With new icebreakers on the way, the U.S. Coast Guard is sending big MH-60T Jayhawk helicopters to sea. It is taking the first steps towards re-constituting a long-lost polar logistical support capability that it shed in 2005, when Coast Guard leaders disestablished the Helicopter Icebreaker Support Unit, better known as the Coast Guard Polar Operations Division (POPDIV).
The Coast Guard knows big polar challenges are coming. New icebreakers will help, but a handful of new ships are unable to answer the complexities of both the Antarctic and the Arctic alone. America needs an array of tightly-integrated systems to safely operate the new icebreakers in some of the most unforgiving territory on the earth, and, as the Coast Guard prepares better helicopters, new bases and polar training regimens, the U.S. is signaling America’s intent to head back “Into The Cold”, supporting lawful order in the polar regions it largely abandoned years ago.
Helicopters Head Out Into The Cold:
As the U.S. Coast Guard prepares for future polar operations, the logistical support pieces required to support Arctic and Antarctic activities are gradually coming into view. One big part—aviation support—is being addressed by the service-wide supplementation of small, short-ranged MH-65 Dolphin helicopters with the robust and longer-ranged MH-60T Jayhawk.
For the Coast Guard’s big new cutters, the MH-60T Jayhawk—a derivative of the Army’s Blackhawk helicopter—is becoming a more-easily embarked asset. At the 2021 State of the Coast Guard Address earlier this month, the Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, noted that he had recently “observed our first MH-60T Jayhawk outfitted with Blade-fold/Tail-fold capability that will enable deployment aboard National Security Cutters, and our future Polar Security and Offshore Patrol Cutters.” While the bigger Jayhawk helicopters can operate from cutter flight decks right now, the new “folding” capability allows the big, ocean-going helicopters to fit into vessel hangars and operate from the Coast Guard’s big cutters over a longer period of time.
MORE FOR YOU
While both the Jayhawk and the Dolphin have worked in extreme conditions, the MH-60T’s greater-than-four-hour endurance dwarfs the smaller helicopter’s 90 minutes of mission flight time. While this “increases the bubble” around host vessels and bases, the bigger helicopter’s increased range and robustness lends it to a wider range of activities under a wider range of environmental conditions.
The Coast Guard is not hiding the fact that embarked MH-60T helicopters are headed to the Poles. In an interview after the State of the Coast Guard Address, the Commandant expanded on the potential utility of the big Blade-fold/Tail-fold equipped Jayhawk, detailing that the modified MH-60T helicopters would be deployed aboard the Polar Security Cutter and employed, in part, for base inspections under the provisions of the Antarctic Treaty.
Antarctic Treaty base inspections are needed. In 2019, the 45-year old Coast Guard icebreaker USCGC Polar Star (WAGB 10) supported the first U.S.-led Antarctic challenge inspections since 2006-7 (The U.S. and Russia conducted joint inspections in the 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 seasons). But in 2019, the U.S. inspections were limited to the Antarctic Coast, where a small eight-person team visited Italy’s Mario Zucchelli Station, South Korea’s Jang Bogo Station and China’s emergent station on Inexpressible Island—as well as the nearby Boulder Clay airstrip and a protected area. Rather than employ helicopters, the inspectors had to use a cutter boat to visit China’s station—which is being built despite China’s refusal to comply with Antarctic Treaty guidelines on base construction.
In about four years from now, if the first Polar Security Cutter is delivered as scheduled in 2024, America will have the capability to reach farther into Antarctica’s interior. China’s remote Kunlun Station, Taishan Station and some other more militarily or strategically “interesting” inland stations will be within reach of delegations eager to document activities at these isolated and rarely-inspected bases in the southern continent. These inspections simply cannot be done now, as the 800-mile range offered by the MH-60T helicopter outstrips the modest capabilities of the National Science Foundation’s contractor-provided fleet of two shorter-range AS-350-B3E “A-Stars” and Bell 412s. Adding in additional fixed-wing flights to reach isolated bases taxes the handful of available—and very high-demand—assets. Even if suitable aircraft are available, landing facilities may not exist.
Outside of geopolitics, as tourism and commercial traffic continue to increase in both the North and South Poles, additional rotary lift capability will be particularly welcome. In the Antarctic, dedicated search-and-rescue assets do not exist, and having advanced helicopters in the region will do a lot to relive the modest handful of already oversubscribed rotary-wing assets in the Antarctic.
It’s Not Just Helicopters:
In April, the Coast Guard will break ground on a permanent air station at Naval Air Station Point Mugu’s descendant, the now-vibrant Naval Base Ventura County. Naval Base Ventura County has strong Antarctic roots that China, Russia and other stakeholders will notice. Until 1998, the base housed the “U.S. Naval Support Force, Antarctica” and the Navy’s corresponding logistical aviation support command, Antarctic Development Squadron Six (VXE-6). When VXE-6 was shuttered in the late ‘90s, some 780 naval personnel were dedicated to support the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic operations, providing rotary and fixed wing support with ski-equipped LC-130R Hercules aircraft and Bell UH-1N Twin Hueys.
While nobody expects the Coast Guard to assume fixed-wing support to the North and South Poles, in geographic terms, the Coast Guard is stepping in almost exactly where VXE-6 left off. The new base will be substantial; the Coast Guard expects to build out a 48,000 square foot hangar and add more than 12,000 square feet of office and berthing space at Naval Base Ventura County, and, even if the new base has nothing to do with Polar logistics, the detachment will likely be housed right next to the Navy’s proposed new home base for the MQ-25A Stingray unmanned air system, offering interesting opportunities for cross-fertilization between the Navy’s unmanned community and Coast Guard aviators.
The U.S. Coast Guard has a long way to go before America’s old afloat Polar logistical support infrastructure is fully reconstituted. But planning can start now, with training of both aviators as well as support staff for Antarctic base inspection teams, multi-national fisheries engagement experts and overseas-based advance personnel.
Domestic inspection teams are relatively easy to recruit and train, but more work can be done now to help other like-minded countries develop base inspection expertise. With the new icebreakers, the U.S. can offer like-minded Antarctic partners logistical assistance in getting out to see the Antarctic bases those teams might wish to examine. The same sort of foundational work can start with fishing and other advance personnel required for optimal in-region exploitation of the Coast Guard’s new operational resources. The U.S. Coast Guard already knows the Arctic is a patchwork of partners—but in the coming years, the Antarctic will be even more challenging, requiring additional engagement that must be started sooner rather than later.
Training for embarked cold-weather rotary wing support is equally important. Before any embarked Coast Guard helicopters head to the ends of the earth, helicopter crews will need to undergo some serious training. Antarctica, in particular, is a very tough place for helicopter operations. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, in defining the causes of a serious 2013 Antarctic helicopter crash, listed off seven severe Antarctic helicopter mishaps that occurred in the prior three decades due to poor visibility alone. As tired pilots push through the long days to provide all the support they can during the limited Antarctic flying season, human errors, maintenance failures and weather can come together to extract a substantial toll.
But the Coast Guard knows how to do all of this. They did it all before. Between 1969 to 2005, the Coast Guard operated the Helicopter Icebreaker Support Unit, or, as it eventually became known, the Polar Operations Division (POPDIV) at the Coast Guard Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Alabama. While Alabama may be a great place to train prospective polar-ready aviators, it may be too soon to start up a full-fledged training pipeline. Instead, Coast Guard MH-60 pilots with northern latitude experience, currently operating out of Air Station Kodiak or some other cold-weather Station, may be the first to take the foldable Jayhawk to sea as the Coast Guard rushes to reconstitute an old mission in the face of big new threats at the Poles.