The GCE Drives USMC Aviation Innovation: Major Cuomo of the Infantry Officer Course Discusses the IOC’s Team Perspective

2014-05-12 by Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

One of the reasons the USMC is in a key position to shape the future of military aviation is simply because of the growing interactivity between ground and air operations.  The Rover revolution and the revolution in air precision dropping are but two examples of innovations in the past decade where air and ground operations are operating on a sliding scale of operational dynamics, notably after air dominance has been achieved.

The Marines with the Osprey innovations under their belt and now building out for further possibilities and with the coming of the 21st century “flying combat system,” the F-35, to the MAGTF, are well positioned to continue to contribute key innovations. 

And in driving such innovation the ground combat element or GCE is a key demander and shaper of change as well.

This certainly can be seen with the evolving exercises to reshape a ground insertion force under the influence of the Osprey and other technologies. Recently, we published an examination of the latest path for innovation associated with re-shaping force insertion.

The Marines have been experimenting over the past 15months with ways to shape new ways to connect the GCE within an insertion mission. The approach has been to deploy the Ground Combat Element (GCE) over a tilt-rotor-enabled distance and to insert the force with situational awareness, which can enhance mission success.

We had a chance to discuss with Major Cuomo, the head of the Infantry Officer Course (IOC), the process of innovation that the IOC Team has executed during a meeting at his office in Quantico.

What is clear from discussions with the CO of VMX-22, with Lt. Col. Hendricks, from USMC Aviation, and from Major Cuomo is that an innovative process has been set in motion to shape a new capability and new approach.

Here the GCE is determining a key way ahead in how to more effectively use the new capabilities, which Marine Corps Aviation is bringing to the MAGTF.

Notably, we had the discussion with a Major whose part of a Team at IOC that is clearly a key player in shaping how the USMC thinks about the process of innovation.  That is itself a statement about how the USMC is going about this process.

Major Cuomo described the role of the IOC as follows:

We have four classes per year, with each being 13 weeks long. 

We produce somewhere around three hundred infantry and ground intelligence officers for the Marine Corps per year. 

When a second lieutenant walks out of IOC upon graduation, the assumption is that he can walk into an infantry platoon and go to combat tomorrow

He also explained a key aspect of USMC operations through which air and ground innovations pass from the standpoint of the GCE.  This is the key role of the FIST (fire support team) leader.

The FIST leader’s job is to employ all of the combined arms assets, whether at sea, in the air, or on the ground, in support of the GCE and its mission. 

There is no other school which integrates the FIST’s role into the overall ground scheme of maneuver like this one

He added that with the addition of new systems, such as the Osprey and F-35, along with other new radar and attack systems, the “FIST commander can now think very differently about GCE and MAGTF operations.”

During the past 15 months, the IOC Team has become intimately involved with the process of innovation associated with various long-range, MV-22-enabled experiments.

But prior to discussing these experiments, it was clear from Cuomo’s previous time in combat, that his sense of the importance of changing how the Osprey can be used with the GCE was shaped by real combat experience and frustration with what had not been achieved, but he, and the IOC Team, felt could be.

A key baseline experience shaping the Major’s understanding of what digital systems can bring to enhance the capability of the GCE clearly came from his time in Afghanistan in 2009-2010. 

He described how as a USMC Company Commander that he was given responsibility for 388 personnel, who were responsible for securing an initially very volatile, 25km by 15km area, in Helmand Province. After multiple clearing operations, he ultimately organized his unit into 12 operating areas, with young officers and NCOs in charge of each of the positions; for the last 3 months of the deployment, an extremely capable lance corporal was the senior Marine at one of the positions.

He clearly wanted to keep the forces cross-informed as well as to provide the kind of command guidance useful for a large dynamic combat area.  To that point, such interaction was being done largely by radio.

But the Major, then a Captain, was able to leverage a new technology to come up with a much more effective way to operate, namely to use what was called an ECO or Enhanced Company Operations package.

