Semper Wi-Fi: New Marine Aviation Plan Pushes Digital Connections Between Far-flung Forces

May 3, 2022 1:44 PM - Updated: May 3, 2022 4:07 PM
U.S. Marine Corps F-35B aircraft mechanic Lance Cpl. William Wiggins assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121, currently attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 265 (Reinforced), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), monitors an F-35B aboard amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA-6), in the Philippine Sea on Aug. 18, 2021. US Marine Corps Photo

THE PENTAGON — Key to Marines’ latest aviation plan is using the service’s aircraft to keep small units spread across small islands in the Western Pacific connected through a digital interoperability as it continues its modernization efforts for a lighter, more mobile force.

Following the initial iterations of the Force Design 2030 effort to modernize the service for its island-hopping strategy in regions like the Indo-Pacific, the Marine Corps has a plan to apply those modernization initiatives to aviation with digital links front and center.

“With respect to some of the changes you’ve seen … Force Design 2030 really drove a lot of them. And it also drove the reason why we took a couple of years off, as we started to make some adjustments in order to make sure we were articulating what Force Design was from the aviation perspective,” Lt. Gen. Mark Wise, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, told reporters on Monday. “And we put that into the programmatic speak of the document itself so that as it came out, it’s as good as the day that it was signed. But things are going to evolve over time and I would expect there would be some changes to next year as we go on, as there are almost every year with a programmatic document like this.”

Wise described his vision for digital interoperability as the “ability to build our own network locally in order to push information to that squad leader, platoon leader, that’s inside the aircraft on his way to a target area. And he’s actually getting real-time [situational awareness] as to what’s happening.”

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The effort is akin to the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control initiative, for which the Navy’s contribution is the targeting network effort called Project Overmatch.

“But being able to push that information amongst a flight – whether it’s V-22s going into a target area or a much broader flight with CH-53S and KC-130Js – that was really some of the initial direction or digital interoperability. But I would tell you that it’s expanded a great deal from there,” Wise said, adding the phrase “any sensor, any shooter,” which has become a common description among Pentagon officials to describe the concept of JADC2.

“It’s a matter of pushing information – not just video, but voice, but it’s also target-quality data – from any way-form through certain gateways to end users, whether that end user is a shooter or a consumer of information. I would say all of that is part of it,” he added.

Those changes span the Marine Corps’ aviation platforms, as the service has analyzed how each type of aircraft factors into a vision for operations across a vast region like the Indo-Pacific, where Marines can operate in smaller units across islands and shorelines.

The reshaping of the Marine Corps has reached its aviation arm. In the near future, F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters will protect the Marine Littoral Regiment, armed with anti-ship missiles, while CH-53K King Stallion and MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotors join in an expansive targeting network to link units dotted across tiny islands around the world.

“There are decisions across all the type model series that would be related to Force Design. The change between 2019 and 2022 was because things were in such flux that even if I had written one, it would have changed radically by the next year,” Wise said. “There may be some changes here and there but it’s not like everything is in a state of flux right now.”

U.S. Marines with Combat Logistics Battalion (CLB) 24 attach a Light Armored Vehicle 25 to a CH-53K King Stallion helicopter’s lift hooks at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., on April 27, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

After several years of wargaming and experimentation, the Marine Corps has continued its pursuit of a lighter force that can operate in smaller units, setting up expeditionary bases where Marines can harrass an opposing force in ways that include firing anti-ship missiles. The aviation plan, released Tuesday, shows how the service sees each platform fitting into Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s overall vision for this strategy.

Using those platforms in a potential future conflict relies on the “digital interoperability” pursuit the Marine Corps is focused on, so Marines can pass and share information across platforms and domains in a potential conflict.

Because so much of that information filters through the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), Wise said it’s a high priority for funding.

“It’s not that everything goes perfect all the time, but with the amount of time we’ve been working on things like software reprogrammable payloads and things like that, I think we’re actually doing pretty well. I don’t see a lot of risk to getting to an end state, particularly by 2030,” he said.

Col. Craig Doty, the branch head of the Marine Corp’s Cunningham Group housed in the Marine aviation enterprise, said the service has fielded “just under” 4,500 Marine Air-Ground Tablets, known as MAGTABs.

“What we’re trying to do now is tie our tactical users to the larger pipes that we have had. So if you were to walk into a command post time now, you would see a lot of the digital interoperability. What we’re trying to do is to take that situational awareness and now take it down to the tactical suer so it’s proliferated across the battlespace,” Doty said.

Wise’s deputy, Brig. Gen. Matt Mowery, said the Marine Corps recently experimented with the digital operability concept using its H-1 helicopters on Navy ships.

“For example, we just had in December an exercise where we had some H1s operating off ships, sharing targeting data with Navy fixed-wing and Navy rotary-wing, passing that information back to a joint task force commander for then to a targeting cell via Link 16,” Mowery said. “So you know, again, it’s that inter-service, multi-platform, back to decision makers,” effort.

An AH-1W Super Cobra helicopter operated by Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 265 (Rein.) Marines, with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) await ordinance and fuel at a Forward Arming and Refueling Point on Ie Shima Island, in Okinawa Japan, Jan. 6, 2022. US Marine Corps Photo

The aviation plan, which the Marine Corps usually releases yearly, includes visions for each platform, many of which have some modernization efforts under the digital interoperability pursuit.

The document also includes a firmer position on how the Marine Corps sees the F-35 fighter.

Wise pointed to the “Wake Island Avengers” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211, an F-35B squadron that deployed last year aboard United Kingdom aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth (R08) with British F-35Bs. At one point during the deployment, aircraft from Queen Elizabeth flew missions, landed on USS America (LHA-6), – which had its its own F-35Bs aboard – refueled, flew another mission and then back to the U.K. carrier, Wise said.

“The power of things that actually happened with that aircraft really emphasizes the capability it brings, the interoperability with our partners and allies because i don’t care what our future holds, we will not do any of it alone,” he added.

The next phase for the Marine Corps’ F-35 efforts includes determining whether the service is employing the aircraft correctly.

“Now what we’re trying to make sure is that our employment models are appropriate for how we’re going to employ it off the L-class ships as well as off of TACAIR integration, flying with the Navy. We’re on our first deployment with them right now,” Wise said.

Marines assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) disembark from the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD-5) on MV-22B Ospreys, attached to the ‘Blue Knights’ of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 365 (Reinforced), from the ship’s flight deck on July 13, 2020. US Navy Photo

The “Black Knights” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314 are currently deployed aboard USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), which this week is operating in the Philippine Sea.

The service is standing up its first F-35 squadrons on the West Coast for three reasons, Wise said, for supply chain purposes, because the Navy needs to modify the LHA and LHD flight decks so they can accommodate the heat that comes off the F-35s, and due to the Pentagon’s emphasis on the Indo-Pacific in the National Defense Strategy. The new CH-53K King Stallion squadrons will transition on the East Coast first, so not to put too much pressure on the West Coast squadrons.

As for other aviation capabilities, the Marines are also pursuing ways to meet sustainment problems when performing distributed operations in a large region like the Indo-Pacific. The service is looking at unmanned assets like the Unmanned Logistics System Airborne – Large to fill this gap.

“So if I’m going to have challenges with manned assault support platforms – having enough to get to these individual spots – and I might want to focus where the manned missions are going, having an unmanned capability to help expand my reach and to also increase the tempo of my reach, that’s what we’re looking at with ULSA – Large,” Wise said.

A MV-22B Osprey, assigned to the Blue Knights of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 365 (Reinforced) prepares to take off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD-5) on Oct. 15, 2019. US Navy Photo

This offensive air support capability could be another tier for the Marine Corps’ Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Expeditionary program, also known as MUX.

The ULSA Large would have a 1,000 to 3,000 payload and could help the Marine Corps’ smaller units that are operating across large distances, according to Wise. The autonomy technology for this type of capability is “fairly mature” and some systems the defense industry has put forward for the Future Vertical Lift (FVL) family of systems program could fit the ULSA need, Wise said.

“So there are mature capabilities being developed that we can leverage – in some of the research that [has] be done up to date – that are already designed to be unmanned, some of them optionally manned – that would allow us to build up that capability as one of the MUX tiers in order to get after some of the assault support capacity challenges that we will have if anything were to happen out in the Pacific.”

The Marine Corps is now pursuing a family of systems approach for what it’s calling MUX/MALE, or the medium-altitude long-endurance system. MUX is broken into several tiers, with the MQ-9A Reaper as the first tier for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. Other potential missions for the MQ-9A include communications, electronic warfare and airborne early warning, Wise said.

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne

Mallory Shelbourne is a reporter for USNI News. She previously covered the Navy for Inside Defense and reported on politics for The Hill.
Follow @MalShelbourne

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