Author Archives: Todd Miller

We Flew Red Air against F-22 Raptors, F-35 Lightning IIs, Rafales and Typhoons in Atlantic Trident ’17. Here’s How It Went.

Flying adversary air in a 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) T-38A Talon during Atlantic Trident 17.

At 21,000 ft “Code” rolls the Talon inverted.  I have just enough time to realize we are inverted – before the Gs started building and we are pointed… down. Straight down.    We are flying adversary air in a 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) T-38A Talon during Atlantic Trident ’17.  Not your normal Red Air vul, today we are facing off against a historic gathering of the most formidable fighter aircraft in the western world.

The United States Air Force (USAF) 1st Fighter Wing located at Joint Base Langley-Eustis (JBLE) hosted the event.  1st FW is responsible for 30% of the USAF Raptor fleet.  Described as “America’s premier Air Dominance wing,” the 1st FW is elite company.  This group (with the help of the 71st FTS) ensures the Raptors under their command are maintained, manned by skilled pilots, and ready to go when and where needed worldwide, at a moment’s notice.

After two days of rain and scrubbed vuls the clouds began to lift.  Didn’t matter, even with clear skies a nasty storm was brewing over the Atlantic, Typhoons, Lightning strikes, with the “gusts of wind / bursts of fire” (Rafale), and the “Bird of Prey” (Raptor) circling over it all.  Not a Hollywood script, this is what awaits the Strike Eagles and Talons of Red Air posing as a variety of MIG threats with specific missile emulations.

The Platforms & Players:

Blue Air: 1st FW F-22A Raptors; Eglin AFB F-35A Lightning IIs; Royal Air Force (RAF) Eurofighter Typhoons; French Air Force/Armée de l’air Dassault Rafales.

Red Air: 71st FTS “Ironmen” T-38A Talons; 391st FS “Bold Tigers” F-15E Strike Eagles from Mountain Home AFB, ID.

Given operational security, some of the following flight details are principally correct.

The six participating Talons flew in two flights of three, “Vodka” and “MIG”.  The Strike Eagle flights “Marlin” and “Dagger” combined to form another 6 aircraft.  12 Red Air with E-3A Sentry support, against 16 Blue Air.  Given Blue Air was farthest from JBLE and launched first, they enjoyed tanker support from the Armée de l’air KC-135, as well as US tanker units (including at one point a KC-10 from the 305th AMW Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst).

What could we expect of the vul?

Red Air understood that Blue Air was tasked with a strike mission (target location unknown to Red Air) using the Rafale and Raptor as strikers.  While some might think the F-35As should have been the strikers, Raptor was the word and Raptors do have a very effective strike capability. The rest of Blue Air, Typhoons and Lightning IIs (and perhaps a mix of Raptors) were flying escort protecting the strikers.

Blue Air was challenged to employ “total force integration” across nationalities and platforms to form a multilayered, overlapping sphere of impenetrable “armor.”  Certainly, Blue Air would utilize their superior sensors to create a 3D picture of the battle space and their state of the art weapons to “destroy” Red Air well beyond visual range (BVR).

Red Air would utilize dissimilar threats against Blue Air coming from a multitude of directions and altitudes.  The Talons and Strike Eagles primary goal: to find the Blue Air strikers (call sign “Rogue”), fight through the escorts to get within an effective (emulated) missile envelope and realize a kill.  However, even if a visual on a Raptor or Lightning II was realized (and Red Air had the radar capability) they would still be “chasing a mirage” and could not expect to get a lock. Great.

Total force integration of the Gen 5 and 4.5 platforms creates a nasty dilemma for a real adversary.  At the best of times target fixation is deadly, add 5th Gen assets in the mix – fatal.

While the scenario sounds like a futile effort for Red Air, it is key to understand that this exercise is not a game where the highest kills wins.  Rather, the primary purpose of the exercise is to ensure Blue Air (our collective nations fighting edge) refine Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs).  With common, familiar TTPs, the coalition will quickly come together in the face of a future conflict and be effective, day one.

The coalition of Blue Air was challenged to maximize their mix to most efficiently use each aircraft’s exceptional capabilities, weapons loads and available fuel.  The best efforts of Red Air would test the tactics of Blue Air, to ensure they overlook nothing, and responded correctly to the dynamic of the fight.  If a Blue Air participant required a learning lesson – it was up to Red Air to provide it, and this is the right time and place to do so.  Perhaps in the “fog of war” an area of the formation would be left uncovered, and Red Air would get a leaker through to do some damage.

The 71st FTS “Langley Adversaries” fields young pilots preparing for the Raptor as well as seasoned Raptor pilots and pilots with plenty of experience in alternate platforms.  One look at the markings on the F-15E Strike Eagles of the “Bold Tigers” and it was clear there is plenty of combat experience in those cockpits.  No question, this group of pilots had the ability to take down a Blue Air player.  In a previous visit to the 71st FTS I met one of the T-38 pilots who had done that very thing.  I expect it was a lesson that resonated with the Raptor pilot.

Waiting in open cockpit at the end of runway (EOR) Blue Air completes their launches, and our teammates in F-15Es thunder down the runway in glorious afterburner.  Following MIG flight, Vodka flight of Talons launches last, one at a time in rapid succession.

We form up at 2,000 ft before punching through the clouds in formation.  I’m back seat of Vodka #3 flown by “Code,” (1st Lt.) in tight our flight lead #1 “Shim” (Maj.) and #2 “HOTAS” (Maj).  Within seconds we break through the clouds and the Talons look like beautiful black darts in the blue sky.  The SR-71 Blackbird clearly established that “black jets” are the coolest, so we are in good company.  The aircraft are stable and the pilots smooth. We stay in formation as we climb to altitude on the way to the fight.

T-38As of Langley Adversaries, 71st FTS “Ironmen” Vodka 1 & Vodka 2 during Atlantic Trident ’17 range bound. Flying out of Joint Base Langley-Eustis.

MIG flight is now far to the southeast working the opposite flank.  Marlin and Dagger are well above us in their own airspace blocks working the higher altitudes.  Red Air is tightening the noose. At altitude and nearing our block, Vodka 1 indicates he will run in on Blue Air from 10,000 ft below us.  The Talon drops away so fast my perspective is forever altered.  A high-performance aircraft allows the pilot to carve the sky at will shrinking time and space in ways grounded mortals cannot know.

Atlantic Trident 17 Red Air, 71st FTS Ironmen (T-38 Talon – Vodka Flight) and the 391st Bold Tigers (F-15E Strike Eagles – Marlin & Dagger Flights) RTB after DCA iwth a Blue Air Strike package of 1st FW F-22 Raptors, Eglin AFB F-35 Lightinging II’s, French Rafale’s and UK Typhoons.

With “go time” quickly closing in, Vodka 2 moves some distance from us.  Flying almost parallel we form a wall approaching Blue Air.  Red Air is attacking in numbers from many different directions and altitudes.  Perhaps Blue Air will miss one of us as we close rapidly and a striker will fall!

We now appear to be alone in the sky, a single gunslinger in the expanse with weapons armed and ready against impossible odds.  Focus and activity keep the thought at bay, the controllers voice a clear reminder that we are part of a much greater force and we do not fight alone.

“Fights On!” and we fly our vector like an adversary, oblivious to the invisible danger that lurks unseen in the distant (or near) sky. The next 45 minutes is something of a blur.  The controller calls a heading, we turn – someone turns, there is a lot going on in the skies.  The tempo increases, the radio crackling with voices.  Controllers in the E-3A are busy directing and working what sounds like play by play of an intense play-off game.  An intense play-off between warfighters.

Through the intercom, Code warns “G’s!”  I have split second to prepare for a snap turn and the onset of G’s.  Code is kind, the G’s are short-lived and light – well under 3.  Within moments I hear the radio crackle, “Vodka 1 you’re dead,” followed by “Vodka 2 you’re dead.”  Our flight is being picked off like tin cans on fenceposts.   I wait to hear Vodka 3 you’re dead – but silence.  I’m thinking, c’mom Code, this is our chance let’s press, I could use a kill on my resume.  Marlin 1, Dagger 2 No, No – not the Strike Eagles!  The comms crackle in warfighter shorthand, best deciphered by those who speak in this language.   With a sense of the inevitable, I hear it “Vodka 3 you’re dead.”  No sympathy, just cold, matter of fact.  It is done.  I don’t know what killed us, but we were shadow boxing with a lethal foe.

As we turn to regenerate it is clear this is not a fair fight. But that is the point, and why the tremendous investment in the 5th Gen aircraft.  The USAF has no intention to fight fair, they have built their force to dominate the air.  They who own the air will find it much easier to own the ground and sea.  Looking straight up far above us I see a silver spec blazing across the sky contrail in tow at what appears to be supersonic speeds.  A Raptor? It flies with impunity, we are mere spectators.  If this was a real fight, seeing such a sight would be a great signal to RTB (return to base).  Quickly.

After regen we return to the fight flying a designated vector.  Code rolls the Talon inverted, and pulls briefly into a vertical descent and then a great diving arc.  I had about as much as 1/10th a second to prepare for that, and 1/5 a second to enjoy it. Thank-you very much.

The fight is on! Red Air inverted and going for a 10,000 ft drop with the 71st FTS “Ironmen” T-38 Talon flown by Lt. S. Harlow, “Code.”

At some point, we pull near 4G, and the prospects have my undivided attention; will I weight 1,000 lbs today, or just 750?  I am told the pilots generally do not notice the physical, it is muscle memory that kicks in while their mind is focused on the battle.  I am glad to hear that, I’d certainly hate to lose my train of thought in such a time and place.  The Talon bottoms out 10,000 ft below where the maneuver started, and we climb all the way back to 20,000 ft.  It takes a minute to perform the massive maneuver.  And then I believe I hear music – “Rogue 1” you’re dead.  Did we get a Blue Air Striker?  Perhaps for all the Red Air jets that fell – perhaps we got one…

45 minutes’ pass in the vul, and we break for RTB.  Code directs me to the right, where descending from much higher airspace, four F-15Es of the 391st FS.  In tight formation, the Strike Eagles of Marlin and Dagger flights bob up and down like joined parts of a living being.  Magic.  Magic always ends leaving you wanting more, that’s how you know it is magic.

Some Atlantic Trident ’17 Red Air – F-15Es of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” (Marlin & Dagger Flights) and T-38A of the 71st FTS “Ironmen” (Vodka Flight) RTB after vul.

Atlantic Trident 17 Red Air, 71st FTS Ironmen (T-38 Talon – Vodka Flight) and the 391st Bold Tigers (F-15E Strike Eagles – Marlin & Dagger Flights) RTB after DCA iwth a Blue Air Strike package of 1st FW F-22 Raptors, Eglin AFB F-35 Lightinging II’s, French Rafale’s and UK Typhoons.

Some may ask, “What is it like to fly adversary against the most lethal integrated fighter force on the planet?” My answer, “You just die. Sight unseen. You just die.”

Bury your pride, and get used to dying.  But do not forget, your “death” serves a greater purpose. 

The seemingly futile fight and subsequent “deaths” are critical to ensure the readiness of the cutting edge of our warfighters, and “Total Air Dominance.”

For Previous Report on Atlantic Trident ’17 including compelling comments by 1st FW Commander Peter “Coach” Fesler Click Here.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to Jeffrey Hood 633 ABW PA and the entire 633 ABW Public Affairs Team who were instrumental and exceptional with their support; Col. Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 Fighter Wing Commanding Officer, and the 71st FTS, pilots, support, medical and others were beyond exceptional hosts. The entire team at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, professional and gracious throughout the visit.  You set the bar, we can but hope to capture and share a small reflection.

 

Atlantic Trident 17 brought together in type and capability the most formidable combination of fighter aircraft ever assembled.

Atlantic Trident 17 Drives a Higher Level of Integration.

The exercise held April 12 – 28 at Joint Base Langley-Eustice (JBLE) included a “Blue Air” force of USAF F-22 Raptors of the 1st Fighter Wing (FW) JBLE and F-35 Lightning IIs from Eglin AFB, Typhoons of the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Rafales of the French Air Force/Armée de l’Air (FAF).

The adversaries or “Red Air” included USAF F-15E Strike Eagles of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” Mountain Home AFB, ID and T-38A Talons of the 71st Fighter Training Squadron (FTS) “Ironmen” based at JBLE.  Additional assets included the E-3A Sentry from Tinker AFB, OK and a variety of tankers, including a FAF KC-135 and KC-10 of the 305th Air Mobility Wing (AMW) out of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, NJ.

Aside from the primary training objectives the exercise also provided the opportunity to commemorate 100 years of aerial combat cooperation between the French and US stemming back to WWI.

From the outside, looking in the lethal capabilities of Blue Air appeared to be overwhelming, with Red Air offering little challenge.  However, one must consider that the 71st FTS “Ironmen” fly daily as adversaries against the Raptor and possess pilots with Raptor experience.  These factors (along with the sheer numbers of Red Air fielded and their ability to “regenerate” on range) provide Red Air with the best likelihood to exploit any vulnerabilities or errors with Blue Air’s tactics – regardless their impressive platforms.

Towards the end of the exercise The Aviationist sat down with Colonel Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 FW Commander to discuss the exercise and the evolution of air combat in the context of 5th Gen aircraft.

Fesler noted that Atlantic Trident ’17 took integration beyond historical practice. On a tactical level integration historically involved a serial employment of aircraft (such as a Combat Air Patrol of RAF Typhoons) or geographical deconfliction of aircraft (such as FAF assets attacking ground targets in a designated area).  However, as Fesler explained starting with Red Flag 17-1 integration has gone deeper, involving a variety of platforms in the same airspace at the same time.  Integration between platforms also considered the various loiter time and weapons load/type for a given platform over a given vulnerability period (vul – the period of time when an aircraft is vulnerable to harm).

RAF Typhoons on the ramp with Strike Eaglesat Joint Base Langley-Eustis during Atlantic Trident ’17.

While not being specific, it is not difficult to envision a mixed strike package of Rafales and F-35s, a combat air patrol (CAP) of Typhoons and Raptors (or mix and match on any given mission set).  This level of integration leads to big challenges for an adversary who may easily be fixated on attacking a detected Gen 4.5 aircraft, while getting blindsided by a 5th Gen platform or be distracted by a 5th Gen threat “sensed” in the area and get bounced by a very capable Typhoon or Rafale. Hesitation in such air to air combat will most likely be punished with an ending in a ball of flames.

Dassualt Rafales of the Armée de l’air – French Air Force on the ramp at JBLE during Atlantic Trident ’17

The abundance of information available on the battlefield today drives a much higher level of integration.  Fesler noted that multiple people/assets may be involved with the finding, identifying and targeting portion of an air to air encounter. The pilot may take care of the final step and fire the missile that kills the target, but wouldn’t have found their way to that merge unless the assets got them there.

Atlantic Trident ’17 provided an opportunity to demonstrate how the advancement of aircraft, tactics and integration is driving change in the function of the fighter force.  For many years, the F-22 Raptor has utilized its superior sensors and SA to take the role of “quarterback” during a vul.  Given the integration of the F-35 and with the capabilities of the Typhoon and Rafale, the notion of a “single quarterback” is changing.  Frankly, per Fesler, the quarterback notion is starting to become almost a misnomer now in that we have multiple quarterbacks and it’s less about one individual directing everything and more about multiple nodes of information being able to provide the key pieces of information at the right time to influence the fight.  It is a foreboding thought for an adversary who now faces a team, where every position has the intelligence/capability of a hall of fame quarterback, even while performing their specific role at the highest level.

F-22 Raptors of the 1st FW JBLE wait for launch clearance at the EOR during Atlantic Trident ’17.

Performing at a high level is one thing, altering the playing field is another.  The 5th Gen aircraft has done that very thing, altering the classic air to air engagement in a fundamental way.  Fesler noted, the classic approach of shooting ones missiles and turning before the adversary can get a shot is predicated on the fact that the adversary sees you.  In the 4th gen world that is the case.  Ideally the pilot would like to be able to shoot, let their missile do the work and get away before the adversary can get a missile off.  In the 5th Gen world, the adversary doesn’t necessarily know where you are coming from.  The 5th Gen pilot may shoot a missile and monitor to make sure it is effective.  If the missile misses for any number of reasons, they are in good position for a follow-up shot.

F-22 Raptor of the 1st Fighter Wing JBLE taxis towards launch during Atlantic Trident ’17.

That is one of the fundamental difference between 4th Gen fighters and 5th Gen fighters.  In general, in the 5th Gen world the adversary doesn’t really know where you are coming from.  They may have a general idea but not a lot of specifics.  For 5th Gen pilots it’s a good place to be, to be able to roam around the battlefield faster than the speed of sound in an airplane that is largely undetectable all while your airplane is building a 3 dimensional picture of everything within a couple hundred miles of you. Ouch.

