An Update from VMX-22: USMC Aviation Works the Future

2013-07-12 The subtitle of this piece could be: Osprey Carrier Shipboard Trials, and the Evolution of USMC Unmanned Air Systems

Earlier we interviewed, Col. Michael Orr, the CO of VMX-22 about the transfer of the squadron from New River, North Carolina to the Yuma Marine Corps Air Station in 2015.

In this interview, Col. Orr provides us with an update on the situation as well as an update on the activities of the squadron in working with the USN on testing the Osprey for a Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) system and on his work on the evolution of UASs for the USMC.

Col. Orr: We’ve talked already about the importance of moving to Yuma and why it is so important for Marine Aviation that this squadron collocates with MAWTS-1.  We understand the importance of developing new systems in concert with new tactics and how such a marriage will accelerate positive change for all of Marine Aviation.  Yuma is also the right place to thoroughly wring out our new aircraft and weapons.  It’s a great place to fly, test and experiment.

We’re just starting to lay the concrete for the facility, which we expect to be complete in 2015.

A V-22 Osprey assigned to the “Argonauts” of Marine Tiltrotor Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron (VMX) 22 lands on board aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Lorenzo J. Burleson) 3/7/13 

The good news for our aviation community is that we’re not waiting on new facilities to be finished before we start the transformation of this squadron. This summer, we’ll be setting up our first detachment in Yuma in anticipation of the squadron move.

The first teams we’ll be establishing in Yuma will be our unmanned aircraft systems operators and MACCS, or Marine Aviation Command and Control System Marines.

VMX-22 has not done operational testing on these systems before, and the Marines we’re sending to Yuma are hand-picked entrepreneurs and innovators who will be developing our roadmap for future integrated testing. Along with their primary mission of operational testing of new systems, they will also be conducting limited objective experiments to test new payloads and new platforms to develop the best combination of systems for the future of Marine Aviation.

SLD: There is a clear shift from the use of UASs in Iraq and Afghanistan in shaping a new approach.  Could you provide your sense of that rupture and what it might mean for the future of Marine Corps Aviation?

Col. Orr:  The operating conditions we’ve faced in Iraq and Afghanistan were, in some ways, anomalies in terms of how we expect the future Marine ACE (Aviation Combat Element) to support the MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force).The notion of operating from fixed location forward-operating bases is not necessarily how we see tomorrow’s wars unfolding.

We think about how the ACE will support widely distributed operations such as those in the Pacific area.  

How do we support, empower, and provide the links for small forces dispersed over a wide area from both sea-based and shore-based facilities?

When we think about future Marine Aviation systems, we realize that we have some capability shortfalls in some of our current lineup. Our unmanned systems, for example, are primarily line-of-sight systems that emphasize traditional Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance missions.

Marine planners have already identified some critical capability gaps such as the ability to conduct cyber and electronic warfare, which will require beyond line-of-sight capability for unmanned platforms.

And so the team we’ll be sending to Yuma will be focused on helping to address some of the capability gaps, develop the right equipment, and work with MAWTS to develop the right tactics to support future MAGTF operations.

As MAWTS focuses on techniques and tactics, we’ll be thinking about the equipment piece to help fill in those capability gaps for the future of the ACE.  In the end, VMX identifies critical operational issues, and makes sure all of our systems are fully vetted in terms of effectiveness and suitability.

The continuing maturity of the Osprey is also a key part of this evolution. 

We will continue to play a role in improving the existing Osprey capabilities, such as aerial refueling, as well as further the development of future capabilities.

SLD: There is another key aspect to the kind of innovation, which you are describing.  The USN has and is going to have a significant shortfall in terms of numbers of ships.  With the evolution or perhaps revolution in air systems – Osprey and F-35B being the bedrock for the USMC – there is a potential to link the deployed ships into different configurations making supply ships, e.g. part of the operational seabase.

Col. Orr:  That is a good point.  We are clearly concerned with the shortfall in amphibious ships and we continue to address this challenge. 

Both the CNO and the Commandant are also focusing on how to better leverage all parts of the seabase.

The question they pose is how we can best take advantage of our sea-based mobility to support joint operations.  Beyond traditional amphibious shipping, how do we best use other naval vessels such as logistic ships and joint high-speed vessels?

I see the Osprey as a key enabler to linking all the nodes of our future sea-based power projection capability. The Osprey will give you the range and flexibility to translate this sea-based vision into reality.

SLD: You have been working the past few months with the USN on evaluating the Osprey as the Carrier Onboard Delivery (COD) platform.  Could you provide us with an update?

Col. Orr: Assisting the Navy with the COD military utility assessment has been a significant effort and has involved most of the V-22 flying portion of the squadron over the past few months.  We’ve conducted four at-sea periods on both the USS Bush and the USS Truman to try to help the Navy to perform an assessment on the viability of the Osprey as a Carrier Onboard delivery, or COD platform.

This has been a significant effort from the squadron, but it has been time well spent. For our last evolution, we deployed with a VRC logistics squadron to Mayport, Florida to replicate the traditional COD role as closely as possible.

The purpose of the assessment has been to determine the impact of the Osprey on the aircraft carrier’s cyclic air operations.

After all, we know the aircraft can perform well moving people and parts to and from ships — it was designed and built to do that.

The question we’re answering is what impact will Osprey operations have on cyclic air operations?

Carrier launch and recovery cycles are a finely orchestrated aerial ballet, and we wanted to find out what impact, if any, the Osprey would have. Part of our preparations involved making sure our crews were well trained to handle the different launch and recovery operations in and around the ship.

Navy leaders will be using our data to make the final determination to write this assessment.  We’ll be helping COMOPTEVFOR analyze the data and will assist the Navy in conducting the analysis.

From my perspective, I think the assessment went very well.

We were able to complete all the necessary looks, and the crews and equipment worked magnificently.

Lance Cpl. Andrew Herring launches the Puma during an operation at Patrol Base Boldak March 4. To operate, the Puma must be launched by hand. Herring s a member of Weapons Company with 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment. Credit: Regional Command Southwest. 3/4/13 

SLD: Let us go back to your discussion of the evolution of UASs for the USMC.  You mentioned earlier that you have been spending time on thinking about the UAS future.  Could you provide us with some perspective on the thinking?

Col. Orr:  LtGen Schmidle asked me to head up this year’s unmanned aviation system Operational Advisory Group, or OAG, for unmanned systems.  The OAG is our opportunity for fleet operators to provide fleet input to the requirements team who then direct funding to improve current and future systems.

If there’s one area of Marine Aviation that is ripe to take advantage of recent technological developments, it’s how we equip our unmanned aviators. 

We’ve developed a series of recommendations to improve our unmanned community — not just in terms of how we equip our squadrons, but also in how we train and recruit operators.

As we sundown the EA-6B Prowler, how does the Marine Corps take full advantage of the resident electronic warfare expertise in that community?

I think unmanned systems represent the next frontier for rapid innovation in cyber and electronic warfare. The MAGTF Electronic Warfare concept tries to answer how we take existing signals intelligence already being done using ground-based sensors and combine that knowledge with cyber and electronic warfare techniques to produce a whole new way of supporting the MAGTF.

Unmanned systems will play a key role in making this happen.  They are persistent and have the range, size, weight and payload to perform a variety of tasks.

As we think about the future of unmanned systems we need to consider that survivability takes on a different context in the unmanned world.

Perhaps the purpose of our unmanned system is not to avoid detection, but instead to cause a reaction from the enemy, such as turning on an air defense system. We may be able to take advantage of our unmanned systems to use cyber and electronic warfare techniques.

Long-term, we are committed to a joint solution to develop future platforms that will serve a variety of joint requirements, including our own unique MAGTF requirements. In the mid-term, I think there may be some opportunities to take advantage of some excess UAS capacities in the joint arena as we draw down from Iraq and Afghanistan.  We start by experimenting and adapting current systems, with a focus on conducting cyber and electronic warfare using this MAGTF EW concept.

You can use almost any type of airborne platform to conduct cyber and EW. However, unmanned systems give you an advantage because of their persistence and ability to cover a wide geographic area in places we wouldn’t want to place manned systems.

If you can have a platform that has the ability to mix and match payloads that allow you to do traditional electronic warfare, cyber techniques, alongside kinetic strike capabilities and traditional ISR roles, I think that’s something that we’re very interested in exploring.

As we start to take advantage of some of the projected unmanned systems’ capabilities, what we’ll find is they’re going to be very complementary to our manned platforms.

There will likely be a day in the future when you will assign an aviation unit a mission such as air-to-air or air-to-surface warfare in support of the MAGTF, and that unit will use a mix of both manned and unmanned platforms to accomplish the mission.

It’s not hard to imagine a concept where we would have an F-35 operator provide tactical command of manned and unmanned systems to accomplish a mission — supported by an entire team on the ground. 

Right now, that’s not quite technically feasible, but there’s really no reason to think that it won’t be achievable in fairly short order.

I’m excited about the role this unit will have in shaping the future of Marine aviation.  We’re continuing to bring together the right mix of people, equipment, and ideas to transform the way we conduct operations.

Marines have always been innovators, and I see this organization poised to make dramatic improvements to the way in which Marine aviation supports the MAGTF and the Joint force in the years to come.

Editor’s Note: An article published by the Marines earlier this year provides a good baseline perspective on how UAS have been used to date in Afghanistan.

PATROL BASE BOLDAK, Afghanistan – The Marines of 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, had been taking sporadic enemy fire for most of the morning March 2 while conducting their daily patrol through Boldak, a small town interlaced with green fields and large mud compounds about eight kilometers southeast of Camp Leatherneck. Due to their position and the unforgiving terrain of the city, the Marines couldn’t locate the shooter.

The Marines radioed their combat operations center at Patrol Base Boldak, a small base just two kilometers away, and asked for aerial surveillance to help locate where the shots were coming from.

Within minutes, Marines with Weapons Company, 2nd Bn., 7th Marines, had launched an RQ-LOA Puma AE, a small, unarmed aerial vehicle, to search for potential suspects.

As the Puma positioned over the patrol’s location, a man on a motorcycle was spotted speeding north away from their position. An object was tossed across the man’s lap.

The aerial vehicle followed the man as he drove through the city and across fields, weaving in and out of narrow dirt roads and washed out wadies. The man pulled up to a large compound and parked his motorcycle underneath trees that padded the right side of the road. Multiple men flooded out from inside of the compound to meet the motorcyclist.

The Marines at PB Boldak watched on a television screen as the motorcyclist and the men gathered under the trees. For the next few minutes, people moved back and forth from under the tree line to the inside of the compound. After about ten minutes, the motorcyclist and a female passenger left the compound, but without the object.

Although the Marines couldn’t positively identify the object as a weapon, through the use of the aerial surveillance they were able to identify a possible insurgent compound they would now monitor.

The use of unarmed aerial surveillance in Helmand

Unconventional warfare has defined Afghanistan for the last 12 years. With an enemy who hides amongst the population and uses improvised explosive devices, the U.S. military has reinvented and transformed its strategies for defeating insurgency.

Weapons Company, 2/7, is one of the few Marine Corps units in Helmand province still operating independently of the Afghan National Army and remains focused on counterinsurgency operations. Aerial surveillance systems are ideal for them as an infantry unit because they allow them to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance flights over their battlespace.

Since 2012, the Marine Corps has fielded the Puma surveillance system to units in Afghanistan. And for the last five months, the Puma systems have become a fundamental part of battlefield planning for 2nd Bn., 7th Marines.

“Aerial surveillance has become indispensable to our unit,” said Capt. John Dalby, the company commander of Weapons 2/7. “The Puma system has become a lifeline for our unit, allowing us to observe, detect, and monitor a transparent enemy while operating in a counterinsurgency environment.”

The Puma is a hand-launched unarmed aerial vehicle (UAV) with a range greater than 15 kilometers. It weighs 13 pounds, has a two-hour time of flight and can be operated from a static position or a mobile platform. The Puma’s small size and its ease of use are positives for infantry units because it allows them to operate the systems organically.

“The Puma system is very important, especially for the infantry,” said Lance Cpl. Scott Chase, the Puma flight chief for 2/7. “When it comes to fighting insurgency, we are attempting to fight an enemy who isn’t directly attacking us. With the Puma system, we can independently observe our battlespace day or night, which allows us to find the enemy before he has the chance to find us,” said the Askov and Sandstone, Minn., native.

Currently, the unit has four Puma systems and four flight operators. The operators, who are all infantryman, fly for approximately eight hours each day and have logged over 1,000 flight hours during their deployment.

According to Lance Cpl. Josh Miller, a Puma flight operator and Garrett, Ind. and Mazon, Ill. native, the system has helped them to locate 12 improvised explosive device (IED) emplacements and numerous enemy firing positions, as well as track multiple insurgents across the battlefield.

The future of UAVs

The use of unarmed aerial vehicles has become commonplace on the battlefield and is poised to define the future of combat. However, Dalby believes the real future of aerial surveillance in the Marine Corps lies within its use in amphibious operations.

Dalby, a native of Arnold, Md., was a former small boat commander with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and he believes the Puma systems have unlimited potential in support of ship-to-shore movements.

“Moving into the future, the use of aerial surveillance will become more important,” said Dalby. “As we return to our amphibious roots, we will adapt the technology into a valuable tool for MEU commanders to use in their decision making process for beach landings.”

by Sgt. Bobby J. Yarbrough

3/13/13

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