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Lightning Strikes

USMC fixed-wing aviation outlook

In June, the Marine Corps released its Marine Operations Concept 2010, a document written by the staff of the Marine Corps Combat Development Command that explains how the USMC must provide the nation with two key capabilities: assuring littoral access and winning “small wars.”

In Marine aviation terms, assuring access and winning small wars hinges upon strike capability. As of the beginning of the year, the Marine Corps has gone “all-in” with regard to its near-term strike capacity. The Corps must have the F-35 and relatively soon. Without it, the service’s ability to carry out “lightning strikes” will degrade quickly.

In spite of the well-publicized delays and changes in leadership in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program (USMC Maj. Gen. David Heinz was removed from directorship of the JSF Joint Program Office in February, replaced by USN Vice Adm. David Venlet), the USMC has refused to push back the Initial Operating Capability (IOC) for the F-35B as the Navy and Air Force have done for the F-35C and F-35A. Twenty baseline-capable F-35Bs will have to be produced and ready to fly with the first USMC training squadron (VMFAT-501) at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., in 2010-2011. They’ll be followed by another 10 for the first IOC squadron (VMFA-332), which is to debut in 2012.

Pilot Graham Tomlinson landing F-35B BF-1 vertically during flight testing. Photo courtesy of Lockheed Martin.

“We have two years and nine months in order to populate these squadrons,” Marine Corps Deputy Commandant of Aviation Lt. Gen. George J. Trautman III said in an April 2010 interview. “We’re semi-confident we can track in that direction.”

Hopefully, such confidence is well founded. The future of Marine Corps fixed-wing aviation literally turns upon the timely arrival of the F-35B. The service’s decision not to buy fourth-generation strike/fighter aircraft like the USN’s Boeing Super Hornet in favor of going directly to the JSF means that its extant fleet of F/A-18A/C/D Hornets, AV-8B Harriers, and EA-6B Prowlers is considerably older.

Their remaining service life is limited and quickly being consumed. The Corps has already extended flight hour ceilings for these aircraft and any delay in F-35B production/deployment will exacerbate the situation. The Navy has predicted a “fighter gap” of approximately 177 aircraft based on JSF delays.

A May report from the Congressional Budget Office actually suggested cutting the Navy/Marine Corps F-35 buy from 680 to 587 aircraft in favor of further Super Hornet purchases, among other alternatives. USN/USMC leadership said it remains “committed” to the current total buy number. Such is the service’s faith in the Lightning II that when the Prowler retires around 2020, the F-35B will become the Marines’ only front-line manned strike/fighter/ECM aircraft.

Bought, Paid For, and Testing

Trautman stressed that those F-35s needed to reach IOC in December 2012 have already been procured. Specifically, they were procured in 2008-2010 and are unaffected by a spring 2010 Pentagon announcement cutting 122 F-35s from the FY 11 to FY 15 buy.

“All in all, the Marine Corps portion of this program has not been affected in the near term by the restructuring of the JSF program,” Trautman said. “We have been affected by the slower deliveries and testing of the airplanes to the order of five to six months behind where I’d like to be. But with four airplanes in the hands of the testers at Pax River [Md.] and out of the hands of the contractor, I anticipate turning sorties at a rapid pace. That’s what we saw with BF-1 in March as they headed toward the first vertical landing. They started to generate test points at a pace that exceeded projections. That was quite comforting for us. We’ll see how the next year goes.”

Four F-35B prototypes were flight testing at NAS Patuxent River by May, including the mission systems-equipped BF-4, which arrived in early June. Some significant testing milestones had been achieved by midsummer, including the first vertical landing by a prototype (BF-1) in mid-March and the first supersonic flight in early June. The latter marked the first time a Short Take-Off Vertical Landing (STOVL) aircraft had broken the sound barrier since the “X-flight” of the X-35 prototype. As of July 12, the F-35 flight test program had completed 287 test flights between the nine conventional, STOVL, and carrier-suitable prototypes built thus far.

Lockheed Martin committed to complete at least 394 flights in 2010, and the company reportedly ended June with 136 flights in the first six months, 18 more than planned, but only a third of the way to its goal for 2010. The average number of test flights per aircraft increased in June, putting the test team on a pace to achieve its testing sortie goal. However, in early July Aviation Week reported that mechanical issues had challenged the pace of F-35B sorties.

Through June, the four F-35Bs at Patuxent River logged 75 flights, averaging a bit over three per month per aircraft. Test flight tempo did improve in June, with the quartet of F-35Bs flying a total of 19 times – ranging from seven flights for BF-3 to just two for BF-2. While flying various test points to schedule may have proven a challenge, the Pax River test team has reported only minor issues.

F-35B test pilots cited an oscillation when refueling behind a KC-130, and a shimmy when going supersonic, both corrected quickly with flight control system mods. The pilots continue to laud the Lightning’s friendly flying qualities, particularly in STOVL mode.

A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet aircraft assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 323, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., participates in a mission near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, July 9, 2010, during Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2010. The Marine Corps is reducing aircraft numbers in some squadrons and upgrading some F/A-18A+/C/D aircraft to keep them viable while waiting for the F-35B.  U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey.

Concurrently, preparations for F-35 training continue at Eglin AFB in the new joint-service 33rd Fighter Wing. Initial pilot and maintenance training will go forward using simulation technology, 33rd Vice Commander USMC Col. Arthur Tomassetti explained.

“Whether they are pilot students or maintenance students, they are going to start in electronic classrooms.”

As of late June, the wing was equipped with a basic JSF simulator and expected to install six to eight full-motion simulators by early 2011. Each pilot must fly at least five missions inside the simulator before his first F-35B flight. If the fighter’s delivery date continues to slip, the pilots will continue to train in the advanced simulators.

The Corps released its F-35 basing plans in late spring. The first operational squadron is planned for Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma, Ariz., in 2012, although final approval to base the squadron there isn’t expected until late 2010. Twenty-two operational squadrons will be spread among MCASs Beaufort, S.C., and Cherry Point, N.C., on the East Coast, and Miramar, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz., on the West Coast, according to Marine Pentagon spokesman Capt. Craig Thomas. Seven of the 22 squadrons will have 16 aircraft, and the rest will have 10, although their basing assignments have yet to be determined.

While initial pilot training will be at Eglin AFB and later Beaufort, the West Coast will have an operational training and evaluation squadron, possibly at MCAS Miramar.

These decisions and more far-reaching USMC policy will be in the hands of a different leader for the Corps if President Barack Obama’s nomination is confirmed by Congress. The next Marine Corps commandant will likely be Gen. James Amos. His nomination marks a break with Marine tradition, since he would be the first career aviator named commandant and the first assistant named to the top post in many years. His selection brushes aside more conventional choices such as Gen. James Mattis, who instead became commander of CENTCOM, and Lt. Gen. Joe Dunford, commander of I Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif.

Huffing Hornets – Harried Harriers

The condition of the USMC’s legacy F/A-18 Hornet fleet was highlighted when Naval Air Systems Command grounded 104 Navy and Marine Corps Hornets March 12, 2010, after inspectors discovered that parts of the airframes were developing cracks much earlier than engineers had thought. The cracks were detected during service-life extension inspections that NAVAIR is conducting for all aging Hornets to determine how much longer individual aircraft can remain in the fleet.

U.S. Navy Aviation Boatswain’s Mate 2nd Class Daniel Ballard directs the landing of an AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft on the flight deck of forward-deployed Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) Jan. 21, 2010, at sea. While the Harriers are aging and are demanding aircraft for pilots and maintainers, they have more than proved their worth to the Marine Corps and several other operators. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Greg Johnson.

Subsequently, 82 were returned to the fleet after inspections revealed no cracks. Seven aircraft with cracks were to be sent for depot-level maintenance to replace the aft wing shear attach fitting, where the back portion of the main wing attaches to the fuselage. There are currently 13 USMC F/A-18 squadrons.

The USMC has tweaked its F-35 transition plan by transitioning some Hornet squadrons earlier and leveraging the service life remaining in the AV-8B fleet. Other measures include reducing USMC expeditionary F/A-18A+/C/D squadrons from 12 to 10 aircraft per squadron.

The Marine Corps will upgrade 56 Lot 7-9 F/A-18As and 30 Lot 10/11 F/A-18Cs to a Lot 21 avionics capability with digital communications, a tactical data link, JHMCS, MIDS, and LITENING. The Corps will also upgrade 72 F/A-18D models’ APG-73 radars with the Expand 4/5 upgrade, providing an enhanced Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) capability.

The service anticipates these upgrades will enhance the current capabilities of these aircraft with the digital communications, tactical data link and Advanced Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Systems (ATARS) required for them to remain viable. The Marines expect the F/A-18(A++/C/D) to remain in the active inventory until FY 2022 and in the reserve inventory until FY 2023.

The LITENING targeting pod is also being deployed on F/A-18A+/C/D aircraft in expeditionary operations including Afghanistan. When combined with data link hardware, the LITENING pod provides real-time video to ground forces through Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver (ROVER) and Video Scout ground workstations.

In June, USMC F/A-18s participated in an important exercise called “Trident Warrior” at MCAS Miramar. Trident Warrior saw Marine Hornets test the integration of the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node IFDL Sub-System (BIS) with four F-22 Raptors from the 422nd Test and Evaluation Squadron, Nellis AFB.

The BIS is an airborne communications relay that extends communications ranges, bridges radio frequencies and passes data between incompatible communications systems. Despite the incompatibility of legacy Hornet and F-22 communications and data links, the BIS can act as a gateway enabling F-22 data to be provided to F/A-18A-D aircraft.

When linked via the BIS, both aircraft have the ability to communicate with each other and see each other’s location. The Raptor pilot can also upload a snapshot of what he sees and that information is populated on the F/A-18 network via Link 16, significantly improving the Marine Hornet pilots’ situational awareness.

Among other exercises, USMC AV-8B Harriers from MCAS Yuma participated in “Dawn Blitz” in June. Flying from USS Bonhomme Richard, eight VMA-513 Harriers provided close-air support and integrated with the USN’s 3rd Fleet and the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force  (1 MEF) for its first amphibious exercise in a decade. With the Marine forces deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq for over eight years, opportunities to train for a littoral scenario like an amphibious landing have been limited.

A U.S. Marine Corps KC-130 Hercules aircraft demonstrates a landing at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, May 4, 2010, during a rehearsal for the station’s annual Friendship Day. The KC-130J will increasingly replace KC-130Ts in the inventory, and all will be Harvest Hawk-capable. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Andrea M. Olguin.

As VMA-231, the Corps’ oldest squadron, celebrated its 90th anniversary, its Harriers, like those of other squadrons, continue to be deployed heavily in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and for other emerging operational contingencies. In 2009, the Harrier ended a six year rotation in Iraq. The FY 2011 Budget requests $22.9 million in RDT&E funds to continue development of the AV-8B Readiness Management Plan (RMP), Digital Improved Triple Ejector Racks (DITER), and Engine Life Management Plan (ELMP) to include continued Accelerated Simulated Mission Endurance Testing (ASMET). The DITER effort will increase the digital weapons carriage capability of the Harrier.

The budget also requests $19.4 million procurement funds for ELMP upgrades and the RMP, which addresses aircraft obsolescence and deficiency issues associated with sustaining the AV-8B fleet. Equipped with precision weapons, LITENING targeting pods with a video downlink to ROVER ground stations, and digitally-aided Close Air Support (Marine Tactical System (MTS) protocol), the Harrier has proven to be a valuable asset for the MAGTF and joint commanders. Planned capability upgrades, obsolescence mitigation and readiness initiatives strive to keep the AV-8B relevant and sustained through at least 2022.

