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Romeo and the Wolves

The MH-60R in service with the US Navy’s HSM-75 ‘Wolf Pack’

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Words: Leigh Neil  - Images: Ned Dawson

The late-generation MH-60R Seahawk (aka ‘Romeo’) may look similar to the older SH-60B it replaced, but is a far superior platform that offers greatly increased effectiveness and mission capability. The US Navy’s legendary ‘Wolf Pack’ squadron fields up to eleven Romeos from its base at NASNI (Naval Air Station North Island) in San Diego and offered HeliOps the opportunity for a closer look at the unit and its aircraft.

The squadron’s famous ‘Wolf Pack’ name dates from 1986 and the establishment of HSL-45. It was carried over when, in 2011, HSL-45 transitioned from its legacy SH-60Bs to the new MH-60Rs, becoming HSM-75 in the process. The simple, yet striking wolf’s head design for the new squadron patch was obtained – with permission – from the University of Nevada and instituted at the same time. CDR John Kiefaber is the squadron’s current Commanding Officer (CO), having just stepped up from the Executive Officer (XO) position to take over command from CDR Jeffrey Melody, while CDR Michael Madrid now fills the XO’s slot and will likely replace CDR Kiefaber in another 15 months, as is the standard command progression. Kiefaber, whose father drove surface ships, now has around 2,500 hrs flight time and grew up as a self-described ‘navy-brat’, deciding fairly early that he wanted to be a naval aviator. The two Commanders seem to ‘click’ very well, having served together in the past and even been roommates on a ten-month deployment aboard the USS Boxer. Both men took time to talk to HeliOps, outlining the squadron’s missions, background and structure as well as explaining how the qualities and capabilities of the unit’s MH-60R ‘Romeo’ aircraft fulfill their needs.

Elaborating on how the two commanders work together to lead the squadron, CDR Madrid explained, “I’m trying to manage the day to day grind so the CO can think upward and outward to have the big vision of where he wants us to go, while I’m the driver to get everybody in line for where we need to move. At the same time I’m trying to shape this squadron for what’s next when and if I ‘inherit’ it.” Kiefaber described the squadron command as the pinnacle of his 20-year career to date and considers it quite an honor. “There’s a lot of responsibility involved, for 310 people and eleven helicopters. Personnel, budget and mission considerations are constant demands and that’s why the Navy is so conscientious in developing well-rounded, competent officers with its carefully structured career development path. It means that, by the time you get the opportunity to take on a command like this, you have the necessary skills and competencies to fulfill the role. Another major responsibility is the training or ‘grooming’ of my successor.”

Attachment to the Wolf Pack is considered sea duty as the unit deploys to the fleet, as CDR Kiefaber explained. “We are part of Carrier Strike Group 11 and will deploy with the carrier USS Nimitz. Our command element includes the majority of the unit’s personnel - over 200 people and five helicopters - and will be deployed on the carrier, while three other detachments will be deployed to other ships within the group. Those detached elements are each led by a Lt.Cdr, incorporate approximately 25-30 personnel with two helicopters and could be attached to frigates, destroyers or cruisers. In addition to the Wolf Pack, an MH-60S ‘Sierra’ squadron will also be deployed to the Nimitz and base six Sierras on the carrier, while two Sierras are detached to a fleet ‘oiler’. These two helicopter squadrons provide the complete 11-helicopter complement for the aircraft carrier’s deployment. The Navy’s at-sea deployment period has been standardized at seven months, largely in order to enable maintenance needs to be adequately met and prevent inordinate degradation of ships, aircraft and equipment in the harsh conditions of a salt-water environment.

“Obviously I’m biased, but I think the Romeo is probably the best helicopter in our inventory. It’s very multi-purposed in the most extreme sense. I mean, we can do everything in it,” said Kiefaber. He and Madrid have backgrounds flying the Bravo, so are well placed to compare the two aircraft. “It’s like going from an old flip-phone to a new iphone,” commented Kiefaber. “It’s amazing, it’s a glass cockpit and all the technology is just so much better. There are so many applications that tie you in to all the other aircraft in the air wing and everyone in the battle-space. We can all talk to each other and pass information both ways, something we couldn’t do in the Bravo.” The added mission-capability provided by the Romeo has been instrumental in increasing a wider appreciation of the advantages offered by rotary-wing operations – particularly among other elements of the air-wing, according to Kiefaber and he reported a trend towards the rotary platforms within the US Navy inventory. “The majority of the Navy’s helicopter squadrons are carrier-based but we do also have a couple of expeditionary squadrons. I think you can’t have enough helicopters in any active combat area. The helicopter is a force multiplier and the utility of a helicopter is limited only by imagination. We can strip out most of our mission avionics equipment and quickly convert the aircraft into what we’d refer to as a truck, running humanitarian or support missions and a week or two later be back in normal mission trim, hunting for submarines and enemy surface combatants.”

Although anti-submarine warfare (ASW) is the bread and butter tasking for the USN Romeos, they are also highly capable against surface targets. They are equipped with both missiles and guns, with 2.75” APKWS rockets currently being added to the armament inventory. ASW training is obviously carried out in a maritime environment but surface warfare (SUW) training is regularly conducted in Nevada from NAS Fallon, home of the U.S. Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center, where the Wolf Pack’s Romeos carry out live firing and work with naval F18s. On an ASW mission the workload is high and constant for a Romeo’s three crewmembers. While one pilot is actively hand-flying the aircraft, the rear crewman (AWR) could be actively prosecuting a target with the active sonar dipper and the non-flying pilot could be looking at the passive sonar buoys, talking to other assets and passing information on what is being seen. “It’s a lot of work for three people to carry out and it’s only the really good crew resource management drill that we preach in our community which makes it possible,” said LCDR Timothy Rogers, the Officer-In-Charge of the Wolf Pack’s Detachment 1 (Det1). He sees the only weaknesses of the Romeo as being those that are common to all helicopter platforms - such as limitations on speed, range and altitude – but has a very high regard for the type’s capability. “The one piece of equipment we have that most sets us apart from any other ASW platform in terms of capability is the active dipping sonar dome.” Rogers and LTJG Rylee Streff explained that the main mission of the Romeo is to localize and prosecute a subsurface target using its array of onboard acoustic sensors. The precision with which a target can often be identified once accurately located is remarkable. Rogers explained that sonar operators use the sounds emanating from a contact’s various componentry and propulsion to help identify a contact. Each generator of mechanical sound adds a frequency or range of frequencies which produces a distinctive sound signature which then can be used by a skilled operator to determine exactly which vessel they are tracking. Streff described the effective operation of the onboard sonar equipment as an art form. “These guys have a huge amount of training over more than a year for this, but the rules only get you so far when you’re finding submarines. Some of the sub crews are really, really good at avoiding detection and that’s where our dipping sonar is a game-changer; it’s much harder to hide or run away from that.” The Romeos carry both passive and active sonar buoys in addition to the dipping sonar, and for engagement purposes they can carry up to three Mk-46 or newer Mk-54 torpedoes.

Streff pointed out that a major benefit of the new electronics suite is the much greater degree of interface and control of the newer digital-capable torpedoes, granting a far higher level of effectiveness as a weapons system. The advanced radar systems in the Romeo include automatic tracking, IFF, ISAR (Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar) which aides in the classification and surveillance of surface targets, as well as ARPDD (Automatic Radar Periscope Detection and Discrimination) which is utilized for detection of periscope-type objects on the surface. The MTS (multi-spectrum targeting system) is standard equipment and includes latest-gen FLIR, daylight TV and low-light TV, plus the ability to integrate those modes at the same time. The MH-60R’s laser designator system can be set to other platforms’ laser codes, allowing the Romeo to laser designate targets for another platform’s ordnance, while additional laser capability includes an eye-safe laser for training purposes and what is known as the ‘light-sabre’, a laser target marker that shows up on NVG as an intense beam of light, typically used to visually designate a target for the gunner. Night operations are commonplace for the multi-mission Romeos. Another piece of equipment that Rogers considers a game-changer is the Romeo’s electronic support measures (ESM) system. “We have a really good ESM system and a really robust, selectable ESM library,” he opined. “That can help us identify individual vessels or weapon systems as some of them have unique radar types or signatures and, because it’s a passive system, it also means we’re seeing them before they can see us.” Software available to Romeo crews includes a program that utilizes all available environmental data for the operating area and will give an estimate of the best location to deploy sonar assets in order to maximize the search-area and search effectiveness. Up-to-date ambient data can also be obtained by the dipper or by deploying a BT buoy, giving accurate real-time environmental information such as salinity, temperature gradient and sonic-layer depth. The Navy’s full mission-planning and aircraft configuration software is also used.

