Defense Media Network

Marine Corps Aviation: Modernizing Before the Storm

F/A-18 Hornet

F/A-18C Hornet

A U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18C Hornet assigned to Marine Fighter Squadron 323 prepares to launch from the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) during exercise Rim of the Pacific 2012 in the Pacific Ocean June 27, 2012. Hornet upgrades and the Navy-Marine Corps agreement for the Corps to buy 80 F-35Cs mean Marine squadrons will continue to fly from the big-deck Navy carriers far into the future. DoD photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Ian A. Cotter, U.S. Navy

The mission of Marine fighter attack squadrons (VMFAs) with Boeing F/A-18s is to conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground operations in support of Marines on the ground, flying from shore bases or Navy carriers. In June 2012, VMFA-251 was, for example, deployed aboard USS Enterprise as part of the Marine commitment to Central Command.

The Navy and Marine Corps share a pool of 625 F/A-18A-to-D strike fighters. The Marine Corps has legacy Hornets in 12 active, one Reserve, and one fleet replacement squadron. Current plans phase the Hornet out of active-duty Marine squadrons by 2026. The Reserves transition to F-35s by 2030.

A Service Life Extension Program (SLEP) running since 2001 aims to stretch the lives of select Marine and Navy Hornets to 10,000 flight hours with center fuselage modifications. The FY 2013 budget request pays to modify 150 airframes. The first aircraft to be rebuilt were inducted into the Fleet Readiness Center Southwest at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, Calif., in early FY 2012.

The Marines have also initiated a separate capability upgrade for 56 F/A-18As and 30 F/A-18Ds, including improvements for the APG-73 radar, the Multi-Function Information Distribution System (MIDS), Advanced Targeting FLIR (ATFLIR) enhancements, and LITENING targeting pods.


KC-130J Hercules

KC-130J Super Hercules

The KC-130J Super Hercules flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, is a four-engine transport aircraft used for aerial refueling, medical evacuation, search and rescue, and airborne assault. Lockheed Martin photo

Lockheed Martin Hercules tanker transports remain valuable assets for a truly expeditionary Marine Corps. Two KC-130Js of tanker squadron VMGR-252 refueled six MV-22s of Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 266 three times during a 13-hour retrograde flight from Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, to Souda Bay, Greece. Hercules transports resupply Marines in Afghanistan and were critical assets in humanitarian relief efforts in Pakistan, Japan, and elsewhere.

The bolt-on Harvest Hawk kit for the newest KC-130J enables the Hercules to provide persistent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance coverage for ground units and the ability to launch Hellfire and Griffin missiles in close-combat situations. An innovative “Derringer Door” now lets the armed, pressurized Hercules stay at higher, safer altitudes as it delivers ordnance.

The Marines have so far received 46 of the 79 KC-130Js planned, and the FY 2013 budget currently includes eight more aircraft plus fleet improvements. Each of the three active-duty Marine air wings now includes one KC-130J squadron, while the Reserve Air Wing has two legacy KC-130T squadrons awaiting a KC-130J replacement schedule. Three of the six planned Harvest Hawk kits are now in service – the remainder will be delivered in the first half of fiscal year 2013. Harvest Hawk KC-130Js will also be the first to receive laser-based directed infrared countermeasures (DIRCM). The Marines are also working with the Air Force and international C-130J users to integrate Link-16 connectivity and other enhancements in block upgrades.


UH-1Y/AH-1Z Upgrade


The AH-1Z/UH-1Y upgrade gives Marine Light Attack Helicopter squadrons two aircraft with 84 percent commonality in significant maintenance items, reducing the logistical burden of a mixed detachment aboard ship. U.S. Navy photo

In November 2011, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron (HMM) 268 (Reinforced) deployed four new AH-1Z attack and three UH-1Y utility helicopters together for the first time aboard the amphibious assault ship Makin Island. The common avionics, dynamics, engines, and structures of the H-1 Upgrade promise to reduce the supply, maintenance, and training burden on expeditionary Marine light attack helicopter squadrons. With four-bladed composite rotor systems, modern engines, all-new drivetrains, and integrated avionics, the H-1 Yankee and Zulu have already demonstrated the high mission-capable rates and enhanced performance that drove the Marines to replace their aged UH-1Ns and hard-flown AH-1Ws.

The higher performance of UH-1Ys aboard the Makin Island has already changed Sniper/Aerial Reaction Force tactics. In strike missions, two AH-1Zs have proven able to carry the ordnance of four AH-1Ws and can engage targets at far greater standoff ranges.

By mid-2012, Bell had delivered 62 of the 160 UH-1Ys now in the program of record. The Huey upgrade started with remanufactured UH-1Ns, but transitioned to all-new airframes and achieved initial operational capability in 2008. UH-1Y deliveries peak this year with 18 aircraft and remain steady through the end of Yankee production in 2018.

The AH-1Z achieved initial operational capability in 2011. By mid-2012, 25 Zulu Cobras had been delivered against a total of 189 planned through fiscal 2020. Under current plans, the Bell facility in Amarillo, Texas, will remanufacture 131 AH-1Ws to AH-1Zs and build 58 new AH-1Zs. New-build Zulu production starts in 2013. Near-term improvements for the new Marine attack helicopter focus on digital connectivity to stream video between the Zulu crew and forward air controllers.

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As an aerospace and defense writer for more than 30 years, Frank has written in-depth...