From Afghanistan, to Bold Alligator 2012, to the Future: The USMC Re-shapes Its Capabilities

02/08/12 In a wide-ranging interview with Second Line of Defense’s Robbin Laird, the Commanding General of 2nd Marine Air Wing (MAW) provided an overview of how USMC aviation operates now and is evolving in the future.

The bottom line for the role of USMC Aviation was underscored throughout the interview but well summed up at the end.

Major General Davis: We task organize  the air combat element for whatever we need to do, whether it’s a big fight for the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) or it’s a smaller f (but no less strategic) fight for the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).  The most important component in that entire calculus for us is the Lance Corporal, the point in the spear.

We think he fights better because he’s supported by very high end air support.  We ensure he has world class assault support to move him around and through the depth of the battlefield.  We provide him with exceptional fixed and rotary wing support.  The Marine ACE exists for one reason, to make our Marines better fighters.  When we improve the ACE’s capability to fight – we increase the warfighting effectiveness of our riflemen.  So for us, that is the lance corporal, the point of the spear, is the most important part of our modernization and upgrade program.

For us, it is the lance corporal, the point of the spear that is our focal point.

Now we are always going to go support that Marine.  It could be we might not come back with an airplane but we’re going to go in there, we’re going to support him.  We would like to be able to go and support him come back out, and do a quick rearm and refuel and get ready to go for another strike.

At the end of the day if that kid needs support, he’s going to get it.  We might lose airplanes; but he’s going to get support.

The new air capabilities we are fielding and acquiring allow us to go fight in the toughest fight and survive and come back and go do it again.

Fighting in Afghanistan

We started the conversation by the General’s reflections on his recent trip to Afghanistan and discussions with 2nd MAW forward.

I recently went over to see the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Forward.  We’ve got about 3,000 Marines, about 85 aircraft over there in RC Southwest, and we have some of our Prowlers up at Bagram Air Force base.  For the last several years, we have shifted responsibility for the command of the air combat element in Afghanistan on a one-year rotational basis.

The 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing has the most recent rotation, and they’re getting ready to come home. I wanted to go out and see what they’re doing and also make sure we captured the lessons learned as we go forward.  In a lot of ways, what I saw over there was truly not only inspirational but remarkable.  What folks are doing with the airplanes we deployed to RC Southwest and Bagram, with very little infrastructure is amazing.

SLD: It is not often fully grasped how really challenging the geography and weather are in the Afghanistan operation and how significant an impact these operations have had on the equipment not to say of the soldiers.

Major General Davis: We’ve had terrible weather over there in some cases, dust like we had in Iraq but also low cloud, rain and ice. So it’s challenging flying out there.  But the real challenge has been to shape a logistics infrastructure allowing for our operations and support to combat.

I visited RC Southwest about two years ago when we were getting ready to put Marines into that area in greater numbers.  Our biggest concern was how we’re going to get the best readiness and performance out of our limited numbers of machines and manpower. It really came down to, what did we have to do to make our own luck?  How do we set ourselves up to get the biggest bang for the buck with the Marine aviation element?

We focused on building FOB Dwyer. Why was FOB Dwyer so important?  Because we knew when we went into Afghanistan the Marines were going to take this town called Marja.  In order to take Marja, you needed to be able to build up combat power as quickly as possible and posture your air support assets in such a way that they could surge support and exponentially increase the sortie rate in support of the ground forces.    FOB Dwyer offered just such an opportunity.  By building a 4,000 foot strip out there we could flow KC-130s loaded with supplies and gave us more than enough runway to hot rearm, hot refuel our AV-8Bs.  Without FOB Dwyer we would have to take off from our main base (30 minute transit), stay over the target and expend our ammunition in one vul period (or extend via KC-130 tankers), then once “Winchester” head back to our main base (30 minute transit).  With FOB Dywer, a 5 minute flight to be overhead Marja, we could drop in, get hot gas and re-arm without ever shutting down our motors, then launch and be overhead Marja 5 minutes later.  FOB Dwyer was immensely important to surging sorties in support of the GCE for that fight.  Remember, while we can take gas from a tanker, we can’t get an ordnance reload airborne.

From the time they left station and the time they were back overhead in about 30, 35 minutes.  That kind of performance and capability is unique for a TACAIR platform.  By investing up front in FOB Dwyer, we could take 10 STOVL attack aircraft and make 10 airplanes perform like 40 anywhere else.

FOB Dwyer was more than just a Harrier strip.  It was a combat strip.  We based some of our VMUs down there flying both Scan Eagle and Shadow UAVs.  .  We initially sized the length of Dwyer based on what it took us to get a fully loaded C130 with a full bag of gas and full logistics load in there.  And on a hot day, and at the filed elevations we are dealing with in that part of Afghanistan that comes out to about a  4,000 foot strip. The template for the Marine Corps in the future should allow us to operate at full capability wherever we can put 4,000 foot strip.

The other part of the logistics challenge of a place like Afghanistan is we had to ensure very high readiness and reliability rates with our aircraft.  We can go and operate in the dirt.  We can go and operate in austere locations. We have helicopters and airplanes, which can do that.

But if you wanted to  make your own luck and do the very best that you could, and generate the maximum numbers of sorties over a sustained period of time you needed to layout as pristine an environment as you could for austere operations.

That’s something the Marine Corps is very good at.

We’ve got the Marine Wing Support Squadrons that come in early and prepare the ground. They grade and build expeditionary runways and maintenance facilities; they build the infrastructure we need to generate readiness and high sortie rates in the middle of no-where.  When we went back into Afghanistan in numbers, the MWSS focused on building the runways, taxiways and maintenance spaces for our MALS.    They built taxiways and pads for making sure they did all they could to make it easier to operate and maintain the wide array of aircraft we deployed to RC Southwest.

We’ve had fantastic readiness.  I think that’s the thing that’s really saved our bacon over there.

We’ve taken a limited number of airplanes, a limited number of Marines, and we’ve had fantastic readiness.  The Harrier squadron that’s over there, 10 airplanes flew 900 combat hours last month.  It’s not flying from a ship all the way over the top of the target, an hour and a half in and an hour and a half out.  Those were 900 combat hours.  They’re taking off; they’re over the objective area in tens of minutes…; 900 hours and 10 airplanes, think about it….  They run in 8 to 9 of 10 up every single day.

How do you do that?  You do that by making your own luck from a logistics standpoint.  That’s not just Harriers; that’s our KC-130s, our V-22s, our Hornets,  our 53s, and our Skids.  We’re seeing incredible readiness rates in each airborne platforms over there because we made – our own luck, we’ve got great Marines and leaders over there; they know their mission, and they built all that great work on a solid maintenance effort.  Proud.

And the bottom line for Davis was highlighted by the comments made by General Walters, Senior USMC Aviator in Afghanistan:

While I was there he read a note from the regimental commander as he left Afghanistan saying we could not have done this without you.  We’re getting the same accolades from the Australian’s special operators, from the Navy SEALs, from the Army SAF guys.  They love working with Marines and that we’re get going out of our way to basically provide support to anybody that needs it, exceptional support.

Fighting Differently

Another aspect of what we discussed is the impact of pushing the legacy equipment very hard and underscoring the need for replacement assets. General Davis highlighted how the USMC is using its legacy assets very differently, but is reaching the end of a certain line with limits on legacy equipment’s ability to be modernized.  And the new kid in town, the MV-22 is changing perceptions of what can be done.

Major General Davis: We’ve flown the machines hard.  We have a good transition strategy in the Marine Corps and we’re going to make our commitments overseas and make that transition strategy.  We can’t delay a heck of a lot.

I think in a lot of ways, what we find is we’ve extracted a heck of a lot capability of what we call legacy airplanes.  But there’s a limit on how much you can push out of those things, and not just from a capability standpoint or life standpoint but also from an upgrade standpoint.

We are fighting the legacy airplanes that we have right now so very differently than the way I fought them when I was a lieutenant.  And the newer planes are coming in are 10 times more capable.  For example, we replaced CH-46 with a V-22.

It’s not a replacement.  It’s a totally different system, and it’s changing the way that we fight, not just even Afghanistan but everywhere.  It’s a tremendous capability, and we have just scratched the surface on what we can do with that machine.

We focused on its ability to go fast and go long range – it flies as fast as a KC-130, can fly low or medium altitude, and can hover like a helicopter.  We’ve also been told what the thing can’t do very well. Frankly, what we’re learning is the people who said that what it can’t do very well are not very creative people.  Don’t tell that to Lieutenants and Captains that are flying it because they are finding ways to do extraordinary things with the aircraft…many times the same things that a lot of uniformed naysayers say they can’t.

SLD: I think the Libyan operations have opened the eyes of some folks as to the possibilities of blending the old with the new to shape new capabilities.

Major General Davis: In many ways, the Marine Expeditionary Unit that’s afloat today is a vastly different expeditionary unit that was around when I was young officer. The legacy machines such as the Harrier and the skids and our 53Es are being employed very differently, mainly brought about by upgraded sensors, weapons and training,  The new machines, s specifically the V-22, has absolutely changed what not only what we can do with a MEU, but what people expect from one.

They are truly becoming the Combatant Commander’s “go to” team for the widest variety of critical missions from strike, to TRAP, to you name it.,..

The mere fact that we had the Marine Expeditionary Unit off the coast of Libya (and remember half of that Marine Expeditionary Unit ACE was in Afghanistan) when Odyssey Dawn went down truly showcased the range of capabilities our MEU and its ACE possess.  Since more than half the MEU ACE’s MV-22s and all its Cobra attack helicopters were in Afghanistan supporting combat operations there. That meant the ACE only had 4 MV-22s, 3 CH-53Es, 6 Harriers and 2 UH-1Ns.

So it was a partial ACE, so a smaller one that was up off the coast of Libya, having been sent to the Med for potential NEOs for Lebanon then possibly Egypt.

They didn’t get called on either one of those.  As Odyssey Dawn brewed up they were the only US Naval carrier in the Mediterranean (albeit a small deck carrier)…  The first night of that operation you had this Marine amphibious ship which a lot of people said, well, it’s just got these Harriers on there.  But the Harriers are a vastly different machine than it was when I was a lieutenant.  The same airplane but we’ve upgraded with the avionics and systems and sensors and training – such as Single Seat FAC(A)..

The young guys we have strapping on the jets right now are very good, in fact they are10 times better than my generation was.  The guys that are flying it, we’ve trained them really well.  They’re razors.  They’re really good, and they’re doing incredibly important missions all around the world.  It’s not just in Afghanistan.  The special operators are calling them on all the time because of what they bring to the fight – their agility from a small amphibious ship, their ability to respond quickly, their ability to put steel on target and flexibility to do it the way the customer wants.

SLD: It sounds like the Marines aren’t searching for relevance.

Major General Davis: We are not.  I told my guys, you’re tired, but that is a good thing right now, but it’s good to be wanted right now.  The demand for what we provide is very high.

And Libya underscores the demand side. Harriers got called on to do strike missions on the very first night of Odyssey Dawn.  The next night when we had problems with the tankers for the land based NATO airplanes, and many aircraft had to go to divert bases – they  strikers could not get rearmed in time for the next night’s missions.

They couldn’t get back to their own base to get refit for the next day.  So night two, the only game in town for air power was Air Force B-2s and Marine Harriers off of the ship. And a couple of days later, when the F-15 crew went down, the MEU ACE was able to act.

It was in the middle of the night.  They were all having what we call a “slider” on board the ship, sitting in the ready room , when they were told they had a US plane “down” in hostile territory.  The MEU ACE practices these packages all the time.

The Harriers launched immediately, got up overhead the area where we thought the plane had gone down, and established comms with the down pilot.   The down pilot actually called in an airstrike from the AV-8s, targeting vehicles that were closing on his position.  The AV-88s expertly delivered several laser JDAMs and the threat disappeared.

About 8 years ago we embarked on building a single-seat FAC(A) program for our AV-8s and FA-18As and Cs.  It bore fruit that night.

Once the AV-8s dealt with the threat, they pinpointed the pilot, moved him to a better LZ for the MV-22, then pointed out the pilots position to their relief coming on station to effect a clean MV-22 pick-up.

Now to the MV-22,   There was no other aircraft at sea or on land anywhere in the Med that could have done what those MV-22’s did that night.  From a no notice start, to launching, speeding to the pick-up zone at 250 knots, shooting the gap between several SAM sites (remember – no one knew what brought down the Strike Eagle), to landing in the LZ and getting that pilot out of harm’s way at 250 knots.  45 minutes each way, instead of hours – and no need for refueling or FARPs in bad guy land.  The airplane and the skill of the crew made it look easy.  It wasn’t, but the MV-22 opened some doors to the Combatant Commander and gave him capabilities he didn’t have before.

So you think about on game day, that night, these guys did a very brave thing, went and did it incredibly.  When they did it so fast, people just couldn’t believe it.  No one could have gone and got that guy like we went and got him.  No one could have done the time we did it.  Nobody, nobody.

Oh yeah,  remember, a lot of people said that V-22 is just not a very good search and rescue airplane.  I guess maybe we proved them wrong here again….

And the CH-53Es we had up and airborne loaded with the Quick Reaction Force, if we needed to insert them.  Luckily, that wasn’t necessary – but they were airborne and ready.

