The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) paved the way in night-vision flying nearly four decades ago, but as with any organization, versatility and growth is the metric by which relevance is judged. The concept of “owning the night” carried Army aviation through countless global conflicts and provided a significant advantage over enemies. Near-peer adversaries now possess comparable night-vision technology, narrowing the advantage provided by zero-illumination tactics.
With this in mind, the 160th is developing new advancements in technology, tactics, techniques and procedures that will once again establish dominance over America’s adversaries. The regiment’s innate desire to innovate has led it to introduce a cutting-edge rotary-wing training pipeline known as Special Operations Aviation-Advanced Tactics Training (SOA-ATT).
The regiment, which is headquartered at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, but most often operates out of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California, continues to innovate new tactics and explore new technologies in an effort to “own the spectrum.” “Spectrum” means the entirety of the electromagnetic spectrum of weapons systems, mission equipment, sensors and communications. As U.S. adversaries invest in capabilities to counter America’s technological dominance and, in some cases, develop weapons systems that overmatch existing defenses, the 160th is evolving through organizational changes, technological and tactical development and, most importantly, training.
Conceived in 2016, SOA-ATT prepares 160th aircrews and staff personnel to operate in contested and denied environments against sophisticated adversaries. This annual three-week event allows senior aircrews, intelligence and electronic warfare specialists, and joint partners to test and validate tactics, techniques and procedures against a simulated integrated air defense system with real-time feedback.
Fusing intelligence and electronic warfare personnel with aircrews in the planning process is integral during SOA-ATT. The event itself, which takes place in one to three locations, utilizes a crawl-walk-run format, beginning with classes to equip trainees with essential tools for mission analysis.
Aircrews then begin iterative training, with each flight building on the lessons learned from the one before. SOA-ATT culminates with a challenging three-day capstone scenario, tying together previous lessons into one challenging event. No other event provides the freedom for aircrews to experiment and test the limitations of the aircraft and crews.
Since the inception of SOA-ATT, a common lesson learned is that it is much easier to defeat a threat in the planning cell than it is in the aircraft. As such, the integration of the intelligence and fires warfighting functions proves to be a crucial element in the denied-area planning process. A key task for SOA-ATT is the development of Special Operations Aviation Mission Survivability (SOAMS) teams, consisting of intelligence soldiers, cyber-electromagnetic activities personnel and aviators.
SOAMS teams work together to assess and analyze threats, integrate assets and implement solutions in support of the traditional mission-planning cell. Intelligence soldiers provide the enemy situation of who, what, when, where and why, along with a plethora of intelligence products. Cyber-electromagnetic activities soldiers provide the “how” in mitigating and defeating electronic warfare threats from offensive tactics, aircraft survivability equipment employment or integration of electronic warfare assets.
Aviators draw on this information to develop complex air plans and employ denied-area tactics, techniques and procedures while assessing and mitigating tactical risk. The effectiveness of these teams is determined throughout each learning block of SOA-ATT.
Start With Simulators
Training formally begins at Fort Campbell in the regiment’s simulator center. Block I is focused on the instruction of tactics by the regiment’s cyber-electromagnetic activities cell and DoD experts in radar theory and advanced weapon systems. Simulator training includes degraded navigation capability, defensive actions on contact and offensive maneuvers to penetrate denied areas.
Key to this instruction is the use of the regiment’s cyber-electromagnetic activities soldiers, who operate as surface-to-air missile system operators and provide threat awareness. SOA-ATT brings together subject-matter experts from across DoD. In electronic warfare, some experts have experience spanning 30 years. Experts in electronic warfare engineering provide insight into human performance and radar theory, emphasizing that despite technological advancements, war is a human endeavor susceptible to exploitation. Other academic topics include intelligence support and planning in denied areas, personnel recovery and aircraft survivability equipment. Once academics are complete, aircrews are ready to implement what they have learned.
Block II reinforces Block I’s material through training immersion at China Lake’s Electronic Combat Range. This training area offers a realistic menu of threat systems, operated by experienced crews and instrumented for accurate adjudication of simulated engagements. During this block, aircrews have 26 hours of range time to practice multiple tactics, techniques and procedures, employ aviation survivability equipment and build confidence in defeating surface-to-air threats.
Flight crews and support teams conduct a thorough after-action review following each iteration’s culmination. During the review, SOAMS teams analyze each route segment with the pilots, discuss the pilot’s flight profile of altitude and airspeed, and provide an analysis of collected threat indications.
Intelligence representatives then provide assessments on detection and engagement of the threat systems. Using this feedback, SOAMS teams are able to make adjustments for follow-on iterations, allowing flight crews to become increasingly effective.
Block II is especially fruitful in the development of tactics, techniques and procedures for the regiment’s MQ-1C Gray Eagle unmanned aircraft system and other joint assets. The year 2020 was the second year MQ-1C system crews participated in SOA-ATT. Their growth was exponential as they integrated with SOAMS teams and developed tactics, techniques and procedures through experimentation and practice. In 2020, unmanned aircraft system crews tested single and multiship tactics, techniques and procedures, to include kinetic strikes supporting the suppression or destruction of enemy air defense assets. It was also the second year that members of Air Force Special Operations Command participated, with SOA-ATT serving as a critical block of training for CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft from the U.S. Air Force Weapons School.
SOA-ATT culminates with the Block III full-mission profile, which provides a challenging and realistic scenario throughout complex desert, mountainous environments such as at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. The center recently improved its suite of available electronic threats and offers impressive electronic passive detection, jamming and early warning.
This culminating phase requires participants to exercise the full denied-area planning process and implement previous training. After thorough threat analysis, the SOAMS teams develop courses of action for each mission set. Full-mission profile mission sets include air assault infiltration and exfiltration via heavy and medium assault aircraft, precision assault and fires from light attack aircraft, unmanned aircraft system-based intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and precision fires, and the integration of non-kinetic enemy air-defense suppression.
The 160th uses simulations to evaluate and refine aircraft routing and rehearse the mission. Aircrews then execute the plan against integrated threats, with pop-up threats validating defensive maneuvers.
During the 2020 SOA-ATT full-mission profile execution, flight crews overwhelmed threat operators by the tactics employed. The task force successfully layered effects to achieve tactical surprise and exploit vulnerabilities while mitigating risk.
The future battlefield is uncertain. Adversaries continue to evolve. General-purpose forces will dominate large-scale combat, however, special operations forces must be prepared to integrate, support and shape these efforts. The nation relies on special operations forces to conduct the most challenging and sensitive missions.
SOA-ATT will continue to be the premier event to ensure that the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) is able to face any adversary in any environment and own the spectrum.
Col. Andy Graham and Lt. Col. Matt Scher contributed to this article.
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Maj. Quinn Meyers is commander of Company A, 3rd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), Hunter Army Airfield, Georgia. Previously, he served as executive officer for Company B, 2nd Battalion, 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. He has served multiple combat tours in support of Operations Inherent Resolve, Enduring Freedom, Freedom’s Sentinel and Resolute Support.
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Tom Schneider is an aviation mission survivability officer and MH-47G Chinook helicopter flight lead with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Previously, he served as an OH-58 Kiowa Warrior helicopter pilot with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). He has served numerous deployments in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.