The Compelling Case For The AH-1 Cobra In A Fight With China

On November 4, 2022, the 189th and final AH-1Z Viper – also referred to by its legacy name, ‘Cobra’ – attack helicopter for the USMC was delivered from Bell to the Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. The helicopter was piloted by Colonel Nathan “MOG” Marvel who serves as the commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 39. Marvel presented the aircraft to its squadron, Marine Light Attack Helicopter Training Squadron (HMLAT) 303 completing the Marine Corps Program of Record for the AH-1Z. Bell had previously wrapped up the Marine’s UH-1Y Venom – also referred to by its legacy name, ‘Huey’ – program of 160 aircraft delivered four years earlier, bringing the combined UH-1Y and AH-1Z procurement to 349 aircraft. 

The UH-1Y and AH-1Z team in action. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Gregory Moore, 3rd MAW/Released)

Less than a month after the last aircraft was delivered, HMLA-269 ‘Gunrunners’ was being decommissioned on the east coast at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) New River, leaving only one Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) operating with the 2nd Marine Air Wing. The Gunrunners was the second HMLA squadron to be deactivated over the last two years after HMLA-367 was shuttered at MCAS Kaneohe Bay in Hawaii.

To many, these deactivations seemed odd since the Marine Corps only declared it had reached initial operational capability (IOC) with the AH-1Z in 2011 making the helicopters fairly young. The deactivations are part of Force Design 2030, which intends to use the money saved from operating these squadrons to reinvest in other areas such as unmanned aircraft and long-range, ground-based anti-ship and land-attack missiles, among many other new priorities. 

The AH-1Z’s run at MCAS Kaneohe Bay lasted less than half a decade. (U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Sgt. Alex Kouns)

Yet with a slew of upgrades and new weapons being integrated into the H-1 fleet, and many new tactics being developed to go along with them, Col. Marvel knows that both the AH-1Z and UH-1Y have a lot to add to any future fight in the Pacific. 

Now he just has to convince others. 

A Conversation On Capability

The War Zone sat down with Col. Marvel in his office recently to discuss a whole range of topics related to the H-1s and their future in the USMC. He told The War Zone, “It’s a day-to-day battle. I don’t think we’re fighting a misinformation campaign, I think we are fighting an ignorance campaign. It’s not because people are shooting on our target and not believing what we’re doing. I think we are looking beyond the horizon to all these exquisite sexy things and what we are looking beyond is that today’s ‘our last day of peace.’ We’re a ‘fight today, fight tonight’ organization.” 

“I heard somebody say it this morning on a conversation I was having. Hey, do you honestly think that if the balloon goes up tomorrow, and we’re called to fight, we’re going to leave all 350 of these attack and utility helicopters back here and keep them out of the fight? No. You think in the next 15 to 20 years we’re going to leave them on the bench? No. They’re gonna go and they’re gonna do what they do best.” 

U.S. Marine Corps Col. Nathan “MOG” Marvel, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Levi Voss.)

“We’ve demonstrated what we can do with the six decades of history of these H-1s, most recently in Afghanistan, Iraq, and around the world forward deployed right now. It’s a little bit frustrating and I kind of take it as a kind of a personal slight that we see a lot of the engagement on H-1s coming from internal to our own brothers and sisters in the MAGTF (Maine Air Ground Task Force). They ask, ‘are we going to use our H-1s? Are they dated on the modern battlefield?’ Well, let’s talk about the modern battlefield and what H-1s are doing.” 

“Look at the fight over in Ukraine. If we took the Marine Corps over there with our attack helicopters and utility helicopters, and we fought the way that we fight and not the way the Russians are fighting the Ukrainians, it would be way, way, way different. We would come in the darkest and scariest of nights in a coordinated formation loaded with ordnance and it would be a turkey shoot.”

When Col. Marvel took over MAG-39 in June of 2021, he came in right as Force Design 2030 was being rolled out. He told us, “I was a bit frustrated about the conversation they were having about what the next fight looks like. It was about a fight with a peer competitor and the distances we had over water with China and that H-1s were not going to be there…  I was like yes they are. Not only are we going to be there but we are going to be right beside the Marines in the field because that’s what we do.” 

A section of AH-1Zs on a training mission. (Author)

“We have been building out some great capability and conversations here at MAG-39. What I am frustrated about is I don’t need to talk about close air support because I am pretty sure we can do it and we do it very well. I don’t need to talk about deep air support because I am sure we can do that and things like FAC-A (forward air control-airborne). But now how do we look through the lenses of FAC-A and close air support and all six functions of Marine aviation because we in the HMLA community do them all, and tie that to sea control and sea denial in support of a naval fight. It is nothing that we ever moved away from. What blows my mind is when people say we have to get back to our naval roots. I wear naval aviator wings and I go on the boat all the time. We live it and it is part of our rotation. We never break contact with our naval roots.”

The Largest MAG

Colonel Marvel not only serves as the commanding officer of the Marine’s largest Marine Aircraft Group with six squadrons and over 4,000 Marines assigned, but he also serves as the Type Model Series Lead. Marvel explained to The War Zone, “So each colonel in different MAGs controls their type model series. When it comes to H-1s, I am the Marine Corps fleet representative for Cobras and Hueys. So when we talk about where they go, how they’re configured, what we do with inventory, what our agreements are with headquarters and PMA (Project Manager) and how we build things out, I’m a big part of that.” 

“The triangle of people that contribute to that are Headquarters Marine Corps Aviation, which is a colonel, and Col. Vasilios Pappas who is the H-1 Program Manager at Patuxent River Maryland. He and I deployed together to Afghanistan in 2012. We have a really unique relationship in that all three commodity holders, both Headquarters Aviation, from policy and resourcing, PMA-276 from material provider and systems provider, to me as the type model series lead and warfighter, we’re all H-1 guys which is pretty unique.”

An AH-1Z flies over the flightline at Camp Pendleton. (Author)

Having been around the flightline of MAG-39 for most of his career, both as a new lieutenant and as a commanding officer of a squadron, Marvel knew very well what the HMLA community needed. He focused heavily on capability versus capacity. Marvel explained, “We focused for the last five to six years on building redundancy, reliability, getting our readiness numbers up, and in the H-1 community we have had the benefit of having some of the highest readiness numbers in the last four or five years of any type model series in the Marine Corps.” 

“When you have readiness, that’s a capability. It’s sustainability. It’s material readiness because we share 85% common components between the Cobra and Huey. That allows us to be a little bit more resourceful when we go out. If I need to take an engine off of a Cobra to make a Huey fly, I can do it. If I need to bring that Huey back and put a tail boom on or take a tail rotor driveshaft and put it on a Cobra, I can do that all day long. So when we start talking about being distributed or disaggregated, and sustainable, it’s a big deal.” 

The AH-1 and UH-1 are both born from the same Huey and share the majority of their components, making logistics and forward support far less complex. (Author)

“This is the only MAG that’s co-located on a camp. None of the other marine corps stations are located on a camp. We live and share the same dirt that our MAGTF brothers and sisters share here in First Marine Division and so we have a unique relationship. When I came in we showed that we have readiness and we showed that our mission rates were going up and we built reliability and redundancy into these aircraft so now we needed to focus on capability. So what does the build-out of capability look like?” 

Interoperability, Survivability and Lethality

“We said, our top three priorities for build out were interoperability, survivability and lethality. And I don’t put those as one, two and three in any type of order. That’s just how they kind of flow out because you can’t have interoperability without having survivability and lethality. They’re all tied together. You can’t have survivability without lethality and interoperability. And then you can’t have lethality without interoperability and survivability. And that’s not just to the platform itself, it’s to the force.” 

The AH-1Z is set to get much smarter and more aware. Here a pilot adjusts his helmet-mounted display that projects flight data as well as tactical information in front of his eye. (Author)

“So we think about the Commandant’s Force Design 2030 and how we’re going to fight. We are going to be small reconnaissance units. Those units are going to be out and they’re going to be underneath the WEZ (weapons engagement zone). They’re gonna be operating forward. We cover a lot of terrain and we’re out there and we always operate forward. It’s not uncommon for us to bed down and sleep with our grunts. I’ve landed next to multiple coils in Afghanistan and Iraq of vehicles at night and was like, hey guys, I need some gas, can we land out here and get some gas from you? And I think that’s exactly how we’re gonna fight. So when we started talking about building our capability, we said, ‘Okay, how are we going to do those things?’ And so one of the big focus was interoperability.”

Currently, the H-1s have the capability to communicate via different datalink waveforms such as ANW-2, TTNT, and some others, but what the network pilots always wanted was Link-16. The USMC defined the requirements for an interoperability requirement and the first Link-16 H-1s will be on the MAG-39 flightline in the coming weeks.

The UH-1Y is not your father’s or grandfather’s Huey, it’s far smarter and much more deadly. (Author)

The first few aircraft spent time at VMX-1 in Yuma, Arizona, doing operational testing and working out any issues before they were assigned to the fleet. Marvel told us, “we will deploy those helicopters on a late summer-early fall SoCal MEU that floats out with Link 16 capability. They’ll float with Link 16, they’ll float with data and voice MUOS (Mobile User Objective System) satellite in the back of their Hueys, they’ll float with our most current distributed aperture IR countermeasures, and they will float with JAGM (Joint Air-Ground Missile) as well. So they are going to be some of the most capable H-1s that will float out. And then we’ll continue our fleet build-out and then grow our MEU capability on the East Coast, and then we’ll eventually grow our MEU capability forward deployed with the 31st MEU.” 

“Coming back to that interoperability, it’s multiple pathways and multiple waveforms. I don’t think we say kill chains anymore, because it’s not a linkage of nodes, It’s a linkage of webs. We may very well be an enabler where you’re pushing data through us via voice and or data and we may very well be the end of that kill web or that kill chain enabler as well. We may tell someone where something is so they can go kill it or we maintain custody or someone may tell us where something is so we can go kill it like we have traditionally done. Interoperability is a huge focus for us.” 

U.S. Marines with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 369, Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), fire an AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missile at a moving maritime target from an AH-1Z Viper during exercise Steel Knight 23, over the Pacific Ocean, Dec. 7, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Fletcher) 

“Then you tie into those survivability aspects, with new sensors and the ability to share battlefield situational awareness via that network interoperability that we’re plugged into. It enables survivability internal to your section in terms of those that you support and build battlefield situational awareness for the entire maneuver elements, as well.” 

“If I’m flying over a straight or open area or open water doing sea control and sea denial and fly past a bunch of ships that are registering a certain electromagnetic spectrum, whether they’re flagged as enemy combatants or not, it doesn’t matter. Merely having custody on those things, seeing what they’re transmitting and identifying them allows the commander to build his battlespace situational awareness. And if they do choose to show any type of hostilities or they do show an enabling of an enemy element, we know where they are, we know what they look like and we’ve mapped them where we maintain custody of them the entire time.” 

U.S. Marines with Marine Light Helicopter Attack Squadron 367 operate an AH-1Z Viper and UH-1Y Venom during a joint maritime strike exercise with U.S. Navy Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 37 over Pacific Missile Range Facility, Hawaii, June 9, 2020. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Jacob Wilson)

“When we talk about survivability, It’s not just our own ship, or our own section’s survivability. It allows the battlespace commander to know what we’re sensing in the battlespace the entire time because we are out there. You can do that with rigid inflatables, and you can do that with UASs and they have loitering time and stuff. But, you know, I would argue that there’s not a robot or remote control ship or underwater vessel or anything that can do what a crewed Huey can do and what a crewed Cobra can do. And let alone when you pair a Cobra and Huey together, when you take attack and utility aviation and put it into the battlespace together.”

When thinking about the lethality of the H-1s, many think of the guns, missiles, and rockets carried by these helicopters. But in recent years, the H-1s have upgraded their weapons systems and have even moved into the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum with the introduction of the Intrepid Tiger II pods, which are able to sense and make sense of the EM battlespace. Marvel explained “We’re able to keep custody of certain electromagnetic spectrums that are out there and we’re able to identify, track and target. We can share that information across the battlespace, non-kinetically, as well, which traditionally hasn’t been our thing, right? We kind of grew into that a little bit in Afghanistan and some in Iraq. Our ability right now with some of the podded solutions that we have that we can hang on our Hueys and soon on our Cobras, will allow us to be non-kinetic, with both electronic protection, electronic attack, and provide electronic support for the battlefield commander as well.”

An Intrepid Tiger II pod on a UH-1Y. (USMC)

The USMC is currently rewiring the entire Cobra and Huey fleet with an electrical upgrade which includes putting an ethernet backbone in the Cobra and Huey, as well as putting 1760 data buses to all the weapons stations which will help decrease the time needed to add new weapons. Marvel told us “We are going to be able to carry a Potpourri of weapons. It would not be unheard of to hang some exquisite fixed-wing fighter weapons on the wing-stub of a cobra and bring that to a fight. It may be a loitering weapon or maybe an exquisite pod that does only certain things that we’re used to seeing on fixed-wing aircraft and bring that to the fight and put that down at the rotor wing level to enable the battlespace commander and the maneuver element commander to do things that they may or may not have thought they could do before. So that’s kind of where we are with capabilities buildup.”

Sea Denial

When asked about the ability to carry anti-ship weapons, Marvel explained, “I don’t think that you are going to see Cobras and Hueys going making a bull run on an upper-level cruiser or maybe even a frigate. I can see that we can enable weapons to get there. We can be a launch platform for drones. I think you’d have to honor any type of thing that you put in the airspace. If there’s a drone airborne, if it’s just seeing you, you got to honor that because seeing is bad enough, right? If I can target you, I can do that.”

PACIFIC OCEAN (Aug. 1, 2022) A U.S. Marine Corps UH-1Y Venom helicopter launches from the flight deck of Royal Australian Navy Canberra class landing helicopter dock HMAS Canberra (L02) above a U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper helicopter during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2022. (Photo by Royal Australian Navy Leading Seaman Matthew Lyall)

“But I do think that if you were to ask me, and the way that we talked about Force Design 2030 from a Marine Corps perspective, if we talk about we’re in the competition phase right now, so H-1s can quickly and easily move across that competition continuum from low threshold of violence to high threshold of violence. Then across that competition to actually a combat mindset where we’re actually in combat operations and right back into that competition phase if you need to.” 

“So when we talk about hunting ships, I think where you are going to find H-1s is enabling those things. I think the most popular asset on the battlespace is going to be the Huey because it can shoot, it can provide airborne logistics to all kinds of elements, it can bed down and spend the night with a commander and you can put it in direct support. It can land on traditional commercial shipping, it can land on Navy shipping, it can land on joint shipping that’s out there, and I think a Huey about the battlespace if I were a maneuver commander, that’s what I’d want.”

Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Adam Garnett from Anchorage, Alaska, signals an AH-1 Cobra helicopter from Marine Air Group (MAG) 24 during deck landing qualification training aboard the littoral combat ship USS Fort Worth (LCS-3). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Antonio P. Turretto Ramos)

One of the unique things about the Indo-Pacific theater and its vast expanses, is the use by China of a maritime militia to observe movements while appearing to be commercial fishing vessels. Marvel explained, “I would tell you that maritime militia is going to be a problem for us and that’s our battlespace. We have maneuvered in that battlespace before. I don’t think it’s any different than what we understand as far as maneuvering in Helmand [province in Afghanistan] or any different than maneuvering in Ambar [province in Iraq]. We don’t know who the good guys and bad guys are. They look like just a normal guy at the market or they look just like a normal fishing vessel. We’re very comfortable about making decisions on thresholds of violence on determining what we can and can’t do based on signatures and who does that stuff. We may enable some high-end hunting and some stuff for some higher class of ships but I think honestly, if you were to ask me about HMLA in sea denial as an enabler, I think it’s probably against a maritime militia threat, or maybe even low-end corvettes.”

Killing Things That Fly

Another issue rapidly evolving is the use of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs). U.S. Navy ships have been harassed by UASs several times over the past few years and must find a way to fend off large numbers of drones.

Speaking about the issue of drones operating around ships, Marvel explained, “JAGM has an air-to-air capability. We’ve demonstrated shooting drones with 7.62 and .50 Cal, 20 millimeters, as well as using AIM-9s. It would hurt me badly to shoot a multimillion-dollar missile at a cheap drone but that’s what it takes then that’s what we would do.”

An AH-1Z fully loaded-out for force protection. (USMC)

“I would think that an amphibious commander or the commander of an amphibious ship would very much like to know that they’ve got H-1s in support of their defense, or should they be called to come and provide them the sort of support that they need. You probably won’t find that written doctrinally anywhere and you’re not going to find it in our mission essential task list, and you won’t find the Marine Corps task, but I’ll tell you here at MAG-39, we’ve demonstrated it. We’ve done multiple target engagements on small boats with precision-guided munitions and we’ve done air-to-air with all the things that we’ve talked about to include AIM-9s.”

An AH-1Z Viper packing a live AIM-9M Sidewinder. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Luke Kuennen)

One recent air-to-air scenario involved taking cueing off an AN/TPS-80 radar working with a Marine Air Control Group (MACG). Drones were launched and the MAG did multiple intercepts with the Cobra. Marvel explained, “The scenario was, hey, we’re out on strip alert at a FARP and we get queuing from radar. We got voice queuing this day, but we’ve demonstrated to get it digitally via tablets and via networks. Ultimately we will get that queuing via Link-16.” 

“We’ve got these UASs as they’re inbound they’re not ours, we’re declaring them hostile and now who can intercept them? We’re not going to pull a fighter down. Why would we let it get close enough to use a stinger when I can launch two Cobras and Hueys and send them booming out there at 150 miles per hour and intercept them en route. We demonstrated that multiple times. We were able to do look up-shoot up with AIM-9 and we were able to engage with 20 mm cannon, with 7.62 and .50 cal. We actually had some good shots with laser-guided rockets (APWKS) that were actually able to hit the target also.” 

A UH-1Y crewman fires the big .50 caliber door gun. (Author)

“People said that you’re not always going to be carrying AIM-9 and you’re not always going to be able to get close enough. So, what if you’re chasing a fleeting target? I said well we’re gonna shoot a Hellfire at it. People came back and said it’s not an air-to-air weapon. Well in OT (operational test) we demonstrated it, and then we went down and shot an Outlaw (MQM-170) with the Hellfire too just to make our point. We 100-percent validated that with a UAS cruising 100-110 knots, we maneuver into position, get behind it and hit it with a Mike model AIM-9 that detonated right next to it and blew it out of the sky. Now we’re moving to a capability where I have a JAGM radar-guided missile, building out a capability to have an air-to-air capable JAGM, which is going to happen. We can build on that all day long.”

Drone Teaming

Marine leaders have recently selected the Hero loitering munition as part of its Organic Precision Fires-Mounted program. What makes the Hero unique is its loitering time which gives it the ability to act as a surveillance platform before hitting a target. Col. Marvel was quick to see the promise in the Hero family of munitions telling us, “I said, why can’t we control a Hero munition out of the back of a Huey? If we could launch it and control it, or they could launch it and hand it off to us, we could fly further with it right with hub and spoke-type operations. Why wouldn’t we do that? Everybody’s like, ‘you’d never be able to do that.’ Well, so we did it. We teamed with our partners at Northrop Grumman, and with the Hero family, and we went out to San Clemente.” 

An aft view of a Hero-400 loitering munition staged on a land-based catapult on San Clemente Island, California. USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Daniel Childs

“They actually launched a Hero 400 for us, and then we controlled the Hero 400 from the back of a Huey all day long. We did multiple aborted attacks, we did a recce mission around the island with it and the entire time, we’re building situational awareness and sharing that with the battlespace commander down on the ground as far as situational awareness. That can be as easy as running it off a tablet. That can be as easy as integrating into the aircraft. Now I have a loitering ammunition that could be payload agnostic, network-enabled, and it could have a swarm capability. Anybody who needs it can either get it from me or give it to me.”

You can read our full report on this experiment here

Submarine Hunting Hueys

MAG-39 is well aware that a future fight will look nothing like the last 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan and so they are busy finding ways to make sure that they are not caught off guard by some scenarios that might play out in the Pacific. Recently they teamed up with U.S. Navy MH-60R Seahawks from nearby Naval Air Station North Island and a fast attack submarine in what has to be one of the more unique training events for the HMLA community in the last two decades. 

Marvel told us, “We went out and started dropping sonar buoys out of the back of a Huey and that really surprised the submarine guys when a Huey checked in and all of a sudden, I’ve got active pinging coming off active sonar buoys, and I’ve got passive sonar buoys getting dropped in my path. The scenario was that we caught a submarine in transit in a straight. The H-1s let the P-8 know we need some help and so an MH-60 Romeo sorties to us. We start laying down sonar buoys to get their attention and we maintain custody of that submarine. When we want it to go away, they use a P-8 [Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft] or an MH-60 Romeo to make it go away.”

U.S. Navy MH-60R and U.S. Marine Corps aircraft from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 267, and HMLA-369, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), drop sonobouys in the Pacific Ocean, July 20, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Rachaelanne Woodward)

“One of the more fascinating conversations was what happens when you’re a Cobra pilot and you catch an enemy submarine on the surface. And it was a great conversation because I’m sitting in the COC and it comes across the chat, ‘Hey, where do you shoot a submarine with a hellfire?’ I’m like, can we shoot a submarine with a Hellfire and who do I have to ask in order to shoot a Hellfire at a submarine? Because that’s a big deal. And so we said well, we’ll treat this like a learning objective and we’ll say that I gave you permission to shoot it.” 

“We targeted the sail and we pumped a bunch of Hellfires into all the crunchy little things standing up on top of the sail with binoculars and then as soon as she dumped her nose to go into the water, we pumped as many simulated Hellfires as we could into the rudder and into the prop of the submarine.”

An AH-1Z Viper with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 267, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, fires an AGM-114 Hellfire missile at Range 176, Okinawa, Japan. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by MCIPAC Combat Camera Lance Cpl. Sean M. Evans)

“If they have a MANPAD (shoulder-fired anti-air missile) on the tower, they’re only gonna have one. They might get us once and if they miss, they’re in big trouble because self-defense ROE (rules of engagement) is my favorite kind of ROE. Shoot at me because I shoot back and I bring a lot when I come hunting.”

Light, Nimble, And A Logistical Small Footprint

Col. Marvel has tasked his Marines with coming up with innovative ways to get things done knowing that a battle in the Pacific will force the Marines to think outside of the box in terms of not only tactics but also logistics. 

“Some of the challenges that we have is that we culturally have a hard time coming off the things that we know. I know for a fact like my life was close air support. In Afghanistan that’s what I did. I did close air support, maybe some strikes here and there, a couple of FAC(A) [forward air controller-airborne] here and there, whether it was in indirect coordination with maneuver is arguable or not, but talking to jets and telling where to drop their bombs at certain places. But that is our bread and butter and so we got super comfortable with that.” 

A U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper with HMLA-369 fires a rocket on the Yausubetsu Training Area in Japan during Exercise Resolute Dragon 21 on Dec. 7, 2021. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Mario A. Ramirez)

“Now we’ve kind of moved into this new battle space where close coordination of troops is going to be required. Because that gray threat to our small, dispersed forces that are out there across the battlespace is probably going to be guys in unmarked uniforms with some pretty high-speed weapons and communication gear. It may be some local guys who may or may not like the U.S. in the first place and they’re probably going to be the guys coming out of the treeline or creating hate and discontent. We’re still going to check in with Hueys and provide them supplies, take out their dead and wounded, and we’re also going to provide them some close air support and some fires that they need. We might be parked three miles away, and just take off or we may be parked at their position when the attack happens and we’re just up and out of that position, providing close air support. But I think we got really hung up on doing that. And they kind of closed down our aperture.”

The AH-1 and UH-1 team were made to operate forward with minimal support and high commonality. (Author)

“We said, hey, that’s what we’ve been doing and what we’ve kind of been doing is literally prying back the lens, opening our aperture, and saying, ‘hey, if we were to take the tools, take the techniques, take the procedures, and the tactics that we have learned over these 20 years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, we apply them to the fight that we think we’re going to be in with that near-peer competitor, do they apply?’ And they do because they’re still foundational, right?” 

“It’s still find and fix. It’s still target. It’s still integrate. It’s still deliver effective fires, both kinetic and non kinetic. It’s still shoot, move, communicate. And now what we talk more about because of the level of the peer, it’s shoot, move, communicate, survive and sustain, because logistics are going to be a huge challenge for us.” 

An AH-1Z over a MOUT training complex. (Author)

“So I come back to the sustainment piece. Commonality in the aircraft and reliability and redundancy in the parts. We cross-train our aircrew. As a cobra pilot, I can get out, throw my own rockets on, throw my own Hellfire on the aircraft. I have Huey crew chiefs that can do it too. I can fuel my own aircraft. I’ve got Huey crew chiefs that are trained to do my maintenance. I got avionics Marines that I’m cross-training to be aerial observers and I am training them to shoot the minigun. When I land and I have an avionics problem, I don’t have to worry about going back to the rear. I just say, ‘hey, send Sgt. Marvel over from the Huey because hey, my number two radios down and he comes out and does what avionics guys do, you know he resets circuit breakers and bangs on the dash and then it comes back up.’” 

Minimal footprint is what the HMLAs are all about with their own crews providing self-sufficient ground support if needed. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Levi Voss)

“That kind of mindset on how we’re reforming ourselves, how we’re reshaping ourselves and how we’re looking at what that fight looks like when you are away from the flag or away from the major support elements. I think that’s something that we’ve really kind of opened the aperture on.”


A few months back, Colonel Marvel sat down with some Marines with the topic of the night being, ‘What does HMLA look like in 2030.’ Marvel explained, “We didn’t want to be word-soupish about what we do, but we wanted to see what an HMLA squadron would look like in 2030. We had the opportunity to brief the Commandant about a day in the life of an HMLA in a near-peer competition. We talked about being forward deployed, maybe we take off, go to a boat, spend the night on a Littoral Combat Ship. We then go feet dry and get local support from the local Island. We get gas while there and then jump off to a Naval Strike Missile site. We would probably be foraging for our food, probably super restrictive about the ordinance we expand because we don’t know when we’re gonna get our next reload. We’re probably really concerned about just flying to fly because you can’t fly hollow hours, because every drop of gas you burn may mean life or death for you or for those that you support. So we got to be really smart about it.” 

A U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper from Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 773 Detachment A, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, receives refueling within a Forward Arming and Refueling Point (FARP) at exercise Gunslinger 22 in Salina, Kansas, June 22, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. David Intriago)

“We talked about what our warfighting philosophy would be. We talked about where we thought we would fight and then we talked about capability versus capacity. How are we going to hunt, because that’s what we do, we’re hunters. We sense, shoot, survive and sustain inside the Weapons Engagement Zone. Hard to find and hard to kill, we operate dis-aggregated or in a distributed nature to support lethality and survivability for the force. And then digitally integrated as a kill web enabler and effector.” 

“The next thing we talked about, and this is kind of foundational to me when I first came in here, this was within the first two weeks of my command, we said, ‘hey, where do we see our application?’ I talked about the horizontal threshold of violence, vertical threshold of violence, between competition and conflict — where are we?” 

U.S. Marines with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 469 operate an AH-1Z Viper during Resolute Dragon 22 at Yausubetsu Maneuver Area, Hokkaido, Japan, Oct. 7, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Abrey Liggins)

“We said we need to be able to operate in distributed aviation operations. We talked about a hub, a node and a spoke. Where are we in that? A hub is like a main airbase, a spoke has a little bit less capability, and a node may be temporal in time. It’s only there for a period of time to provide gas, ordinance — re-sustainment, and reload. And so we started talking about how you’re going to fight and we’ve kind of fallen into 3rd MAWs vision under MEF CGs guidance of how we would fight aviation across that battlespace to do those things.” 

“What we talked about was being dispersed because we got to do it. Dispersion buys you a lot of things. It buys you maneuver and it buys you survivability. Be resilient and not only resilient from the aircrew perspective, but from the machinery perspective.” 

“Two things that will get you on bad terms with me quickly, is by coming into my office and saying, ‘we’ve never done it that way before.’ That’ll get you fired. And then the second one is, ‘we’ve always done it that way.’ That’ll get you fired as well, which is super frustrating for me.” 

A crew completing paperwork on the hatch of their AH-1Z. (Author)

“Let’s open the aperture and let’s talk about what is [in] the realm of the possible. As long as we’re operating within the rules and regulations, standards of expectations that the Marine Corps has tasked us to do, we are well within the Commandant’s maneuver space. And then we talked about integrated maritime defense and deter capabilities and the close-in littoral fight. To disrupt, contest and confront malign behavior above and below the threshold of violence.”

Logistics, Logistics, Logistics

In the next few months, much of the focus at MAG-39 will be on logistics and validating new concepts to help the Marine aviation community stay in the fight with gas and ordinance, as well as spare parts and the ability to perform maintenance. Speaking about logistics, Marvel told us, “It’s going to be hard. We’re a bunch of attacking utility pilots so we said, okay, how am I going to eat? How am I going to gas and how am I going to reload to go back? We’ve demonstrated that capability by getting food, gas and ordinance off the Mikey Monsoor (DDG-1002). We’ve gone to both classes of Littoral Combat Ships, and we’ve gone to destroyers and cruisers. We’d like to demonstrate it with some other type ships that are out there like maritime prepositioning ships, as well.” 

A U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z Viper with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, Marine Aircraft Group 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), awaits as U.S. Navy Sailors prepare to refuel the aircraft aboard USS Michael Monsoor (DDG 1001), a Zumwalt-class destroyer, off the coast of Camp Pendleton, California, April 20, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Samuel Ruiz)

“You can throw a 3,000 pound bladder of gas out of the back of a C-130, and guess what? Gas floats. It can hit the water, you can drag that thing ashore, plug a pump into it and pump gas from it. We’ve had LCACs (Landing Craft Air Cushion) sprint out across the water and drop off fuel bladders for us on San Clemente Island. We have demonstrated that I can use the Joint Precision Air Drop systems where we have a C-5, C-17, MV-22 or a CH-53 that happens to be flying over a grid where I say I’m going to be in the next 40 minutes, next four days, next four months, and kick out a J-PAD system. We drop gas and ordinance and then I land there with my crews and I arm myself, gas myself and then thermite grenade whatever’s left or stow whatever’s left where I need to stow it, and then come back and get gas there.” 

A U.S. Marine Corps AH-1W Super Cobra lands at a forward arming and refueling point, on Ie Shima, Japan, June 28, 2022. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kira Ducato)

“We really focused on the traditional, like how we would support ourselves from a fight perspective. Now that’s pretty temporal because that’s shoot, move, communicate, but that’s not a lot of sustain. You can only do that for a period of time. What happens when a number one hydraulic pump goes? What happens when I take a 23 millimeter round through my rotor blade? What happens when I bleed out a bunch of transmission fluid and I can’t fly the aircraft for a long period of time over the water? So next we’re going to focus on nothing but what does sustained, contested logistics look like from an aviation ‘pack out’ ammunition and logistic perspective from our MALS (Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron). How do we do logistics when we go forward to include JPADing a Quadcon (Heavy duty cages for secure storage and transport of all classes of supply) into the middle of the jungle that has a certain amount of radios in it?” 

“We have also done traditional FARPS. If you read the tentative manual for EABO, it says FARPS have traditionally been gas. From an attack helicopter’s perspective, I don’t really care much about gas because it takes me about two minutes to shoot all my ordinance and it takes me two and a half hours to burn all my gas.” 

A UH-1Y operating among its parked attack and utility counterparts. (Author)

“In a gunfight, I’m not that worried about gas. I’m worried about the ordinance. I’ve landed at thousands of FARPS over the last 20 years across all kinds of bad places and good places. While it was to get gas sometimes, generally I went home if I needed gas. If I needed ordnance, I went to the closest place that had ordnance.” 

“We recently had two Ospreys from MAG-39 that essentially dropped out some J-PADs from 10,000 feet. The Cobra and Huey came in and broke out the pumps and gassed themselves up. While they were gassing themselves up, the crew chiefs walked over, unpacked all the ordnance and carried all the ordnance over the aircraft. We loaded out the ordnance and we were out.”

AH-1Z and UH-1Y side-by-side on a training mission. (Author)

The AH-1 and UH-1 community may have shrunk as of late, but their collective capabilities are expanding at a quickening rate, as is the creativity behind figuring out how they could best contribute to a high-end conflict in the Pacific. There is clearly a tremendous amount of problem-solving going on, and it’s hard to deny Col. Marvel’s perspective.

The HMLA’s small and self-sufficient logistical footprint, independent spirit of operations, and unique pairing of utility and attack types with high commonality is an intriguing mix. But the Marine Corps is changing fast. Making the powers that be embrace the HMLA community’s potential in terms of confronting the looming threat from China, while also satisfying concerns about survivability and their overall application during a conflict, will likely be an ongoing battle in its own right.

But the Huey and Cobra have been fighting and winning battles for over half a century.

What’s one more?

(U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Alexander N. Sturdivant)

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