CAMP HUMPHREYS, South Korea — If the Koreas came to blows, a key to victory would be stopping thousands of highly trained North Korean special operations forces from slipping in unnoticed and wreaking havoc in the South.

It’s this mission U.S. forces practiced last week, tracking and killing simulated naval vessels that could be used to insert special operations forces into South Korea. The North is estimated to have the largest special operations forces in the world, designed to disrupt rear-area operations, according to U.S. Forces Korea.

U.S. troops’ prime weapon of choice against the naval attacks: the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, a buzzing demon with an array of armament. It can be armed with up to 16 Hellfire missiles, a 30 mm cannon that fires 625 rounds per minute and 70 mm unguided rockets.

“This is not a typical Army mission,” said Lt. Col. Brian McFadden, 6th Cavalry Regiment deputy commander.

Normally, Apaches are designed for over-land targets. In South Korea, they would be used in concert with Air Force P-3 Orion planes and Navy destroyers to track and wreck small special-operations boats seeking a clear coastal landing in the south.

This mission is a bear. It usually happens at night, where darkness aids in cloaking the Apache. Pilots fly only 100 feet over the water, guided only by instruments to keep a low radar profile.

“It requires much more attention,” said Chief Warrant Officer Dave Kapsa, a pilot and instructor. “It’s much more difficult at night.”

Pilots fly with an infrared-vision system. On land, this system displays man-made objects with a textured illumination, said Capt. Sue Smeltzer, a troop command with 1st Squadron, 6th Cavalry, and pilot with Kapsa.

But over water, temperatures are more even, she said. There’s only water and sky, and pilots must pay close attention.

But at night, North Korean vessels are relatively helpless, McFadden said. North Korean vessels lack air defense systems aboard; their guns are inaccurate. Shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles could be used, he said, but require extreme precision to hit a target.

Further, the Apache is laden with sensors to alert pilots when their craft is being targeting, allowing them to take evasive action, McFadden said.

Kapsa and Smeltzer were preparing for a night mission on Wednesday. They were scheduled to fly over the West Sea, waiting for targets selected by planes and the USS Vincennes, which was in the area for the Foal Eagle exercise.

Targets are simulated, McFadden said, and don’t actually exist in the water. Pilots are given coordinates, and the gunner aboard the Apache goes through the motions of targeting without live ordnance.

After the Apaches come back, the ground crews go to work, washing away corrosive sea spray with high-powered hoses. The helicopters are inspected vigorously, said Capt. Randy Boucher, commander of Delta troop, a maintenance unit.

Even during noncombat training, however, risks exist.

“This really is a dangerous business,” said McFadden, who has flown several Army helicopters and recently qualified to fly Apaches. “You train hard and you train to standard, but sometimes things happen.”

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