More than 90 United States Marines Corps combat aircraft and crews recently made the bi-annual journey to Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma in the western Arizona desert. They were in attendance for part two of the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course 2-15 (WTI 2-15), an advanced tactical aviation training course designed to produce highly qualified weapons and tactics instructors. Graduates of the course will go on to serve in key training officer billets to act as training experts in the fleet, ensuring that Marine aviation units continue to train effectively and to the same standard across the Marine Corps. Similar to many military exercises the key component of WTI is integration – a theme that Mark Hawthorn and Danny Bonny report on in this guest article for AeroResource.
In 1978, Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) undertook an initiative to provide advanced tactical training at graduate level, with a high dependency on the use of the various weapons systems and the continual development of tactics within the United States Marine Corps. In June 1983 the establishment of a separate Aviation Development, Tactics and Evaluation Department (ADT&E) was able to coordinate the development of new tactics and weapons delivery throughout Marine Corps aviation.
This was supplemented in 1988 with the addition of a Ground Combat Department (GCD). The aim of the GCD was to implement increased participation during the WTI course with ground trained units comprising infantry and artillery plus Forward Air Controllers, Aviation Ground Support, Air Traffic Control, as well as Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Controllers.
The WTI course, still conducted today by MAWTS-1 at MCAS Yuma produces over 300 qualified graduates each year, and is the culmination of combining two courses previously run by Weapons Training Units on the east and west coasts, one held at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina and the second at MCAS El Toro, California.
Within the standard framework of the WTI, MAWTS-1 also undertakes a number of other embedded courses including the Intelligence Officers Course, Aviation Ground Support and Logistic Officers Course, the Rotary Wing Crew Chief and the KC-130 Navigator, Loadmaster, Flight Engineer Weapons and Tactics Instructor Courses.
In addition, every aviation squadron in the Marines Corps receives home base training provided by the instructors from MAWTS-1 who each deploy (on average) for over 90 days annually, to provide certification and supplementary ground and airborne instruction. Some of this instruction is a prerequisite to being able to attend a WTI course at Yuma.
It goes without saying that the instructors of MAWTS-1 would always be looking to exchange ideas and tactics with their sister services, the USAF and US Navy – as well as allied air arms, and they regularly attend exercises to observe methods and procedures with a view to further developing and enhancing WTI.
The seven week course comprises two stages. A classroom phase, followed by actual mission phases executing the lessons taught earlier in the classroom. The final week is Final Exercise week (FINEX) where qualification is achieved.
Classroom based for the first two and a half weeks, the students initially study the basics of Marine aviation and its integration into the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). The curriculum is based on six facets of Marines Corps aviation comprising aerial reconnaissance, anti-air warfare, assault support, electronic warfare, offensive air support and weapons systems and aircraft.
The purpose of the ground school phase is to teach the student the balance of assessing tactics and risk and to be able to manage both, in order to further assess and mitigate risk to support operational requirements in a combat environment. The coursework continues with the involvement of the tactical use of both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, culminating in the specific analysis of the individual aircraft that the student will be assigned to operate back in their unit.
The second half of the seven week course is flight based, during which the students first concentrate on their specific aircraft and the threats it faces (plus tactics to combat those threats), whilst also enhancing their knowledge of the aircraft’s defensive suites and weapons systems. As this phase progresses, the student experiences missions ever increasing in complexity, with the involvement of larger numbers of similar aircraft types. During this dedicated period, mixed missions with multiple fixed wing assets depart daily alongside multiple rotary wing assets. It all adds up to the final exercise in the last week where all the ground force units become fully integrated with both their rotary and fixed wing assets and ultimately the live employment of weapons in multiple scenarios.
One of the more popular highlights of WTI, especially with the local community is a scenario-based, Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation and this year simulated exercises were held at various locations around the community of Yuma. The training scenarios see a friendly host country asking for assistance from the American Government who provide the Marines Corps as part of that assistance package. Up to eight aircraft can be involved, including CH-53E Super Stallions and UH-1Y Venom assault support helicopters. The scenario sees the Marines having arrived and set up a sterile area within this host country in order to hold the ground and prepare it for delivery of aid, only to have their sterile area broken by ‘locals’ demanding immediate aid and assistance.
The Ground Force training phase of recent WTI exercises have been experiencing the full blown might of a Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and WTI 2-15 was no exception – with the 1st Battalion of the 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force taking part. Combined with the heavy lift assets of the MV-22B and CH-53E squadrons, the Marines and their artillery batteries were moved around the various training grounds set within the huge area covering from Twenty Nine Palms, California to the Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona. Within these areas the Marines would conduct training which includes Combat Air Patrol, Air to Air Refuelling, Live Ordinance Fire, Forward Air Refuelling (FARPs), Arming and re-supply of live ordinance, Forward Air Control, Casualty Evacuation and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief Programs.
WTI 2-15 Sortie – MV-22B Forward Air Refuelling
To gain further insight into the integration that is the key to WTI’s success, AeroResource joined an MV-22B sortie to provide a Forward Air Refuelling point for Marine Corps rotary combat assets. The two MV-22B Ospreys involved in the sortie (RAMPAGE 31 and 32) were heading out to set up a Forward Arming and Refuelling Point (FARP) on the western side of the Chocolate Mountains, together with another two MV-22Bs and two CH-53Es.
The MV-22B crews consist of two pilots and two crew chiefs (all of whom were under instruction as part of the WTI) together with an additional instructor pilot and instructor crew chief. Standard practice on all Marine Corps assault support aircraft is for passengers to remain outside of the rotor arc during start-up and once both rotors are turning, boarding takes place via the rear ramp. Eight Ordnance Marines also boarded each Osprey, to assist with operating the FARP. Located in the rear of the aircraft was a portable fuel tank containing 2850lbs of fuel which would be used not for the MV-22B, but to transfer to the receiver aircraft once the FARP was set up. Three of these tanks can be carried internally, but this drastically reduces the available room for soldiers or other cargo.
Upon completion of aircraft and systems checks, air traffic control clearance was received and Rampage flight taxied out to Yuma’s Runway 21L to depart as a formation. The two CH-53Es lead the formation using the callsigns Metal 41 and 42, with Rampage 31 and 32 in trail. Following behind was another pair of Ospreys using the callsigns Rampage 33 and 34 – although these were heading for a different location to set up another FARP. The fold down canvas seats were quite comfortable and although protected by both a set of foam ear defenders and a cranial, the noise of the aircraft was still very evident, especially during the transition from rotary to fixed-wing flight. The aircraft nose also appeared to rise during the transition before settling down once established in forward flight. The ride was a little bumpy due to the high heat and related turbulence in Arizona, and also due to flying in the wake of the lead Osprey.
After a short ten minute flight from Yuma, the formation landed at Auxiliary Field 2 (Aux II) to deplane and allow the loading of numerous armaments and equipment, all while the rotors were turning. Ordnance was loaded from a support vehicle parked on a dirt track running parallel to the landing strip, and a fork lift loaded pallets from the truck onto each aircraft in turn, starting with the CH-53Es. Rampage 32 was loaded with 2.75 inch ‘live’ rockets which would later be loaded into the rocket pods carried by the AH-1W SuperCobra and AH-1Z Vipers that would be using the FARP. Once loading was complete on all four aircraft, personnel re-boarded via the rear ramp and departed the field just as two more Ospreys were arriving to pick up their equipment. As this exercise simulates a live operational environment, all the time that the transport helicopters were taking on cargo, Marines provided security around the perimeter and two AH-1 Cobras provided menacing top cover.
A brief flight north for approximately 15 minutes saw the formation land at Star FARP, a pre-arranged and permanent location for use during WTI and other exercises. Following engine shut-down, everybody deplaned and the crew chiefs and armament crew began their task of setting up the fuel hoses that would connect the Osprey to the arriving helicopters, and preparing the rockets ready for loading. This whole procedure took no more than twenty minutes and upon completion, Rampage 32 was ready to receive its first customer. A similar operation was carried out by the other Osprey and both CH-53Es which allowed for four fully operational refuel and arming points. One pilot remained in the cockpit of each aircraft to monitor fuel transfer and radio communications. One major advantage of the newer and technologically superior Osprey over the CH-53E is that internal fuel transfer can take place without engine start up – the CH-53E has to start its engines and rotors to transfer fuel internally, and both aircraft in situ at the FARP did this once during the mission. During times of increased activity at the FARP, each aircraft could, if necessary get airborne and rendezvous for a fuel top up with a waiting KC-130J that was orbiting above the FARP at a height of approximately 10,000 feet. This is standard procedure and the KC-130J remains on station until operations at the FARP are complete.
During the course of the next five hours a number of AH-1W and AH-1Z helicopters arrived and departed, either taking on fuel and/or re-arming following rocket and gun expenditure in the exercise area located on the eastern side of the Chocolate Mountains. Some of the aircraft made numerous approaches to each landing spot to provide training for the crew chiefs and armament technicians as they were completing their final week of instruction prior to graduation. Some aircraft would refuel and re-arm prior to shutting down on one side of the FARP to await their next mission.
Once night falls, NVG equipment is available and during the whole operation, fuel bowsers remain on standby in case a helicopter or helicopters are unable to despatch fuel. As is the case at each mobile site, USMC soldiers maintain a secure perimeter as the whole exercise takes place under war conditions.
As night fell, the weather closed in with thunder and lightning very evident to the east, but closing in on the FARP. Lightning is a major factor as it prevents any refuelling from being carried out therefore following negotiations between Officers on the ground and the command and control centre, the decision was made to close the FARP and return to base. The reverse procedure to dismantle the refuelling equipment and stow everything away takes no time at all for the experienced marines, and the MV-22Bs and CH-53Es were soon ready to depart for Yuma.
Arriving at Yuma, a visual approach was carried out to Runway 03R followed by a short taxi to the apron and following deplaning, the aircraft shut down its rotors and the operating crew headed off for their exercise debrief.
Whilst this sortie was impressive in it’s own right, it is but a small part of the complicated machine that is a Marine Air-Ground Task Force – and the amount of training and effort that must be put in to oil that machine is enormous. The Weapons Tactics and Instructors Course is one of the instrumental ways in which the United States Marine Corps keeps it’s forces ready for immediate action – whether it be in a warfighting or humanitarian response role.
AeroResource would like to thank Lieutenant Joshua Pena and Sergeant Sarah Fiocco of the United States Marine Corps for their assistance in producing this article.