Second Line of Defense had a chance to sit down with one of the two Harrier squadron commanders aboard the USS Kearsarge during the Bold Alligator 2012 exercise. Earlier, we discussed with Lt. Col. Hermley, Commanding Officer, Marine Attack Squadron 231, MCAS, Cherry Point, and the approach to be followed in BA-12.
In the earlier interview, Lt. Col. Hermley compared his experience aboard the Kearsarge during Libya with what he expected to see during the Exercise. In the follow-up interview, Hermley spoke of the experience in BA-12 and its impact on the way ahead.
SLD: Could you discuss the challenges associated with the exercise?
Lt. Col. Hermley: The big challenge was to put an entire MEB afloat and to execute a landing. Another challenge was to put two Harrier squadrons on the Kearsarge and to operate that ship with two other large deck amphibs plus the CVs. And of course, the biggest challenge was to put this all together and to operate within the same operational air and sea space.
With regard to the Kearsarge, the challenge was to work the well deck operations and assault support aircraft to insert the landing forces and to operate two squadrons of Harriers off of the same ship. Operating the two squadrons, plus getting the ship’s company and the deck crew to work together seamlessly was a big challenge.
We also had a lot of young aircrew and enlisted Marines in the squadron. When I asked, “Who has NEVER operated aboard a ship before?”, almost every hand in the squadron went up.
SLD: What other challenges emerged in executing BA-12?
Lt. Col. Hermley: A key challenge was trying to balance a distance from shore that supports both air strikes with 16 Harriers and the landing forces inserted by surface means from the ships’ well deck. For the latter, the ship was closer to shore than is ideal from the air strike perspective.
Another challenge was the close operational quarters of the large deck amphibs. Each of these ships is trying to maneuver in very close quarters and remain within their sea space because they need to stage close to the beach to support surface movement to shore.
The tower’s airspace to control takeoffs and landings for the large deck amphibs is a five-mile bubble. When you put the ships into close operational quarters, it is a real challenge to de-conflict air traffic as you are closing toward shore in order to phase troops ashore via amphibious craft or rotary wing aircraft.
The weather came into play as well. We like to point into the wind when we take off and land, as all aircraft pretty much do. Managing that is more difficult with the Harrier because we typically like to have a lot of wind down the deck for takeoff, so we can take off as heavy as possible.
And then, we want less wind for landing. There’s a lot of speeding up and slowing down to help accommodate that need to enhance performance for the landing and takeoff.
Because we had married the ships very closely together, we stopped flight ops a few times, because we needed to get overlapping tower airspace sorted out.
The previous Bold Alligator exercise was simulated, but until you actually do the live ops, you are not going to see those problems up front and sort through the solution sets in real time.
SLD: The exercise certainly highlighted the need as one shifts from ARG-MEU operations to ESG-MEB operations to get better C2 and Air Traffic Control capabilities aboard the large deck amphibs. It is different when you are managing the force of three ships versus many more ships and their combat elements.
Lt. Col. Hermley: I absolutely agree with you. It is a question of getting the proficiencies right for the air traffic control piece. And we could have used more time to work through the ATC parts of the challenge. The close proximity of the large deck amphibs, the level of proficiency from an airspace control standpoint as well as some radar degradation issues were elements of the problem. We need improved systems to reduce that risk that’s inherent in an ESG-MEB sized operations and have backup systems that can give us a bigger picture and better integration.
Flight deck manning is another issue. We are currently limited to a ten-hour flight window. The problem was managing the flow of ship ops and air ops, which made that flight window a constraint. We needed to manage that ten-hour fly window to match all the competing priorities, and that’s where it becomes a challenge, notably for nighttime ops, where you may want to operate most of your strike assets. But during the day you want to do some other things, movement between ships and that kind of thing.
The result was that we were not able to execute the sortie generation rate we would want to do to maximize offensive air support effectiveness..
And we did not really integrate operations with the large deck carrier. They were a significant distance of 70-80 miles from us, which probably gave them a lot more beneficial maneuver space. But working with the land based Hornets out of Beaufort, SC, that sortie actually went extremely well.
SLD: There is a significant challenge moving forward from the ARG-MEU mindset and culture to the ESG-MEB approach.
Lt. Col. Hermley: There is indeed. If we were to insert the F-35B into the current situation WITHOUT changes in the mindset on both the blue and green side, it will run into the same problems that we’ve had when we operate fixed wing jets of off a large deck amphibs. In effect, you need to adopt some of the techniques and procedures that are in the mindset of a big deck carrier to the evolving situation for the large deck amphibs.
SLD: How would you see the way ahead from the point of view of a squadron leader?
Lt. Col. Hermley: Most of our experience, whether it be on the Marine side or the Navy side, is with the ARG-MEU. That is where experience lies, and we’re constantly at sea going out, operating and executing along those lines.
Breaking that mold of the ARG-MEU cultural mindset will be important. Three big deck amphibs can actually bring to the fight a different type of capability.
This exercise was very good in helping us realize that we can’t just do business like we normally do on a MEU, and just make it bigger. Some of the challenges that we ran into, whether it be airspace control, or sea space control, or just working the battle rhythm on the deck itself and working through the flight window, and setting priorities, we realized that the ESG-MEB is not just a ARG-MEU on steroids. It’s much more than that. It is much more capable, and we can be smart about how to leverage the increased numbers and qualities of the assets to gain full capabilities out of what we had out there.