Roughly five years ago, the Marine Corps began transitioning its fleet of AH-1W and UH-1N aircraft to more capable AH-1Z and UH-1Y aircraft. The greatest challenge of this transition has been converting the squadrons without a decrease in support from the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron community (HMLA) to both I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) and the deployed forces in Afghanistan. In order to accomplish this feat, squadrons have been going through the transition / conversion process in strides without a corresponding downgrade of squadron operational status.
Defining a new standard
There is not a distinct moment when the new squadron stands up and once again becomes a MEF asset. Instead, the H-1s continue to serve the MEF throughout its entire transition. The advantage of this approach has allowed upgraded platforms outfitted with advanced capabilities to be introduced quicker, albeit in smaller numbers. This introduction has resulted in greater on-station time, significant increases in Hover Out of Ground Effect (HOGE) useful loads (39 percent for AH-1Z, 68 percent for UH-1Y), and impressive increases in sensor capabilities. (For more information, see sidebar: Explain that to me and tell me why its important)
The Ground Combat Element (GCE) is now very familiar with the UH-1Ys capabilities, as it has supported sustained combat operations since November 2009. In November 2011 the AH-1Z made its maiden deployment alongside the UH-1Y with the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). As of February 2012, the AH-1Z and UH-1Y have supported Theater Security Cooperation exercises in five countries and the Yankee and Zulu have demonstrated outstanding readiness (89.9 percent and 94.4 percent mission capable, respectively) throughout the deployment.
Defining a new standard
Though thoroughly tested throughout a wide spectrum of environmental and climatic conditions, all new platforms will experience some level of discovery learning as they are operated in varying regions throughout the globe. The AH-1Zs and UH-1Y s deployed with the 11th MEU broke new ground recently when they operated in the tropical environments of Cambodia and Malaysia during the monsoon season. While the problems encountered were surmountable, the amount of humidity and rain water created new challenges for the H-1 team. Issues that were encountered were captured, documented and reported via established communications to key members of the H-1 Current Readiness Team, squadron commanding officers and maintenance officers. The challenges that were overcome during this three-week period proved the value of embarking dedicated civilian contractor support and gave credence to the creativity, adaptability and flexibility of the aircrew and maintenance personnel.
The transition to the UH-1Y has had the positive effect of renewing the Hueys utility role in the mind of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force. In the waning years of the UH-1N, both ashore in Afghanistan as well as afloat with MEU detachments, the older venerable Huey faced performance limitations. Introduction of the Yankee quickly resulted in a paradigm shift for those familiar with the UH-1Ns limitations.
A similar change is occurring as a result of the AH-1Zs introduction. The Red Dragons of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 268 Reinforced (REIN) capitalized on their tacit role as the first MEU Aviation Combat Element (ACE) to employ a fully upgraded H-1 detachment (AH-1Z and UH-1Y), by developing new Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for the Marine Corps newest aviation platforms. The improved sensor systems and increased payload of the AH-1Z enabled the Red Dragons to build flexible and responsive plans which increased overall support to the GCE. Additionally, the stability, payload and sensors of the UH-1Y led to the refinement of Sniper/Aerial Reaction Force tactics. The new model for raid operations uses one UH-1Y in the traditional Command and Control role and an additional UH-1Y as either a sniper platform, aerial reaction force platform, or a combination of the two. The sniper platform provided a combination of situational awareness through sensors and communication capabilities and precision fires through embarked snipers. The aerial reaction force provided the flexibility of rapid reinforcement insert if required.
As the combat proven AH-1W continues to secure its outstanding reputation with the GCE in Afghanistan and the MEUs, the AH-1Z has already made its mark. Due to its performance throughout the spectrum of MEU missions, the AH-1Z has begun to forge a superlative reputation. The Target Sight System (TSS) on the AH-1Z has significantly increased standoff within an objective area, allowing for earlier eyes on, enhancing situational awareness for a raid package without audible compromise. For strike missions, the TSS allows the AH-1Z to maximize the stand-off of their weapon systems and the increased payload allows a section of AH-1Zs to carry the equivalent of a division of AH-1Ws with greater on-station time. The enhanced sensor capability has also contributed to integration between the Blue-Green team in the form of Maritime Interdiction and Defense of the Amphibious Task Force.
The increased capabilities of the UH-1Y and AH-1Z allowed the Red Dragons to exceed expectations during Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) and Gas/Oil Platform (GOPLAT) missions. The TSS on the AH-1Z allowed the Cobras early acquisition of target vessels well outside audible and visual range. The increased power and agility of the UH-1Y allowed for safer and more flexible employment of the aerial sniper within the VBSS/GOPLAT template, thereby providing a higher level of security and response to the Maritime Raid Force (MRF). HMM-268(REIN) used this template in seven VBSS missions and GOPLAT exercises, completing the most robust VBSS/GOPLAT training package any MEU ACE has encountered to date (Source: Evaluator during the CERTEX out brief)
The first all H-1 Upgrades deployment is approaching the halfway point with a solid record of success through workups and multi-national exercises while deployed. It is expected that the record of success and documentation of lessons learned will continue through the remainder of the deployment and beyond. This valuable information will be passed to the next all upgrades detachment that joined the 15th MEU in February 2012. As the detachment breaks new ground, the ripple effects of the first H-1 all upgrades deployment will be felt and built upon throughout the fleet. The era of the all H-1 Upgrades MEU ACE detachments has begun with an impressive and truly groundbreaking first outing.