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Army helicopters practice defense against shoulder-fired missiles

UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter. (Taiwan Presidential Office/Flickr)

The Army Black Hawk helicopter dipped below distant treetops Friday afternoon after Spc. Tyler Billings, standing on a plateau, got an ultraviolet bead on it with a man-portable aircraft survivability trainer (MAST) that resembles a rocket launcher.

After it reemerged, Billings aimed the device at the chopper again, and for some visual cues, two smoke pellets launched 550 feet in the air replicating the smoke trails of an enemy surface-to-air missile system.

The air survivability training at Schofield Barracks’ East Range gave Bil­lings, 23, a Black Hawk mechanic with the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, a new perspective on the choppers he maintains.

“When they are in the air and you lock onto them and you get that UV out to the helicopter, you can watch them actually react,” the Seattle man said. “A couple of times on video, you can watch them get the reaction, and they’ll drop or they’ll try to do a maneuver, try to drop beneath the tree line.”

“So I thought that was interesting, especially being on the mechanic side, you get to see the helicopter really kind of do what it’s supposed to do — not so much just the training coming up and down off the flight line.”

Missiles of all kinds are proliferating in the “great power” competition with China and Russia — and that includes weapons from the very small, such as the shoulder-fired surface-to-air man-portable air defense missiles known as MANPADs, to ballistic missiles that arc through space to reach their target.

MANPADs were developed by the United States in the late 1950s and were quickly copied by the Soviet Union. Defense contractor Raytheon said the Stinger MANPAD is combat-proven in four major conflicts, with more than 270 fixed- and rotary-wing intercepts by the supersonic missile.

The 25th Combat Aviation Brigade at Wheeler Army Airfield has had the MAST system for a while, but it hadn’t been used with the smoke pellets before because of bureaucratic complications, officials said.

Chief Warrant Officer 4 Travis Haney, the brigade’s aviation mission survivability officer, said the feedback he’s received from pilots and crew from this round of training is, “They loved it.”

“They don’t get the opportunity to train like this with actual visual signatures that stimulate the systems in their aircraft,” Haney said. “They can see it with their eyeballs, so it gives them a much more realistic training opportunity.”

On the defensive side, the U.S. military has developed and deployed a suite of aircraft survivability equipment that includeselectronic jammers, lasers and countermeasure flares. The Common Missile Warning System will notify a pilot that a missile engagement has occurred.

“Generally, this type of training can only be done in a simulator,” Haney said. “While a simulator is great, you can’t execute it multiship with other aircraft, so you lose the collective training piece as well as how the aircraft actually performs in a simulator versus in reality.”

On Friday afternoon Black Hawks ran the MANPAD gantlet singly and in pairs from a distance of about a kilometer, or about five-eighths of a mile. Haney said the aviation brigade might shorten that distance for the next training iteration, possibly in the spring.

Big twin-rotor CH-47 Chinooks, Black Hawks and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters participated in the training, which was cut a bit short this week due to rainy weather.

A simulated air defense radar system also was set up toward the North Shore for the helicopters to practice against.

In January the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade practiced air evasion in Makua Valley with the MAST system minus the smoke trail pellets, Haney said.

“MANPADS are widely proliferated, so they are a pretty significant threat,” he said. But the shoulder-fired missiles are just one in what is now a whole new ballgame of possible threats from China and Russia.

In the face of increasing numbers of combat helicopters, drones and cruise missiles, Army headquarters said in July it was standing up new short-range air defense units, known as SHORAD battalions, and offering a five-week pilot Stinger missile course for soldiers.

Most of the short-range air defense battalions were deactivated a decade ago because the Army needed the troops for infantry brigade combat teams for counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 25th Infantry Division was concerned enough about some residents of Mililani Mauka and Wahiawa seeing the smoke pellet contrails that it put out a notice ahead of the training.

The combat aviation brigade took that caution another step by keeping the training in a central part of the big East Range complex.


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