Marines Upgrading Today’s Aircraft To Prepare For Tomorrow’s Distributed, High-End Fight

March 28, 2017 4:29 PM

The Marine Corps released its 2017 Marine Aviation Plan today, outlining its upcoming aircraft acquisition and upgrade plans and providing a glimpse of how those new capabilities will come together in various operational scenarios.

A combination of command and control upgrades to better tie the different types of aircraft together, new weapons and improved logistics will help Marine aviation meet increasing challenges around the world, according to the plan. The service is beginning to develop new operational concepts that leverage these capabilities while acknowledging that Marine aviators may not always be able to operate from established land bases or return back to their ships every day.

Future Aviation Operations

US Marine Corps Graphic

Much like the Navy’s surface fleet and the Marine Corps’ ground communities, the Marine aviation community emphasizes distributed operations. The outlook calls for a Distributed Aviation Operations (DAO) concept to support land or naval campaigns looks to reduce risk to the force by spreading out and therefore complicating the enemy’s ability to detect and engage with Marine aviation units.

“In some regions, the proliferation of long-range, precision conventional threats, such as advanced SAMS [surface-to-air missiles] and cruise missiles and armed UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), has contested the use of traditional bases and methods of operations,” the plan reads.
“DAO is a task-organized MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] operation, employing ACE [aviation combat element] aircraft in a distributed force posture, independent of specialized fixed infrastructure.”

By ridding the force of its reliance on fixed infrastructure and creating forward operating bases of varying sizes and levels of sophistication, Marine aviation would gain increased operational reach, increased capacity by supplementing sea-based sorties, more options during major maneuvers, flexibility and surprised, and reduced risk to the force, the plan states.

A similar Distributed STOVL Operations concept specifically for the Short-Takeoff Vertical-Landing [STOVL] F-35B Joint Strike Fighters would supplement traditional sea and land basing options with “mobile forward arming and refueling points” for resupply mid-mission. A separate mobile distribution site would serve as the location for Marines on surface connectors or host nation forces to stage fuel and weapons that will be brought to the mobile forward arming and refueling points. Importantly, all these sites are considered “mobile” and are intended to maintain elements of “deception and decoy” – in keeping with the idea that the aircraft are supposed to be distributed and difficult to find and target.

For high-end operations, the aviation plan outlines a “Lightning Carrier” hauling up to 20 F-35Bs into battle.

Four F-35B Lightning II aircraft perform a flyover above the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) during the Lightning Carrier Proof of Concept Demonstration on Nov. 20, 2016. US Navy Photo

“In the 2017-2027 timeframe, the Marine Corps will possess the majority of naval 5th generation aircraft. By 2025, the Marine Corps will operate 185 F-35Bs—enough to equip all seven L-Class ships,” the plan reads.
“While the amphibious assault ship will never replace the aircraft carrier, it can be complementary, if employed in imaginative ways. The CV-L concept has previous been employed (five times) utilizing AV-8B Harriers in a ‘Harrier Carrier’ concept… A Lightning Carrier, taking full advantage of the amphibious assault ship as a sea base, can provide the naval and joint force with significant access, collection and strike capabilities.”

The Lightning Carrier concept includes an amphibious assault ship carrying 16 to 20 F-35Bs with four MV-22 Ospreys to refuel them – along with relying on the Distributed Aviation Operations’ forward-operating bases – and deploying either independently, as part of an Expeditionary Strike Group or as part of a Carrier Strike Group with a Navy aircraft carrier and guided-missile cruisers and destroyers.

“We might never need to employ this way – and may not want to, based upon the need to employ our amphibious ships in a more traditional role – but to not lean forward to develop this capability, to train and exercise with it, is to deny ourselves a force multiplier that highlights the agility and opportunity only the Navy-Marine Corps team can provide,” the plan reads.

Additionally, with growing global demands for naval aviation presence and upcoming opportunities such as the introduction of the LX(R) – which will be a much more sophisticated ship than the LSD dock landing ship it replaces – the aviation plan states “we must explore new and creative methods of deploying and employing the ACE in order to provide maximum flexibility, capabilities and value to the naval and joint force.”


An F-35B Lightning II short takeoff/vertical landing aircraft conducts test operations on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS America on Nov. 11, 2016. US Marine Corps Photo

The Marine Corps will field 353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs by 2031, with the short-term priority being to replace AV-8B Harrier and F-18 Hornet squadrons in Japan and on the West Coast in the next couple years.

The first operational squadron, VMFA-121, has moved to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni in Japan and will fill both land-based and at-sea requirements in the region by the end of this fiscal year when it sends its planes to sea with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit for the first time. By the end of Fiscal Year 2019, all MEUs leaving from the West Coast will use the F-35B as their sole type of fixed-wing airplane.

Due to challenges maintaining the legacy Hornets and Harriers, the plan notes that “the [tactical aircraft] transition will remain flexible with regards to (squadron) transition order based on F-35 program progress and legacy readiness.”

US Marine Corps Graphic

Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Jon Davis previously told USNI News that, due to greater readiness challenges in the Hornet fleet, those squadrons may transition faster than originally planned.

“We will probably slow down the Harrier transition a little bit and emphasize F-18,” he said in May.
“We have a decision point in 2019 to say do we want to change it up some more? So we have the flexibility inside the Marine Corps to change up the transition schedule” as conditions in the legacy tactical air community dictate.

An AV-8B Harrier assigned to Marine Attack Squadron (VMA) 311 prepares to land on the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6) on Feb. 25, 2015. US Navy Photo

According to the current plan, Harriers would cease operating from the West Coast by 2022 and would sundown in early 2026. Hornets would be consolidated onto the West Coast and cease East Coast operations by 2027, ahead of a planned 2030 sundown.

