The State of Marine Corps Aviation
On 22 December 2013, 160 Marines and sailors from the Special Purpose MAGTF–Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) flew aboard two KC–130s and four MV–22B Ospreys from their temporary base in Moron, Spain, and forward staged at Camp Lemonier, Djibouti, and Entebbe, Uganda. The 4,400 nautical mile ingress (equivalent to flying from New York to Hawaii) was conducted in response to unrest in southern Sudan. The timely response by SPMAGTF-CR enabled the evacuation of U.S. Embassy personnel. The operational reach and rapidity of response was only possible by the combined capabilities of our MV–22 and KC–130 aircraft.
The capabilities of SPMAGTF-CR will remain critical because of continuing unrest and humanitarian crises—often occurring simultaneously—in places like Libya and Sudan. Moving across the vast distances of the Maghreb, Sahara, and Sahel regions requires unique aviation capabilities. The operational reach provided by the aviation combat element (ACE) allows the combatant commander (CC) to influence areas at the time and place of his choosing that were previously unreachable.
As the Marine Corps emerges from a 13-year period of sustained land combat, we will focus on rapid deployment and forward presence. We will evolve the way we organize, train, and equip our ACE in support of MAGTF operations. As we adapt to an increasingly distributed environment and rebalance to the Pacific, forward basing is a critical requirement. Amphibious ships will provide the freedom of action and survivability needed for execution in a complex and contested environment. The Marine Corps will support the CCs with increased naval integration through innovative combinations of technology, amphibious ships, surface combatants, and alternate maritime platforms in support of the CCs crisis response requirements.
Modernizing the ACE in Support of Tomorrow’s Expeditionary Force
As we support new concepts like SPMAGTF-CR, the ACE continues to prepare for future MAGTF operations. The strategic environment compels the Marine Corps to operate in an increasingly distributed manner. In order to respond rapidly to dispersed global threats, we are moving toward a model wherein infantry units deploy as battalions and employ as companies. We are beginning to think of units as small as the company landing team (CLT) as separate maneuver elements. By increasing the proportion of our forward forces, we will conduct steady-state activities to promote diplomatic access and position Marine Corps forces to effectively respond to crisis.
Marine aviation is central to dispersed maneuver elements. Our actions in places as diverse as mainland Japan during Operation TOMODACHI, the Philippines during typhoon disaster relief, and in south Sudan for crisis response illustrate the need for agile, lean Marine Corps forces ready to move on short notice; Marine aviation enables such rapid response now. With aviation weapons systems like the F–35B, MV–22, and RQ–21, the MAGTF will be equipped to quickly respond to crisis at all levels of intensity.
Amphibious shipping provides the ideal maneuver, logistics, and command and control (C2) for our forward deployed MAGTF. With amphibious shipping in high demand, alternative sea-based maneuver is required. Platforms such as the Mobile Landing Platform afloat forward staging base have potential for future employment. A shipboard capability that employs a CLT with assault support assets is a powerful concept. Marine aviation envisions leveraging the coming Mobile Landing Platform 3, 4, and 5 to provide afloat staging bases from which up to six CH–53Es, six MV–22Bs, or a combination of up to seven H–1 attack helicopters can deploy. These alternate platform combinations provide maneuver and crisis response capabilities to fulfill CC requirements, some of which have historically gone unfulfilled. The combination of maritime elements with enhanced situational awareness and sensor capabilities will provide creative and flexible solutions across the naval force. We are constrained only by our imagination.
Compositing or aggregating forward deployed MAGTFs takes on a whole new meaning with the lethality of the F–35B. The F–35B uniquely postures the MAGTF to fight in antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) environments. With the F–35B, our MEUs and MEBs will have a fifth-generation low observable strike and sensor platform providing a unique and critical role in joint forcible entry operations. To counter the threats in an A2/AD environment, Marine aviation developed an operating concept for F–35B short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) operations across the battlespace. In order to ensure survivability and enable maximum operational effects, the F–35Bs will be employed from dispersed locations. To enable these distributed STOVL operations, Marine aviation enablers are postured to activate a shifting network of expeditionary airfields, tactical landing zones, and forward arming and refueling points, thus complicating enemy targeting solutions. These Marine forces draw ordnance and fuel from amphibious ships, maritime prepositioning ship squadrons, prepositioned stocks, or host-nation supplies, and distribute them using Navy and Marine Corps surface and air connectors.
The MV–22 provides the MAGTF commander increased capability and flexibility to respond to global crisis. The range, speed, and versatility of the MV–22 complement the F–35 and increase the lethality and power projection capability of amphibious ships. The MV–22 will support distributed STOVL operations by providing timely logistics to the shifting network of expeditionary airfields and forward arming and refueling points. The MV–22’s ability to rapidly move personnel, equipment, and fuel across the battlespace enables basing flexibility crucial to the F–35’s survivability. The increased operating reach made possible by the MV–22’s range and speed provides increased protection from antiship cruise missiles. When based aboard amphibious shipping, the MV–22’s increased operating radius allows amphibious ships to operate synergistically with Navy carriers at increased standoff ranges in an A2/AD environment. The sanctuary afforded by the MV–22’s range will enable sea-based CLT operations against mobile enemy threats.
The RQ–21A Blackjack builds upon the expeditionary capabilities of the MEU and provides a dedicated, shipboard-capable reconnaissance system to enhance the commander’s situational awareness in real-time. Initial Blackjack capabilities will include full-motion video (FMV), communications relay, signals intelligence, and multiple collection capabilities. Additionally, the unmanned mission commanders’ operations station will integrate Blackjack into the Link 16 network and distribute the sensor data to multiple users throughout the battlespace, contributing to the common operational picture. Recently demonstrated RQ–21A cyber/electronic warfare payloads, as well as emerging data relay and hyperspectral payloads, will revolutionize the way the MAGTF communicates, collects, and targets in the near future. The RQ–21 launched from an amphibious ship provides the MAGTF commander with the freedom of action and flexibility to execute without layers of coordination and constraint. RQ–21 will be the new eyes and ears of the MEU commander.
Command and Control
In order to synthesize and fully leverage the new capabilities of the modernized ACE, the MAGTF commander requires an effective C2 system. The Marine air command and control system exploits the lessons learned from multiple combat deployments controlling MAGTF battlespace and supports Expeditionary Force 21 objectives with systems that maximize the capabilities of the ACE. The speed, range, and operational capability of these aviation weapons systems are complemented by the TPS–80 Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR). The G/ATOR is an expeditionary radar able to detect and track low-observable/low-radar cross-section targets such as guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles; this system also provides a new level of protection to ground forces. The Common Aviation Command and Control System will act as a ground-based gateway, fusing real-, near-real, and non-real-time data derived from the F–35, RQ–21, G/ATOR, and other inputs into an integrated tactical picture providing the ground combat element new levels of situational awareness and advanced decision support tools. The ability to C2 MAGTF battlespace continues to be a core capability of the ACE. The new systems of the Marine air command and control system allow the MAGTF commander to “see” and exploit opportunities with speed and precision.
Integration Through Innovation and Experimentation
A year ago, the May 2013 Gazette article on the state of Marine aviation discussed a vision of the MAGTF made more lethal through innovation and digital interoperability. Since that time, Marine aviation has facilitated experimentation and collaboration in multiple venues. On 15 December 2013, Marine lieutenants from the Infantry Officer Course planned and conducted a long-range raid from Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms to Fort Hood, TX—a distance of 1,083 miles—that featured collaborative planning between Ospreys en route using tactical links and tablet computers. The mission executed by the Infantry Officer Course would have been difficult, if not impossible, using earlier generations of aircraft and technology. Today the range and speed of the MV–22, combined with the integration of cutting-edge technology, enable more effective, lethal, and survivable long-range operations.
During Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course 1–14 at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One conducted several tactical demonstrations that highlighted emerging technologies and concepts. In one tactical demonstration, an MV–22 was equipped with a keyboard and monitor that allowed control and observation of an RQ–21 FMV sensor. This capability allowed the Marine in back of the MV–22 to direct the FMV sensor in support of his mission. During a similar mission, an electronic countermeasures officer in the combined electronic warfare coordination center was able to see and remotely control an electronic warfare payload aboard an unmanned aircraft system hundreds of miles away. The application of these emergent technologies will provide new levels of situational awareness to Marines aboard MV–22s, increase the lethality of the MAGTF, and enhance our crisis response capability.
As the Marine Corps emerges from 13 years of sustained land-based combat operations, we are refocusing on amphibious operations and our role as the Nation’s forward deployed crisis response force. Marine aviation will continue to modernize and provide the MAGTF commander with aviation weapons systems that increase combat power, enhance decisionmaking, and enable future Marine Corps operational successes. With the new capabilities of the ACE, the MAGTF is constantly reassessing new tasks to determine new possibilities. Our young Marines understand this better than anyone else. Their innovative spirit is one of the driving factors propelling the MAGTF to unprecedented levels of tactical and operational excellence.