According to the ECO website:

Enhanced Company Operations (ECO) is a United States Marine Corps (USMC) effort to enhance the infantry company, platoon and squad’s Command and Control (C2) and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capability in order to conduct various missions in disparate locations.

ECO integrates organic tactical radios, ruggedized computers, cameras and data controllers into a rapidly deployable, man packable system for use by infantry Marines.

During his time in Afghanistan, this “man portable” package weighed nearly 40 pounds, not exactly a light package of equipment!

But what the systems allowed was for the squads to provide daily updates to the Captain throughout the area, and for his headquarters element to shape a fused intelligence picture, which could in turn be passed down to the various units.  This then allowed the units to cross verify what they were being told by various tribal leaders and to determine the accuracy of information.  This also allowed them to broadcast news within the network for distribution not only to Marines but to villagers when the Marines needed to highlight a development.

The Marines ended up with a powerful database from which to manage affairs in the region and to demonstrate to the elders that the Marines and Afghan security forces were capable of hunting down and eliminating the enemy, all the while helping innocent non-combatants. 

A key take-away from the use of the ECO suite was: it was not just about intelligence information; it was about helping to shape perceptions as well.

Major Cuomo has carried this experience with digital systems and to re-shaping how they could be used to support the mission forward into the later experience which we have focused on with regard to the Osprey as well.

An additional combat deployment also significantly influenced the Major’s perspective.  On an ARG-MEU deployment after Afghanistan, in the Middle East, the Major experienced, along with his fellow Marines, an inability to capitalize fully on what the Osprey could do because of the need to re-shape operational concepts.

The ship on which he was stationed was tagged to a specific mission offshore and only because of the Osprey were they able to fly to ashore training areas.  If they had the CH-46, they would have been stuck aboard ship and not able to train at those offshore areas.

But what the Major sensed is that the Marines by using the Osprey and with a change in the ability to empower the Marines operating on the Osprey could do a range of specialized missions, normally reserved for Special Forces or Special Operations Force. 

They also could achieve mission success with a much smaller footprint that the US Army and US Air Force working together in a traditional manner would provide.  A smaller footprint is a crucial requirement for many global missions going forward for both military and political reasons.

Rather than simply being frustrated, the Major, along with the rest of the IOC Team, many of whom had similar frustrations, went to work at IOC.  He was given a mission-type order to think through how to integrate the Osprey into the IOC curriculum.

He and Captain Jason Deane, one of IOC’s instructors, then went down to New River and met the indomitable Col. Seymour.

When he asked Seymour: “why can’t we fast rope out of the Osprey,” Seymour replied, “who told you that!”  And he pointed across the way and indicated that VMX-22 was just over there, and why not work out some exercises with those folks.”

By connecting VMX-22 and the IOC, a process of innovation was begun.  But early on, the Deputy Commandant of Aviation, General Schmidle, and his staff became involved in supporting the process.  And indeed the full support, which the DCA team has provided IOC, has been an important part of the process of kick starting innovation.

The process started with a bootstrap operation. 

The IOC Team  started by simply setting up a training exercise operating from Quantico to Paris Island.

We took off from a commercial airport near Quantico. 

We flew two Ospreys.  We were to fast rope out of the Ospreys at the “enemy” area on Paris Island; we had to fast-rope in due to suspect enemy mines in the primary LZs. 

We were doing it at night but one of the Ospreys developed a hydraulic leak, which led to us executing with only 1 Osprey. 

We continued on and the 22 guys on the plane fast roped into the objective area.

The exercise highlighted two problems which have been addressed in later exercises: given the distance covered by the Osprey, intelligence received at the point of departure is not that accurate on the point of arrival.  And given the distance of the Osprey team from the command element, who is giving the fires approval?  In other words, the plane can outrun the normal fire controls process.

The IOC Team, led by Captain Deane, published a piece in the Marine Corps Gazette in January 2013 which General Schmidle read and then contacted Major Cuomo.

This meant that prior to the second exercise in Camp Blanding, FL that DCA and his team offered IOC their full support.  Notably, they were offered a “Shadow,” unmanned aerial system (UAS for the second experiment.  The idea was to operate in a very humid and tropical objective area similar to many areas in the Asia-Pacific region.

This exercise was very helpful in highlighting the limitations of the “Shadow” for the type of expeditionary operations being tested in the exercise.  And as well, it highlighted what kind of UAS support asset the GCE would find most useful to such operations.

And according to the CO of VMX-22, these considerations are crucial for Aviation thinking about the way ahead with unmanned aircraft for the Corps.

The third exercise was based on Cuomo’s real world experience with regard to the range necessary to execute a NEO operation in Africa.

Here the long-range raid from 29 Palms to Fort Hood focused on the ability of the incoming Marines to fast rope onto the key building in the objective area (the U.S. Ambassador’s residence) to facilitate the rescue effort.  Again this is Special Forces work in the popular imagery, but something, which is enabled by integrated air, and ground capabilities, which are the bread and butter for the USMC, and a capability, which will only get better with communication improvements, the addition of the F-35 and appropriate innovations in unmanned systems.

Major Cuomo highlighted that Lt. Col. Hendricks came to him from Headquarters Marine Corps  Aviation in shaping the forthcoming raid to Fort Hood, and indicated that Lt. General Schmidle wanted to help in any way that he could to re-shape the support to the GCE in this exercise.

The collaboration between the IOC and VMX-22 was deepened with the latest effort, the San Clemente Island assault.  Here the force was operating at a distance to penetrate an anti-access, area denial defended area to seize an airfield to enable F-35B operations for the greater USN-USMC team.

The insertion force was a company landing team-minus, landed at the far end of the island and the Marines fought over land under the cover of darkness for nearly 14 miles.

Given the forecasted enemy threat environment in many parts of the world, particularly when it comes to precision weapons, the likelihood and demands for smaller, highly trained units to be able to execute missions such as the one to San Clemente Island are clearly rising. 

Additionally, while technological advances certainly increase the capabilities of these smaller forces, the moral, mental, and physical pressure on the Marines executing these types of missions are rising as well. Such a mission requires one to be able to fight dismounted, in this case, over 23 kilometers, throughout the night, against a determined enemy, all the while carrying combat loads weighting 100 pounds or more!

And the impact of the ground combat element on the rest of the force is a key part of the USMC approach. As Major Cuomo put it: “After we had secured the airfield, the Navy, or Blue part of our team, could bring the core amphibious ship forward.”

This is a good statement of how the various elements of a well-designed force insertion effort can work, and it is not always about automated systems!

Major Cuomo then concluded by indicating that one of the goals of the recent experiments was to get a similar digital interoperability capability to the 15th MEU later this year.

It will be a challenge, but the goal is to get a communications capability, in many ways similar although improved from that which we have already experimented with, for the infantry squads flying on the Osprey for their missions in the next MEU cycle.

And as the MEU draws upon this capability, the experiments will continue, but in real world operations.

That is the ultimate test of what experiments yield, but one which could not happen without shaping an effective GCE lead to USMC Aviation innovation.

Note: To date, the process has evolved through the course of four exercises:

Exercising ways to enhance the GCE insertion capability. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense

Exercising ways to enhance the GCE insertion capability. Credit Graphic: Second Line of Defense 

March 2013: Initial long-range night raid experiment between Quantico and Parris Island

The process was started with an initial effort using local resources.

There is a growing sense that the GCE needs to better leverage the evolving capability of USMC aviation, and the exercises are one way to do a better job along these lines.

Captain Jason Deane of the Infantry Officer’s School (IOC) has summarized the approach and findings of this initial experiment in an article in the Marine Corps Gazette published in January 2014.

From January through March 2013 the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) conducted an experiment in a simulated urban littoral, anti access/area denial environment culminating in a long-range night raid between Marine Corps Base (MCB) Quantico and the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) Parris Island.

Given potential future urban littoral environments, the experiment sought to determine the following:

  • With an acceptable risk level, can a platoon-sized or larger infantry unit fast rope out of MV–22s at night with a 50-to 60-pound combat load? 
  • While in the back of MV–22s for approximately 2 hours, can this unit maintain voice and data communications to maximize situational awareness prior to insert? 
  • Once on the ground 500 miles from the pickup-landing zone (PZ), can this unit maintain voice and data communications with its higher headquarters? 

In addition, to connectivity lessons learned from the exercise, the Captain highlighted a key “gap” which has been the focus of the follow on exercises, but also highlights the need for technological innovation to follow the paths opened up by tilt-rotor technology, rather than staying in the rotorcraft enabled force era.

As was the case during this long-range raid, MV–22s quickly outrun all U.S. military rotary-wing close air support platforms—that is, unless these aircraft are forward staged near the objective area, which is by no means always practical or advisable if conducting a real-world mission. 

Given rotary-wing close air support limitations when maximizing aspects of the MV–22’s potential, precision guided fires from naval platforms and/or fixed-wing CAS or armed unmanned aerial systems will typically be required to enable ground force actions within an objective area.

Such aviation assets might be on-station for hours prior to the ground force insert. 

This said, if the ground force is flying to the objective area for hours in the back of MV–22s, we do not currently have the required capability to provide real-time information updates to our infantry Marines, to include still or full-motion video imagery.

What this meant for our mission was that once the force lifted off from Quantico, the lieutenants did not receive an update on enemy activity in the objective area until they were 10 minutes out from the objective.

This is an unacceptable information gap. 

August 2013: Company Landing Team (CLT) operated from Quantico to Camp Blanding Florida in raid 

In this experiment, the CLT operated over a 96-hour period, going considerable distance, operating hundreds of miles from its HHQ, against an enemy with anti-access capabilities. The 600-mile aerial assault involved an initial destruction raid and then the force operated as the initial forcible entry capability for a follow-on joint force.

Notably, the experiment focused on testing three core capabilities:

  1. Long-range, air-ground command and control;
  2. Distributed platoon operations with a CLT HQ element providing C2 back to Quantico (which simulated a distance intended for operations from amphibs or an intermediate state base);
  3. Shaping requirements (TTPs) for expeditionary energy systems able to operate in tropical, thickly vegetated environments.

An interesting aspect of the experiment was to unintentionally highlight the limitations of the SHADOW UAV and to shape a clear need for a UAV which can be tossed out the back of the Osprey. 

The SHADOW UAV is not expeditionary in any sense of the word, and the size of the team necessary to support it is a problem as well for an agile lean force looking for the kind of rapid force insertion enabled by the Osprey.

According to one report: “A potential employment concept would be to have a 5,10 or 50-100 pound “kamikaze” UAV stored in the cargo space areas of the MV-22” which can be used by the Fire Support Team as needed.

What clearly emerged from the initial two experiments was that a CLT empowered by the right kind of communications gear and able to work closely with aviation elements could operate effectively at a significant distance., while also providing a unique capability for combatant commanders.

But technology must continue to bend to the operational needs emergent from the concept of operation changes.

December 2013: Exercise Talon Reach whereby the CLT  conducted a NEO into a semi-permissive environment between 29 Palms and Ft Hood, TX.

In this experiment between 29 Palms and Fort Hood Texas the Marines pushed the envelope further.

The purpose of the experiment was the following:

  • To validate that the Marine Corps can execute a 1000+ mile crisis response mission in a single period of darkness;
  • To further develop TTP to support MV-22 operations into the urban littoral (including fast rope insertion);
  • To figure out how to increase MAGTF C3I capabilities, to include long-range, air-ground digital first and inter-flight communication between the assault force and all supporting air assets to best support the ability to gain and maintain access in the objective area.

One finding from the experiment, also known as TALON REACH I, that reinforced a similar finding from the Camp Blanding experiment was that “the GCE currently has  Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) and Joint Fires Observer (JFO) manning and equipping shortfalls that are needed to maximize our air combat element’s ever increasing capabilities on a distributed battlefield.”

