Defense Media Network

Newest Defense Media Network Promotion

U.S. Marine Corps Rotary-Wing Aviation 2011-2012

The U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) was one of the first branches to see the military potential of rotary-wing aviation, including putting helicopters on ships for the first time during the Korean War. Since then, the Corps has continuously evolved the tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and concepts of operation (CONOPs) that have made it a world leader in vertical-lift warfare.

For more than half a century, the Marine Corps air/ground concept has been increasingly reliant on rotorcraft, from changing the way ground commanders in Korea engaged the enemy to the use of LPHs (Amphibious Assault Ships-Helicopter) in Vietnam with Marine Amphibious Units, the precursor to today’s Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), to ongoing operations in Afghanistan with the latest addition to the Corps’ air fleet, the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, which is replacing the CH-46E Sea Knight medium-lift assault transport helicopter (delivered from 1966-1972).

The MV-22 is the first new aircraft of any type to reach initial operating capability with the Marine Corps fleet since the 1980s. Since initial operational capability (IOC) in 2007, it has been joined by the UH-1Y Venom (IOC 2008), replacing the UH-1N Huey medium utility command and control (C2) and assault helicopter (delivered from 1971-1979), and the AH-1Z Viper (IOC 2011), which is replacing the AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter (1986-1998).

While some new legacy airframes were delivered through the end of the century, the Corps opted for a generational gap, maintaining their veteran aircraft through the dramatically heightened operations tempo of a decade of constant combat since 9/11 rather than buying incremental advances. As a result, the entire fleet is now moving into full replacement mode, a transition that will last into the 2020s.

According to Brig. Gen. Gary L. Thomas, assistant deputy commandant for aviation, that “procurement holiday” was a deliberate choice by the Corps and “there were sufficient advantages to doing that.”

“The primary driver in terms of replacing legacy systems is the service life of the aircraft. Sometimes you have a drop-dead date, at which the aircraft literally cannot be flown any further,” he said. “In terms of replacing all assets within a 10- to 20-year period, while we are in the middle of our transition to the Osprey and Zulu [AH-1Z] and soon our tactical aircraft – and those do butt up against one another – we’re really not replacing everything at the same time but across a decade or more.

While some new legacy airframes were delivered through the end of the century, the Corps opted for a generational gap, maintaining their veteran aircraft through the dramatically heightened operations tempo of a decade of constant combat since 9/11 rather than buying incremental advances. As a result, the entire fleet is now moving into full replacement mode, a transition that will last into the 2020s.

“For rotor, the advantages are speed and range as threat systems gain range. That allows us to maintain the relative advantage we enjoy today. The Osprey, in replacing our 40-plus-year-old CH-46s, gives us additional range and speed and a maneuver advantage on the battlefield. And medium lift is a core MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] capability. We are confident in our transition plans and have some margin to absorb some of the challenges of contingency operations.”

AH-1Z Viper

The AH-1Z Viper is a rebuild of the 22-year old AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter, the most recognizable change being a new four-blade main rotor. Bell Helicopter photo

Since it first went into combat with both the Marine Corps and the Air Force, the Osprey completed 14 successful deployments to Southwest Asia by mid-May 2011. “In Helmand province [in southwest Afghanistan], which is about the size of Tennessee, the MV-22 shrunk that down [operationally] to about the size of Rhode Island,” Thomas said. “It also performed off the coast of Libya, picking up a downed F-15 pilot and far exceeding anything we could have done with helicopters due to the distance of the ship from shore.”

 

Advancing Marine Corps Rotary Wing Aviation

To put some perspective on the age of the Marine rotor-wing fleet, the CH-46E Sea Knight is the oldest with an average age of 42 years, but is closely followed by the CH-53D Sea Stallion (40 years) and UH-1N Huey (36 years), then the “youngsters” of the fleet – the CH-53E Super Stallion (average age 22 years) and the AH-1W Super Cobra (also 22 years). In short, the last major upgrade followed another decade-plus of heavy combat use for Marine helicopters during the Vietnam War.

“Generally speaking, the CH-53E is the only airframe not in transition mode right now, but we are about to be with the [as-yet unnamed] CH-53K,” noted Col. Roy “Ozzie” Osborn, Marine Aviation Department deputy for Aviation Plans, Programs & Budgets. “But we won’t start transitioning the -53K into the fleet until 2015-16, so the -53E probably will be the last legacy helicopter to be retired, sometime around 2030.

