NIGHT STALKER LEAD: From the Air, Delivering, Protecting and Extracting SOF Warriors

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Colonel Clayton M. Hutmacher
Commander
U.S. Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (A)​

Colonel Clay Hutmacher entered military service January 4, 1978, as a private in the U.S. Marine Corps. In May 1984, Hutmacher transferred to the Army after being accepted into the Warrant Officer Flight Training program. After completing flight school, he was assigned as a UH-60 medevac pilot in the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). Following graduation from Officer Candidate School and the Aviation Officer’s Basic Course, Hutmacher assessed and was accepted for assignment to the 160th Special Operations Aviation Group, where he served as the Headquarters and Service Company executive officer and the MH-60 DAP platoon leader in D Company until May 1991. Following graduation from the Aviation Officer’s Advanced Course, Hutmacher was assigned as the 160th’s exchange officer to Air Force Special Operations Command at Hurlburt Field, Fla. There he served as the squadron tactics officer, Instructor Pilot and Flight Commander for the 55th Special Operations Squadron. Hutmacher was then assigned to Flight Concepts Division at Fort Eustis, Va., where he served as a section OIC and operations officer. In June 2002, Hutmacher returned to 1st Battalion, 160th SOAR(A), where he served as the executive officer until June 2004. Hutmacher commanded 5th Battalion, 158th Aviation Regiment in Giebelstadt, Germany, from June 2004 to May 2006 and most recently commanded 1st Battalion, 160th SOAR(A) from July 2006 to May 2008. Aircraft ratings include the UH-1, OH-6, AH-6M, UH-60 and MH-60L.

Hutmacher’s awards and decorations include the Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross with one Oak Leaf Cluster (OLC), the Bronze Star with two OLCs, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal with two OLCs, the Meritorious Service Medal with two OLCs, the Air Medal with number 6, the Army Commendation Medal, the Air Force Aerial Achievement Medal with one OLC, the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Marine Corps Good Conduct Medal, the National Defense Service Medal with Bronze Star (BS), the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medals with two BSs, the Southwest Asia Service Medal with BS, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary and Service Medals, the Iraq and Afghanistan Campaign Medals, the Overseas Service Ribbon, the NATO Medal, the Saudi Arabia and Kuwait Liberation Medals, the Presidential Unit Citation, the Valorous Unit Award and the Joint Meritorious Unit Award. He also wears the Combat Action Badge, the Master Army Aviator Badge, the Pathfinder Badge, the Parachutist Badge and the Air Assault Badge.

Hutmacher was interviewed by SOTECH Editor Jeff McKaughan.


Q: I understand that the regiment is growing. Can you give me some insight into the transformational end state of what the regiment will be when it gets there?

A: The exact end state for the regiment has not been finalized because there is continually increasing demand for special operations aviation. What I can explain is the growth currently authorized and where there is potential for growth in the future.

Our ongoing growth was approved in Force Design Update 05-1, which affects fiscal years 2008–2013. The regiment experienced some of its most significant change in 2008 when it activated 4th Battalion at Fort Lewis, Wash., and reorganized 2nd Battalion at Fort Campbell, Ky., and 3rd Battalion at Hunter Army Airfield in Georgia. This force structure update created identical organizations in 2nd, 3rd and 4th battalions that comprise two heavy-lift companies of eight MH-47Gs each and one medium-lift company of 10 MH-60s. These battalions form the nucleus of the support provided to all of our special operations forces. While the structures of the units are identical, it will be several more years before they reach full strength. In 2013, we will stand up an MH-60M company in 2nd Battalion and all three battalions should be fully fielded by 2014.

The uncertainty for the transformational end state of the regiment is due to a number of programs that are either in the process of being approved or in the proposal stage. The most significant and important changes are occurring with our Special Operations Aviation Training Company [SOATC]. The regiment is currently working with TRADOC to receive accreditation for SOATC’s current training program so that it is recognized by Headquarters, Department of the Army, as an accredited training institution. Both the Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker and the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg have reviewed the program, and an expected accreditation date is set for October 1, 2009. The regiment is also working with USASOC and USSOCOM to identify the appropriate level of command and manning for SOATC. Providing SOATC with the appropriate level of manning will free up many of the operational crewmembers SOATC had to use in the past to maintain the proper manpower and to sustain its throughput requirements.

Unmanned aerial systems are becoming an incredible force multiplier in the SOF community. The Special Forces groups are in the early stages of receiving Shadow platoons, USASOC is working toward fielding two extended range multipurpose UAS companies for SOF, and USSOCOM is considering fielding a rotary wing UAS platform. While the Shadows will remain with the SFGs, the larger UASs are slated to remain a part of Army special operations aviation [ARSOA] and may fall under the command and control of the 160th SOAR (A).

One hotly debated issue is the number of special operations helicopters. Many recent studies [CSIS, RAND and the Robert Martinage testimony to the House Committee on Armed Services] have all highlighted the need for additional special operations helicopters. There are many potential courses of action currently being evaluated, but they each point toward a concerted effort to grow SOF helicopters in order to improve the amount of rotary wing support to our SOF ground forces.

Based on the current approved growth and the potential for increases in SOF aviation assets, ARSOA will continue to transform over the next decade. It is quite likely that the regiment as we know it will remain the premier precision assault and attack helicopter force, but as part of a much larger organization with many more capabilities.

Q: What will this mean for the recruitment of pilots and mechanics?

A: Overseas contingency operations coupled with the growth in MH-60 and MH-47 pilots and crew chiefs have certainly created unique challenges in the recruiting efforts for the 160th SOAR (A). This is due in large part to the OPTEMPO that is facing the Army aviation community, a community we rely on for over 98 percent of our recruitment. Despite this challenge, our standards have not and will not change as we and those we support continue to grow.

Currently we are looking for aviators rated in both UH-60 and CH-47 aircraft to fill existing vacancies as well as to continue the growth of the regiment through 2013. We are aggressively seeking:
Army aviators with at least 500 flight hours;
interservice transfers of aviation officers;
flight school candidates with prior SOF experience; and
the top two candidates from each flight school class.


Q: Helicopter upgrades and modernization have permeated the fleet with your recent fielding of the M-model Black Hawks. Is technology moving at such a pace that it will be time to start with the first platforms as soon as the last of the fleet is modified?

A: We are currently conducting system integration and qualification testing on our MH-60M with fielding beginning in 2011.

This aircraft, with its upgraded engines, will greatly improve our capabilities in high/hot environments and offer significant payload increases to the ground force commander. With respect to modification cycles, we approach modernization with an incremental acquisition strategy. This allows us to field basic requirements early while allowing the technology risk level of advanced systems to further develop and mature. To that end, we operate a continuous modification line with the next block upgrade immediately following completion of the current block modification. While it is not our desire to continue without end, we often find that avionics obsolescence necessitates block upgrades, as well as the increased mission processor demands in order to display mission enhancing aids to include moving map, digital imagery, secure real-time ISR feeds, etc.

The MH-47G Chinook is undergoing its second block upgrade program that implements technology that is just now maturing. The Suite of Integrated Radio Frequency Countermeasures is a good example of a technology that has evolved since the fielding of the initial MH-47Gs and is now ready for implementation on the platform. This, along with other technology advancements, yields a more capable heavy assault platform.

The AH/MH-6M Mission Enhanced Little Bird fleet has seen continuous combat employment since it was fielded in 2004, while simultaneously undergoing continuous block upgrade programs. Like the MH-47G fleet, the basic airframe of the Little Bird dates back to the 1960s, and we therefore foresee the need for a replacement aircraft in the 2020 time frame.

Q: Are there any technology sets that you are particularly interested in? Terrain following radar, weight reduction, night vision capabilities and secure real-time video in the cockpit for situational awareness en route to a target, for example.

A: Yes, absolutely. Terrain following radar has been the bread and butter of our MH-47 mission in Afghanistan, and we are facing obsolescence issues with our current AN/APQ-174B multimode radar systems. Silent Knight Radar is in development and will answer these issues by providing more capability, lower detection and reduced weight. Secure real-time video [SRTV] in the cockpit has evolved into a critical capability in today’s fight. Currently we are utilizing ad hoc systems with an approved acquisition plan to procure systems organic to the regiment in 2011. A challenge we overcame early was how to display SRTV feeds into all regimental cockpits, and we did that by a combination of federated and integrated solutions this past year resulting in the capability now to display feeds into all platforms. The next generation SRTV system is now in development, so when it’s ready, the integration into our platforms will be minimal and we will be postured to move from current systems used in combat today to the next generation systems without any loss of capability during technology transition. Weight reduction, as you mentioned, is always an endeavor as we modernize our aircraft. Advancements in composite materials are something we are beginning to take advantage of, but we’ve only scratched the surface there.

The regiment realizes that tomorrow’s technology must be leveraged as soon as possible if emerging requirements and the demand for low-density assets are to be met. Hostile fire indication systems are critical to fighting and surviving overseas contingency operations. Synthetic vision systems will clearly pave the way to passive terrain avoidance and flight director cueing in zero visibility weather conditions. The 160th SOAR (A) proved that block upgrade programs and incremental development can sustain the current fight while delivering maturing technologies to the battlefield.

However, considering that technology is evolving at exponential rates, the true question is when and how to make the evolutionary leaps in technology that result in rotary wing platforms going farther, faster, higher and quieter, all while preserving high/hot hover performance.

Q: Would the regiment like to gain fixed wing assets?

A: If the 160th SOAR (A) were to remain the only special operations aviation command in USASOC, and if USASOC was able to procure fixed wing assets to support the ground forces, then the logical place to put this SOF asset would be in the 160th SOAR (A), but that’s a lot of “ifs.”

The regiment’s bread and butter is precision rotary wing helicopter operations. There is no other organization in the world that can provide the capabilities that the 160th SOAR (A) possesses. We are a force ready to move at a moment’s notice anytime, anywhere, arriving on target plus or minus 30 seconds. This will always be the 160th SOAR (A) standard.

The regiment has the mission to support special operations forces—from all services, with rotary wing support. One area of that support is logistical support. The 160th SOAR’s highly modified aircraft weren’t designed to make routine logistics runs around the battlefield. Additionally, they are an extremely limited resource that quite frankly can’t even support all the operational missions required by today’s growing SOF. So any logistical mission the regiment performs only takes away from our ability to execute true SOF operational missions. This is why more and more SOF units are relying on conventional aviation assets to support their logistics needs.

The Army recently identified the need to improve the last tactical mile of resupply and recognizes that a comparably sized fixed wing asset is less costly to operate than rotary wing. The joint cargo aircraft [JCA] would fill this role. USASOC has also seen the benefit of this and is currently executing a similar concept to support SOF in some remote areas of the world with contracted fixed wing support. While the Army’s JCA program was recently canceled, it had planned to create Reserve and National Guard JCA battalions to support their brigade combat teams. Without a Reserve or National Guard unit to support SOF, the only logical place to put JCA was in USASOC’s only aviation unit—the 160th SOAR (A). If Army special operations aviation were to grow in the future with the creation of another O-6 level command comprising enablers and mission support units, then any fixed-wing growth would likely occur in that command to allow the 160th SOAR (A) to remain focused on providing the best rotary wing force in the world.

Q: What levels of maintenance does the regiment perform on its own? Do you use any predictive analysis to ensure that key components are scheduled for failure during times of critical operations?

A: The regiment is designed and built upon a needs-based maintenance concept to facilitate our customers. Each of our maintainers, contract or military, attends a specialized training course on the facility that focuses on the specific upgrades or modifications of our aircraft. This training has been specifically designed and developed to ensure that each soldier or contractor that works on our aircraft has the necessary training to be able to perform scheduled and unscheduled maintenance on his specific aircraft.

As mentioned we do have contractor-supported maintenance. It comprises very specialized and trained maintainers with long histories in all facets of aviation maintenance from production line, depot overhaul, to mod facilities and special operations background. This gives us a rare and unique ability to tap into various resources and technology that may not be available to other organizations. Last year our contractors supported the regiment’s aircraft with 646,137 hours of aircraft maintenance in support of overseas contingency operations.

Our soldiers, who perform crew member duties as well as maintenance support to the aircraft, both in CONUS and OCONUS, provided over 2 million hours of maintenance-related work. We also have successfully integrated wireless technology and computer use to have near real-time data flow of aircraft logbooks and maintenance history of work being done and completed. This allows our production control and quality control sections to have constant oversight of the fleet and its health and readiness. We have also developed and implemented a computer dashboard that gives us a chance to better forecast maintenance needs and trending data, and we use modeling to determine what we need to focus on to ensure we are 100 percent mission capable whenever called upon.

Q: I understand that you have recently opened an aquatics training facility. What training capabilities does the facility give you?

