U.S. Army photo by Spc. Cody Rich
- The USS sea base Puller acts as the basis for Army Apache attack helicopters.
- The helicopters could use the ship as an outpost to counter swarms of Iranian boats.
- The same concept was used in a little-known operation called Prime Chance in the 1980s.
The U.S. Army and Navy are working together to send a not too subtle message to Iran. Army Apache Guardian helicopters practice flying in front of the USS Lewis Puller, an expedition landing base ship based in the Persian Gulf.
The Lewis Puller can refuel and upgrade attack helicopters, setting up services for the same type of joint military operation that was last carried out under Operation Prime Chance in the mid-1980s. The Apaches, part of the Army’s Task Force Saber, spent the month of March operating from the unique warship.
The combination of the Apaches and Lewis Puller creates an improvised attack helicopter that can launch attacks against targets on land or at sea. The Lewis Puller based on the AlaskaClass double hull oil tankerwhich, in their unchanged configuration, have a capacity of 1.3 million barrels. The Expedition Ships of the Sea Base (ESB) Add A flight deck – the third largest after aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships – that can hold four helicopters at the same time.
The ships are said to serve as lily pads and allow helicopters to take off from more distant, more expensive aircraft carriers and amphibious ships to reach their destination, with the ESB serving as a gas station. It also has an aircraft hangar, a weapon magazine, and can embark and launch small boats and unmanned underwater vehicles.
The AH-64E Apache Guardian is a special attack helicopter equipped with a 30mm chain gun M320 and up to 16 anti-tank missiles from Hellfire. Alternatively, the Apache can be loaded with a mixture of 8 hellfire missiles and two rocket cases with 19 each Advanced Precision Kill Weapon Systems (APKWS) laser guided missiles. The Hellfire Missile can destroy tanks up to 4.3 miles away, while APKWS can damage or destroy easily armored targets up to 3.1 miles away.
The Puller-Apache platform is capable of attacking small schools of boats, oil platforms, land-based anti-ship missiles and other threats. The ship is now on the way to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a paramilitary organization controlled by Tehran. The IRGC Navy operates and trains schools of armed speedboats, armed with machine guns, rocket launchers and shoulder-fired anti-ship missiles, to operate in groups of a hundred or more to “swarm” larger warships. The IRGC also operates anti-ship and short-range ballistic missiles based on the Iranian coast.
If Iran wanted to block the Persian Gulf from commercial traffic, the U.S. military would likely reopen it and neutralize the threatening Iranian armed forces with a combination of air and sea strikes. If Iran or Iranian-backed militias strike again, as they did in January Ballistic missile attack on US forces at Ain Al-Asad Airbasethe Apaches could retaliate against the IRGC’s naval and coastal forces in the region.
Something like this has actually happened before. Between 1987 and 1989, the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, aka “The Night Stalkers”, flew Little Bird helicopter of barges and frigates of the Navy in the Persian Gulf. Operation Prime Chance combined the U.S. Army helicopters with Navy SEALs, Marines, and Special Boat Units in an undeclared war against units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that harassed civilian shipping. Six small birds, both MH-6 Utility and AH-6 attack versions, equipped with SEAL snipers, missiles and machine guns, flew patrols to a depth of ten meters.
The Army and Navy team worked together to monitor Iranian Gulf forces, especially at night when the IRGC Navy forces were suspected of planting sea mines. On September 21, 1987, two AH-6 attack helicopters and an MH-6 Little Bird took off from the frigate USS Jarrett and grabbed the Iran Ajr, an Iranian ship after being observed laying mines. The little birds fired on the ship, which was later abandoned by its crew. A team from SEALs boarded the ship, secured the mines on board and proved that the ship had mined international waters.
Now, more than 30 years later, there is a possibility that the Army / Navy helicopter / ship team will be reactivated and against the exact same enemy. But Prime Chance 2.0 would be even more one-sided. The Iranian armed forces have hardly changed. The Apache Guardian is much more advanced than its Little Bird predecessors – both in terms of firepower and the range of its sensors.