Tag Archives: Tanker War

Cold Warriors in Kodachrome

Official caption: “A Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 2 (HC-2) SH-3G Sea King helicopter takes off from the stern of the dock landing ship USS Mount Vernon (LSD 39). A Mark 33 3-inch/50-caliber anti-aircraft gun is in the foreground.”

Note that the autoloaders on the Mk33 are filled with 13-pound shells at the ready while the Sea King, likely of the “Desert Ducks” detachment out of Bahrain, has a beautiful full-color livery.

U.S. Navy image DN-ST-88-03592 via NARA.

Filed October 1987 in the Persian Gulf by PH2 (SW) Jeffrey Elliott, this image dates from Operation Earnest Will in the midst of the Tanker War phase of the Iran-Iraq war which saw Kuwaiti-owned tankers reflagged as American vessels and placed under the protection of the Navy.

Mount Vernon, a 14,000-ton Anchorage-class dock landing ship, was commissioned in 1972 and, as with the other four members of her class, had been fitted with a quartet of MK 33 twin 3-inch AAA DP mounts when constructed, a system that first entered service in 1948.

Another Mount Vernon shot from 1987. The 16-ton MK33 twin mount had a AAA ceiling of 30,400 feet and a surface engagement range of 14,600 yards, capable of 40-50 rounds per minute per gun, at least until the auto-loader ran out. They required an 11-man crew. It was believed one Mk33 was successful in an AAA role, with USS Biddle (DLG-34) credited with damaging a North Vietnamese MiG fighter in the Tonkin Gulf on 19 July 1972.

The fire-control directors for these dated mounts, of questionable use even in the 1970s, were removed from the Anchorage class during the Carter administration, while the first two tubs and then the last four were deleted by the early 1990s as the weapon was sunsetted. They were replaced by a pair of CIWS and another pair of Mk 38 25mm chain guns during late-career refits.

Mount Vernon would be decommissioned on 25 July 2003, the same year the last of her class left active service and was sunk as a target two years later.

The last 3-inch guns in U.S. maritime service were the 3″/50 singles on the 210-foot Reliance class cutters of the Coast Guard, which were removed during the completion of the cutters’ midlife maintenance availability in 1996.

As for the mighty Sea King, which first entered Navy service in 1961, they retired in late 2006 when the final unarmed UH-3H model was paid off from support duty at the Pacific Missile Range Facility, although the “white top” VH-3Ds of Marine One would continue to serve for much longer.

A U.S. Navy Sikorsky VH-3A Sea King (BuNo 150613) and an SH-3G of Helicopter Combat Support Squadron 2 (HC-2) stand on the flight line following their arrival at the Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia (USA), in 1991. HC-2 was the last squadron that operated the type, finally retiring them in 2006 for H-60 models. Photo by Capt. Joe Mancias, USN – U.S. DefenseImagery photo VIRIN: DN-ST-91-07128.

Shades of Prime Chance

Back at the hottest part of the Iran-Iraq Tanker War in 1987-89, Operation Prime Chance saw Army Little Birds and AH/OH-58Ds “Sea Cavalry” of Task Force 118 deploying from FFGs and two leased Brown & Root crane barges dubbed Mobile Sea Base Hercules and Mobile Sea Base Wimbrown 7. Set up in the Northern Persian Gulf, the latter supported eight MkIII 65-foot patrol boats and an array of Army AH-64D Longbow Apaches and Navy Seahawks for C-SAR while they were protected by Marine air defense units to pop interloping low-flying tangos.

Task Force 118, OP Prime Chance, a Navy FFG with A/OH-58D Kiowa embarked

US Army OH-58D Kiowa Warrior of TF 118’s 4 Sqn/7 Cav., 18 Aviation Brig. “Thugs” overflying USS Curts (FFG-38). Academy model top box art.

Fast forward to today and Joint Task Force-Bravo, part of 4th Fleet/SOUTHCOM, this week posted these images of Army UH-60s conducting deck landing qualifications with the USS Billings (LCS 15) while some 50 miles off the coast of El Salvador recently. In all, 14 pilots and 14 crew chiefs accomplished the deck landing qualification. The training was conducted using four Black Hawk UH-60L helicopters of 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment (1-228) equipped with pylon systems.

A UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter assigned to Joint Task Force-Bravo’s 1-228th Aviation Regiment lands on the deck of the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Billings (LCS 15) during deck landing qualification training off the coast of El Salvador, July 16, 2022. Achieving and maintaining deck landing qualifications ensures flight crews are mission ready to support any humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, or other contingency operations across the United States Southern Command area of responsibility. (U.S. Navy photo by Master-at-Arms 1st Class John Carson)

(U.S. Navy photo by Master-at-Arms 1st Class John Carson)

(U.S. Navy photo by Master-at-Arms 1st Class John Carson)

Of course, this shows the utility of the LCS platform as a forward arming and refueling point and mothership just outside of shore fires while the vessel carries a modicum of self-protection capability, at least against a Third World adversary. 

Via JTF-B: 

The training took place approximately 50 miles off the coast of El Salvador and involved five landings by each crew across two-days of training. The deck landing capability is somewhat unique for U.S. Army aircrew who primarily operate over land.
“The capability to be ready when called upon for over-water mission support is critical in Central America,” said U. S. Army Lt Col. Charles Hall, commander, 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment. “The skills and confidence these aviators gained through our Joint relationship with the Navy extend our capability to support our Central American partners in the region we live and operate.”

While the LCSs are controversial, it is precisely this type of (wait for it) littoral contingency operation the vessels were intended for, and the Freedom-variant, with its trimaran hull, low signature, shallow draft, and large helicopter deck excel at.

Typically, the Freedom-variant LCSs have been deployed in the past couple of years with an integrated combination of a single multi-mission MH-60S Knighthawk helicopter and two radar-capable MQ-8B Fire Scout drones along with five pilots, four aircrewmen, and 16 maintainers.

An MQ-8B Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle attached to HSC-8 Eightballers prepares to land on the flight deck of the Freedom-variant littoral combat ship USS Billings (LCS 15). Billings is deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet area of operations to support Joint Interagency Task Force South’s mission, which includes counter-illicit drug trafficking missions in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific. (U.S. Navy photo by Operations Specialist First Class Jacob Walker/Released)

As the Fire Scouts can remain airborne for 5 hours at a time up to 100 miles away from the host, and carry a day/night day real-time ISR target acquisition and maritime search radar, they can prove a powerful force modifier that the old Prime Chance crews would have loved.

The more capable MQ-8Cs, which are coming online, have double the range and endurance as well as a Leonardo AN/ZPY-8 (Osprey) radar system, giving it better “eyes” than the MH-60S.

Ironically, based on the Bell 407 airframe, the MQ-8C series is, at its heart, the same aircraft that the Army used as the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior which was used in Prime Chance/Desert Storm from the deck of Navy FFGs. It will be nice when the Charlie models start carrying ordnance.

PT. MUGU, Calif. (Oct. 31, 2013) An MQ-8C Fire Scout unmanned aerial vehicle takes off from Naval Base Ventura County at Point Mugu. The Navy’s newest variant of the Fire Scout unmanned helicopter completed its first day of flying Oct. 31 with two flights reaching 500 feet altitude. The MQ-8C air vehicle upgrade will provide longer endurance, range, and greater payload capability than the MQ-8B. Initial operating capability for the MQ-8C is planned for 2016.

The more things change.

Apache Junction

Back at the hottest part of the Iran-Iraq Tanker War in 1987-89, Operation Prime Chance saw Army SOAR Little Birds and OH-58s deploying from FFGs as well as two leased Brown & Root crane barges dubbed Mobile Sea Base Hercules and Mobile Sea Base Wimbrown 7. Set-up in the Northern Persian Gulf, the latter supported eight MkIII 65-foot patrol boats and an array of Army AH-64D Longbow Apaches, Navy Seahawks for C-SAR while they were protected by Marine air defense units to pop interloping low-flying tangos.

An aerial view of the leased barge Hercules with three PB Mark III patrol boats and the tugboat Mister John H tied up alongside. The barge is part of Operation Prime Chance, supporting U.S. Navy efforts to provide security for U.S.-flagged shipping in the Persian Gulf. 1 January 1989 Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Smith DNST8908773

Fast forward to 2020 and the concept is fully fleshed out some 30 years later with the 78,000-ton purposely-built expeditionary mobile base vessels of the USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB-3) class.

USS Lewis B. Puller (ESB 3) employs a flight deck for helicopter operations. ESB 3 is able to carry at least four MH-53E helicopters or five Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit Military Vans and still have room to maneuver and store other equipment.

Puller has a dozen weapon stations (think M2 .50 cals) to protect against small boats, and the ability to support at least four CH-53-sized helicopters and 300 mission crew.

Recently, Puller showcased Task Force Saber, an Army AH-64 unit, which caused a lot of interest from Iranian Revolutionary Guard guys last week.

Official caption: Soldiers of Task Force Saber conduct rotary-wing deck landing operations with the U.S. Navy onboard the USS Lewis B. Puller in the Persian Gulf April 15-16, 2020. Task Force Saber utilized the USS Puller as a maritime base to practice launching rotary-wing assets. (U.S. Army video by Sgt. Trevor Cullen):