What's The Deal With Army Helicopters Flying A Secret New Mission Over The Capital?
Army aviators already provide vital support in the region, including being prepared to spirit senior government officials to safety in a crisis.
The U.S. Army has been quietly conducting a new classified operation involving at least 10 UH-60 Black Hawks in and around Washington, D.C., for months. This mission came to light after the service asked Congress to shift $1.55 million in funds from one part of its budget to another in order to support the operations and maintenance of the helicopters.
Bloomberg was first to report on this "emerging classified flight mission" after obtaining an Army reprogramming request. The $1.55 million for this operation is part of a broader request to funnel approximately $2.5 billion in total from various parts of the service's budget to other areas that it feels are of greater importance. By law, all the branches of the U.S. military have to ask permission to reallocate funds that Congress has already approved for other purposes.
"Soldiers from assault helicopter company and aviation maintenance units will be supporting the mission with 10 UH-60s and maintenance capabilities for four months," the request says, according to Bloomberg. "Without additional funding, the Army will not be able to perform this classified mission."
The document does not identify any units specifically or offer any details about the classified operation itself. Wayne Hall, an Army spokesperson, declined to offer any additional specifics to Bloomberg, but did say that the mission had begun early in the 2019 Fiscal Year, which started on Oct. 1, 2018, and had an "undetermined" end date.
However, the $1.55 million would also pay for the construction of a new “Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility," or SCIF, at Davison Army Airfield, which is part of Fort Belvoir in Virginia. SCIF is a term used to refer to offices or other structures built to exacting government standards so that the occupants can handle and discuss classified information inside without being heard of having that data seen or otherwise intercepted. You can read more about SCIF requirements and how they work in this past War Zone piece.
The SCIF, together with the mention of the Black Hawks, strongly points to the unit in question being the Army's relatively obscure 12th Aviation Battalion, which is based at Davison. This unit flies a mix of UH-72 Lakota light utility helicopters and UH-60s, including a handful of modified and luxurious VIP-configured "Gold Top" Black Hawks. The 12th is part of what is known today as The Army Aviation Brigade, or TAAB, which also includes a fixed-wing VIP aviation detachment and ground support elements, including air traffic controllers, to manage operations at Davison or other locations, as necessary.
The battalion's primary day-to-day job is providing helicopter airlift support in the greater Washington, D.C. area, which the U.S. government refers to as the National Capital Region (NCR). This can include shuttling senior officials from the Army and other branches of the U.S. military around, as well as members of Congress and visiting foreign dignitaries, depending on the exact mission at hand. The 12th is one of a number of U.S. military aviation units, which you can read about in more detail here, which conduct these types of missions in and around the nation's capital.
On top of that, the 12th has a far less well-known mission as part of the U.S. government's extensive "continuity of government" planning to keep running in the event of a major disaster, widespread enemy attack, or other crises. In such a scenario, the battalion would help fly top lawmakers and other senior U.S. government officials to secure sites, including Camp David, Mount Weather, and Raven Rock. You can read more about the U.S. continuity of government planning in this past feature at The War Zone.
The 12th is also responsible for providing airlift for the Army's unique 911th Engineer Company (Technical Rescue), the service's premier urban search and rescue unit. The 911th would be critical to helping extract important officials from damaged or collapsed buildings in any contingency. Previously known as the Military District of Washington (MDW) Engineer Company, the unit notably had a chance to demonstrate its capabilities while supporting the response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon. They're also the only unit tasked to provide this kind of support at the White House.
What's curious in this case is that Army spokesperson Hall confirmed that the mission that the reprogramming request is referencing is new and has, at most, been ongoing for almost 10 months. This might mean that the Army has expanded its role in the continuity of government plan, or that that planning itself has evolved in some way, but it could also reflect the service taking on an entirely new mission.