“Transitioning the entire rotary-wing fleet to new or upgraded aircraft makes this both a time of improvement and a time of challenge. From a transitional point of view, we’re still involved in conflict and supporting missions all over the world, with our legacy fleet at some of the best readiness of their lifespans – and we expect that to remain high right up to the point we retire them. So while we are replacing them, we also are maintaining current and future high readiness levels.”

Osborn, a skilled CH-46 pilot and former commander of the 15th MEU who is scheduled to become branch head of Aviation Plans & Policy, added that keeping aircraft in service well beyond their original required service lives has become standard operating procedure for all the services.

“That’s not unusual, looking at the ebb and flow of budgets along with time and conflicts. I would never have imagined I would be flying -46s almost as old as I was, but aircraft are expensive and it takes awhile to replace them,” he said. “The MV-22 originally was on track to replace the -46 in the early ’90s, but then-Secretary of Defense [Dick] Cheney delayed delivery due to budget shortfalls and a need for some additional maturing. So what you plan and what actually happens is always subject to change.”

From Vietnam through Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan, Marine Corps helicopters have grown in importance to the capabilities of the MAGTF and how combatant commanders maneuver their forces in theater. While Vietnam became known as the first helicopter war, in the non-linear battlespace of Southwest Asia, with no defined front lines and ground forces under constant threat from improvised explosive devices (IEDs), the ability of helicopters to carry troops and supplies over the threat – and bring firepower to bear on the enemy at close quarters and low altitudes – became critical to the continuing operations of all the services and coalition partners.

CH-46 Sea Knight

CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters assigned to Marine Helicopter Squadron 774 deliver medical supplies during the Haiti phase of Continuing Promise 2010. The assigned medical and engineering staff embarked aboard the amphibious assault trip USS Iwo Jima (LHD 7) worked with partner nation teams to provide medical, dental, veterinary, and engineering assistance in eight nations. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Jennifer Hunt

But the enhanced capabilities the new generation of rotor/tilt-rotor aircraft are bringing to the fight already are having an impact.

“They absolutely are and have been a game changer,” Osborn said. “As an ACE [aviation combat element] commander in Iraq, flights that took me an hour out and another hour back, the MV-22 is doing in half that time and well above both the small arms and heavy weapons and weather envelope. That also has made it more difficult for the bad guys to anticipate or get ahead of us in the fight, because its range and speed means the Osprey doesn’t have to fly a straight path.”

As for the continued migration to new platforms in the future, the requirements are more heavily based than ever on multimission capability.

“Transitioning the entire rotary-wing fleet to new or upgraded aircraft makes this both a time of improvement and a time of challenge. From a transitional point of view, we’re still involved in conflict and supporting missions all over the world, with our legacy fleet at some of the best readiness of their lifespans – and we expect that to remain high right up to the point we retire them. So while we are replacing them, we also are maintaining current and future high readiness levels.”

“Probably the biggest requirement is increased performance capability across all metrics – faster, greater lift and range, greater reliability and availability, more maintainable, especially in harsh environments. So it’s not just bigger aircraft, but better in almost everything they do, no matter how you measure the performance metrics,” Osborn said.

“The Huey-Y, because of its payload, allows you to do a lot of expanded operations the -N would be stretched to accomplish. And when you look from the CH-46 to the MV-22, you have a generational jump from helicopter operations and tactics to tilt-rotor operations and tactics. But the same thing applies to them all – carry more, farther, more reliably, and with a greater capability to address the threat, so defendable and survivable also are in there.”

Combined, the new platforms expand both the range and spectrum of operations a commander can perform in the expeditionary environment, not only in terms of pushing Marine combat actions to greater distances, but significantly increasing the number of missions possible in a given time frame.

“Whether sea- or land-based, but especially sea, you want to treat things in a raid mentality – limited duration, maximum impact, whether it’s a kinetic operation or humanitarian relief. And that’s what you get with these new lift aircraft. Add to that the attack and utility helicopters and you get the same thing – increased range and speed, but also firepower, communications capability and integration with the ground force and with fixed-wing. So that piece of the spectrum – air-to-ground and CAS [close air support] – is really covered,” he continued.

“When you look at all these airframes and what they can do individually, but then tie them together in support of the MAGTF commander, you also have to consider what they do for the rifleman on the ground. More Marines in place, medevac far quicker than anything in the past – options and capabilities the warfighter on the ground has not had in the past. So it is critical to maintain the legacy aircraft right up to the day they retire, but also critical to get the new platforms into the fight as quickly as possible.”

And that is the key component, as even with technology upgrades, aircraft flown at three times their planned rate in a decade of constant combat lose even their original capabilities. Service life extensions and replacing individual components, from rotor blades to radios, can only do so much for a 40-year-old airframe originally built for 30 years at a significantly lower operations pace.

“Of all our legacy platforms, the UH-1N is the most used – and not just the airframe, but the lift capacity of the aircraft slowly degrades over time. That’s just the nature of engines,” Thomas explained. “So what you see is an aircraft designed as a utility aircraft, which means it can fire weapons but also carry troops. But because of its age and diminished capacity, we don’t carry troops in the UH-1N anymore. It still performs important functions as airborne C2, but we need that platform to be able to carry Marines.

Combined, the new platforms expand both the range and spectrum of operations a commander can perform in the expeditionary environment, not only in terms of pushing Marine combat actions to greater distances, but significantly increasing the number of missions possible in a given time frame.

“Sometimes you have to go into zones that are difficult to reach and the UH-1 is a perfect utility platform. With the new UH-1Y, you get all that lift capacity back and more, along with increased speed and range. But what we’re most excited about is the ability to use it in the assault support role, where we can move six Marines around the battlefield, which is a requirement that has always been there, but we’ve had a capability gap in recent years.”

CH-53E

An Iraqi soldier exits a Marine CH-53E helicopter during joint ari assault training between Iraqi commandos and scouts and U.S. Army paratroopers on Camp Ramadi, Iraq, Nov. 15, 2009. The CH-53E will probably be the last of the Marine Corps’ legacy helicopters to retire. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Michael J. MacLeod

The new helicopter not only meets that requirement – and others its aging predecessor has begun to lose – it also is leading to a change in how the Marine Corps shapes and uses its light attack helicopter (HMLA) squadrons.

“Because of the additional capacity the Yankee brings, we’re changing the mix of our HMLA squadrons, which have had 18 Cobras and nine Hueys,” Thomas said. “We’re changing that mix to 15 Cobras and 12 UH-1Ys. We made that change because the Zulu [AH-1Z] replacing the Whiskey [AH-1W] can carry a lot more weapons at greater range and speed, so we don’t lose any firepower. And we increase the capacity to move Marines around the battlefield.”

Such changes also will accompany the replacement of the Corps’ heavy-lift Super Stallion.

“When you talk about the CH-53 series, it is all about lift capacity, especially for large amphibious operations, where the CH-53 is a critical enabler. We are sundowning the -Ds in the next couple of years, but the -E will continue to serve for many more years,” he said.

“We were right on the margins of having enough lift capacity for large amphibious operations. One of the challenges is how much do we want to carry in lift and how much do we want to bring through other means. The CH-53K essentially triples the lift capacity of the -E – 27,000 pounds up to 100 nautical miles.”

It is a transition that has seen a significant decline in the capability of many legacy rotorcraft from 2002 to 2012 and now will see not only a reversal but a significant improvement from 2012 to 2022.

“In 2002, it was pretty much old school. The range and ability to impact the battlespace were driven by limitations of the aircraft in terms of fuel carried and the need to build refueling bases. So as the fight moved forward, so did the helicopters and support, which put them at greater risk,” Osborn recalled.

“By 2012, you had the ability to cover a far greater battlespace and, where in 2002 you had to fly a straight line point A to B, which the bad guys eventually figure out, you now can fly over the threat or go around it because you have greater range and speed. Which creates a dilemma for the bad guy, but also for the Marine commander, because of greater options and a dramatically larger battlespace.

“I deployed with a MEU in the late ’90s and typical battle planning was limited to about 100 nautical miles from where we were based. In 2010, we were operating 650 nautical miles inland from the seabase, with C-130 support and a lot of help from the Pakistanis. But the MV-22 could have done that with a lot less support on the ground and bypassed a lot of the problems of forward basing.

“We were right on the margins of having enough lift capacity for large amphibious operations. One of the challenges is how much do we want to carry in lift and how much do we want to bring through other means. The CH-53K essentially triples the lift capacity of the -E – 27,000 pounds up to 100 nautical miles.”

“Jump another 10 years, with the CH-53K and Yankee and Zulu integrated with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and some of the new ships and improved C2 capability, and you’ve expanded the bubble even more and enabled them to operate in an even greater threat environment. So the real kicker for us is the sum of all these parts coming together. As we go through these transitions and develop new TTPs for each aircraft and integrate them into the MAGTF, Marines typically come up with new and better ways to use them that had not been thought of before as they figure out the best way to accomplish their missions.”