F-35A from Eglin AFB moves towards launch for a vul during Atlantic Trident ’17 exercise held at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, VA.

Aside from the exceptional technical aspects that fascinate and draw attention, Felser ultimately notes that his takeaways from Atlantic Trident ‘17 fall back to the human aspect; “fighter pilots are fighter pilots regardless of what their uniforms look like.  Aircraft maintainers are aircraft maintainers regardless of what their uniforms look like.  There are some universal experiences, beliefs and cultures that transcend the national boundaries in this and that’s one of the things I have enjoyed out of both Tri-lateral exercises (2015 & AT ‘17) that we’ve had.  The man in the machine still makes a difference. You can have the most lethal fighter in the world but if you make a mistake a far inferior aircraft can shoot you out of the sky. Training still matters.  If that were not the case, we’d buy the machines, park them and never fly them and when war kicked off jump in them and go and fly. That in fact is not the case and you can lose a war with the best equipment if you don’t know how to use it right, if your tactics aren’t sound, if your skills aren’t automatic, you can still lose.”

F-15E of the 391st FS “Bold Tigers” Mountain Home AFB, ID launches from JBLE for Red Air Vul during Atlantic Trident ’17

Atlantic Trident ‘17 reveals the way forward; advanced integration, people making a difference, and high level training.  This rationale drives the Air Force ensuring it is ready with the highest capability for the next conflict on day 1.

Fourth and fifth-generation aircraft from the U.S. Air Force, French air force and Royal air force fly in a training airspace during ATLANTIC TRIDENT 17 near Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va., April 26, 2017. The F-35 Lightning II was incorporated in the exercise, along with the F-22 Raptor and fourth-generation assets to develop tactics, techniques and procedures that can be used during future coalition fights. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard)

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to Jeffrey Hood 633 ABW PA and the entire 633 ABW Public Affairs Team who were instrumental and exceptional with their support; Col. Pete “Coach” Fesler, 1 Fighter Wing Commanding Officer, and the entire 1 FW; the entire team at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, professional and gracious throughout the visit.  You set the bar, our service people are the finest.

Image credit: Todd Miller, unless otherwise stated.

 

We have joined the 15th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit) for an Amphibious Assault

Today’s mission: Gain a beachhead, assault and secure a village with a mixed hostile/civilian population, capture a high value target and secure intelligence. With the 15th MEU at PMINT (PHIBRON [NAVY] & MEU [Marines] Integration.

What does an Amphibious Assault have to do with Aviation? Aside from being supported by Aviation assets, a critical part of the Amphibious Assault is the Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) or “Assault Hovercraft.”

LCACs are operated by pilots, and arguably one of the lowest flying, heavy lifting craft in service today. Stretching it – perhaps just a little. In years to come, expect the America Amphibious Ready Group (and subsequent America class of ships (LHA) that forgo their well deck to focus on deploying aviation assets) to redefine Amphibious Assault.

The Aviation component will move troops deep inland in MV-22Bs, with the support of F-35Bs to assault in contested space, and CH-53Ks functioning as ship to shore connectors hauling significant heavy equipment. Today we look primarily at the seaborne component of amphibious assault. No question seaborne assault will remain a/the significant component of amphibious assault. Regardless, the developing aviation component provides the US Marines with many more options to execute their missions.

A trio of MV-22B Ospreys from VMM-161 – the 15th MEU Aviation Combat Element land adjacent village under assault by the 15th MEU BLT 1/5 during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

AH-1Z Viper from VMM-161 – the 15th MEU Aviation Combat Element provides aerial cover for the 15th MEU BLT 1/5 during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

On board the U.S.S. San Diego all briefings are complete and mission execution is all that remains. Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) gather their steroid induced rucks and pack into the tight confines of the Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV). Three crew, weapons, support equipment and up to 21 Marines in each AAV. It is tight quarters among team.

The smell of diesel fills the air, the clang of metal on metal and slapping of water on the well deck speaks “go time.” On cue, the ramp, and all hatches of the AAV close tightly and the vehicle is readied for launch. Launch? Yes, launch into the deep blue sea off the back of the San Diego with as much grace as 29 tons on tracks can muster.
Any apprehension (and there must be some) is masked by focus on the mission at hand. We are United States Marines, and this is what we do.