Since 9/11 and the establishment of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) in 2002, the U.S. military has also taken on greater domestic roles in general. At the same time, as The War Zone has explored on multiple occasions, the extent of the U.S. military's activities in the Washington, D.C. area, as well domestically within the United States, in general, can be difficult to assess. These missions can involve some of the most secretive special operations units, as well as personnel from other federal, state, and local government agencies.
This world of domestic military operations, and even training exercises, can be so nebulous that even Congress has found itself unsure as to the scope of this activity in the past. In 2014, lawmakers said that they would withhold funding for U.S. Special Operations Command's top unit in the National Capital Region – referred to variously as SOCOM-National Capital Region (SOCOM-NCR), the Joint Interagency Task Force-National Capital Region (JIATF-NCR), or simply the Interagency Task Force – until they got a clear report describing its roles and missions.
Still, there have been developments that may offer some clues as to what kinds of expanded or new missions the 12th, or even a new Army helicopter unit in the NCR, might be tasked with now. In 2016, SOCOM also became the lead entity within the U.S. military if there is a need to neutralize a hostile weapon of mass destruction (WMD), either abroad or the United States, taking over this mission from U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM). SOCOM subsequently established a Counter-Weapons of Mass Destruction-Fusion Center (CWMD-FC), which The War Zone was first to report, at an unspecified location within the NCR.
Then there's also SOCOM's own theater command aligned with NORTHCOM, Special Operations Command North (SOCNORTH), to handle special operations, including counter-terrorism activities, across North America. Just days before the revelation of the Army's new classified domestic mission in Washington, D.C., a contracting announcement indicated that SOCNORTH's dedicated Crisis Response Team (CRT) is also in the process of improving its capabilities. The CRT is based much further west at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado, which is also where NORTHCOM's headquarters is located.
The CRT recently received six modified Chevy Suburban communications vehicles from the White House Military Office (WHMO) and is in the process of reconfiguring them to better support their operations, according to a recent contracting announcement. These vehicles are very likely ex-command and control and communications vehicles, also known as Roadrunners, that commonly accompany the Presidential motorcade, something The War Zone has previously covered in depth.
The White House Communications Agency, part of the WHMO, recently obtained new Ford Super Duty-based vehicles with a much more powerful communications and data-sharing suite, that The War Zone was the first to report on in detail. This likely freed up some of the Roadrunners to go to other agencies that were interested in them, such as SOCNORTH.
These civilian style vehicles could be ideal for more discreet operations, including in urban areas within the United States, though there's no mistaking that they have a specialized purpose given the array of antennas on top. SOCNORTH's CRT plans to convert the vehicles to use a new suite of military radios and satellite communications systems, but this will still require distinctive antenna arrays.
NORTHCOM, as a whole, has a major counter-terrorism focus. The command runs a major counter-terrorism exercise each year called Vital Archer, which includes participants from other U.S. government agencies, as well as foreign emergency management and security services.
The Army's new secret mission might also involve providing aviation support, including surveillance of particular targets or critical sites, to other domestic agencies engaged in domestic counter-terrorism missions. The service's Black Hawks could also be assisting in some way with NORTHCOM's other standing mission sets, including counter-narcotics and guarding America's borders, though it's not clear why this would necessarily be limited to the NCR.
Of course, even though the Army's new classified D.C. area mission may not have a clear endpoint, it may still be a shorter-term mission in response to intelligence regarding a more specific potential threat or another similar near-term requirement. In the past few years, there has been a seeming uptick in U.S. military units, as well as federal law enforcement tactical teams, training or otherwise operating in urban areas within the United States, or at least an increase in people taking notice of these activities.
In the Washington, D.C. area, this has coincided with a reported increase in noise complaints about government helicopters and other aircraft flying over residential areas. News of a new Army aviation mission in the capital region could spur new criticism from residents in this regard.
But whether or not the Army is now engaged in a new, secretive long-term mission or has gotten new orders in response to more immediate concerns, we know the service's aviation elements in and around the nation's capital have expanded the scope of their critical duties, at least for the moment.
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