A: The 160th now has a state-of-the-art aquatic training facility, the only one of its kind in the Department of Defense, which provides realistic training for our units and initial qualifications for every newly assigned Night Stalker. The facility was recently dedicated in honor of Sergeant Thomas F. Allison, a soldier assigned to Echo Company, 160th SOAR (A), where he served in the aviation life support equipment section. Allison perished, along with seven other members of the unit, in February 2002 when an MH-47 Chinook crashed during a mission off the coast of the Philippines.

Training is conducted in replicas of the unit’s MH-47 Chinook, MH-60 Black Hawk and A/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters. The devices were built to replicate everything from the cockpit design, the locations of the doors and amount of head room above the seats to the weapons systems, technology and unique external mechanical parts of the airframe like the refueling probes, skids, pods and hoist mechanisms.

Utilizing the crawl-walk-run training philosophy, the first iteration in the aquatics simulator may be conducted in calm water, with subsequent iterations including simulated environmental elements like waves, wind, rain, rotor wash and combat sounds to make the situation progressively more challenging and realistic.

Future initiatives include a vehicle rollover device to facilitate and enhance the ground forces’ ability to survive in a vehicle accident. Another initiative is to include ground force training in the passenger area of the MH-47/60/6 devices to increase their survivability should an aircraft have to ditch with special operators onboard.

Q: How are your people and platforms handling the demanding OPTEMPO?

A: As you know, the 160th SOAR (A) was one of the first units thrust into combat operations after the tragedy of 9/11. While most units have had a reprieve from combat, the regiment continues to conduct operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. This, coupled with customer training support and the fielding of three new aircraft, has placed a tremendous strain on Night Stalkers and their families. Incentives such as aviation continuation pay have helped to retain some of our experience, but it is becoming a stark reality that what is needed is more time at home with family, which is something that money and incentives simply cannot buy.

Should current recruiting strategies pay off, we should be able not only to grow the regiment with qualified aviators and crew chiefs, but also reduce the DEPTEMPO that our force has seen for the past eight years in the prosecution of overseas contingency operations.

Q: What are some of the necessary components—landing aids, lights, matting, etc.—necessary to prepare some of the more expeditionary sites from which you operate?

A: Due to the nature of our mission and the areas we are tasked to operate in, we must be able to adapt to the geography and environmental conditions. With that being said we can operate from just about any site, improved or unimproved. Our crews and maintainers are trained and prepared to accomplish missions from any site and in numerous types of environments. Environmental considerations such as dust, rocks and dirt can and do impact the performance and longevity of our equipment, but we constantly monitor it to ensure we identify potential issues and effects caused by the conditions.

Q: What percentage of your training is done live and how much utilizes simulators? Do you see the mix changing and do you want, or are you expecting, additional simulators for pilot, mission, planning or gunnery?

A: Due to the TTPs used within the regiment and the precision with which we execute missions on a daily basis, we must count on simulation to aid in the development and sustainment of our aircrews’ proficiency. Thirty-one percent of an aviator’s initial training, in both the MH-47 and MH-60, is completed in one of the unit’s five combat mission simulators [CMSs]. The CMSs are in use up to 16 hours a day, five days a week. Each CMS supports from five to seven two-hour periods a day. If you combine the hours for each CMS, the potential total hours of support equals approximately 13,500 hours of training a year.

All devices are linked both digitally and visually to the Battle Staff Training System, allowing for realistic support both in a training environment and for real world contingency operations or mission rehearsals.

The devices are consistently being upgraded to maintain compatibility with the unit’s mission aircraft. Plans are in place to reutilize two of the legacy simulators as the airframes they support are upgraded. This continual upgrading of the devices provides positive habit transfer throughout all aspects of training whether it be with night vision goggles, multimode radar/terrain following/terrain avoidance, instrument, or aerial gunnery flights.

Q: Any closing thoughts?

A: Our success during this sustained fight, as it has been throughout our history, is due to the soldiers, civilians, contractors and families of this regiment. The hardware and technology are important, but it’s the people who make this organization successful. The leadership will ensure our soldiers have the tools and the training needed, but the soldiers are the ones who continue to provide the dedication, motivation and courage needed to ensure the job gets done and gets done to standard. This is why the 160th SOAR (A) has and will continue to provide unparalleled support to special operations forces, arriving time on target plus or minus 30 seconds.
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