The list of secondary missions for the MH-60R is extensive, as Rogers recounted. “We pride ourselves on the fact that we’re in a helicopter because that opens up a whole spectrum of operating capabilities, whether that be search and rescue, medevac, mobility and logistics or even humanitarian relief.” Streff expanded on Rogers’ comments, adding that, while the Bravo was a good aircraft, the introduction of the Romeo and the increase in the proportion of sea-going squadrons had dramatically increased the variety of the missions and the tactical usefulness of the squadron. “It allows us to be a much more vital component within the maritime tactical environment,” he remarked. In the normal course of events, however, the Romeos’ secondary missions would normally be carried out by the MH-60Ss of the embarked sister squadron, as those missions are the Sierras’ primary roles.

The role of the aircrewman in the rear of an MH-60R encompasses a whole raft of tasks and responsibilities. “We’re the key element in our two primary missions, particularly on ASW operations,” said AWR1 Richard Blythe, who initially joined the Navy thirteen years ago with the goal of being a rescue swimmer. “We go through extensive schooling to learn how to find and classify submarines with the various sensors available to us.” He confirmed that the main detection tool on the Romeo is the active dipping sonar and commented that, with its extensive length of attached cable, it takes up the vast majority of the available space in the rear of the aircraft, leaving just enough room for two crew seating positions. “We also work with the pilots, working out just where our next fly-to point is, where we want to deploy our sonar or buoys and so forth. Once we’ve located a sub, we’re usually trying to keep tracking it and it can be a real challenge. Simply because the sub crews spend all their time in the water column and their lives basically depend on their knowledge of it, they’re better at it than us. That’s why we need such good technology and why we spend so much time learning and training.” Blythe also pointed out that naval technology, just like all technology, is constantly evolving and improving so each new generation of submarine tends to be quieter and harder to locate and track than its predecessors. In the SUW role, the rear aircrewman will typically be operating the radar systems and other sensors. Blythe’s extensive and almost constant training for his job included a one-month rescue swimmer course following the six-month basic acoustic, or A-school training. At A-school he was taught the basics of passive and active sonar systems and the magnetic anomaly detection system (MADS) fitted to the Bravo and Foxtrot aircraft then in service. A further six months training was undergone at the FRS (fleet replacement squadron) in the actual helicopter. When he returned from a number of deployments he then spent another six months training on the new systems in the Romeo. “For a new guy coming through,” he estimated, “they’re looking at about two years of training, from the time they join the Navy up until the time they’re flying here with us.”