Additionally, in FY 2019 the Marines will transition its first squadron to the F-35C, which will operate from Navy aircraft carriers. The Marines will make their own initial operational capability declaration independent of the Navy’s IOC announcement, due to the separate requirements associated with expeditionary operations. The Marines will have to prove that a squadron of between six and 10 airplanes – with the right spares and support equipment, trained and certified pilots and maintainers, and home base supporting infrastructure – are not only proficient operating in the air against required mission sets but also “deploying the F-35C to austere expeditionary sites and conducting landings using M-31 Expeditionary Arresting Gear.”

The aviation plan appears to show the first Marine Corps F-35C squadron reaching IOC by FY 2021.


U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command and Combined Forces Air Component, U.S. Central Command, prepares to pilot an MV-22 Osprey with U.S. Marine Maj. Eric Keith, executive officer for Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 363, Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Central Command on Aug. 26, 2016. US Marine Corps Photo

Along with the F-35, the MV-22 Osprey will help the Marines operate at long ranges in support of the future operational concepts outlined in the aviation plan. The aircraft, which joined the fleet in 2007, will reach full operational capability in 2020 and is already in the midst of manning and maintenance changes to keep up with the pivotal role the aircraft now plays for the Marine Corps.

“In the years ahead, the Osprey will remain the nation’s crisis response platform of choice in support of the ‘new normal,’” reads the report.
“Due to the increasing demand for the Osprey, a detachment capability is being built into the VMMs (Osprey squadrons). Staffing began in 2014 for detachment capability in two East Coast squadrons. An additional sixteen squadrons will receive the increased staffing in FY17,” the plan continues, with the next two new squadrons standing up with that extra manning built in.

With the additional use of the planes not only at sea but also as the basis for land-based Special Purpose MAGTF-Crisis Response units comes additional wear and tear to keep up with.

Undated photo of an aerial refueling test from a Marine Corps Bell-Boeing MV-22. U.S. Marine Corps Photo

“Readiness initiatives remain a focus of the MV-22 program in order to increase mission capable rates and decrease operating cost,” the plan states, noting “maintenance concept changes, repair capability standup, and contract strategy changes” to keep up with readiness challenges.

The service is also moving ahead to introduce aerial refueling capabilities to the V-22, allowing it to refuel the F-35 and other fixed, tiltrotor and rotary wing aircraft mid-air. The V-22 Aerial Refueling System (VARS) system will be fielded in its initial capability in FY 2018, with a full-capability system in 2019.


The Harvest Hawk equipped KC-130J rests on the runway at Camp Dwyer, Afghanistan. US Marine Corps Photo

The active component has completed its transition to the KC-130J tanker and the reserve component is finishing the transition now. The service’s plans for the aircraft are far from complete, though. The aviation plan outlines survivability, lethality and interoperability upgrades for the coming years.

The Marine Corps previously took 10 of its planes and created a “Harvest Hawk” bolt-on/bolt-off capability. The service intends to field these kits for all its KC-130Js and is in the midst of enhancing the Harvest Hawk kit.

“Throughout 2017, the mission kit will continue installation and testing of sensor and fire control system upgrades to address system obsolescence and eliminate deficiencies, while sustaining relevancy through transition from P2A Hellfire to the P4 Hellfire, and eventually JAGM,” read the report.

The fleet should receive the “Enhanced Harvest Hawk” kits, which include the new Hellfire missile, a new MX-20 sensor ball, and the Joint Air to Ground Missile (JAGM), in FY 2018.

CH-53K and E

The first CH-53K King Stallion US Marine Corps heavy lift helicopter. Sikorsky Photo

The Marines’ next new aircraft it will field, the CH-53K heavy lift helicopter, is awaiting a Milestone C decision and should reach initial operational capability in 2019. In the mean time, the legacy CH-53E helos are in a readiness recovery effort to keep the workhorse aircraft running reliably until their replacement reach full operational capability in 2029.This recovery effort is expected to last until 2019 and will reset all 146 helicopters at a pace of 16 at a time.

Enabling Capabilities

US Marine Corps Graphic

To support this vision of future operations, the Marine Corps needs to be able to seamlessly link its manned and unmanned airplanes. A MAGTF Digital Interoperability effort in the aviation plan outlines the Marine Corps’ intention to field a Software Reprogrammable Payload (SRP) Increment 2 radio program that can host multiple communications waveforms and, when used with an “airborne gateway” technology, will help tie together existing platforms without making costly changes to the airplanes.

“Airborne gateways will serve as a conduit between disparate networks and waveforms on the current battlefield. Gateways possess the ability to receive one waveform/message type and process it into another waveform/message type before off boarding the data. Due to the inherent difficulties of replacing or adding new systems to some Marine aviation platforms, adding airborne gateways enables information exchanges across a variety of systems and networks,” the plan reads.
“This increased prevalence of airborne gateways will provide data exchange capabilities throughout the MAGTF without each platform having to be equipped with every waveform currently being used on the battlefield. Airborne gateways, such as the Mesh Network Manager (MNM) utilizes a collection of radios and conducts message translation and processing for dissemination leveraging software that is interoperable with (U.S. Special Operations Command).”

US Marine Corps Graphic

Additionally, “Persistent Airborne Gateways” – Group 4 or 5 unmanned aerial vehicles with the airborne gateway technology – will be fielded to ensure Marines on the ground have access to this network even in the absence of a MV-22, CH-53, or KC-130. In 2019, the Marines will formally begin a MAGTF Agile Network Gateway Link (MANGL) program of record to field the gateway, the software reprogrammable payload and associated tablets on all MV-22, CH-53 and KC-130 aircraft.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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