 

The Tilt-Rotor Outlasts Its Critics

From the very beginning, the Marine Corps has taken combat aviation to the limits – then pushed on to new technologies and tactics almost no one else believed in or supported. That was the case with the first helicopters, then the AV-8B Harrier jumpjet, then the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor – and continues into the future with the F-35B STOVL.

“People like to compare it to the CH-46, mostly in cost, but this aircraft allows us to carry much more – twice the number of Marines on a high, hot day – and go twice as far and twice as fast. That really means this aircraft, per man per seat per mile, is much cheaper than other aircraft we have in the inventory.”

The Osprey faced repeated budget battles and delays throughout its development, coming close to cancellation on more than one occasion. But the war in Southwest Asia provided a proving ground that allowed the MV-22 to demonstrate its capabilities, even before reaching IOC.

MV-22 Osprey In Afghanistan

An MV-22B Osprey aircraft assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 365 lands in brownout conditions during a routine mission in Afghanistan, July 15, 2010. Osprey and other helicopter pilots face these types of landings daily as they support Afghan and international forces across the Helmand and Nimroz provinces in southern Afghanistan. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. Steven William

“The MV-22 went through a very difficult period of development, but has proven to be a technological advance that has driven the way we do tactics today and changed how the ground commander thinks about ways he can prosecute the enemy. It has proven itself in more ways than we expected in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling, deputy commandant-Aviation. “It is doing very, very well, meeting all its operational tasking, using what I perceive as game-changing technology in terms of speed, altitude, and range to do things we’ve never done before.

“People like to compare it to the CH-46, mostly in cost, but this aircraft allows us to carry much more – twice the number of Marines on a high, hot day – and go twice as far and twice as fast. That really means this aircraft, per man per seat per mile, is much cheaper than other aircraft we have in the inventory.”

Robling’s deputy terms it the new “centerpiece” of Marine mobility around the battlefield.

“The Corps is a light general purpose force, which has advantages in getting somewhere quickly, and the MV-22 gives you the maneuver capability you need to rapidly build up combat power, far exceeding anything you could do with legacy platforms,” Thomas said.

Lt. Col. Jason T. “Ralf” Holden, the MV-22 plans officer at the Aviation Department, said the 120 Ospreys now in service already have proven critical to filling the medium-lift assault role of the capability-diminished CH-46. That transition – one legacy squadron every six months – will continue through FY 2017, by which time the Corps’ plan calls for 16 active and two Reserve MV-22 squadrons available for deployment.

The Ospreys now in service are Block B models, but the final planned version, Block C, will begin delivery in 2012 and continue through 2017. Meanwhile, a number of Block C components are being retrofit into the current fleet, although the extent of such upgrades will depend on the budget and competing priorities.

The Block C upgrades include an improved environmental control system to keep cabin occupants more comfortable, weather radar, an enhanced stand-by flight display, a forward-firing countermeasure dispense bucket for chaff and flares, and troop commander situational awareness – so he can watch real-time progress of the aircraft using the same map displays the pilots see in the cockpit.

“We continue to develop new methods of taking advantage of this technology, but it is a very effective aircraft to accomplish the missions we have today and influence areas we did not have the capacity to touch in years past,” Holden said. “It also brings the ability for us to start to think outside the normal sphere of influence, beyond the normal boundaries we could have reached with helicopter platforms.

“We have accomplished all the missions assigned to us; we have been shot at by a variety of munitions and, unfortunately, hit on a couple of occasions, but in all cases the occupants were unharmed and reached their objectives or returned to base safely. And in all cases the aircraft was repaired and returned to service.”

Only one Osprey, belonging to the Air Force, has been lost during combat operations, but reportedly not due to enemy fire.

Holden has been with the MV-22 through much of its fight for survival, as well as its operational successes.

“I came into the program in 2004 and even then we weren’t sure there would be a program. Even today you see blogs and other reports citing old information, such as the last incident in which we lost life, almost a dozen years ago. I think we were right in stopping the program after that happened, in December 2000, and having NASA and others look at the technology,” he said. “They gave us recommendations to improve the design of some hydraulic and electrical lines and we made some software adjustments, but fundamentally, they told us there was nothing inherently unsafe in the technology. We resumed flying in May 2002, with all those adjustments onboard.

