Birthplace of TOPGUN Evolves in Advance of New Threats in Pacific and Beyond.
“Just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”
-Sun Tzu, “The Art of War”.
It is the birthplace of TOPGUN. Today it is one of several bases poised for rapid deployment of the highly adaptable, self-sustaining Marine Air/Ground Task Force or “MAGTF”. This is Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar.
“The Marine Corps is able to respond very quickly, whether it is a humanitarian crisis or a combat action. Every MEU (“Marine Expeditionary Unit”) has the ability to self-sustain for a limited amount of time. That is what makes the Marines an expeditionary force.” Capt. Matthew Gregory, USMC, distills the mission of Marines at MCAS Miramar into one sentence: ““It sounds like a cliché, but we truly are America’s 911.”
Capt. Gregory is a new generation of U.S. Marine. Highly articulate, an expert in the Marine mission and its capabilities. He is confident that the new Marines here at MCAS Miramar are evolved and ready for the next conflict, whether it is a clash of superpowers or a regional brushfire insurgency. This new Marine Corps is scalable, deployable, self-sustaining and highly mobile. In short, the U.S. Marine Corps that Capt. Gregory is describing to me is a military well calibrated for the changing face of modern war.
I’m here at MCAS Miramar before their annual airshow, one of the largest military airshows in the U.S. It will feature exhibits and performances from every branch of the U.S. military, but will showcase the trip-wire readiness, chameleon-like adaptably and venomous lethality of the Marine MAGTF and the air power that supports it.
Walking among the young Marines here at Miramar is a lesson in this unique new force. This is not our father’s Marine Corps. They have worked long hours to set up the show venue, erect tents, fence off static displays and make sure all of MCAS Miramar is inspection-clean. The base sparkles. And if the effort of these Marines in the week before the show was exhausting, it hasn’t drained their enthusiasm for showcasing their unique capabilities.
Inside the turret of a massive USMC M1A1 Abrams tank, I chat with its commander, who asked not to be named. “We can go anywhere and kick ass. 24 hours. That’s all it takes. I can have tanks where you’d never expect them. That’s the difference with the Marines. We just move faster.”
Inside a tent called the “DASC”, or Direct Air Support Center, another Marine with longer hair than I’d expect and without the ramrod posture from the movies, leans back in his folding chair. He reminds me more of Mark Zuckerberg than Chesty Puller. This modern Marine explains how his mobile command and control center provides instantaneous, self-contained communications between all Marine assets in a conflict zone, fully scalable from a force of a few hundred to a few thousand Marines. “We bring our own communications, command and control. It’s modular, scales up and down, and moves with us just behind the forward line of battle. We’re fully self-contained, and also fully integrated.”
While the F/A-18s and the new F-35Bs along the flight line are getting most of the attention at this show, it is inside this unassuming olive drab tent that order will be brought to the chaos of battle by the U.S. Marines. Talking with this Marine is more like a conversation with an Amazon.com executive than a combat Marine.
As part of the self-contained, scalable MAGTF concept, MCAS Miramar houses units that include the F/A-18 Hornet squadrons of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, four MV-22 Osprey squadrons, 3rd MAW CH-53 squadrons, 2 MAG headquarters units and a host of other units not aligned with 3rd MAW. As I fly over the flight line at low altitude here at MCAS Miramar I count approximately 40 F/A-18 Hornets parked on the tarmac, and a handful of the Marine’s new F-35B Lightning IIs that will replace them.
“We have marvelous machines that represent American ingenuity, and I ask you to look behind every single one of those machines, and see the real marvel that stands behind that, and that is your United States Marine,” said Marine Corps Major General Kevin M. Iiams.
Maj Gen. Iiams’ remarks before the opening of the show about the Marines at MCAS Miramar prove accurate. During our three days at Miramar, every Marine we interacted with exhibited enthusiasm and proficiency in their role. This included members of the first U.S. F-35 Joint Strike Fighter unit to fly in combat, Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 (VMFA-211), the historic “Wake Island Avengers”. It also included maintainers, infantrymen and numerous support personnel. There is a palpable sense of confidence and competence in the mission of the Marine Corps at MCAS Miramar. It is likely much of that comes from the new dynamic nature of the USMC and its MAGTF concept. This is an exciting time to be a U.S. Marine, and it shows in the attitudes of the Miramar Marines.
When I ask Major General Kevin M. Iiams about the transition from older F/A-18 Hornets to new F-35B Lightning IIs, he tells me, “It is truly a ‘kick in the door’ airplane. I’ll just tell you that there are people out there who are building tremendous air-to-air fighters.” Without specifically saying so, it’s possible the Major General may be loosely referencing China’s newest combat aircraft such as the Chengdu J-20 Mighty Dragon. “We need to be ready for everything that our nation’s enemies might throw at us. So that’s why the Marine Corps has a full gamut of capabilities across a range of military operations, we’ll be ready, everywhere, every time. In the Pacific region, we are ready to be the naval expeditionary force in readiness. To be able to move from island to island rapidly, from multiple platforms. That’s why we have the F-35B.”
The next day, it’s show time at MCAS Miramar, and we are front and center for the MAGTF Demo, a dynamic demonstration of how the Marines strike a target with combined air and ground assets. It is one of the most spectacular displays in military history. Nearly every aspect of the Marine Air/Ground Task Force is included in the demo, from F-35B Lightning IIs and F/A-18s, to AH-1Z Viper, UH-1Y Venom and CH-53E Super Stallion helicopters. There are Marine M1A1 heavy tanks, LAV-25 eight-wheeled armored vehicles and lightweight, up-armored M1151 HMMWV wheeled vehicles we’d called “Hummers”. And there are combat Marines who stream out of the back of MV-22 Ospreys and “assault” in bounding overwatch movements toward the crowd line.
The MAGTF demo starts with the low whistle of the F-35Bs, “Kicking down the door” in a simulated precision airstrike, exactly as Major General Kevin M. Iiams described to us. A pair of F/A-18Cs from VMFA-232, the “Red Devils”, follows on. Reconnaissance Marines insert via fast rope from one of the UH-1Y Venoms, a massively updated version of the venerable “Huey”, while the AH-1Z Vipers, distant grandsons of the Vietnam-era “Cobra” attack helicopter, provide close range air support. Finally, after an impressive display of Marine capability, the F-35B performs a demonstration of its V/STOL hover capability in front of the crowd line while the armored column passes in review just in front of the crowd barrier. Everyone is standing in now, several hundred thousand airshow spectators, cheering for what is one of the most impressive military displays in history, but only a snapshot of the true capabilities of a new U.S. Marine Corps uniquely evolved for tomorrow’s fight, whatever that may be.