According to Lt. Col. Bill Hendricks, a Cobra driver, and currently assigned to USMC Aviation Headquarters as the air-ground weapons requirements officer, the exercise:

Provided an opportunity to look at how mission planning can change significantly with the new configuration of insertion forces and how that approach can, in turn, significantly shorten the time from launch to operating in the objective area.

Rather than several hours on the ground planning the mission and then launching the force mission, now the time associated with the Rapid Response Planning Process can be significantly reduced.  A new process is being developed.

The insertion force takes off and then does the planning en route (given the range and time in transit) and provides real time information to the GCE and ACE commanders aboard the Osprey prior to going into the objective area.

March 2014: Exercise TALON REACH  II whereby a CLT from the training base in Twenty-nine Palms assaulted into an A2/AD environment against enemy positions located on San Clemente Island.

The latest experiment, TALON II, was built around a raid from 29 Palms to San Clemente Island.

According to the tasking:

Among the experiment’s primary objectives were the following:

  1. To assess integrated airborne C5I between a CLT located across multiple aviation platforms;
  2. To assess integrated ground-air C5I between a CLT post-insert and multiple supporting aviation platforms;
  3. To assess the utilization of CLT fires approval processes and control in all phases.

At the heart of the exercise was to secure an airfield to support the concept of distributed STOVL operations as well.

This airfield was 23 kilometers from the enemy’s ASCM sites and required the CLT to conduct an all-night, dismounted movement to contact operation to secure it.  In the experiment, the F-35 surrogate, the Cat Bird” was used to provide DAS and other data to the CLT in flight and post-insertion.

And the F-35 working with an Osprey-enabled insertion force could well re-define the meaning of Close Air Support (CAS).  The F-35 could enter the objective area prior to the arrival of the CLT, push data back to the incoming force, and then provide fire support, “kinetic” and “non-kinetic,” C2 and ISR support during the insertion and operation.

Col. Mike Orr, the Commnading Officer of VMX-22, worked closely with the IOC in both TALON REACH exercises.

According to Orr, a key question being addressed by the series of exercises is the following:

What technology is out there today that could easily and inexpensively solve some of our connectivity challenges?  

Is there smartphone and tablet technology that can be leveraged to re-shape situational awareness for the ground force?

The technological evolution – which is in effect a combat cloud empowering the force – carries with it changes in decision making as well.

According to Col. Orr:

We are pushing the concept of providing situational awareness to a much lower tactical level than we have ever done before.

We are empowering decision makers at a much lower level while shaping a robust ground and air picture for the overall force.

You would be amazed at what can be achieved as we move forward along these lines. And we are just beginning to understand the art of the possible.

Orr added that:

We take an aggregate air picture which traditionally would be only available to an air operations center and push it down to the users at platoon or squad level.

My background as a Link-16 enabled aviator has taught me the benefits of increased situational awareness.

We are trying to take the increased situational awareness picture down to a junior level.

As General Mattis likes to say, we push information to the ‘point of discomfort’.

Amazing things can happen when we act this way.

Another way to look at this is re-shaping how the force is inserted to give it a higher probability of success or to provide for better risk management for the insertion of force itself.

Col. Orr noted that the innovation they are pursuing through the exercise is also very cost effective.

We are using tablet technologies to display the data and connect the force visually.

Rather than radios, tablets provide a very good way to connect the force in route.

We are looking to get away from proprietary and single mission technology to an applications based approach.

These C2 tools are becoming much more user friendly, and working via a tablet helps in that process.

The experiments are continuing and will lead to the deployment of the capability being shaped by these experiments aboard a forthcoming MEU deployment.

And as the MEU draws upon this capability, the experiment will continue, but in real world operations.

In the slideshow below:

Students from the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., completed a “Proof-of-Concept” 1,100 mile, long-range operation from Twentynine Palms, Calif., to Fort Hood, Texas, via MV-22 Ospreys, on Dec. 15, 2013.

The Marines fast-roped into a mock city to secure the embassy and rescue key U.S. personnel.

Credit: Defense Media Activity: USMC:12/15/13

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