By Robbin Laird
The significant change in USMC aviation since the introduction of the Osprey has set in motion fundamental changes overall in USMC capabilities and concepts of operations.
In the past decade, the Osprey has matured as a combat platform and fostered significant change in concepts of operations. No less than the virtual end of the ARG-MEU and the shaping of a new approach to amphibious warfare and shaping new concepts of operations for dealing with peer competitors is underway.
With the end of the primary focus upon the land wars, the Osprey and changes to the attack and support helicopter fleets, have changed how the Marines can operate in a combat space. The revolution in tiltrotor technology, and the much more effective integration of the Yankee and Zulu class helicopters, have allowed the Marines to have a smaller logistical footprint in covering a wider combat space.
Enter the F-35B.
With the coming of the F-35B and the impact of the template of change laid down by the Osprey, with its range and speed, together they are driving significant change in distributed operational combat capability. This capability has been not only reinforced, but is being taken to the next level.
Now with CNI-enabled aircraft with 360-degree situational awareness, a Marine Corps MAGTF can deploy with an integrated EW-ISR-C2-weapons carrier and trigger which can form the backbone for enabling an insertion force.
In other words, the 2010s have seen the maturing of the tiltrotar revolution being combined with the arrival of fifth generation capabilities.
And the Marines are the only combat force in the world with cutting edge integration of these new capabilities within the overall combat force.
The success of the 2010s has fostered change in how the USMC was able to operate as a crisis management force.
Those successes provide as well the tip of the spear for the innovations of the 2020s.
Now the challenge is full spectrum crisis management which requires a force capable in operating in contested air and sea space and with an ability to provide more effective engagement as an integrated distributed force.
It is clear that USAF and US Navy as well as the US Army are shifting from their legacy forces which operated in the land wars of the 2010s, to working on becoming an integrated distributed force in which multi-domain operations and tactical decision making at the edge is a core focus of effort and attention.
Yet there is some confusion in the analytical literature over where the Marines are headed with regards to their next round of innovation. For many the focus is upon a more traditional approach to crisis management rather than realizing that the strategic shift is to full spectrum crisis management.
Some analysts have argued that the Commandant’s New Guidance is really the end of the crisis management Marines in favor of becoming part of the Navy’s overall combat force.
Others see the changes in the US Army has encompassing changes which the Marines have made to subsume Marine Corps capabilities and to displace them.
As the Army shifts to buying, deploying and adapting to a new generation of high speed helicopters, some see this as the inevitable outcome.
But in fact, the world has changed.
Doing crisis management against adversaries which posses significant strike and defense capabilities clearly requires shaping a more lethal and effective distributed force.
And in such a world, sea-basing integrated with an ability to use flexible land basing is a core capability from which the U.S. and its core allies can gain an operational advantage.
It also provides enhanced capability to do offensive-defensive operations with a distributed yet integrated force.
In his guidance, General Burger, the Commandant of the USMC, speaks of the growing importance of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations or EABO. “We are going to build a force that can do EABO opposed to building an EABO force.”1
When you couple this with the opportunity to combine the use of the fleet (amphibious, surface, subsurface, USVs and UUVs) with islands and allied territory (certainly not only already operational bases), the challenge will be to integrate these capabilities, sea-basing, manned and unmanned, with land bases, temporary or more permanent. Part of the challenge will be to be able to establish Forward Arming and Refueling Points or FARPs and to fold those into the integrated distributed force.
(This shift is a crucial one and requires further focus of attention. We will address the challenge of co-joining sea base with mobile land basing in a separate piece.)
Also crucial, is to shape C2 mesh networks which can combine distributed forces into a coherent combat force and operate at the tactical edge.
USMC Aviation Innovations for the 2020s
The projected additions of USMC aviation assets in the decade ahead clearly can provide key capabilities to enable this transition, much like the changes of the past decade put the Marines into this position in the first place.
Three key additions are crucial to this evolution.
The first is the addition of the CH-53K.
Without an effective heavy lift asset, an ability to operate form the seabase or to established distributed FARPS in the operational window for an integrated distributed force, the Commandant’s strategy will be undercut. The CH-53K will provide a key element of being able to carry equipment and/or personnel to the objective area. And with its ability to carry three times the external load of the CH-53E and to be able to deliver the external load to different operating bases, the aircraft will contribute significantly to distributed operations.
But the digital nature of the aircraft, and the configuration of the cockpit is a key part of its ability to contribute as well. The aircraft is a fly-by-wire system with digital interoperability built in. And with multiple screens in the cockpit able to manage data in a variety of ways, the aircraft can operate as a lead element, a supporting element or a distributed integrated support node to the insertion force.
A key change associated with the new digital aircraft, whether they are P-8s or Cyclone ASW helicopters, is a different kind of workflow. The screens in the aircraft can be configured to the task and data moved throughout the aircraft to facilitate a mission task-oriented work flow.
In the case of the CH-53K, the aircraft could operate as a Local Area Network for an insertion task force, or simply as a node pushing data back into the back where the Marines are operating MAGTBs.
Marines carrying MAGTBs onboard the CH-53K will be able to engage with the task force to understand their role at the point of insertion. The K as a digital aircraft combined with the digital transformation of the Marines create a very different ground force insertion capability.
The second is the addition of new and more capable unmanned assets to empower the force, and to provide for the proactive ISR which the integrated distributed force needs to enhance their operational effectiveness.
VADM Brown, the Commander of the Naval Surface Force, Pacific, has recently underscored how adding unmanned assets and their integration is a key part of the navy’s fleet transformation for the decade ahead.
From providing intelligence to acting as a decoy to firing missiles on a target passed from another ship, Brown said he has a good idea of what USVs could bring to the fight, and his command is working on finalizing concepts of operations for U.S. Fleet Forces Command and for Congress.
“I think it’s well within the possibility that we’ll fight fleet on fleet with unmanned surface vessels deep into that fight,” he said, calling it a fundamental change to how the fleet fights akin to the introduction of carrier-based aviation to a battleship-centric fleet ahead of World War II.
It is clear that the Marine Corps is thinking along similar lines, and a major aviation contributor in the next decade is likely to be the MAGTF Unmanned eXpeditionary or MUX.
According to Richard Whittle in a 2016 Breaking Defense article:
“Lt. Gen. Jon “Dog” Davis, deputy Marine commandant for aviation, has said the Corps wants the MUX to do everything the Air Force’s fixed-wing MQ-9 Reaper drone can do and more. The Reaper, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ derivative of their MQ-1 Predator, offers airborne endurance in the 20-hour range; carries sensors to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); and is typically armed with four AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles and four 500-pound guided bombs.
“Barranco said what the Marines primarily want the MUX to do is, when an assault is being mounted, “go ahead of you, get over the target area, show you that picture, stay there once troops are on the ground, and when you have to go back, be there when you come to resupply, be there when you come back, to do close air support, give you that persistent SA (situational awareness).” Escorting Ospreys to and from objective areas would sacrifice the ability to loiter over the target area, he said, but the MUX “can be a gap-filler temporarily for the seven or eight years until FVL starts coming on line to be our manned solution to provide escort in support of our Ospreys.”
“Davis has said a relay of MUX could also serve as an airborne “picket line” around ships, which is one reason Bell Helicopter has named a tiltrotor drone it is offering for the job “V-247,” pronounced “vee-twenty-four-seven” to emphasize the potential for round-the-clock operations….
The third is further progress in shaping the digital integration of the force so that distributed operations can be more effective in contested environments.
The significant changes in C2 and ISR capabilities, integration and distribution is many ways the 6th generation rather than being a new aircraft. For the Marines, working digital interoperability has been a high priority as they prepared for the shift from the land wars to engaging in contested multi-domain operations.
This is not a thing but an enabler of integrated distributed operations. At the International Fighter Conference 2019, Lt. General David Nahom, Director of Strategic Plans and Programs, for the USAF, underscored that a core focus in shaping the evolution of USAF airpower was upon joint all-domain command and control. He argued that “we are building the high-speed highway on which to put the trucks.”
But as Lt. General (Retired) David Deptula put it, “I personally don’t think the “highway” and “trucks” analogy is that valuable as it implies that aircraft are nothing more than “trucks,” when in fact they are the enablers of the “highway.” That is your point on F-35. The point that should be emphasized is that modern aircraft are not the “trucks” as aircraft were used in the last century—they are much more.”
This is very much the USMC approach where legacy, and new aircraft are being shaped to operate in ways that allow the force to be distributed into discrete combat packages but integrated to the point of combat effect.
According to the USMC 2019 Aviation Plan:
“Digital interoperability is the seamless integration of digital systems and exchange of data, across all domains and networks throughout the MAGTF, naval, joint, and coalition forces, to include communication in degraded or denied environments, to rapidly share accurate information, provide greater situational awareness, accelerate the kill chain, and enhance survivability in order to outmaneuver and defeat the threat across the ROMO….
“The Marine Corps executes mission threads primarily as an integrated MAGTF organized to support the Marine rifleman. The integration of the MAGTF and the successful execution of mission threads relies on the effective exchange of critical information; communication therefore, whether in the form of electronic data or voice, is critical to the exchange of mission essential information….
“We continue to pursue integration and data exchange throughout various arenas: situational awareness; aircraft survivability; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR); fire support; and logistics by conducting continuous and iterative analysis of ever evolving information exchange requirements (IERs) and the technological tools needed to satisfy those requirements.”
In short, the progress in USMC aviation of the past decade is a prologue to the Commandant’s 2019 guidance.
Its progress in the 2020s will enable its realization.
The featured photo shows a UH-1Y Huey takes off alongside an AH-1W Super Cobra during a training exercise testing a digital interoperability system at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., July 24, 2015.
Digital interoperability is the technology capable of increasing prowess on the battlefield.
The exercise included Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 467, Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 2, and U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Special Operations Command, testing a LINK 16 conversion system for one of the first times within an explicitly rotary-wing exercise. August 12, 2015.
The role of maritime remotes in shaping proactive ISR was highlighted in a discussion with Robert Slaven, formerly of the Australian Navy and now with L3Harris.