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    160th SOAR (A): The Night Stalkers

    The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne), also known as the 160th SOAR or Night Stalkers, are the critically important aviation support of America’s special operations forces. Also known within JSOC as Task Force Brown, it fulfils a few different purposes, including direct combat engagement and support, as well as reconnaissance operations. They have the ability to conduct transportation and rescue operations, acting as an extremely rapid response force.

    The Distinctive Unit Insignia of the 160th. (Source)

    1. Doctrine

    The 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment has the primary task of being an extremely rapid aerial response force, specializing in working alongside special operations forces and operating in extremely dangerous situations. (Source) Within this discipline, the Night Stalkers earn their namesake from proficiency in night operations, and low-altitude operations that let them remain undetected until the exact right moment.

    Rapid response is a critical aspect of their doctrine, being a quick response force that supports special operations. (Source)

    160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment dropping of air force operators into the water.
    US Air Force Special Tactics Operators conduct helocast training with a MH-47G Chinook from the 160th SOAR. Image by Maj. Jeff Slinker. (Source)

    2. History

    The creation of the 160th truly took shape in the aftermath of Operation Eagle Claw. This operation forced the United States to rethink its design and usage of special operations forces. (Source) Mismanagement of air power as well as lack of coordination between operational groups were particular short-fallings. This put pressure on the creation of aerial combat groups dedicated to special operations. Among the many new groups formed in this restructuring was the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.

    The Army turned to the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)’s  Aviation Group due to their proven track record and diverse capabilities. Pilots from various battalions were selected to go to highly specialized combat and night flying courses. Following the first class’s completion of the course a new task force was formed: Task Force 158. Named after the 158th Battalion where the bulk of the pilots came from, they maintained the Screaming Eagles unit patch of the 101st Airborne Division.

    Unit patch of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). (Source)

    2.1. The Day the Eagles Came Off

    The Task Force’s original purpose was to aid in the second rescue attempt for the hostages in Iran. However, on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, the hostages were released. Rather than losing the newfound capabilities of this elite task force, the Army decided to form a new unit. On the 16th of October 1981, the 160th Aviation Battalion was formed. The day would become known as “the day the eagles came off” by the unit’s founding members.

    Unit patch of the 160th SOAR (A). (Source)

    It would quickly become involved in a number of special operations, including the conflict in the Persian Gulf, Panama, Desert Shield as well as Storm to name only a few. It became the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment in 1990, after which point the unit’s op tempo would become even more intense. (Source) 9/11 and the subsequent Global War on Terror was a time of great intensity, change and activity. Their operational frequency would increase as all other components of JSOC gained more and more responsibility and operations. (Source) The 160th acts as a taxi service of sorts for JSOC. Whenever and wherever one of JSOC’s Special Missions Units needs to go by helicopter, its the 160th that gets them there.  The 160th would participate in Operation Enduring Freedom Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom and a myriad of side operations.

    3. Organization

    The 160th consists of eight different components. These include a headquarters company, a training company, four active aviation battalions and two UAV/UAS companies. (Source) The HQ company is in charge of force organization and tasking.

    Each of the four aviation battalions fly the missions of the 160th. They use a variety of different aircraft at the disposal of the regiment in order to fulfill combat as well as support needs in the field. The four battalions have the following internal helicopter compositions: (Source)

    • 1st Battalion: One AH-6 Little Bird helicopter company, one MH-6 Little Bird company, three MH60 Black Hawk helicopter companies.
    • 2nd Battalion: Two MH-47 Chinook helicopter companies.
    • 3rd Battalion: Two MH-47 Chinook helicopter companies, one MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter company.
    • 4th Battalion: Two MH-47 Chinook helicopter companies, one MH-60 Black Hawk helicopter company.

    The two UAV/UAS companies provide the 160th with extremely valuable reconnaissance and intelligence capability to not only the regiment itself, but any group that it is supporting in the field. (Source) It can both inform allied forces and help accurately locate and strike enemy targets. The training battalion is a critical component of the 160th , helping the group not only thin out only the best of trainees, but also instill the culture of the group as a whole in prospective recruits. This “Green Platoon” focuses on instilling the virtues of trust, integrity and the unrelenting pursuit of completing a mission, exemplified in their motto “Night Stalkers Don’t Quit”. (Source)

    3.1. Force Composition

    • 1st Battalion, 160th SOAR (A)
      • Headquarters and Headquarters Company :
        • Company Commander 
        • Executive Officer 
        • Command Sergeant Major 
        • Personnel (S1)
        • Intelligence (S2)
        • Operations (S3)
        • Logistics (S4)
        • Plans (S5)
        • Communications (S6)
      • Light Assault Helicopter Company Alpha
        • MH-6M Little Bird Squads x 15
      • Light Attack Reconnaissance Company Bravo
        • AH-6M Little Bird Squads x 15
      • Assault Helicopter Company Charlie
        • MH-60M Black Hawk Squads x 10
      • Assault Helicopter Company Delta
        • MH-60M Black Hawk Squads x 10
      • Assault Helicopter Company Echo
        • MH-60M Black Hawk Squads x 10
      • Aviation Maintenance Company Foxtrot:
        • Aviation Safety Officer 
        • Standardization Instructor Pilot 
        • Tactical Operations Officer 
        • First Sergeant 
        • Additional support staff (size dependent on aircraft used and size of supporting battalion.
    • 2nd Battalion, 160th SOAR (A)
      • HHC (Same composition as 1st Battalion)
      • Heavy Helicopter Company Alpha
        • MH-47G Chinook Squads x 8
      • Heavy Helicopter Company Bravo
        • MH-47G Chinook Squads x 8
      • Assault Helicopter Company Charlie
        • MH-60M Black Hawk Squads x 10
      • Aviation Maintenance Company Delta (Same composition as 1st Battalion)
    • 3rd Battalion, 160th SOAR (A) 
      • HHC Company (Same composition as 1st Battalion)
      • Heavy Helicopter Company Alpha
        • MH-47G Chinook Squads x 8
      • Heavy Helicopter Company Bravo
        • MH-47G Chinook Squads x 8
      • Assault Helicopter Company Charlie
        • MH-60M Black Hawk Squads X 10
      • Aviation Maintenance Company, Company Delta (Same composition as 1st Battalion)
    • 4th Battalion, 160th SOAR (A)
      • HHC (Same composition as 1st Battalion)
      • Heavy Helicopter Company Alpha
        • MH-47G Chinook Squads x 8
      • Heavy Helicopter Company Bravo
        • MH-47G Chinook Squads x 8
      • Assault Helicopter Company Charlie
        • MH-60M Black Hawk Squads X 10
      • Aviation Maintenance Company, Company Delta (Same composition as 1st Battalion)
    • Echo Company
      • Unmanned aerial vehicle support group, exact personnel composition unknown. Unlikely to be larger than 200 personnel. Separate from the battalions.

    Men in uniform looking at a new drone.
    Drone operators from Echo Company, 160th learning about the MQ-1C drone. (Source)

    4. Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTP)

    The tactics and techniques of the 160th are based primarily around the aircraft that the force is using on any given mission. They may carry out a combat, infiltration, extraction and/or reconnaissance mission on a very short notice, requiring adaptability in their methods.

    In a direct combat operation, members of the 160th will provide fire support or carry out a direct strike on enemy positions and forces. (Source) Light, medium as well as heavy helicopters help carry out the fire missions of the 160th. Helicopters used by the 160th are mostly combat-oriented. The only exception being Chinooks, which primarily assist in extraction and transportation. 

    4.1. The Low Approach

    Within their combat missions, it is common for the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment to use a low-approach method, wherein they fly very low to the ground to avoid detection. (Source) This has multiple utilities, as a helicopter team that can arrive at an area undetected has an advantage in their first strike capabilities. In the event that the 160th is transporting special operations forces, the low-to-ground approach allows them to more rapidly drop off or pick up friendly forces which is critical in contested airspace.

    Black Hawk dropping off Green Berets onto a submarine in the water.
    160th aviators dropping off Green Berets onto a submarine. (Source)

    The Night Stalkers are also capable of advanced reconnaissance operations, gathering crucial information and intelligence via their helicopters as well as their UAV teams. (Source) This can be fed to other components of the 160th for striking in addition to other operational forces. They additionally provide the support service of transportation and extraction of both ground forces as well as equipment. Additionally, like all Army aviation units, the 160th has its own flight medics. However, flight medics in the 160th are much more highly trained than their conventional counterparts and can provide much better second line medical care.

    160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment dropping off MARSOC marines for a VBSS mission.
    Members of MARSOC conduct VBSS training with the 160th SOAR. Image by Cpl. Kyle McNally. (Source)

    5. Selection

    Personnel seeking to join the 160th have a few prerequisites they must consider before attempting to join this elite team. Members must be active military as well as qualify for airborne training in order to begin the selection process. (Source

    Members are expected to excel in a number of fields, not only having physical skills beyond that of a regular soldier but also the technical knowledge and ability to undergo training for their specialized tasks. Candidates who meet the initial criteria proceed to Green Platoon to begin the selection process. (Source) SOAR members are expected to obtain Secret security clearance, have a GT score over 100, and be a US citizen. (Source)

    5.1. Training

    The selection process for new recruits in Green Platoon is extremely difficult. Upon arrival recruits take an Army Physical Fitness Test alongside runs, marches as well as general physical stress tests. The Army Physical Fitness Test is 2 minutes of pushups, and sit-ups in addition to a timed 2-mile run. (Source) This test lays the groundwork for the more extensive physical training the recruits will go through. 

    Rope work, full kit marches, 4-6 mile runs, 4-10 mile road marches, as well as increasingly difficult exercises all, combine to push recruits to their absolute limit. (Source)

    The selection for enlisted personnel last only 5 weeks. This is due to the fact that enlisted personnel in the 160th are in a support role and do not fly aircraft. Selection for pilots typically last between 20 and 28 weeks depending on the aircraft that they pilot. Officers, both warrant and commission, arrive at the unit as Basic Mission Qualified. After attending boards and going through additional testing pilots become Fully Mission Qualified which typically takes two years. After an additional three to four years pilots become eligible to be Flight Lead Qualified. (Source)

    Because the 160th falls under the US Army Special Operations Command all of its flight medics must go through additional training. In addition to the basic flight medic training, 160th medics must attend the 36-week-long Special Operations Combat Medic course in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

    6. Equipment

    Members of the 160th carry with them many of the same firearms their ground-based special operations counterparts do. (Source) They carry a standard M9 or M17 sidearm and an M4A1 carbine, in the event of extremely dangerous conditions on the landing zone. However, it is the aircraft that is the primary weapon of the Night Stalkers.

    6.1. Little Bird

    The smallest of the Night Stalkers helicopter, the Little Bird is both a fast reconnaissance vehicle and a strike vehicle. It is equipped with its signature 7.62x51mm mounted miniguns and/ or its 70mm Hydra rocket pods. (Source) The Little Bird can also be equipped with 50 cal machine guns, 40mm grenade launchers, Hellfire missiles and Stinger anti-air missiles.

    U.S. Army Rangers from 75th Ranger Regiment and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne) conduct training operations in support of the Army Marketing Research Group’s “Warriors Wanted” campaign at Fort Campbell, Ky, on July 19, 2018. Image Used in the Special Operations Recruiting Battalion Campaign.

    These helicopters are much more manoeuvrable than larger models. Their size allows for the rapid insertion of small numbers of ground personnel into confined areas and is light enough to land on rooftops. Operators can ride on the sides via removable benches and either fast rope or step off. And when equipped with armaments they can provide close air support or strikes in the classical rapid-response fashion of the 160th.

    6.2. Blackhawk

    The MH-60 Black Hawk is perhaps one of the best-known American helicopters of our age. The Black Hawk serves the dual purposes of both transport and fire support.

    The Blackhawk is equipped with systems that allow for fast ingress and egress through fast-roping onto the objective and clipping into the rope for extraction. For defence, it has more effective armour systems compared to other medium-sized helicopters. (Source) They also feature aerial refuelling systems, numerous countermeasure systems and advanced optical systems. The MH-60M, the version utilized by the 160th, can use a number of weapon systems. These systems include side-mounted miniguns and rocket pods via its Multi-Station Lightweight Armament Support Structure (MLASS). (Source

    The Black Hawk is the backbone of the 160th, it is an effective helicopter that can handle any situation.

    160th SOAR’s MH60L, gunship configuration known as DAP (Direct Action Penetrator). Crew members loading up the Blackhawk with Hydra 70 rockets and ammo for the M134 Miniguns (source)

    6.3. Chinook

    The largest of the three special operations helicopters used is perhaps one that fulfils the most different of roles. Instead of being a striking helicopter, the MH-47 is America’s foremost transport helicopter for its conventional and special operations forces. 

    It features a large dual-rotor design, with one rotor at the fore and aft ends of the vehicle. This allows the overall weight stress of the helicopter to be much higher, making it an excellent transport vehicle for troops, vehicles, and equipment. (Source) The Chinook also has limited combat capability with radially mounted guns intended for defence rather than offence. 

    Chinook carrying a boat low above the water via sling load as another boat speeds in the water.
    Chinook from the 160th dropping of US Navy SWCC crews. (Source)

    7. Notable Operations

    Like all components of JSOC, many of the ways the 160th is utilized is not completely known. However, a few key deployments of the Night Stalkers have brought them both notoriety and renown. These events include their participation in Operation Gothic Serpent, Operation Mount Hope III and Operation Neptune’s Spear.

    7.1. Operation Gothic Serpent

    Few things have drawn the attention of American war movie fans more than Blackhawk Down, and it is fitting that those who flew the Black Hawks above Mogadishu have fitting renown. The Black Hawks delivered Delta Force and DEVGRU into their various combat zones during the US intervention in Somalia. (Source)

    Not only was this a genuine display of the capabilities of the 160th, but it also demonstrated the niche yet essential role the Night Stalkers play alongside other special operations forces. Operations requiring aerial coverage, extraction and fire support need a dedicated force that can watch the skies and react quickly to needs on the ground, and the 160th is happy to oblige.

    7.2. Operation Neptune’s Spear

    It is often DEVGRU that takes the forefront image of the “Killers of Bin Laden”, being the official raid team. Had it not been for the 160th, using their specialized skills and equipment to remain undetected, the operation could not have happened. (Source)The 160th transported DEVGRU, flying versions of the Black Hawk that had never been seen before. The modified helicopters featured angular hull designs to help mitigate radar detection and quiet rotors, allowing the team to be much more silent and effective. (Source)

    Compound with mountains in the background.
    Usama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. (Source)

    There was also a quick reaction force of SEALs on standby in Chinooks piloted by the 160th should the raid go wrong. Despite flawless rehearsals of the raid one of the experimental Black Hawks ended up crashing. This was primarily due to unexpected amounts of rotor wash causing the engine to stall. Mockups of the compound were constructed with chain link fences. However, the actual compound had stone walls which resulted in an excess of rotor downwash and a lack of air circulation into the engines.

    7.3. Operation Mount Hope III

    Mount Hope III is an operation that is not terribly well known, nor does it involve any combat. Not even a single shot was fired. It does, however, show the extremely unique and effective skill set of the 160th.

    In the aftermath of the Chadian-Libyan conflict, there lay a single shot down, but quite intact, Mi-25 Hind helicopter in Chad. This was of particular significance, as NATO power struggled to gain any large amount of Soviet technology, let alone intact military technology. (Source) The plan was drawn to covertly extract the entire helicopter from Chad and ship it back to the USA. The 160th was selected for this task.

    Chinook transporting a Hind helicopter via sling load.
    The 160th transporting the captured Soviet Hind. (Source)

    The operation went extremely well. Two Chinooks and their Night Stalker crews shipped overseas via C-5 to an airport within Chad. From this airport, the Chinooks flew just under 500 miles and secured the Hind, which was then transported back to the United States. (Source) A Chinook transported the Hind to its extraction point.  A C-5 fixed-wing cargo plane transported the helicopter back to the US mainland.

    Helicopter being loaded into military cargo plane as people watch.
    The captured Soviet Hind being loaded in the nose of the C-5. (Source)

    This operation helped secure an invaluable piece of Soviet technology. It also demonstrated and tested the Night Stalker’s ability to operate independently and effectively in enemy territory.

    8. Summary

    The 160th SOAR is an essential component of the modern US special operations doctrine, supporting its ground forces through precise and effective rapid response operations. They draw from an exceptional line of highly skilled personnel and are trusted to support, fight and transport alongside other US special operations forces. Without the skills of the 160th, many US special operations would simply be impossible, and their role will continue to be invaluable in the future.

    Samuel Longstreth
    Samuel Longstreth
    Samuel is a King's College graduate with an MA in War Studies. His areas of focus are extremism in the Western world, military privatization and the impact of climate change on global security.

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