Reflections on the Impact of the MV-22 and the Coming Impact of the F-35B

We continued the discussion from Libya and the use of a mix of legacy assets with the MV-22 to discuss how the MV-22 was re-shaping thinking on operational possibilities and the coming impact of the F-35 Bravo.

Major General Davis: When it came time to reconstitute the MEU ACE aboard the Kearsarge, we discussed how best to do that – remember we had brought the MEU ARG up into the Med to support among other things, Odyssey Dawn.  Now the MEU ARG was over 3,000 miles away.  We decided the best way to do this was just to fly them out on our organic KC-130Js – air-refueling a couple of times like we do when we transit across the United States.  .

We flew them out of Afghanistan, around the coast of Iran up through the Gulf, landed in Kuwait just to take care of body functions, all right, things you can’t do on the back of a tanker, all right.

And then basically, airborne about 90 minutes later, and then on the tankers again, organic Marine C-130 tankers, and landed at Souda Bay – 13 hours of flight time, with the 90 minute stop-over 14 and a half hours total…not bad.  The next day, we spot them and landed on board the ship, and came home.    The conventional helicopters we had deployed to OEF had to be air-delivered via STRAT lift.

People lose track of this is an airplane that can do all the things the helicopter can do, but it does so at 250 miles an hour and at ranges that are double what we expect from helicopters.

The MV-22 is so advanced that it ups the game for the rest of the MEU ACE players as well.  If combatant commanders are looking at a Marine capability on board a ship, they’re looking at that capability very, very differently now than we did in the past.  We have Harriers with precision ordnance capability out there.  They are very, very good at what they do on the ordnance delivery standpoint.

And we have just hung AMRAAM on our Harriers going to sea as well.  So now we have an air defense capability.  Why?  What if we are escorting a V-22 deep, who’s going to escort?  The Harriers can, and obviously we can use our Cobras where that makes more sense.  With the AV-8swe can provide a long stick air-defense capability for the MV-22s, for the MEU, for anything the MEU, ARG or Combatant Commander requires.  We can’t  It’s not as capable as a big carrier, but it’s very capable out there for the stuff that we got to do.  So it’s another bit of capability out there.

And when we have the F-35B, they bring exponentially greater capabilities to our MEUs (akin to moving from a CH-46 to a MV-22) and a true fifth generation capability from a small deck carrier..  Is disaggregated operations the jets we embark on the MEU will change the way we employ the MEU ACE.  In larger fights, that we are flying the same system as the Air Force (F-35A) and the Navy (F-35C) – they synergy ushered in by the different basing options will have strategic benefits for our nation that are profound.

SLD: What is the impact of the evolving air capability on the ships and operations?

Major General Davis: It not only allows each individual ship to be a hundred times more capable but allows the ships in the aggregate whether they’re collected it in a contiguous whole or they’re distributed over large distances to operate more effectively.

The ability of a MV-22 to go as far as it does – a 325 mile radius, 1000 miles one way unrefueled– has a significant operational impact. If I put fuel tanks in the back, they can go 1200 to 1300 miles.  It allows the Navy/Marine Coprs teaM to distribute THE fleet but still  to operate as an single entity. We can move people around very quickly at speed at 250 knots tremendous capability on great range.

V-22 has absolutely positively changed how the MEU has fought and what people expect from a MEU.  I think the demand from the combatant commanders for what an ARG-MEU can do is just going to increase exponentially.

SLD: Soon you are going to see the F-35 sensors and radar first hand on the BACH1-11 operating during Bold Alligator 2012.  What will you be looking for from the systems?

Major General Davis: I’m going to be very focused on the sensors suite on board that plane. With the F-35 we will have a superb sensor platform and the ability to connect the battle space.  We will look at the BAC1-11 as if we had some F-35Bs on our MEU and try to gain some insight to the increased capabilities we will see and the impact on our ability to see and influence the battlefield.

I think I’m going to look at it from the perspective of how much information can we extract from the F-35, and how can we share it with the MAGTF, Naval and Combatant Commanders.

And the battlespace in which we are (and will) operate in is across the spectrum of operations.  And again, for the Marine Corps, if you look at a day in the life of the Marine Expeditionary Units we put out, even just from the East Coast here in the last couple of years, they’ve gone from the low end the spectrum to the high end of the spectrum.   Just because the MEU is undertaking a humanitarian mission, it does not mean that the MEU will be greeted that way.

You’re going to need a very high capability to fight across the range of military operations.  So what the Marine Corps will need is a high-end assault support force (tilt rotors and helicopters) combined with organic TACAIR that not only can share the information to project power and fight deep inland but also to protect the ship, the embarked force and tie in with the rest of the joint force – seamlessly..  But if I’m a bad guy this new MEU capability is something that is a cause of significant concern – maybe even  a deterrent -   not just from the low end of the spectrum but the high end of the spectrum.

