USNI News polled its writers, naval analysts and service members on what they consider the most important military and maritime stories in 2016.
2016 was a year of transition for the Marine Corps, with a new operational concept and several follow-up warfighting concepts released and with the operational F-35B Joint Strike Fighter fleet preparing for its first overseas operations in 2017. Overseas operations in the Middle East, Pacific and even in the Caribbean kept the force busy, while leaders at home continued to work their way out of an ongoing aviation readiness crisis.
After declaring initial operational capability for the F-35B in 2015, the Marine Corps spent 2016 integrating the new plane with its amphibious ships, standing up a second operational squadron and maturing the tactics, techniques and procedures ahead of a 2017 move to Japan.
USS America (LHA-6), the newest amphibious assault ship in the fleet, wrapped up a maintenance availability in March that included deck strengthening and other modifications to accommodate the heavy and powerful F-35B. The air department underwent training to learn how to safely fuel, load ordnance and move the new planes. And in October and November America hosted a slew of F-35B developmental and operational test pilots, contractors and operational squadron Marines to expand the flight envelop, certify pilots to operate at sea and learn lessons ahead of next year’s deployment.
The F-35B test squadron, VMX-1, has spent the last year pushing the new plane and finding innovative new ways to employ it, and Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron-One (MAWTS-1) has begun incorporating the F-35B into every major evolution at its train-the-trainer course to help spread knowledge of how to leverage the fifth-generation aircraft throughout the fleet.
Meanwhile, the second operational squadron, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, stood up in June, and VMFA-121 prepared to relocate from Yuma, Ariz., to Japan in January 2017. The squadron will bring 10 planes initially, with six more coming later in the year and six aircraft planned to sail aboard USS Wasp (LHD-1) in a fall patrol of the Pacific – the first time the F-35B will deploy at sea as part of a Marine Expeditionary Unit. That MEU deployment will help loop the Marine Corps in to some high-end naval warfare opportunities: the F-35B has already used its sensors to guide the Aegis Combat System in firing a Standard Missile-6 to hit a target from the Aegis test site at White Sands Missile Range, and with three Aegis-equipped guided-missile destroyers deploying with the Wasp Amphibious Ready Group in the fall as a so-called Upgunned Expeditionary Strike Group, the Navy-Marine Corps team will find itself with an opportunity to project high-end power at great distances.
Marine Corps Operational Concept
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller unveiled a new Marine Corps Operational Concept (MOC) meant to put the service on a path to organizing, equipping and training for a future operational environment where information is a weapon, the electromagnetic spectrum is the key to successful operations and the maritime domain is contested. Neller released Fragmentary Order (FRAGO) 1 in January, which highlighted maneuver warfare as a key to succeeding in this future environment, and the MOC expands on how to revamp the force to optimize for dispersed small units conducting maneuver warfare.
In an effort to push forward technologies to carry out this type of warfare, Marine Corps Combat Development Command launched a Ship to Shore Maneuver Exploration and Experimentation (S2ME2) Task Force, which solicited ideas for technologies that support a “United States Marine Corps (USMC) 21st Century Maneuver Warfare Amphibious Assault concept of operations” and could be tested in an exercise in the spring. Additionally, Marines in the Pacific incorporated some aspects of the MOC into exercise Blue Chromite, which included seizing advance naval bases and conducting maneuver warfare.
The Marine Corps kept busy operating around the globe. Harriers, which had already been conducting air strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State, began striking targets in Libya from Wasp over the summer. Marine forces such as the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force- Crisis Response- Central Command operated against the Islamic State on the ground, and Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin, 27, became the second U.S. death in Operation Inherent Resolve when his unit was attacked by rocket fire while operating in Northern Iraq.
On the other side of the world, Marines used the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016 international exercise to test unmanned aerial vehicles directing calls for artillery fire, conduct live-fire training at the expansive Pohakuloa Training Area on the Big Island and rehearse amphibious operations with international partners. Closer to home, Marines with the Special Purpose MAGTF-Crisis Response-Southern Command were among the first to arrive in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew ravaged the island in October.
2016 was a year that saw improvements in the Marine Corps’ aviation readiness metrics but simultaneously a number of fatal crashes and a doubling of “Class C” smaller mishaps. Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis says the Marine Corps’ airplanes – some of which have been in service since the 1980s – have been “loved to death,” and the measured result has been reduced flight line readiness rates and low flight hours per month for Marine pilots at home. To address a serious ““not mission capable- supply” readiness problem, for a time as high as 25 percent for the AV-8B Harrier, CH-53E heavy-lift helicopter and MV-22 Osprey fleets, the service took a hard look at its supply chain to ensure the right spare parts were available when needed so that squadrons didn’t have to cannibalize one aircraft to keep another flying. As Ready Basic aircraft numbers rose by addressing logistics and putting the CH-53E fleet through a reset program, monthly flight hours and therefore crew proficiency have risen.
Still, the Navy and Marine Corps have seen a sharp uptick in Class C mishaps, which involve personnel injuries or damages of $50,000 to $500,000. These lower-scale mishaps could be tied to crew inexperience or other factors related to the readiness crisis, but the Navy and Marine Corps set up a review team to analyze data and better understand why these mishaps occur. As for Class A mishaps, which include fatal crashes or ones involving the loss of an aircraft, Davis said “I can’t tie the low readiness rates to a Class A mishap rate even though my gut sense says there’s something there,” and said ongoing reviews would look for common factors that the service could try to address to make naval aviation safer in the future. While Davis and others in the Marine Corps and Navy said that this year’s Class A mishap rate was in line with recent averages, the Marine Corps has seen many tragedies this year, including:
- Two Marine Corps CH-53E helicopters crashed in Hawaii on Jan. 14 off the coast of Oahu during nighttime training. Bad weather and heavy seas hampered the ongoing search and rescue effort, and ultimately the 12 Marines on the two aircraft were pronounced deceased on Jan. 21.
- Marine pilot Capt. Jeff Kuss died while training ahead of a Blue Angels flight demonstration in Tennessee. Kuss, who flew the #6 Hornet in the elite flight performance team, crashed shortly after takeoff from a local airport, and an investigation determined pilot error was the cause.
- Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornet pilot Richard Norton, 36, died July 28 when he crashed during a nighttime training event near Marine Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms.
- Hornet pilot Capt. Jake Fredrick, 32, died after ejecting from his airplane about 120 miles southeast of Iwakuni, Japan. He was flying a regular training mission when he ejected, and the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force recovered his body after an extensive search.
Additionally, the service had several close calls this year:
- On Sept. 22, a Harrier with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit crashed about 100 nautical miles off Okinawa, and the pilot safely ejected and was rescued by a U.S. Air Force rescue squadron.
- On Nov. 9 two single-seat Hornets from 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., crashed while training over waters near San Diego. One pilot landed safely at nearby Naval Air Station North Island, and the other ejected and was rescued from the water about an hour later.
- On Dec. 13 an Osprey crashed a couple miles off the coast of Okinawa after a mishap during a nighttime aerial refueling exercise. The pilot chose to land the airplane in shallow water rather than try to fly back to land and risk crashing in a Japanese civilian area. The aircraft was destroyed but the crew survived.
Several operational pauses were ordered throughout the year to assess the aviation force after these repeated crashes.