Unmanned Aircraft Commanders as FACs
Since the Corps began employing ordnance from aircraft in support of Marines on the ground, terminal attack controllers on the deck have played a vital role in ensuring that their counterparts in the sky keep their fires concentrated on the enemy. The existence of these terminal attack controllers is due to the fact that, by its very definition, the close air support (CAS) provided by aircraft is in close proximity to friendly troops, therefore requiring detailed integration with fire and movement of these forces. Today, the two main types of controllers the Marine Corps uses are the joint terminal attack controller (JTAC), from ground units, and the forward air controller (FAC), from aviation units. While being an aviator within a squadron used to be enough to satisfy the requirements for an officer to attend Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) School as a potential FAC, the way in which these requirements are worded has inadvertently excluded many of the newest aeronautically designated personnel in the fleet: the unmanned aircraft commanders (UACs). As the MOS has evolved, so too have the capabilities of the UACs. Modern UACs possess a similar skill set and knowledge base as their manned aviation counterparts, and they are fully qualified to fulfill the role of a FAC.
Marine JTACs are usually sourced from a combat arms MOS and have prior experience with fires. Units typically send their senior sergeants or staff sergeants to learn how to control air assets in order to act as force multipliers for battalions, which generally rate three JTACs and three FACs. While they may not have ever served as aircrew, they are familiar with how aviation assets support the ground scheme of maneuver.
A Marine FAC is a naval aviator or flight officer who serves a secondary billet with a ground unit as a terminal attack controller. While some may view FACs as simply JTACs with wings, the real difference lies in the FAC’s prior experience and ability to communicate the unique requirements of aviation assets to a ground force commander and effectively integrate those assets into the battlespace. It is the detailed airspace knowledge, planning expertise, and familiarity with aircraft-based fires and procedures that sets the FAC apart from his JTAC brethren. A FAC is expected to be the expert. This expertise is gained not just through MOS competency, but also the ability to blend operational aviation experience with knowledge gained at TACP School in order to provide the ground force commander with the best options for aviation support. Graduates of the school are expected to demonstrate an ability to support the ground commander’s desired effect through responsive terminal attack control of CAS, facilitated by a comprehension of the concepts linking the three critical phases of terminal attack control to a successful CAS mission. Whether the TACP school graduates are from a fires platform (HMLA, VMA, VMFA) or not (HMH, VMM, VMGR), they receive the 7502 MOS upon completion.
As Marine Corps aviation evolves, so too should the requirements for designation as a FAC. Though the overall intent of the program may be to leverage the knowledge of the Marine Corps’ aviation officers, the current requirement for FACs to be sourced from only the 75XX primary MOS (PMOS) pool limits the Marine Corps’ newest aviation officers from contributing to the fight as FACs. UAS officers currently hold a PMOS of 7315, which excludes them from being designated as FACs. This non-75XX MOS is a holdover from a time before unmanned aircraft were treated the same as other aviation assets and does not reflect the training and competency of the current USMC UAS community.
The 7315 Pipeline as Preparation
UACs today are entering the operational forces with extensive aviation knowledge gained from an initial training program with the Air Force. Starting with initial flight school, potential 7315s learn to pilot a manned, single engine aircraft, eventually culminating in multiple solo cross-country flights. Upon graduation, Marine students attend instrument flight training then move on to the Remotely Piloted Aircraft Fundamentals Course, where they fly simulated MQ-9 Reaper CAS missions. While graduation from these three schools earns an officer in the Air Force an aeronautical rating and wings, it only qualifies a Marine officer to move on to RQ-7B Shadow Course, where they earn the MOS of 7315.1
Upon entering the fleet, UACs enter the Core Skills 2000-level Training and Readiness Manual (T&R) syllabus and learn basic UAS flight operations. Of these early codes, 45 percent are fires centric and teach the student to control indirect fires and host laser-guided weapons. Moving into the 3000-level Mission Skills syllabus, UACs are qualified in CAS, strike coordination and reconnaissance, and supporting arms control, all of which involve rotary-wing, fixed-wing, or indirect fires. A mission-skills qualified UAC, therefore, has had instruction with integrated air-to-surface and surface-to-surface fires, in addition to their training in aerial reconnaissance, escort of convoys, landing zone analysis, raid support, initial terminal guidance for assault support, etc. Qualified UACs have more time in a CAS/direct air support objective area integrating fires than HMH, VMM, and VMGR prospective FACs.
Building the MOS, but Hampered by Past Definitions
UACs have not always been as proficient as today’s aeronautically-proficient community. In the days of the RQ-2 Pioneer, the Marine Corps did not assign officers permanently to unmanned aircraft units. Instead, officers filled secondary billets from command and control or aviation MOSs, and fulfilled the role of aircraft commanders to enlisted aircraft operators. Even after the RQ-7 Shadow was introduced in 2007, there were still no permanent roles for officers in the VMUs. It was not until the Marine Corps decided to formalize the VMU officer community that the modern VMU was established. Officers in fields complementary to the VMU mission wishing to make a career out of UAS could lateral move into the newly established 7315 MOS. In 2012, lieutenants could select the 7315 MOS directly from TBS and attend initial training alongside their Air Force peers. The Marine Corps invested, and continues to invest, heavily in these lieutenants, pushing them through a pipeline that nearly qualifies them as instrument-rated pilots. Finally, in 2014, VMUs were removed from the Marine air control groups and integrated into MAGs. As the Marine Corps transitions from the RQ-7B Shadow to the RQ-21 Blackjack, 7315s are now flying the aircraft in addition to their traditional role of aircraft commanders. By 2019, all VMUs will be purely RQ-21.