Jammers, Gassers, and Shooters

There are presently 92 EA-6B Prowlers in the USN/USMC inventory, including 67 Improved Capability (ICAP) II and 16 Navy ICAP III aircraft. The replacement of Navy EA-6B aircraft with the EA-18G was expected to be completed in 2012, but the Navy now says it will wind up its EA-6B program in 2014.

The Marine Corps currently has 20 operational EA-6B ICAP II aircraft in four VMAQ squadrons. Overseas Contingency Operations funds were used to purchase 16 ICAP III modification kits and installations. The transition to the ICAP III aircraft began in March 2010 and will be complete by 2013. As the Navy transitions ICAP III squadrons to the EA-18G, those aircraft will be transferred to the Corps. Once complete, the USMC will have 32 ICAP III to support its EA-6B program through 2019.

Capt. Antonio M. Edwards, electronic countermeasures officer, and Lance Cpl. Dakota L. Taylor, fixed-wing aircraft mechanic, both with Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 3, conduct a preflight check of an EA-6B Prowler at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., July 22. VMAQ-3 was participating in Red Flag Class 10-4, which is a two-week advanced aerial combat training exercise hosted at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The Marine Corps’ Prowler fleet will be bolstered by ex-Navy ICAP III aircraft, and will have to await an  F-35-based replacement. USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Tyler J. Bolken.

When the Navy completes its transition from the EA-6B, the Marine Corps may be required to establish its own Fleet Replacement Squadron. Marine Prowlers have made extensive use of the LITENING targeting pod in Afghanistan. Likewise, the Collaborative On-line Reconnaissance Provider/Operationally Responsive Attack Link (CORP/ORAL) Joint Combat Technology Demonstration (JCTD) is demonstrating the concept of networked, on-demand intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and electronic warfare from manned and unmanned platforms utilizing the link capabilities in LITENING pods.

The Marines’ air-refueling and cargo fleet remained busy, with KC-130Ts from VMGR-234 and VMGR-452 sending detachments to Romania as part of Black Sea Rotational Force 2010. KC-130Ts are gradually being replaced by the KC-130J, which has undergone testing and preliminary approval for kits to convert the aircraft to reconnaissance and close-air-support platforms in a matter of hours.

The KC-130J ISR/Weapon Mission Kit (Harvest Hawk) is a modular roll-on, roll-off system consisting of a fire control console in the aircraft’s cargo compartment, a target sight sensor (TSS) mounted in the left under wing fuel tank and a launcher for four Hellfire missiles mounted on the left hand refueling pylon. An upgraded KC-130J completed evaluation of the TSS in April at Naval Air Station Patuxent River.

Weapons testing of the Harvest Hawk went forward at Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, Calif., in June. Following the weapons tests, operational testing will begin and run concurrently with training at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma. Current plans call for the acquisition of nine Harvest Hawk kits. All KC-130Js will receive A-kits to enable them to accept the modular system.

Finally, the service’s only aggressor squadron, VMFT-401, continues in its adversary training role at MCAS Yuma. The squadron’s F-5N/F-5Fs continue to deploy to Marine strike/fighter units around the country to provide air combat maneuvering training and evaluation. VMFT-401 aircrews also fly sorties with Marine ground combat officers as part of the Weapons and Tactics Instructor course.

The unit’s F-5s receive contract maintenance from Boeing. Most of the aircraft are now lower-time airframes since conversion through the Swiss F-5N Replacement Program, which replaced high-time Navy F-5Es with low-time F-5Ns, allowing the USN/USMC to operate the F-5N aircraft to FY 2015.

This article was first published in Marine Corps Outlook: 2010-2011 Edition.

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Eric Tegler is a writer/broadcaster from Severna Park, Md. His work appears in a variety...