A detachment of CH-53E Super Stallions from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 772 will head to Okinawa in June as part of the Unit Deployment Program, Marine Corps officials have announced. (Tech. Sgt. Parker Gyokeres/Air Force)
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Two helicopter squadrons will head to Okinawa in June as III Marine Expeditionary Force ramps up the aviation component of the Unit Deployment Program.
As the Marine Corps shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific region, it wants more aviation units routinely cycling through its air stations in Japan. The goal: to return to aircraft numbers not seen since the early days of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
About 170 Marines with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 772, a reserve squadron out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J., and Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 167, an active-duty squadron out of Marine Corps Air Station New River, N.C., will arrive in Japan within weeks.
Eight rotary-wing aircraft will accompany the Marines when they deploy, said 1st Lt. Taylor Clarke, a public affairs officer with III MEF: HMH-772 will arrive with four CH-53E Super Stallion heavy-lift helicopters; HMLA-167 will bring four AH-1W Super Cobra attack helos.
The Marines’ primary duty there will be to support routine operations and training exercises for ground troops based in Japan, Clarke said. But having the aircraft back on Okinawa provides commanders with a valuable asset in any operations they might be called upon to support, he said. The number of Super Cobras in Japan was scaled back a decade ago, and the Super Stallions in 2005, both to respond to increased needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s interesting to see them coming back,” Clarke said. “It further enhances our capacity to respond to any contingency and boosts III MEF’s capabilities in the region.”
The Marines will rotate through in six-month deployment cycles, but the aircraft will stay longer, Clarke said. Occasionally, the helicopters will rotate in and out for maintenance, but they will be primarily based in Okinawa, he said.
The Marines will be living in existing housing aboard Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, Clarke said.
Although squadron personnel aren’t slated to participate in additional exercises in the region, that’s not to say they couldn’t be called to support training missions in nearby countries once they are in Japan, Clarke said.
“They could augment the routine exercises we do in places like Thailand, the Philippines or Australia,” he said.
The ground component of the Unit Deployment Program, which began in the 1970s, accelerated earlier this year when the Marine Corps began deploying two infantry battalions to Japan on six-month rotations. Members of 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., and 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., are forward deployed.
The commandant has said he hopes to rotate a third infantry battalion through in the near term, so there would be one from every MEF.
“My goal is, in August and September, to bring in a third rotational battalion on Okinawa. So we’ll actually have three rotating,” Gen. Jim Amos said during a conference in January.
With Marines on the ground in Japan, the Marine Corps could increase the amount of training there and throughout the region, in places like Thailand, Vietnam or Cambodia. The returning aviation units will provide better support for those additional Marines, Clarke said.