What the Marine Corps has done with VMUs in the last decade is nothing short of revolutionary. As members of the MAGs, VMUs have been able to integrate themselves fully into the air plan. While the VMU’s bread and butter may be conducting aerial reconnaissance, they train heavily to controlling supporting arms and facilitating CAS. UACs plan with and deploy next to HMLA, HMH, VMM, VMA, and VMFA aircrew in order to integrate into complex objective areas in training, on MEUs, and while forward deployed. As the VMUs continue to develop professionally, it is in the best interest of the Marine Corps to take advantage of the unique capabilities it is creating in its UAS community. Whether or not the Marine Corps chooses to embrace 7315s as FACs, the fact is that UACs are controlling fires and affecting the battlespace on a regular basis. We are excluding a capable new resource set if we maintain the UAC as a 7315 MOS (vice 7515), or continue to limit the FAC designation to exclusively 75XX MOSs based solely on the fact that the 7315 MOS was created when UAVs were not treated like an aviation asset.
This is not a new discussion. In his article “What Can VMU Do For You?,” published in the June 2011 edition of the Marine Corps Gazette, LtCol Timothy G. Burton suggests that one of the primary ways the Marine Corps could advance fires proficiency in the VMU would be to source FACs from the ranks of the 7315s.2 At the time, critics of the idea claimed that 7315s were not qualified and not exceptionally knowledgeable regarding aviation, as many 7315s were sourced from the direct air support center and artillery communities. And at the time, those critics probably had solid ground to stand on. As the VMU has moved forward, however, we have seen a dramatic change in the knowledge base and training of the umanned aircraft commanders. As previously discussed, the young lieutenants and captains currently working in VMUs grew up in aviation, speak aviation, are aeronautically-designated personnel, and are integrated daily into the actions of the MAGs. Both the RQ-7B and RQ-21A are being used for CAS, coordinating suppression of enemy air defense and control of indirect fires from artillery and mortars. UAS are integrated into attacks from every Marine Corps aviation asset, from Cobras to Prowlers. Considering the VMU mission set, and operating on the assumption that shooters are not the only aeronautically designated personnel who can be trained to make good FACS, it is safe to say that VMU officers are as qualified to fulfill FAC billets as their manned aviation peers.
Proving the Theory
The concept of UACs serving as FACs has gained a fair amount of traction recently. In fact, infusion of 7315s into the TACP was discussed in the TACP “Initiatives” section of the 2016 Marine Corps Aviation Plan as a long-term goal.3 As a proof of concept, VMU-3, based out of MCB Hawaii, has begun a series of four trials with battalions from 3d Marine Regiment. The first 7315 serving as a JTAC has attended TACP School, chopped to 2d Bn, 3d Marines (2/3), conducted pre-deployment training, and deployed overseas with the battalion.4 The second 7315 serving as a JTAC is in the pre-deployment training phase with 1/3. VMU-3 is slated to fill two more iterations of 7315 JTAC tours, with the last tour ending in December 2018. The 7315 JTACS have been an additive capability during the proof of concept and not a replacement for a 75XX FAC in the battalion.
The initial results have been more than promising. Capt Clinton “Sled” Dolf, the first 7315 serving as a JTAC with 2/3, has garnered high amounts of praise from his air officer, battalion commander, and the regimental commander. Not only have 7315s like Capt Dolf been able to provide meaningful contributions to ground units, but the experience they have gained from their B-billet has gone a long way to improving their own knowledge base as UACs, thus adding value to both communities.
Following the four iterations of the proof of concept, the Marine Corps will come to a conclusion regarding UAC’s abilities to serve as a JTAC/FAC. There are, in reality, three decision points at the conclusion of the proof of concept: 1) will 7315s continue to maintain JTAC eligibility; 2) will 7315s be able to serve in infantry battalions in lieu of a 75XX (vice being an additive billet); and 3) will 7315s be designated as a FAC vice a JTAC? The answer to all three questions seems obvious at this point and is a win-win for the ground and unmanned/manned aviation communities. As the Marine Corps begins its acquisition of larger UAVs (such as the fires capable MUX described in the 2016 Marine Aviation Plan), the unmanned aviation community will be well postured to support the new technology with an experience base of pilots that have served as FACs or JTACs if we continue this program in perpetuity. This leads us to one final set of questions: will we as a Marine Corps meet this upcoming requirement head on and begin to build upon the VMU’s foundation of CAS knowledge, or will we make the mistake of reacting to the need in five to ten years, when there is no way around it?
From a UAC’s ability to support and control fires to their understanding of airspace and close integration with other aviation assets, 7315s bring a lot to the fight. The Marine Corps needs to capitalize on their substantial investments in the VMU community by opening up FAC billets to UACs, and continue fully integrating their UAS officers into the MAGTF as they do with their manned naval aviators and naval flight officers.
1. For a more in depth look at the training pipeline for 7315s, see 1stLt Chad Matteck, “Marine Corps Unmanned Pilot Training: The Critical Link to the Future of Marine Unmanned Aviation,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: June 2015), available at https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette.
2. LtCol Timothy G. Burton, “What Can VMU Do For You?,” Marine Corps Gazette, (Quantico, VA: June 2011), available at https://www.mca-marines.org/gazette.
3. Headquarters Marine Corps, Marine Aviation Plan 2016, Marine Corps Concepts and Programs, available at https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com.
4. “Tactical Air Control Party,” Expeditionary Warfare Training Group Atlantic, available at http://www.public.navy.mil.