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Aviation strategy seeks to shatter limitations

Mar. 31, 2013 - 09:59AM   |  
A Marine fires a .50-caliber machine gun aboard a UH-1Y Huey helicopter while providing aerial reconnaissance in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in June. A Marine one-star says the Corps needs to do a better job of getting information gathered through aerial surveillance to ground forces.
A Marine fires a .50-caliber machine gun aboard a UH-1Y Huey helicopter while providing aerial reconnaissance in Helmand province, Afghanistan, in June. A Marine one-star says the Corps needs to do a better job of getting information gathered through aerial surveillance to ground forces. (Cpl. Meghan Gonzales / Marine Corps)
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Ongoing development of a crisis-response force for Africa is emblematic of new missions the Marine Corps could take on without the use of amphibious ships, said one of the service's top officers in aviation.

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Ongoing development of a crisis-response force for Africa is emblematic of new missions the Marine Corps could take on without the use of amphibious ships, said one of the service's top officers in aviation.

The new unit will be based on MV-22 Ospreys, with KC-130J Hercules tankers refueling them during long troop inserts when necessary, said Brig. Gen. Matthew Glavy, assistant deputy commandant for aviation. Unlike Marine expeditionary units, the new force will not rely heavily on the Navy's amphibious ready groups — key considering all the competing priorities there are for their usage.

“When we're kind of tight on amphibious ships, which we are … we've got to be vicious opportunists and figure out how we can support the [combatant commander] with the depth and breadth that he requires,” Glavy said.

The Corps has not formally announced the force will be established, but Commandant Gen. Jim Amos told Marine Corps Times in January that he envisions it responding to missions ranging from reinforcement to humanitarian assistance. It would be capable of responding to the kind of turmoil that has arisen in Mali, Algeria, Libya and other countries in volatile northern Africa in the past year, and report to Army Gen. David Rodriguez, who will soon become the head of U.S. Africa Command.

The support of the KC-130J will allow a reinforced rifle company to deploy aboard four to six Ospreys from Europe or Africa, Glavy said.

Glavy's comments came March 20 during an hour-long presentation on the future of Marine aviation at an event run by the Defense Strategies Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Overall, the Corps' aviation plan is progressing well, but it faces limitations on how it can move Marines around the globe, the general said.

One example: The Corps has started deploying Marines on a rotational basis to Darwin, Australia, a move that will require them to use the sprawling 2 million-acre Bradshaw Field Training Area for live-fire exercises and other training. The facility is among the best of its kind in the world, Glavy said, but it is dozens of miles from Darwin and its hospitals, raising concerns about what will happen if medical evacuations are needed.

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About 200 Marines at a time deploy to Darwin on a rotational basis. That force is expected to grow to up to 2,500 in coming years, however. Glavy said the Corps' relationship in Darwin is evolutionary and guided by political agreements between the U.S. and Australia, but the service is considering options to supply additional aviation as the force Down Under grows. One option calls for the service to divert MV-22 Ospreys from Okinawa, Japan, as Marines based there with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit deploy, he said.

New eyes in the sky

The Corps also is developing new ways to incorporate innovations in aviation technology, Glavy said. For example, while next-generation aircraft like the UH-1Y “Yankee” Huey helicopter have advanced sensors that provide robust aerial surveillance, it isn't easy to push that information to ground forces quickly. Glavy said that's a capability gap that needs to be addressed.

“What if I could take that sensor package and put it to whoever needs it?” Glavy said. “It could be the raid force commander who is in the back of an MV-22, still 100 miles out. It could be a forward air controller, the squad leader, the platoon commander, the fire team leader.”

The question is particularly of note when it comes to the military's next-generation jet, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The aircraft will have a broad array of radar and infrared technology, but it isn't clear how that information will be shared with rank-and-file grunts on the ground.

“Ultimately, this question on steroids is, ‘How do I take the F-35's sensor package and put it where it needs to go?' “ Glavy said. “That's a gap, and we still need to work through that.”

The development of the new RQ-21A unmanned aerial vehicle also raises possibilities — and questions — for the future. It is built by Insitu, a subsidiary of Boeing, and uses the same launcher and recovery system as Boeing's ScanEagle UAV.

Glavy said the new UAV will provide MEU commanders better surveillance options for everything from navigating the Strait of Hormuz near Iran to conducting anti-piracy missions. It completed its first at-sea flight from the amphibious transport dock Mesa Verde in February, Navy officials said.

The new UAV also will be used as a command-and-control node to shoot communications across the battlefield, including voice and text messages.

“It's back to this idea of a 10,000-foot antenna,” he said. “You can see the benefits of exploiting your aviation capabilities to provide your C2 backbone.”

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