Navy SEALs forced to fly with Non-Special Ops pilots due to budget cuts

Senior Chief Naval Aircrewman (Helicopter) Christopher Henderson, assigned to Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron (HSC) 84, has been selected to attend the "A Nations Gratitude" dinner hosted by President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to honor veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and New Dawn. Henderson is one of the 64 service members selected to attend the White House dinner that honors the more than 1 million American military members who served in Iraq from 2003 to the end of operations in December 2011. Photo by Seaman Ernest Scott

In a couple of months, the Navy will officially shut down one of its two special operations helicopter squadrons — in an effort to save money while still retaining the service’s spec ops expertise.

Helicopter Sea Combat Squadron 84 (HSC-84) in Norfolk, and HSC-85 on the west coast are the Navy’s only two secretive helo squads dedicated to flying special ops missions. The two reserve squadrons have been providing special ops forces support for decades, flying “shadowy missions” in war zones with aging helicopters.

Soon that will all change, as the HSC-84 “Red Wolves” are to decommission in March.

The active-duty and reserve aircrews that fly these HH-60H Rescue Hawks are the Navy’s equivalent of the Army’s renowned “Night Stalkers.”

According to military officials, HSC-84 and 85 have been in limbo for years, but managed to survive each budget cycle because of advocates on Capitol Hill and at the Defense Department.

The Navy wants to “farm out” missions, like SEAL training and insertion, to fleet squadrons in hopes of saving almost $30 million a year.

It’s unclear whether HSC-85 will take over 84’s role maintaining a deployed force. HSC-85 will have 353 total billets, Navy spokeswoman Lt. j.g. Kara Yingling told the Navy Times. There will be opportunities, she said, for those who have served in 84 to make the switch.

The service plans to stand up two tactical support units (TSU’s) on each coast to assist fleet squadrons. Also, the TSUs will switch to the MH-60S Knighthawk, “The TSU construct is still being finalized, but each TSU might have up to billets for 79 officers and enlisted,” Yingling said.

In the meantime, fleet squadrons will be trained on tactics for special missions like nighttime raids and special patrol insertion/extraction – all of which are dangerous and rare. One former commanding officer of the Norfolk-based HSC-84 is skeptical of the Navy’s plan for the TSUs, arguing that the plans for the transition are “vague” and may flounder.

Retired Capt. Sean Butcher, who has kept a close eye on the squadrons through this year’s budget negotiations. says, “All these things were kind of sold to the [House Armed Services Committee]  and SOCOM as way to lessen the loss of a squadron, in a seamless way.”

“Underneath the surface, it’s a mess,” he added.  Butcher predicts that the TSUs will fail.

He argues it’s better to maintain a cadre of highly trained fliers, rather than spread out these missions to fleet aircrews that must balance them with training for routine missions, like search and rescue. These missions are rare and require highly specialized skills, which take years to hone.

Butcher warns that the Navy may not be able to get those pilots up to speed as quickly as it would like to, due to time and budget constraints.

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  • Michele graduated with a B.S. in Telecommunication from the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. She has spent numerous years working in the news industry in south Florida, including many positions ranging from being a news writer at WSVN, the Fox affiliate in Miami to being an associate news producer at WPLG-TV, the ABC affiliate in Miami. Michele has also worked in Public Relations and Marketing.

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