Challenges to Commando Infiltration
Suppose you are going to insert a group of Special Operations commandos into hostile mountainous terrain one thousand miles from the nearest water, and several hundred miles from the nearest friendly airfield.
How would you get them in?
Let’s examine the options. You could fly in the force from sea using ship-based helicopters. Or you could ferry in the helos to a friendly airfield and commence the inbound operation from there. And finally, you could HALO (High Altitude/Low Opening) insert the commandos using long-range, high-altitude carriers.
Ship-based insertion carries a lot of unnecessary risk for both the commando unit as well as for helicopter crews and other support aircraft such as refueling tankers refueling aircraft crewmen. A thousand miles of terrain is a long way to fly without being seen, especially if the enemy may be expecting some kind of SOF operation. For operations this far from the launching vessel, the only feasible platform is an aircraft carrier, since you also must launch refueling aircraft.
A destination within the round-trip range of the choppers, of course, significantly increases the available launch platforms. The risk is further exacerbated when the enemy has access to Stinger missiles. It can be done, but any SOF commander will tell you how important it is to reduce the known upfront risk.
Sea-based insertion is as old as modern SOF warfare. Typically, however, for the Navy SEALs, this mode presupposes some use of water other than the launch. The SEALs came of age in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam conflict. They used every means of insertion except HALO and HAHO (High Altitude/High Opening), but always, always, water was the SEAL’s friend. Since then SEALs participated in Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989, and Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm in 1991, and even more recently in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia. Generally, those SEAL operations involving water were more successful than those taking place strictly on land but not always. These operations will be examined in greater detail in later articles.
Departing from a friendly nearby airfield simplifies the insertion and lowers the risk of a long trip, but this is more than offset by the increased risk for detection. Even without the presence of modern telecommunications, how long will it take for the whole countryside to know about the arrival of several helicopters inside the bellies of a couple of large transport aircraft?
Then, what do you do with the transports and choppers while you wait? Leave them there at your peril. You must fly them out, and when you bring them back a second time, the world will know you are about to extract. This method compounds risk to unacceptable levels.
That leaves the option of high-altitude insertion, and while this carries the risk inherent in any free-fall parachute operation, in every other respect this is the most secure approach. The transport is undetectable by the enemy. A nighttime drop cannot be seen. There is no way for the enemy to get wind of the covert operation, so it brings the element of total surprise.
HALO insertion also gives you great flexibility. With proper planning, you can insert pairs of operatives along a string of geographic positions that will enable a thorough investigation over a wide geographic range with little chance of discovery. HALO insertion also allows timing flexibility, where you can initially insert a small investigative force followed by a larger group that will act on the information transmitted shortly before by the first group.
Ideally, therefore, when the operation is in rugged terrain far removed from accessible water, HALO insertion becomes the method of choice. Extraction, however, is another matter.
Typically, about the time extraction is necessary, the enemy will have discovered the presence of SOF troops in his midst. He will be on high alert to locate the intruders, and will be in no mood to take prisoners. This means that extraction must be sure, swift, and unannounced. This almost always eliminates using a friendly nearby airfield, because a cunning enemy will have all such fields under close observation, specifically in order to determine the timing and mode of extraction.
Under these circumstances, sometimes SOF personnel face a long, difficult ground transit. The various SOF branches of the U.S. military assume differing approaches to outfitting. SEALs, for example, travel light. Their missions usually require quick action and rapid withdrawal; carrying supplies to support a several day trek would seriously hinder their primary mission. Rangers, on the other hand, typically plan for longer insertions. Their setup time is longer, but they are well trained to survive for days or even weeks if necessary before being extracted. They have built-in provisions for resupply, so that while they might not wish it, if necessary a Ranger platoon could travel several hundred miles overland to reach a suitable extraction point. Knowing this forces the enemy to keep a much larger number of potential supporting airfields under observation, tying up his forces and complicating his situation.
Regardless of the SOF elements used or the location of the extraction point with respect to the insertion point, extraction probably will be by helicopter, unless the SOF team can reach accessible water, which is not the case in the scenario we have painted here. This is the purview of the carrier-based extraction team.
So long as communications between the SOF force and the carrier exist, carrier-based helicopters and support aircraft can locate and extract the SOF team rapidly. Even without real-time communications, the SOF team and carrier-based aircraft can implement a prepositioned plan, or even a series of plans. If the SOF team is not at the first planned extraction point, the carrier team automatically shifts to Plan B or C, or whatever, according to the plan of action.
The same considerations apply to seaborne extraction as to insertion, except the risk becomes acceptable, and the flexibility of a carrier-based extraction team makes it the method of choice. Inbound, the helicopters can change routes as dictated by immediate circumstances, knowing they can rendezvous with refueling aircraft anywhere. Once the SOF team is on board, the helicopters have an even wider range of options. The carrier can move to a new pickup location, or another ship can receive the helicopters, or they can even choose to land at a friendly airfield.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor