Marine leaders are very aware that a future conflict with China would be extremely difficult due to the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Any confrontation could demand the ability to hop from island to island in order to be able to disrupt the Chinese military's ability to defend their own territorial claims. The Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger, has made a priority of making the Corps a more flexible and agile force with the ability to quickly set up in a contested environment, strike a target, and move on before getting attacked, or stay with the ability to defend a remote outpost for a period of time.
With the Commandant's vision in mind, aviation assets from the U.S. Marine Corps' 3rd Marine Air Wing (MAW), based outside of San Diego, conducted their annual Winter Fury exercise during the first few weeks of February. Winter Fury is the largest Marine aviation exercise on the West Coast and allows the 3rd MAW to execute Wing-level Aviation Combat Element (ACE) warfighting by testing and stressing emerging concepts in support of Force Design 2030. This wide-spanning initiative lays out Berger’s vision of divesting older equipment and using new technologies and warfighting concepts to keep the USMC relevant and at the front of the fight.
Far removed from the counter-insurgency operations of the prior two decades, Winter Fury '22 focused on interoperability in a contested maritime environment against a modern peer-state adversary and showcased the Marine Corps' shift to getting ready for a possible confrontation in the Pacific. It included F-35Bs flying against stealthy F-117 aggressors, executing mock long-range strikes up in Washington State, seizing an airfield, making rapid runway repairs, and other unique training events that have never been seen before.
When you look at a map of the Indo-Pacific region and realize that U.S. bases on Guam and Okinawa are over 1,500 miles from some of the contested islands in the South China Sea, then training for long-range strikes becomes vitally important. Winter Fury '22 started off with three MV-22Bs flying to the snow-covered Grant County Municipal Airport in Moses Lake, Washington from MCAS Miramar just outside of San Diego. After securing the airfield and setting up a perimeter, F-35Bs from VMFA-211 took off from Yuma for the 1,100-mile journey to Washington which included aerial refueling from KC-130Js.
With a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) set up, the F-35s were refueled on the ground and were reloaded with AIM-120 air-to-air missiles and headed out to the range for a local mission before making their return flight to Yuma that same day. A FARP is a key component of expeditionary advanced base operations (EABO) as it allows the Marine Corps to refuel and rearm in a distributed combat environment. The USMC website describes EABO as “a form of expeditionary warfare that involves the employment of mobile, low-signature, operationally relevant, and relatively easy to maintain and sustain naval expeditionary forces from a series of austere, temporary locations ashore or inshore within a contested or potentially contested maritime area in order to conduct sea denial, support sea control, or enable fleet sustainment.”
Lt. Col. Andrew D'Ambrogi is the commanding officer of VMFA-211 and talked to The War Zone about the exercise. He just came off a deployment that saw him take his 10 F-35Bs on a historic voyage that had them operating on China's doorstep. He stated, “We looked across all spectrums of Marine aviation during Winter Fury. From assault support to Tac Air (tactical air) missions, we specifically worked both defensive and offensive counter-air missions as well as escort packages where we were the sweeper in some and sometimes we were the actual striker. Integrating on the blue [friendly] side, we had F-35s and F/A-18s, as well as Canadian F/A-18s, that came down and participated. The red air consisted of some commercial red-air as well as F-5s from 401 (VMFAT-401) and some F-35s and F/A-18s and others.”
Speaking about some of the long-range strike missions, he D'Ambrogi said “211 got to participate in the long-range strike missions and there is a huge logistics footprint to it. We moved from Yuma with four F-35Bs and hit a KC-130J about halfway up to Washington State to go to the FARP. We put four F-35Bs and four Hornets into the FARP. We got gas and did a hot reload of weapons which were AIM-120s because it was an offensive counter-air strike mission. We went to the Whiskey 291 area [off Southern California] in the Pacific and executed about a 90-minute vul [time on mission task] before returning to Yuma. From the time the pilot strapped into the jet till they landed back at Yuma, it was about 8 hours.”
VMFA-211 hasn't slowed down coming off the successful deployment on HMS Queen Elizabeth. As D'Ambrogi told The War Zone, “One of the great things about being a Marine is the dynamic operations that we do. We are not being pigeonholed into doing one thing or another. With the F-35B, I can operate from long runways or short ones. I can land on a short runway into a FARP or I can land vertically on the boat. One of the takeaways looking back on our deployment was the fact that we landed on four different kinds of ships. We took gas on all of them so as we look to extend the range of the F-35 and get back into the fight faster, this ability is great.”
“During Winter Fury the F-35 success against red air was eye-watering and so using high-end red air threats to train against is important. We need to be ready for the high-end, low-observable [stealth] threats. On our deployment, we worked with VFA-147 on the USS Carl Vinson which was flying the F-35C. The integration was completely seamless. Even integrating with 617 [the UK F-35B squadron] on the Queen Elizabeth was completely seamless. It was a game-changer to take the aircraft to the Pacific.”
Yuma-based F-35Bs of the Marine fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 225 “Vikings” also got into the action and deployed to MCAS Miramar for the exercise. They were seen flying against the F-117 forward-deployed to MCAS Miramar (for the second time) in what were described as anti-air warfare missions. Using the F-117 helps Marine pilots prepare to go up against unfamiliar low-observable aircraft like the Chinese J-20, and soon the J-31, as well as cruise missiles. You can read all about this here and here.
According to the Vikings’ Facebook page, the squadron flew against squadrons from sister services as well as from allied nations during the two-week event. The squadron began the transition from the F/A-18D Hornet to the F-35B last year and is working on reaching its initial operating capability (IOC) which will make it capable of executing all core mission tasks of a Marine Fighter Attack Squadron. They will then attempt to take their 10 aircraft onto the boat as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit after a 60-year absence from operating aircraft from a ship.
Since the end of the war in Afghanistan, the USMC and USN seem to be integrating much more for the near-peer fight, leveraging the complementary capabilities of each service. It’s now much more than putting Marines on ships. This was put on display during one of the training events of Winter Fury '22 that saw a USMC MV-22B aircraft deploy a screen of AN/SSQ-53G sonobuoys. This was a first for the Osprey community. It reflects a growing interest of the Corps in being able to assist in anti-submarine missions which typically fall to the U.S. Navy.
Marine Air Group 39, which is made up of two MV-22 and five AH-1Z/UH-1Y squadrons, has been working with Helicopter Strike Maritime Weapons School Pacific over the last several months to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures to leverage the speed and range of the MV-22 to support the Navy in their anti-submarine warfare mission. In a photo released by the military, two MV-22 can be seen flying with an MH-60R in the pacific ocean. One of the MV-22 can be seen with the ramp down deploying the sonobuoys by hand. Just last year, during exercise Sumer fury 21, MAG-39 conducted a similar event with one of its UH-1Y Venoms.
After being hand-launched off of the ramp of the Osprey, the sonobuoy is stabilized and slowed by a parachute before entering the water. Like the UH-1Y, the MV-22 has no equipment on board for hunting submarines — they still need another platform to provide that capability — but both types have the ability to act as force multipliers by seeding sonobuoy screens, which will help the Navy cover larger swathes of the ocean when on the hunt. The sizeable cabin area of the Osprey gives it the ability to carry a larger number of sonobuoys compared to UH-1Ys or MH-60Rs. Leveraging marine aviation assets to help locate enemy submarines will, in some cases, alleviate some of the burdens on the Navy's P-8 and MH-60 communities, and in other cases expand the total force’s ability to find submarines altogether. This is especially critical as China continues to expand its undersea warfare capabilities.
Speaking about MAG-39’s integration with the Navy, its Operations Officer, Major Anthony “McFly” Bradbury, told The War Zone: “the ASW mission is complex and it’s a mission set that is not inherent in Marine Corps’ capabilities. Right now we have a lot of learning going on. What is it and how do we do it? What kind of training do we need? At MAG-39 we are looking at how we can support it and how we can sustain it."
“The MH-60R has a certain capacity of sonobuoys they can carry so if we can help them by putting sonobuoys in the right location then we can enhance their ability to track and target a submarine. As we familiarize ourselves with the munitions the Navy has been using for decades and learn the handling characteristics, it enables us to be able to supply them on[c]e day and that is what EABO is about. Maybe they start forward deploying munitions. We have been dropping smoke grenades out of aircraft to mark targets for a long time so this is not that complex. We are learning more about the mission and the more you learn, the more you realize what you can and cannot do.”
The Navy has had a mid-range ASW gap since the retirement of the S-3 Vikings on aircraft carriers in 2009. In the blue water space, the Navy knows how to fight against another surface action group but it can use the help of the Marines in the littorals. The Marine aviation community seems fitted to help in that 100-mile range between islands. The testing done by both the HMLA and VMM communities of MAG-39 looks like a good fit.
In addition to anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare (ASuW) in the littorals will also be key to any battle in the Pacific. Bradbury added “when the commandant's planning guidance came out, we went to HSM Weapons School Pacific and started a conversation. We aligned our schedules and did some great training events. We want the pilots in the HSM community to say ‘hey look, there is an EABO with a 20,000-gallon fuel bladder, and they have some sonobuoys and a torpedo.’ That way they are not so reliant on the ship. The only thing separating us is our mission sets but they really are complementary if you think about it. They have a great radar on the MH-60R. An AH-1Z doesn't have radar but we have a great sensor and we can carry a lot of missiles. These pilots have been great to work with and when we get Link-16 soon we can do even more.”
Another unique training event was the launch of a Joint Precision Aerial Delivery System (JPADS) at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, by a V-22. It was unique because the JPADS load carried a fuel bladder in a crate for Marines to establish a Forward Arming Refueling Point (FARP) upon landing to showcase a new way attack-utility helicopters can be sustained in a very austere environment. In the test, JPADS steered to a predetermined landing zone and was met by a UH-1Y, which used the bladder to refuel.
The JPADS System, of which the marines have bought 162, uses GPS and steerable parachutes to reach their targeted drop zones. Equipment and supplies can be airdropped using these specially rigged aerial delivery systems. The cargo is attached to a parachute with an electric motor that guides it within 150 meters of its destination. It can be dropped from up to 25 kilometers away from the intended target with a payload of about a ton.
In 2013, the Corps upgraded to the 2K-Modular which included an improved modular autonomous guidance unit called the MAGU. JPADS 2K-M improved accuracy over traditional airdrops while simultaneously enabling aircraft to conduct drops at higher altitudes and longer distances from the drop zone.
Bradbury told The War Zone, “The SOF [Special Operations Forces] community has been doing this mission set for a long time. So we learned about how to get fuel and munitions into an austere environment. We blocked out an LZ [landing zone] at 29 Palms and did some work-ups and a rehearsal schedule. The JPADS landed on target and our MWSS Marines hooked up the hoses and gave gas to some UH-1Ys who then went out and did a mission.”
“We needed to look very carefully at how we treat ammunition. On the boat, there are several procedures for the Navy so we did notional munitions on this test because we need to look at the regulations in place and see if they matter in an austere environment.”
Winter Fury '22 has proven that Marine Aviation is working at a feverish pace to gear up for a fight against a near-peer adversary using innovative ways to cover the distance needed to confront the vast expanses of the Pacific. Bradbury said it best when he told us: “This is not naval integration, its naval warfighting. The integration piece is already there. I can fly aircraft onto a boat and get gas and load munitions into a ship’s magazine but that's not warfighting. What we did here was naval warfighting.”
We look forward to seeing what they come up with during Summer Fury '22 in June. Stay tuned.
Contact the editor: Tyler@thedrive.com