So how will our potential adversaries  react to the new MEU?    I think they’re going to look for seams and work on upgrading their defenses.  What we need to do?  Think deeply about the implications of what capabilities we are bringing to the MEU ARG, to the Corps, and figuring out how to maximize the potential advantages.  Questions I’ve been pondering lately: how do we tie the MEU ACE, the ARG into a larger defense network, the missile cruisers, the carriers, the ships organic defense systems.  So how do you tie in with your missile cruisers?  How do you tie in with the defense subsystems on board that ship to protect that ship or the ARG et large?  How do you protect the tilt rotor airplanes and the rotary wing airplanes that are a part of the MEU, a larger MAGTF, or part of a joint force – or more importantly the infantry in a future contested battlefield?

One of the things we won’t talk about in great detail here is, one thing is we’ve got a glaring deficiency on board our Marine Expeditionary Units is there’s a lack of electronic warfare.  We haven’t had it in an airborne platform in the past.  The F-35 brings that to us now.

SLD: We are moving from the world of large numbers of specialized assets to throw at a problem to leveraging our multi-mission assets such as F-35 to deal with a wider variety of issues than we have asked single platforms to do.

Major General Davis: Absolutely.  And I also think it’s going to be the expectation.  It’s THE DEMAND.  We’re putting AMRAAM A120s on the Harrier.  Why?  Because there’s a requirement for it; there’s a demand for it.  It says if you can do it — you need to do it..

I think that with fifth generation capabilities, specifically F-35, when it’s out there in the US and friendly arsenal, and its capabilities are truly understood – there is going to be an unrelenting and widespread demand for its 5th generation capabilities.  I also think that the 5th generation capability set is eventually going to be a bar you will need to meet or exceed to play as a TACAIR player in many of the mid-higher end scenarios that loom in our future.    Its means you’ve got to bring 5ht generation capabilities to the fight in order to play.

General Krulak, when he was the Commandant, talked about the post Cold-War battlefield resembling a  Three Block War where you could be one block you’re doing humanitarian operations going on; the middle block you had peacekeeping or peace enforcement, and the third block over you had high intensity combat.  Sometimes all three battles would rage  simultaneously – General Krulak thought that our future battlefields would look like that in 1995.  He has proven correct.

The key to all that – to fight the 3 Block War effectively and gto provide air support to the Marines fighting on all three blocks – is understanding where and what part of the streets do you need to go fight and what you need to do.  You need good intelligence collection ability.  You need the ability to share what you see very quickly and share it with multiple players, and you also need the ability to deal with all three.  Because you might take off thinking you are going to conduct an ISR mission for the 1st block humanitarian effort and end up doing danger close urban CAS in a high threat air environment on the 3rd block.    A 5th generation aircraft that can see, collect, share, fight and survive will be key to MAGTF success in the 3 block war’s of our future.

SLD: And in the new understanding of power projection we are looking maneuver capabilities in territories, which we seek to influence outcomes.  The ground-air or air-ground forces are going to be inserted within territories to shape outcomes and then leave when appropriate.  So the folks being projected on the ground are the new precision weapons.

Major General Davis: We task organize  the air combat element for whatever we need to do, whether it’s a big fight for the Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) or it’s a smaller f (but no less strategic) fight for the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).  The most important component in that entire calculus for us is the Lance Corporal, the point in the spear.

We think he fights better because he’s supported by very high end air support.  We ensure he has world class assault support to move him around and through the depth of the battlefield.  We provide him with exceptional fixed and rotary wing support.  The Marine ACE exists for one reason, to make our Marines better fighters.  When we improve the ACE’s capability to fight – we increase the warfighting effectiveness of our riflemen.  So for us, that is the lance corporal, the point of the spear, is the most important part of our modernization and upgrade program.

Now we are always going to go support that Marine.  It could be we might not come back with an airplane but we’re going to go in there, we’re going to support him.  We would like to be able to go and support him come back out, and do a quick rearm and refuel and get ready to go for another strike.

At the end of the day if that kid needs support, he’s going to get it.  We might lose airplanes; but he’s going to get support.

The new air capabilities we are fielding and acquiring allow us to go fight in the toughest fight and survive and come back and go do it again.

Featured Image: A V-22 Osprey flies over Camp Leatherneck as the sun rises over Helmand province, Oct. 23, 2011.  Credit: Regional Command Southwest, 10/23/11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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