UH-1Y

Maj. Anthonol Neely, commander of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s maritime raid force (MRF), is dropped off by a UH-1Y helicopter during an assault mission on a mock village June 12, 2011. The MRF, along with a section of the unit’s aviation combat element, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 268 (Reinforced), and command element, were taking part in a large-scale exercise with ocean and urban-based scenarios. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Chad J. Pulliam

“From 1 January 2001 to 1 January 2011, the MV-22 had the lowest Class A [loss of life or damages exceeding $2 million] mishap rate of any Marine Corps rotor aircraft – and all those had pretty good mishap rates of their own. The changes we made after each mishap have enabled us to successfully move on to a truly world-class aircraft, so I think we have answered the mail [from our critics] and then some.”

The Marine Corps is not expected to start looking at a MV-22 replacement for at least another quarter century – and whatever next-generation platform does come along is expected to be a joint effort with the other services rather than an independent Corps program.

“As we continue to acquire more MV-22s and the new and upgraded helicopters, there is a lot of ‘water cooler’ talk about what may come next in tilt-rotor,” Holden said. “We have sent representatives to an Army-run working group that is focused on determining the next type of vertical-lift platform. We are trying to define what we want that airframe to do, then ask industry to tell us what they have to fit that role.”

“This is probably the issue we are not yet satisfied with, and our readiness rates are not where we want them as a result. Our Afghan units have a readiness rate of approx 67 percent, ship-deployed 72 percent. Both are trending up, but our established mission capable rate for the MV-22 is 82 percent, so we’re obviously short,” he reported.

Whatever that next generation might be, the Marines will expect it to exceed the capabilities of the Osprey to at least the same extent the MV-22 has surpassed the CH-46.

That includes speed – about 120 knots for the CH-46, compared to 260 knots for the MV-22; operational range and transport capacity – 12 Marines to a 75 nautical mile radius increased to 24 Marines to 325 nautical miles, plus orbiting out of ground fire range for 30 minutes to extract or provide assistance; flying 3.5 hours with a full load of fuel and 12,500 pounds external or 10,000 pounds internal cargo, compared to only 6,300 pounds of fuel and payload combined for the CH-46.

The only real concern remaining for Holden is the Osprey’s logistics and maintenance tail.

“This is probably the issue we are not yet satisfied with, and our readiness rates are not where we want them as a result. Our Afghan units have a readiness rate of approx 67 percent, ship-deployed 72 percent. Both are trending up, but our established mission capable rate for the MV-22 is 82 percent, so we’re obviously short,” he reported.

“The upside to this – and not to downplay the problem – is even with the readiness rates we have, we’re still executing all missions assigned. So it is not degrading our ability to execute mission operations or prepare at home for deployment, but it is a challenge. And it is worse on the guys at home, because those deployed get first dibs on replacement parts.”

To some extent, he said, that can be attributed to an entirely new technology for which component failure rate predictions were significantly off, causing suppliers to under-produce and deliver spare parts. The pervasive fine dust and sand in theater also played a role in the higher-than-expected failure rates.

“We have been working very hard with those doing contracting with suppliers to produce a sufficient quantity of spares to meet the rates the fleet is experiencing. We also are trying to help suppliers redesign parts that are failing sooner than predicted so we get the predicted life out of them,” Holden said. “And finally, as evident with any new program, we are continuing to refine our troubleshooting decisions.”

Whatever new capabilities these new airframes bring to Marine Corps rotary-wing aviation and its MAGTF-based approach to combat, they are not seen as instruments of victory so much as tools to move and protect the heart of Marine Corps operations – the individual rifleman on the ground.

“The reason we have helicopters and tilt-rotors is to support the Marine infantry rifleman. The MV-22 by itself will not win a battle for us. So what does it bring we did not have before? It gives the battlefield commander the ability to influence greater portions of the battlefield than he could before. But its real role is to insert and extract the young rifleman and provide better logistical support, return to medical care faster if wounded, and influence other amphibious operations,” Holden concluded. “Helicopters and Ospreys move things. We don’t attack.

“The MV-22 allows us to take the fight to the enemy further from the threat, engage multiple threats simultaneously, disperse between different operating areas. But just because we will have more MV-22s in 25 years does not mean we will fight differently. The changes in how we fight are happening now. As we bring new aircraft online, each will bring a unique capability to the commander to influence the battlefield. The quantity, the fact we triple the number of MV-22s between now and then, really doesn’t matter so much as giving the ground commander the flexibility to update the way he fights.”

This article first appeared in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.

 

By

J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...