drones that they will also want to take to sea.
The Navy obviously does not have as many ships capable of hosting H-60s as they would like. Every US Navy surface combatant commissioned in the 21st century (DDG and LCS–there have been no cruisers or frigates) has had the capability to hangar two H-60s, and the planned FFGs will have this capability as well.
Navy requirements seem to be always changing,
- The proposed 355 ship navy included 104 large surface combatants (cruisers and destroyers) plus 52 small surface combatants (frigates and LCS).
- The latest from July 2022 calls for 96 large and 56 small.
Let’s say a minimum of 116 ASW capable escorts, probably about 120. Right now they have about 90 with no ASW capable LCS, 22 cruisers all now 22 to 36 years old (five of which are slated for retirement in the current budget), and about 70 Burke class DDGs of which 13 will reach 30 years old by the end of 2025 while the first FFG is not expected until 2026. Clearly the number is ASW capable escorts is unlikely to increase significantly any time soon and number may actually decline.
So how many MH-80R/MQ-8 spots are there?
The ten carriers typically host about six MH-60R. The cruisers and Burke class flight IIA and III have two each, but 28 of the Burke class DDGs (Flights I and II), almost a third of our large surface combatants, have flight decks and LAMPS ASW electronics, but no hangar. So roughly 72 ships with 204 spots. Eleven National Security Cutters would provide 22 additional spots, about a 11% increase. The Offshore Patrol Cutters protentially offer another 25 spots about 12% more.
With the Navy hoping to more widely distribute their surface combatants, rather than keeping them firmly attached to a carrier, a couple of additional MH-60Rs could substantially improve ASW capabilities of a small surface action group (SAG).