Shaping a New Approach to Force Insertion: The San Clemente Island Exercise


2014-04-21 The evolution of USMC concepts of operations under the influence of the proliferation of the numbers and experience with the Osprey has been significant.

It is clearly to be anticipated that a similar experience will unfold, as the F-35B becomes part of the MAGTF in the decade ahead.

For the Marines, air power is part of the MAGTF, or put in simple terms, a key force allowing force insertion – built around the ground combat element – to occur in a diversity of settings and situations.  The reach and range of the Osprey has redefined operational dynamics at sea, from the sea and for land operations, including rethinking basic functions such as CASEVAC ops.

A key way to understand the difference between legacy approaches and evolving ones is to contrast a rotocraft enabled ground force with a tiltrotor and fast jet enabled force.

A rotorcraft enabled ground force is operating within the operational box of the rotorcraft range as well as the operating bases to support the operationsof the helicopter.  At sea this meant that the USN-USMC team operated within a 200 square mile operational area with a three ship task force.

With the tiltrotor and fast jet combination, the capability to disperse and aggregate force over a much larger area has become a reality. 

At sea, this has meant that the USN-USMC team can now operate with a disaggregated three ship task force covering more than 1000 miles in operational reach.

The addition of the F-35B will add “tron warfare” capabilities as well as new ISR capabilities to the USMC insertion force as well, and the Marines are preparing for the initial introduction of such capabilities next year.


The impact of the reach and range of the pairing of Ospreys with KC-130Js has led to the emergence of a new force construct, the Special Purpose MAGTF Crisis Response capability.

We have followed the SP-MAGTF CR from its inception to recent operations in South Sudan.

As the ACE Commander of the SP-MAGTF commented in December 2013:

The ACE commander, Lt. Col. Freeland, who has been trained as both a CH-46 and a MV-22 pilot, said there is a paradigm shift due to the juxtaposition of the expeditionary vertical-landing capability of the V-22—especially useful if a runway or an airfield is not available or if it is necessary to land near the target—and the long legs brought by the KC-130J is able to generate on the theater.

“Both the MV-22 and KC-130J have worked together before in the past, but the way we are teaming them here is a little different: I think one of the best analogies is the tank-infantry team concept,” said Freeland. “We now share the whole mission together: It is shared mission management, shared functional responsibilities within the same flight. Such a change is not overly difficult, but it is different, and we are expanding tactics, techniques and procedures to leverage the unique capabilities of each airframe.

The Operational Reach of the SP-MAGTF SR. Credit Graphic: SLD
The Operational Reach of the SP-MAGTF SR. Credit Graphic: SLD

“You have, on the one hand, one V-22 aircraft going a distance, a good one but nothing incredible—let’s say 350 miles—and land vertically anywhere, and you have, on the other hand, one KC-130J which can fly thousands of miles, but [has] to land on a runway: Now you put the two of them together, and you can take this team thousands of miles away and land anywhere. This is a very significant paradigm change. We bring agility and task organize the Ground Combat Element to go anywhere we need to quickly.”

The work we have been doing traditionally in Africa has been done off amphibious shipping,” Col Benedict added. “We would send a ship up and down the coast, and we would operate. So, this is the same idea that we would not have a permanent presence, but different aircraft. The capability that we have now is unique, as this pairing of the MV-22 and the KC-130J gives us the type of ranges that is necessary to be able to operate in Southern Europe, while still being able to reach all the operational areas that are necessary in Africa. That is what I meant by bringing together the old and the new, because when the Marine Corps was envisioning bringing the V-22 forward as a capability, we envisioned this kind of distance to employ the force.

“We just have not been [until now] in a position to take advantage or to have to use that capability. In this particular mission and with this particular force in the area we are responsible for, we are employing the V-22, the KC-130J and a task-organized ground force at the distances we envisioned when this aircraft was designed. That is revolutionary.”

A notional understanding of the impact in terms of operational reach can be seen in the following graphic which correlates missions – training or operational – which the SP-MAGTF based for now in Spain has undergone and the operational reach which the force has demonstrated to date.

This operational dynamic obviously has nothing to do with a traditional rotorcraft enabled force.

But it is not just about reach and range; it is about empowering the insertion force to become much more effective as well.

The Marines are engaged in a series of exercises to re-shape the capability of the ground combat element to operate with much greater situational awareness prior to disembarking from the Ospreys for a mission. 

This is also required because of the amount of time the GCE might have on the Osprey prior to disembarking compared with the much more limited time scale for a rotorcraft insertion.

Talon Reach: December 2013

We reported on a raid exercise performed in December 2013 which tested out new ways to engage the force.

The exercise was called TALON REACH and was the culminating event for IOC Class 1-14.  This event was conducted under one period of darkness between 29 Palms California and Ft Hood Texas.

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 is built around innovation being generated by the working relationship between the infantry and aviation communities in the USMC.

Hendricks focused on  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.

And this most recent experiment is really only the tip of the iceberg so to speak.  Given that the Ospreys are paired with KC-130Js there is no inherent reason that the bigger planes cannot carry mission planning and management support systems. And as the Harvest Hawk configured C-130s return from Afghanistan, these planes could be used as the lead element in the insertion of a long-range insertion package as well.

The next iteration of the exercise took place last month.

Operating from the training base in Twentynine Palms and landing on San Clemente Island off of California, approximately 100 students from the Infantry Officer Course in Quantico flew aboard Ospreys to the simulated test area to eliminate cruise missile threats and take back an airfield from enemy forces.

The exercise was conducted by the Infantry Officer Course paired with Ospreys from VMX-22 and multiple 3D MAW squadrons.

The Ospreys were accompanied by a specially configured Osprey with an airborne communication gateway with a Wi-Fi network that linked the tablets carried by the squads riding in the Ospreys.  The KC-130Js flew as facilitators of the raid and in support.

Finally, the Cat Bird, the F-35 surrogate sensor aircraft, which operated its sensor sent real time information about the objective area to the Marines en route to the objective area. The information shared included maps, images from the strike aircraft, as well as text messaging among the ground force element aboard the Ospreys.

The F-35s provided the capability to eliminate the ground missile threats and allowed a distributed company to be inserted to do their job.

In other words, the Osprey carried the force; the F-35 surrogate providing the cover which could insert the force more effectively. 

Such an approach has NOTHING to do with the classic thinking of how a rotorcraft force would approach the challenge of ground force insertion into air enabled contested areas.

Col Orr on the San Clemente Exercise

To better understand the approach and the way ahead in USMC innovation, we spoke with the CO of VMX-22, Col. Michael Orr and will be following up with the head of the Infantry Officer Course (IOC) as well.

Orr underscored that the organizational innovation of VMX-22 working with the IOC was a key element in shaping an approach to technological innovation in shaping an insertion force operating at greater distance than before. As mentioned above, the Cat Bird, the F-35 surrogate, as well as KC-130Js for tanking and Harriers and F-18s for close air support operated with the force.

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. 

The Osprey has an extraordinary capability to operate in a variety of ways in an objective area to perform the basic landing zone task.  What the enhanced SA linked with its operational flexibility is to enhance the ability to manage the risk of the initial insertion of force.

Col. Orr highlighted that the evolving approach is correlated with the changing strategic environment as well.

We are overlaying this technology capability over some difficult challenges we face with area denial weapons. 

How do we empower a distributed force  to operate in a disputed force area characterized by significant area denial weapons?

Col. Orr discussed how the various elements in the exercise worked together.

“he F-35 surrogate opened the door to provide the initial cover for the force insertion. 

We data linked the information from the F-35 through secure Wi-Fi technology to the ground and air assets.

The raid force had access to tablets where the information was presented in a “user friendly” graphical format. 

They could see what was happening in real time and react to in the changing tactical situation to enabled ecision-making and changes in the scenario.

With streaming video and real time interactive chat, we are changing significantly the threat information upon which the insertion force is operated.

We have an Osprey-enabled force of a small company empowered by information directly from the F-35 or other airborne sensors, and can make decisions directly from that information.

Marines conduct patrols through the night during the Infantry Officer’s Course aboard San Clemente Island, Calif., Mar. 24. The Marines patrolled a total of 23 km before taking the final objective during the course. Credit: Marine Corps Air Station Miramar / 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, 3/24/14
Marines conduct patrols through the night during the Infantry Officer’s Course aboard San Clemente Island, Calif., Mar. 24. The Marines patrolled a total of 23 km before taking the final objective during the course. Credit: Marine Corps Air Station Miramar / 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, 3/24/14

In effect, one is trying to maximize decision-making superiority for the initial insertion of force into a fluid battlespace.

Notably, the Marine Corps is preparing for its entry into service by the F-35B and building technology out into the direction of the inclusion of the F-35B into the MAGTF 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.

With regard to security, Col. Orr emphasized the time urgent nature of the information being generated in flight to support the mission.  The security question is important but not should be confused with the security of long term data in servers supporting an intelligence community.  This is perishable, rapidly changing data and as such the security challenge is SIGNIFICANTLY different than the security of a data farm.

The cluster within the air combat cloud is the operative element enabling the insertion force.

Col. Orr argued,

Our thinking on information assurance is changing. 

We assume that we don’t have 100% long term security of the data. 

Security is a relative term; I need accurate information for the most critical phase of the operation and have to operate on this more rapidly than the adversary or his ability to operate on that data.

Much of the information being provided is fleeting and temporal. 

Our understanding of information assurance needs to consider this basic combat reality.

Note: The video above is credited to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar / 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing and is dated 4/9/14.

 [slidepress gallery=’san-clemente’]

Credit: Marine Corps Air Station Miramar / 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing:03/24/2014

  • In the first photo, Marines conduct patrols through the night during the Infantry Officer’s Course aboard San Clemente Island, Calif., Mar. 24. The Marines patrolled a total of 23 km before taking the final objective during the course.
  • In the second photo, Marines employ the Wasp Micro Air Vehicle to scout ahead to inform the Marines of potential threats during the Infantry Officer’s Course aboard San Clemente Island, Calif., Mar. 24.
  • In the third photo, 2nd Lt. Kyle Olson, an Infantry Officer’s Course student, utilizes a tablet to communicate with his Marines in real time during the Infantry Officer’s Course aboard San Clemente Island, Calif., Mar. 24. Olson patrolled with his Marines 23km before taking the final objective.

For earlier pieces on Talon Reach see the following: