The Expeditionary Airfield Capability: A Core USMC Competence for Global Operations


The setting up of the expeditionary airfield at Dwyer to support USMC combat operations in Afghanistan has highlighted the expeditionary airfield capability of the USMC.  General Walsh, USMC, Commanding General of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing Forward deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom and now back at Cherry Point, NC, underscored the synergy between the STOVL aircraft and the expeditionary airfield:

We decided to build a runway called Dwyer 20 miles away from Marjah. We built that thing right in the middle of the enemy’s battle space, right there in the Helmand River Valley and, like I said, right there 20 miles away from where this major operation was going to take place.  So by doing that, we put those AV-8s 20 miles away from where the ground combat element was going to be operating right there at Marjah. And it was, again, a Marine Wing Support Squadron that was able to build this austere runway of 4,000 feet, which the Harriers were able to operate out of, in the middle of the enemy’s battle space. Since then, we’ve grown that runway out to 6,000 feet, and low and behold, the enemy is probably watching this thing get built, just like we did in a lot of cases with our FOBs in Iraq, watching this thing get built.

In April 2010, SLD sat down with two experienced USMC MAGTF officers and discussed the USMC approach to expeditionary air basing and the significant demand for their expertise in the austere environment of Afghanistan.

SLD: The USMC approach to expeditionary air basing is rooted in history.  Could you comment on this?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Well, if you really want to go back, we’ve been doing it since World War II.  The type of systems has changed; that’s the only real difference.

SLD:    But how do you actually do an expeditionary airfield now?

Lt. Col. Johnson: As with any military operation, you start with a requirement or the operation may direct the need to establish an expeditionary airfield or a forward arming or refueling point.

SLD:    So either a FARP or an airfield?

Lt. Col. Johnson: Correct. The mission analysis will dictate what you would require for expeditionary basing and operations.  Our pre-positioning ships house the expeditionary air basing capability for a 30-day operation. That, of course, can be expanded as necessary.

SLD:    And so, the whole point is you have an airfield on the maritime prepositioned ships?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Right. And then we keep some in shore bay storage also.  And it can either come off a ship; it can be flown in, it takes a lot of shortage, but it can be flown in also.  But shipping is the preferred method of transporting, just because of the weight alone.

SLD:    It’s a big package.  Are we’re talking largely used for fixed wing?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: It’s both; it’s fixed wing and rotary wing, and it just depends on the requirement. If it’s rotary wing, takingOIF as an example, we built a lot of pads to support the V-22s.

SLD:    And where did you build it?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: At Al Anbar Province in Iraq, and they’re building in Afghanistan also.

Lt. Col. Johnson: And there’s been various combinations too; Marines have built full-blown expeditionary airfields like Dwyer from scratch.  And then there’s been a combination, e.g., if they need an extra parking ramp or taxiways, AM-2 matting can compliment an existing airstrip that’s already there.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Right, and OIF and Desert Storm were perfect examples of that, we just complimented existing airfields in theater.

SLD:    So, the kit can be used either for organic capability itself or a complimentary package, basically.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Right.

SLD:    How long does it take to set up — obviously, the organic would take longer than the compliment.  But what kind of timeframe in principle are we talking about?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Well, usually about 30 to 60 days, but it all depends on the requirement.  If you’re supporting a lot of aircraft, then it’s going to take longer to build, because you’ve got to create more parking space.

SLD:    So, is it a bit like a Lego block system?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Pretty much.  We primarily lay a brickwork pattern.  You see bricks laid on a house, they’re staggered.  It’s the same concept.

SLD:    And what I’m looking at in the pictures of the operation of the Dwyer; what is that made of, so that it can handle the heat and all that?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: It can handle the heat.  Harriers have no heat impact on AM-2 matting; we have been doing it for years. Testing for the F-35B is ongoing to see how the current matting stands up to the heat from the new engine.  Experts are looking at emerging or new technologies to see whether they can come up with some sort of higher heat-resistant matting that can supplement or complement the existing pads.  The AM-2 matting might need modification or we might build special pads for the F-35B to land and then it can taxi on AM-2.

Lt. Col. Johnson: In current operations, the USMC expertise is in high demand. The air force has AM-2 matting.  The army has equivalent square type matting.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: M-19.

Lt. Col. Johnson:They keep an inventory of the matting, but there’s a lot of accessories that go along with it.  Locking bars, stakes, etc.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Edge clamps, H-connectors, all to make it connect and configure it the way you need to configure it.

SLD:    So, they’ve got the Lego blocks but not the connectors?

Lt. Col. Johnson: Correct.  None of the accessories.

Lt. Col. Johnson: Same with the Army; but unlike our rectangle AM-2 matting, the Army has not kept a big inventory of it; they haven’t been replenishing it.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Their M-10 is not produced anymore.

Lt. Col. Johnson: So, by default, Marine Corps 7011s or 7002s are in demand for their expertise.

SLD:    What are the 7011s?

Lt. Col. Johnson: The 7011s are the expeditionary airfield military occupational specialty marines.  The 7002s are the officers.

Lt. Col. Johnson: Let me give you an example of demand for USMC expertise.  Recently in Afghanistan, because there isn’t an airfield infrastructure in place like there was in Iraq, there’s been a high demand for AM-2 matting to create the expeditionary airstrips.  The Air Force has AM-2 matting, but they don’t have the accessories to go with it.  They primarily use the matting to put down inside their maintenance facilities and/or other working areas.  In other words, it’s used only as flooring — a very expensive flooring system for them.

SLD:    It’s basically used for support once they’ve established a temporary hangar or whatever.  It’s really supporting the maintenance side rather than the ops side?

Lt. Col. Johnson: Yes, sir.  And because of that, both the Army and Air Force capability subject matter expertise has atrophied, and really the Marine Corps is the only go-to service right now that has that capability and expertise resident to provide that capability.

SLD:    So your 7011s and 7002sare in high demand?

Lt. Col. Johnson: Absolutely.  They’re supporting U.S. forces Afghanistan with subject matter expert teams to support our sister services; for installation, design, inspections, maintenance, and training.

SLD:    So, basically being advisors on the core competencies necessary to have the capability.

Lt. Col. Johnson: Yes, sir.  In turn, there’s almost 8 million square feet of matting in Afghanistan.  In contrast, in the height of OIF there was approximately 1 million square feet of AM-2 on the ground.  That has taken approximately 70-percent of our on-hand stocks of AM-2 out of the Marine Corps inventory.  And that, of course, has exhausted our stocks.

SLD:    Who makes this stuff?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: There’s a company in Alabama, it’s called ALFAB, inc. They are the only manufacturers of AM-2 in the world.Also, the coating on AM-2 and that wears out every three to five years.  There’s only one guy who actually refurbishes AM-2 and he’s out in El  Reno, Oklahoma.

SLD: The USMC is the main customer, largely because you use expeditionary airfields on an ongoing basis?

Lt. Col. Johnson:We have expeditionary airfields or auxiliary airfields all over the world that have AM-2 matting. For a number of USMC facilities, there is a necessity to conduct maintenance actions such as replacement of old AM-2 matting for new, because of the non-skid wearing out.  And so, our 7011s go in as part of the Marine Wing Support Squadron and conduct maintenance actions on these sites and ensure that they remain certified.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: The certification program is through NAVAIR. They handle all of our technical engineering and logistics, so we have engineers and logisticians at NAVAIR Lakehurst (New Jersey).  That’s all they do; they work for the EF program.  From cradle to grave, all aspects of the EF equipment, they handle that for us from an engineering and logistical perspective.

Lt. Col. Johnson: The fact that we have these Marine Wing Support Squadrons resident within the aviation community is crucial to our ACE and MAGTF capabilities. It’s a complimentary activity, because the 7011s, the 7002 Marines could not install their HLZ or airstrips without the assistance of organic engineering capabilities (i.e., with heavy equipment, drafting surveying Marines, et cetera), and, of course, the motor transportation of assets to move the matting from point A to point B.

SLD:    So, if we were creating a graphic to depict your approach, the tip of the iceberg or the pyramid is the AV8 or the F35-B.  The middle of the iceberg is the expeditionary airfield that enables this to operate.  But underlying  or providing the base to the iceberg would be the engineering logistics capability that moves the assets.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Yes and all of that aviation ground support would be the base.

SLD:    The base that allows you to create the airfield that creates and enables the STOVL aircraft to move closer to the fight. What’s your own background, Lt. Col.?

Lt. Col. Johnson: I’m a combat engineer. I am the Marine who would prep the ground, and work the sub-grade, sub-base and base course in preparation to lay the matting.  Of course, for the matting, there are strict requirements that are levied upon us by NAVAIR in order to get the airfield certified.

The drafting Marines are vital to ensuring that we are meeting the specifications when we’re working the earthwork in preparation to lay the matting.  Then NAVAIRprovides their expertise and conducts the certification to make sure that the airfield can be declared operational.

SLD:    How re-usable is your kit?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: We basically recoup everything that we install.  And it goes back into the recycle for refurbishment and then back on the shelf.  And whenever OEF is complete, we’re going to recoup as much as that AM-2 as we can; we’ll put it back through this refurb cycle out in Oklahoma and put it back on the shelf.

SLD:    And what’s your background?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: I’m a 7002.

SLD:    Where do you get the training for this?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Now the training is conducted at Pensacola.  When I came in, years ago, it was done in Lakehurst, New Jersey. It’s migrated from New Jersey to Memphis and now down at Pensacola with the other aviation schools.

SLD:    How long you been doing this?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Twenty-six years.

SLD: In this specialty?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: Yes.

SLD:    For 26 years?  So you obviously know what you’re doing.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier:I have seen a little bit.

SLD:    You’ve seen a little bit.  And how long have you been a combat engineer?

Lt. Col. Johnson: About 20 years.

SLD: What modifications have you had to make for the Osprey operations?

Lt. Col. Johnson: In Iraq, the Marines would place 120X120 HLZs to support the MV-22. When the V22 was first introduced into theatre, we had to replace the 96X96 HLZ landing pads and make them 120X120s in order to facilitate the V22.

SLD: Because of the size difference?

Lt. Col. Johnson: Yes. And at the same time, depending on how the battle space changes and shifts, depending on what you’re trying to do to the enemy, we were pulling up HLZs that had matting and moving them to another location.  So, it’s movable.  I mean, you can go in, you can pull it out, and move it to a different location.  Put it down, get it certified and use it for further operations.

SLD:    The operation of the V22 and the larger HLZ matting, have you had to change the composition of the top of the matting because of heat of the V22?

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: No, it’s the same non-skid.  We are looking at the possibility that it erodes a little faster with the V-22.

SLD:    It’s the same ballpark.

Chief Warrant Officer Collier: It’s the same non-skid.  Nothing’s changed in the actual composition of the AM-2 or the non-skid.

Lt. Col. Johnson: Dwyer is an outstanding achievement in expeditionary airfield construction. When I say that, it’s one of the largest expeditionary airfields we’ve built. It was initially installed with the assistance of Red Horse, which is the Air Force’s engineering capability.The Marine Wing Support Squadron (MWSS)installed the matting and shortly began generating sorties.  Operations started up utilizing the airstrip for nearly a 1,000 sorties over the first 5-6 weeks.

The broader point is that the expeditionary basing capability is integral to what we do as Aviation Ground Support Marines in support of the ACE and MAGTF Commander.