Give it to the Operators


2014-07-28 By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

Far from the PR fighting fields of Farnbourgh, the USMC is preparing for a significant upsurge in the combat capability of the Navy Marine air/Ground expeditionary force.

The first Squadron destined for initial operational capability (IOC) of the F-35B, are the “Green Knights” of VMFA-121 at MCAS Yuma.

The aviators and maintainers of this storied squadron are working to bring to the first F-35B Squadron into service next year.

Historically it is interesting to note that VMF-121 was activated in June 1941 and began flying air ground combat missions in August 1942, with the “Cactus Air Force” on Guadalcanal.

The Green Knights made Marine aviation history with fourteen aces, including the legendary Joe Foss CMH so IOC means just that, ready for combat.

With the aviation world focused on the Farnbourgh air show, we visited  Marine Corps Air station Yuma and talked with the two squadrons working the F-35B into reality, VMFA-121 and Marine Aviation Weapons Training Squadron One (MAWTS-1).

Mimicking the USMC strategy of taking its fighting force to the point of attack where the enemy isn’t, we made the trip to Yuma to get updated on the IOC of the plane and progress on its integration into the USMC.

A squadron F-35B seen at Yuma on July 16, 2014. Credit Photo: Second Line of Defense
A squadron F-35B seen at Yuma on July 16, 2014. Credit Photo: Second Line of Defense

Their approach for an earlier template of innovation can seen with the dramatic changes associated with the Osprey.

As Lt. Col. Boniface, an MV-22 Squadron CO, said about his effort-“there will be a Tsunami of change.”

And now the Osprey has made Marines the only tiltrotar enabled assault force in the world.

With the combination of the Osprey and the F-35B a fighting force of Marine infantry will be able to go at range and distances of over a thousand miles of reach.

This is a unique 21st century, combat capability

The key to the future, as demonstrated at Yuma is to put the F-35B in the hands of the operators.

Already, the pilots of VMFA-121 are working very closely with USAF pilots as the Air Force prepares for its IOC in 2016.

The USN is clearly involved but with less sense of urgency.

As Major Summa, the Executive Officer of VMFA-121 put it in an interview during our visit: “Working with the other service pilots provides an important window on where we want to go with the concepts of operations of the aircraft.  We have different backgrounds, Harrier, F-18s, F-16s, F-22s, and F-15s, but we understand that given the commonality of the aircraft these different backgrounds suggest common ways ahead. We are all able to contribute to the way ahead for a common aircraft.”

And already some very different ways of operating are suggesting themselves.  Historically, there is a one to one relationship between combat aircraft and mission support aircraft in doing certain types of initial insertion missions.  The Major highlighted that “with the F-35 and its combination of stealth and fused combat missions we can reduce dramatically the need for mission support aircraft in initial operations. For example, a non-kinetic electronic warfare option is one button push away.”

The co-location of VFMA-121 with MAWTS-1 is an important part of the introduction of the aircraft.  While VFMA-121 is preparing the aircraft for IOC, MAWTS-1 is responsible for the tactics and training for USMC aviation.  F-35, MAWTS instructors are flying with VFMA-121 to shape evolving concepts of how to standardize fleet operations for the new aircraft.

As a former CO of MAWTS-1 and now the Commanding General of 2nd Marine Air Wing, Major General Robert Hedelund put it in a recent interview: “VFMA-121 will figure out how to kill the enemy more effectively and MAWTS will standardize the approach.”

This combat learning cycle will go on and on as long as F-35s are in the inventory.  Clearly, USMC experience will be informed by the pilots and operators of other services, including allied partners as they will inform their joint and coalition partners. It is an interactive combat learning cycle with deadly success on the line.

Again, an earlier focus on synergy between operators and evolving concepts of operations is underscored by recent successful Osprey combat experience. The Osprey is not a replacement for the CH-46 just as the F-35 is not a replacement for the Harrier or F-18; it is a new page of aviation combat.

It may have taken awhile for the Osprey to enter into service but it has revolutionized USMC operations, the tiltrotar assault force changed the operational range of the entire Amphibious Ready Group-Marine Expeditionary Group (ARG/MEU). A MV-22 enabled infantry force can now cover more than a 1,000 miles engaging in combat operations and also as seen in Odyssey Dawn execute an unprecedented TRAP mission.

Changes will become even more dramatic when the new generation pilots become the operators of the fleet.

In an interview when he was the CO of 2nd MAW with the now Deputy Commandant of Aviation, Lt. General Davis he referred to the new generation pilots as the I-Pad generation pilots.

And what I really look forward to is not the old guys like me, but the very young guys who will fly this fantastic new capability. 

The older generation may have a harder time unleashing the power and potential of the new gear – the new capabilities. 

We might say “why don’t you do it this way” when that approach might be exactly the wrong thing to do from a capabilities standpoint.

The newbies that are in the training command right now that are getting ready to go fly the F35, who are going to unleash the capabilities of this jet. 

They will say, “Hey, this is what the system will give me.  Don’t cap me; don’t box me.

We have already seen this with the Osprey; the pilots who have only operated Ospreys working with infantry instructors don’t think the same as an older generation.

Anyone who thinks that this is a decade of treading in place in military capabilities for American forces is missing the transformation of the USMC and its interactive impact on the joint and coalition forces.

The Marines are part of a nascent F-35 global enterprise and their approach to innovation will infuse the enterprise with considerable dynamism.

Editor’s Note: The interview with Lt. Col. Boniface was done two years ago and the video was shot at that time.

A version of this article has been published by Defense News, July 28, 2014.

And it appeared as well in Marine Corps Times: