Residents of lower Manhattan in New York City got a bit of a scare recently as MH-60 Black Hawk and MH-6 Little Bird helicopters from the U.S. Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment went zooming between skyscrapers as part of a training exercise. But it's hardly the first time the U.S. military, and the Night Stalkers in particular, have caused a stir with similar so-called "realistic urban training" events, or RUTs.
This particular exercise occurred overnight on April 17-18, 2018 and involved at least two MH-60s and two MH-6s, likely carrying additional special operators. According to witnesses, there may have been two additional MH-6 helicopters as well. A subsequent statement from the New York Police Department said that the activities would be confined to areas around the Verrazano and Brooklyn Bridges, as well as near Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.
The helicopters flew low enough to pass right by peoples' apartments, rattlingly windows and otherwise causing everything to shake. "Didn’t see them but my whole apartment shook and we hit the floor," one of many concerned citizens posted on Twitter. So far, there is no additional information about what specific "targets" the special operations forces assaulted or the exercise's overall scenario.
There were also reports that a Staten Island Ferry went sailing down the Hudson River flanked by police boats. It is possible that the special operators rappelled onto the vessel in response to a mock terrorist attack or hostage scenario.
In addition, the day before the apparent main event, a U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command U-28A spy plane was also spotted on online flight tracking software orbiting in the same general area. This single-engine aircraft, which carries electro-optical and infrared video cameras and signals intelligence systems, was likely conducting a mock intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance mission ahead of the simulated raid itself.
Though separate and distinct from rare demonstrations it uses for public relations purposes, the U.S. military still typically describes these sorts of training exercises as a win-win for everyone involved. Special operators get a chance to run through training scenarios in a "live" urban area full of actual potential hazards and bystanders otherwise going about their business and state and municipal authorities sometimes get the opportunity to send National Guard elements, law enforcement personnel, or other first responders to join in and get unique training experience in the process.
For instance, in 2014, special operators from Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and 7th Special Forces Group and the U.S. Air Force's 22nd Special Tactics Squadron conducted one such exercise, nicknamed Objective Indigo, in South Carolina's capital Columbia. This event also included members of the South Carolina Air and Army National Guard and the Columbia Police Department's SWAT Team.
Since they offer unique benefits, even over exercises that occur in special U.S. military
urban training facilities, these sorts of events occur with some regularity across the country every year, both at night and during the day. In some cases, they can go essentially unnoticed, as was the case with Objective Indigo, as well as another night-time exercise in 2015 in which elements of Marine Corps Special Operations Command (MARSOC) launched a simulated water-borne raid on a warehouse in Los Angeles, California.
There is only likely to be increasing demand for these kinds of exercises in the future as the U.S. military, and U.S Special Operations Command in particular, become more concerned about future conflicts in densely populated "megacities." But in large American metropolitan areas, such as New York City, which anecdotally "never sleeps," these realistic exercises often create some level of confusion, or worse.
A number of New Yorkers reportedly called 911 in something of a panic during this latest incident, with some saying they were worried the low-flying aircraft might have actually been a terrorist attack akin to 9/11. Residents complained vocally on Twitter that the New York Police Department's official social media alert had gone up after the exercise was already underway and possibly even over entirely.
Although New York is clearly an amazing urban training environment, its population is likely uniquely sensitive to the presence of low-flying helicopters. This is not just because of the tight security situation in and around the city, but also because the movement of helicopters around the dense metropolis is strictly regulated. They cannot fly over the city at will and are restricted to landing at a small number of periphery heliports based along Manhattan's shoreline. So just seeing helicopters of any type zipping through Manhattan may be alarming enough to some.
Back in December of 2016, a daytime training exercise related to a contingency plan to protect then president-elect Donald Trump, similarly gave the Big Apple's denizens a moment of pause. In that case, a single HC-130 Combat King rescue plane and a pair of HH-60G Pave Hawk combat search and rescue helicopters, both from the New York Air National Guard's 106th Rescue Wing, flew various orbits over midtown Manhattan.
There are many more examples of similar U.S. military exercises that have gone less than smoothly, at least from a public relations standpoint. In 2008, residents of Portland, Oregon were disconcerted to see special operators in helicopters overhead, with an alert about the training exercise only going out to the general public an hour ahead of time. Media attention subsequently became so intense that the organizers had to move the whole event to another area entirely.
Here how The War Zone's editor Tyler Rogoway's recalled the incident:
Just in 2012 alone, similar incidents occurred in Miami, Florida and Galveston and Houston, Texas. In the Florida exercise, gunfire echoed through the city streets in addition to the zipping around of black helicopters with armed commandos hanging out of their doors.
In 2015, news of a large multi-state training event in the American Southwest, nicknamed Jade Helm, provoked concerns and full-blown conspiracy theories, which were entirely unfounded and without merit. That didn't stop Texas Governor Greg Abbot from ordering his State Guard militia to monitor the situation, though. Since
Part of the problem is that, as a rule, the U.S. military defers to state and local officials to announce these events according to their own policies and regulations. In doing so, this is supposed to make clear that civilians remain in control of the situation at all times. This is also supposed to help keep the training as discreet as possible and prevent undue public attention on the exercises. Unfortunately, as we've seen with this newest exercise in New York City, this arrangement doesn't always work as intended and easily lead to miscommunication.
It's not clear whether or not having the U.S. military announce the exercises themselves or having one or more parties do so ahead of time would necessarily help, but it seems clear that the present method could do with some improvement. Until a more uniformly reliable mechanism for alerting the public comes along, we can expect to see more reports of "black helicopters" flying through cities at the night in the future.
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