06/23/2014 by Robbin Laird
When the F-35B goes to England this summer and makes appearances at two air shows, the focus will be upon the plane and its first appearance at a major air show.
But in reality, the focus needs to be on the arrival of the first operational squadron of F-35s, which is embedded in the USMC aviation enterprise at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona.
The squadron is being shaped for its inclusion into the Marine Corps air role via its working relationship with MAWTS.
According to one of the MAWTS officers interviewed for this article via teleconference, the advantage of MAWTS and VMFA 121 working together is crucial for the evolution of the way ahead.
We have developed the infrastructure and process for the standardization of the F-35B within the USMC. We can do this by working directly with the only operational fleet squadron. We can take that forward to future squadrons as they are stood up. We build out a standardized approach.
And we can introduce the rest of the USMC who participates in the exercises at MAWTS about the capabilities of the F-35 and how those capabilities can change how the MAGTF can operate. We can show battalion Marines on the ground how this aircraft is going to enhance their operational capabilities.
As former Deputy Commandant of Aviation, Lt. General (Retired) George Trautman put it:
A key component of our decision to start out in Yuma was driven by the fact Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactic Squadron One, the world’s premier organization for the development and employment of aviation weapons and tactics, is co-located on that base. MAWTS-1 is staffed with individuals of superior aeronautical and tactical expertise who are subject matter experts in every element of the Marine air/ground task force.
In my view, some of the greatest minds in modern aviation reside in that squadron. The commander is one of the best thinkers at the colonel level in the Corps today and his team has been charged by the current Deputy Commandant for Aviation to work with VMFA-121 to speed the development of future tactics and standardization in the F-35.
These two squadrons, operating side-by-side at MCAS Yuma, are going to reap incredible dividends for Marine aviation.
To get a sense of how MAWTS is working with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 121, we had a chance to talk with Major Douglas A. Seich and Major Roger “HASMAT” Greenwood.
Both are Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One instructors. A follow up discussion with Major Noble added further details with regard to the MAWTS working relationship with VMFA in preparing for the introduction of the F-35B into the Marine Corps.
Earlier, in our discussion with Greenwood, the Major highlighted that:
The Marines are in an interesting spot, as we will have the plane first and can provide some insights into how the tactics and operational concepts will change with the plane.
We can provide inputs to our Navy brethren with regard to these developments. We will be leading forward on the impact of the F-35 transition for our sister services.
According to the two MAWTS instructors, the F-35 Department was set up at MAWTS in January 2014. They are the two instructors within the department for now but by the Spring of 2016, MAWTS will be taking its first F-35 students which is anticipated to initially number 2 or 3.
They have been working with others at Yuma and the sister services in shaping the Tactics and Training Manuals, which form an essential part of the standup of a squadron for a new aircraft.
The process is working through the migration of a basic set of training manuals (the 1000 level) to higher levels for the evolution of tactics (6000 and higher) is depicted in the table below.
The Tactics Manuals (which have a classified – 3.1 — and unclassified version – 3.3.) are being worked by MAWTS interacting with the experience of VMFA 121.
Obviously, both manuals are works in progress and will be re-shaped with the operational experiences of the F-35B in combat in the years ahead. Personnel will cycle through from operational squadrons to rewrite and rework the manuals.
Another adjustment will be the shift from the current aviators with combat experience on legacy platforms, to new pilots who will not have that experience.
With the pilots with legacy experience, the challenge is to adapt to the plane, and to rethink operational approaches. With new pilots without that experience, it is not about applying the old to the new, it is about shaping the way ahead with the plane around which they will learn how to fly and fight.
There are different communities within USMC TACAIR, all of which will in the future converge to one platform: the F-35. The Prowler, Harrier and Hornet pilots will now become F-35 pilots.
As one of the MAWTS instructors put it: “The different backgrounds will provide a leg up for each of them in working a specific aspect of the F-35. The Hornet pilots will grasp air to air more rapidly than the other two, and vice-versa.”
The 17 pilots from VMFA 121 fly with the two pilots from MAWTS in interactively shaping evolving tactics for the aircraft as it matures.
According to MAWTS, the 121 squadron has been participating in the exercises run for the Weapons and Tactics Instruction Course (WTI) courses , which are done for training and tactics development. MAWTS does two a year. In these courses, air is working within the MAGTF approach and Marine ground forces participate in the WTI courses as well.
In the Fall of 2013, 121 participated in three WTI events and in the last course during the Spring of 2014, 121 participated in six events. To date the F-35Bs in the WTI events have performed SCAR (strike coordination and reconnaissance), escort and area defense missions.
The current planes are operating with Block 2A software and the Block 2B software arrives later this year for the preparation for the IOC in 2015. What this means is that the plane operating today with MAWTS is more limited than what will come later in the year. While Block 2B is largely a software upgrade, there are some planned hardware mods as well.
The F-35 is operating with other Marine Corps air as the blue team against red aggressors in various exercises.
This means that already the Marines are working the question of 5th generation aircraft working with 4th generation to shape tactics and training for more effective air operations.
This has meant as well that the combat systems on the F-35 have already demonstrated an ability to enhance the impact of F-18s and Harriers on air combat operations.
As one of the MAWTS instructors put it:
We are able to employ the F-35 as a kind of information manger using its combat systems to be able to employ the air ordinance carried by the other airplanes which allows us to conserve our ordinance on the F-35 until we actually need to use it.
This has already led to interesting results when doing things like the defense of Yuma exercise where the F-18s were enabled to do things they can not normally do against incoming USAF aircraft as the Red Force.
In this WTI event – Anti-Air Warfare 2 – the F-35 participated with 4th generation fighters from MAWTS against a Red Force, which included F-15s and F-16s. Because of the F-35’s combat systems, the participating 4th generation fighters were significantly more effective. Right now, the F-35 can be used to generate sensor data, which enhances the capability of the 4th generation fleet, limited by the current need to pass that data via voice means; and the F-35s ability to operate more freely in the battlespace than can 4th generation aircraft.
A key rupture for the USMC ground element is to experience how the combat systems of the F-35 can change their operational approaches as well.
It is not just about flying artillery in support of the Ground Combat Element (GCE); it is a 360-degree flying combat system enabling the GCE. The plane is designed for the intertwined battlefield in which ordinance, C2, ISR, and other assets carried by the F-35 provide swiss army tool sets to support the GCE.
The instructors also discussed the working of the training and tactics approaches of the three services whereby there is convergence, but, of course, differences among the mission sets of the services.
As one of the instructors put it:
We obviously talk regularly with the Air Force and the Navy as we put our manuals together.
It is a good idea to cross-pollinate between the various communities.
We expect our work on Close Air Support to become the gold standard as well as the USAF with regard to shaping air dominance in using the aircraft.
The USAF is going to spend a lot of their time focused on air dominance and they’re going to build those chapters up with more detail than we would typically focus on so we can leverage their work.
Basic training by the three services is different and will persist, yet commonalities will be enhanced.
Another issue is the nature of the F-35 as a multi-role aircraft, combing close-air support (CAS) with air dominance capabilities.
This means that Marine Corps pilots will operate in both modes, and expect to partner closely with the USAF and the USN on these blended mission sets. The Marines for a considerable period of time have focused primarily on CAS but in the evolving strategic environment in order to support the insertion of the MAGTF the role of the F-35 as part of a joint or coalition force establishing air dominance will be enhanced.
And for MAWTS this means shaping both training and tactics manuals, training and exercises, which prepares pilots for this hybrid operational environment.
The Pacific theater is not Afghanistan.
As one MAWTS instructor highlighted: “We have to focus on developing our skill sets for all the roles which the F-35 will be used for, not just CAS.”
Editor’s Note: We are following up with this teleconference interview with a visit to Yuma Marine Corps Air Station in July 2014 with interviews with both the F-35 squadron and MAWTS-1
(See our Special Report on the ACE of the Future: Yuma and Beyond).
A good look at WTI at MAWTS is provided in the following article.
By Cpl. Casey Scarpulla, 4/27/14
YUMA, Ariz. – Hundreds of Marines from units throughout the Corps filled the Sonoran Pueblo club aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., April 27, to see their hard work and dedication come to fruition.
This is the day these Marines have waited 7 long strenuous weeks for – graduation day. After countless 15-hour work days over a span of what may have seemed like an eternity, they have officially graduated from Weapons and Tactics Instructor course 2-14.
Major Brett McGregor, Tactical Air Department Head for Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 and WTI instructor, still remembers how he felt on his graduation day four years ago. “I remember being a student and the feeling was exhaustion on that day. It is also a lot of relief and a lot of pride because they definitely earned it,” said McGregor. “They should be proud of what they’ve done. Seven weeks doesn’t sound long but, when you are here doing it as a student, it is very long and you get a feeling that you don’t quite know what just happened.”
McGregor explained that most students don’t fully understand what they have just accomplished. That feeling sets in once they’ve left Yuma, returned to their units and suddenly regarded differently. They are looked at as a person who is an expert, not only in their area of responsibility, but also in the components and aspects of the Marine Air Ground Task Force as a whole.
“Though the course was just extensive planning, it was an extremely challenging curriculum,” said Capt. Michael Radigan, a pilot with Marine Helicopter Light Attack Training Squadron 303 and WTI 2-14 student. “You get to do and see things that you’ll never get to do in training otherwise. The experiences that I’ve had here will definitely prepare me for any future operations.”
One of the main missions of WTI is to put together a venue where the capabilities of Marine Corps aviation can be maximized. Specifically, what makes Marine Corps aviation very unique and effective, is the ability to integrate all the capabilities into a single goal.
That joint collaboration allows the Marine Corps aviators to execute as part of a MAGTF. “In order to capitalize on all the capabilities that [Marine Corps aviation] has, you have to bring everyone together in one location and plan and execute together,” said McGregor. “As a student, it is not a test to see how good they are at flying their aircraft, it’s a test to see how well you can fight with the MAGTF as a whole; how well you can fit into the team and be effective from the bigger picture.”
Part of the training consists of learning how to execute operations to support the ground units; the pilots become their eye in the sky. For example, when doing the planning for training exercises, the ground combat department at MAWTS-1 is always present to ensure that coordination with the ground units is at the forefront of the pilots’ minds.
“I’ll continue to teach, continue to practice, and instill flying tactically sound, holding the highest standards possible,” said Radigan. “Most important is to remember that the only reason we exist as pilots is to support that guy on the ground.”
During the WTI course there are multiple training evolutions. Different infantry units come here from installations Corps-wide to conduct pre-deployment type training in conjunction with the pilots. This gives both the ground and aviation components a realistic experience of what they may encounter overseas.
“These exercises accomplish pre-deployment training as well as integrating the MAWTS-1 air component to get some training that they probably couldn’t get done otherwise, since there are so many aircraft utilized during the course,” said McGregor. “It’s a great opportunity for both sides to get some really good training accomplished.”
Twice a year, during WTI, over 4,000 augments arrive on station to participate in the course. To support this population explosion and enable WTI to run smoothly, station personnel put in hundreds, if not thousands, of behind-the-scenes hours.
“We bring in augment [WTI] instructors and other additional augments for duties to make this place run,” said McGregor. “Gate guards, chow hall, combat camera, maintainers, explosive ordnance people, that’s just the tip of the iceberg of examples of who is brought in from other bases in support of WTI.”
One of the key components that make this course a success is the support the station receives during WTI from the local community. “We get a lot of community support where everybody thinks this is a good idea and that this is a good experience not only for us but for them,” said McGregor. “It’s also really hard to find good training space like this these days. We have all this open area to work with in all the ranges.”
Graduating from the course is a great honor that only a handful of service members have the opportunity to accomplish; especially since students must be selected in order to attend the course. The Marine selected is generally someone who has excelled in the Marine Corps, is good at their particular job, and has shown the capacity to train. The WTI instructors are building these students into capable instructors; sharing knowledge and expertise. These students were identified by their command as someone who has the potential to make their unit better when they return.
Preparation is key; studying and training are essential in the weeks before coming to the WTI course. “You need to show up ready. What we tell the Marines when they check in is that this is a marathon of an event; it takes a lot of effort to get through, you have to pace yourself,” said McGregor. “Before coming you have to have a basic level of preparation or else you are going to fall out on mile seven of the run.”
As for the future of WTI and MAWTS-1, the course as a whole will remain similar to the present curriculum. In about 2 years, MAWTS-1 expects their first F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter pilots to participate in the course.