After a background working on S3 Viking fixed-wings, ATCS Keala Mattos is now a Wolf Pack maintenance chief. Somewhat serendipitously, his step-father was a navy chief working on helicopters and after 12 years in the SH-60 fraternity Mattos admitted he far prefers the rotary-wing side of the fence. “There’s a much broader spectrum of work and you kind of dabble with everything,” he stated. The biggest change in his duties brought about by the introduction of the MH-60R has been adapting to the digitized nature of the whole aircraft and the lack of conventional hard-wiring for electrical systems. Having previously served as maintenance control chief, he is now the squadron’s flight-deck coordinator. “My role when we deploy is to coordinate all our flight and operational evolutions on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, working with the fixed-wing components as well.” The unit’s nine work centers keep 60 to 70 personnel fully engaged in keeping the squadron’s assets in a fully maintained operational state. In Mattos’ opinion, the move to digitization has one drawback, in that the ability to troubleshoot from knowledge, experience and logic is being eroded, due to the manner in which faultfinding is now reliant on electronics to monitor, analyze and report. He believes that this prevents younger, newer engineers and maintenance personnel developing such a deep understanding of aircraft at the most basic level. “That’s not just aircraft though,” he admitted. “I think that’s society and technology in general. We don’t actually fix equipment any more; we just locate and replace defective components within a system, as determined by the system itself. It makes people far more reliant on technology.” By the same token, he admits that the younger engineers are far more adept at using the technology.

Aviation Electrician’s mate AE1 Ryan Lantos worked on Bravos prior to the introduction of the Romeos, after previously working on UAVs and fixed-wing aircraft during his nineteen-year career. He commented that the glass cockpit and increased technological sophistication of the aircraft has taken much of the workload out of the hands of him and his peers. “It’s just more maintenance-friendly. You pull the part out, put the new part in and it’s done,” he observed. “I think the Romeo is a better aircraft than the Bravo, just because the upgrades make it so much easier in general. It is a helicopter though, so there is a very high wear and tear rate. Our main job entails hovering over salt water and that’s a really harsh environment for anything mechanical, which is why we’re so strict and rigid on our periodic inspections and preventative maintenance procedures.” He added that the still-young Romeos are experiencing very few breakdowns. “These birds are still new right now,” he commented, “so a lot of stuff isn’t breaking like it might in the future.” Lantos pointed out that when that begins to occur, manning levels would necessarily increase to cope with the additional workload. “We deal with everything electronic and that’s all monitored, so when it is seen that the demand is high enough, the Navy will increase the manning level to what is required.” According to Lantos, he went to the Wolf Pack because he’d heard that it had the best maintenance culture. He explained, “I’ve been to places where we had to try and fix that. It’s a mindset; an overall cultural climate of a place and to fix that is a mammoth undertaking. This is my last tour and I wanted to be somewhere that the culture was already fixed and I could get involved with training new people in the right environment. Here everything is by the book and because of that we don’t have as many breakdowns or as much unscheduled maintenance.”

The Romeo is, of course, a frontline military aircraft and therefore has a substantial offensive capability. Aviation Ordnanceman Second Class (AO2) Robert Poage has been in the Navy for two years and the Wolf Pack is his first command. In his own words, he deals “with the missiles, the guns and all the cool stuff that goes ‘Boom’!” Romeos can be fitted with the .50 caliber GAU-21 and/or the 7.62mm M240 machinegun, and have the ability to carry and launch AGM-114 Hellfire missiles and Mk-46 or -54 torpedoes. AWR1 Blythe explained that, because there is only a single AWR in the back of the aircraft on primary missions, they are also responsible for the machineguns and that they aim to have firing practice with the GAU-21 or M240 every 90 days. Poage has been on one deployment and is looking forward to the next, as he will be deployed on a detachment as the sole AO. He and Lantos both agree that more is learned when at sea, as equipment is most likely to fail or breakdown in the demanding conditions and personnel levels are lower, with greater responsibility frequently placed on individual members. Typically, preventative maintenance at sea is accordingly carried out at about twice the level that is conducted when the squadron is ashore at NASNI.

It’s clear when talking to Wolf Pack personnel that they all, without exception, take a great pride in being a part of not only the US Navy, but of what they see as the best helicopter squadron within it. They hold the attributes and capabilities of their Romeos in high regard and leave one in no doubt that any carrier group to which they are deployed will be well protected within a sanitized security area for which they are largely responsible. It seems somehow fitting that the ‘Wolf-Pack’ name that was once applied to committed teams of German submarines operating against allied shipping during WWII, is now proudly worn by an equally committed team of airborne submarine hunters.


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