This is the defining mission set for Marines. Amphibious Assault.

This forcible entry from the sea recalls revered Marine battles of the past; Iwo Jima, Guadalcanal, Okinawa – fought in conditions we cannot know. Marines immortalized, their qualities of valor and determination to fight through to the finish now awakened in the hearts of this generation of US Marines.

15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) hitting Red Beach during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). 15th MEU Workups, April 13, 2017 Red Beach, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA.

Today’s mission: Gain a beachhead, assault and secure a village with a mixed hostile/civilian population, capture a high value target and secure intelligence. Location: Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA. The exercise is the culmination of PMINT (PHIBRON – MEU INTegration). The PHIBRON (AmPHIBious SquadRON) consists of the U.S.S. America (LHA-6), U.S.S. San Diego (LPD-22) and U.S.S. Pearl Harbor (LSD- 52), otherwise known as the “America Amphibious Ready Group” (ARG).

The 15th MEU is about 4 months deep in their 6 months of deployment workups. Previous phases of the workups focused on individual skills followed by unit skills and included exercises such as Realistic Urban Training (RUT) (article on the 15th MEUs RUT). PMINT is the stage when the ARG/MEU force integrates as a cohesive team, US Marines and US Navy. Lt. Col Richard Alvarez, Executive Officer of the 15th MEU explained, “the most challenging thing we do is integrating all the assets, making them work as a team. Leaving the ship, coming to shore.”

US Navy LCACs loaded with LAVs, HMMWVs & supplies landing on Red Beach during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). 15th MEU Workups, April 13, 2017 Red Beach, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA.

The amphibious assault represents the culmination of PMINT and the transition to the final two months of workups before the ARG/MEU deployment this summer.

The U.S.S. San Diego draws relatively close to shore and the ramp at the rear of the well deck draws down. Go time. One after another the AAVs “launch,” almost disappearing in the water before bobbing up to “float height.” These AAVs may motor but they certainly don’t fly, in fact they barely seem to float, sitting deep in the water ensuring a low profile if targeted. Two waves, one of 5 the other of 6 AAVs are formed. Quick math, and it is clear, hundreds of Marines are incoming.

U.S.S. San Diego (LPD-22) lowering well deck ramp in preparation for Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) launches. The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 will execute the amphibious assault during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

Overhead we do see some fliers, the 15th MEUs Aviation Combat Element (ACE) is represented by VMM-161 UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper helicopters. The Venom drops its nose making simulated rocket runs on… us. The Vipers gun turret swivels from side to side – pointing at… us. If the battlefield were real, the outcome of those looks – the last record in your memory bank.

It is tempting to jump to the conclusion that a battlefield scenario would include a massive Naval bombardment and airpower strikes – but it is not that simple. The operational situation would define support levels. On the table, everything from that Naval bombardment and fierce air attack to soften up the shore – to a stealthy approach in the dead of night. The full extent of the ACE (not utilized in this specific exercise) provides even more options such as; distributed assault utilizing MV-22Bs where hundreds of Marines can land hundreds of miles inland and CH-53E Super Stallions can sling support equipment to positions of tactical advantage. As the exercise progresses we see those very MV-22Bs and CH-53Es land in an adjacent area down the beach from the village.

CH-53E Super Stallion from VMM-161 – the 15th MEU Aviation Combat Element lands adjacent village under assault by the 15th MEU BLT 1/5 during PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

The amphibious assault is just one of 13 mission sets the MEU is “certified” to execute during their deployment. The forward deployed, rapid responding, broadly capable ARG/MEU provide the combatant commander with incredible flexibility and capability. Even if not mission utilized, their mere presence offshore sends a strong message of deterrence.
The AAVs approach the shore and move quickly from the waves, to the beach and on to predefined positions flanking the village. Within moments Marines burst from the confines of the AAVs and move forward with purpose under their own notional covering fire. This assault quickly becomes Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain (MOUT), it is dangerous and dynamic.

Marines must carefully assess surroundings, dynamic threats, and make life and death decisions in an instant.

Around any corner, in any number of buildings the Marines confront notional combatants both in uniform and civilian clothing utilizing a variety of weapons. In cases hostiles “play dead” only to open fire as Marines close, or use civilians as human shields. Throughout the exercise trainers identify issues real-time and miss steps or misfortune generate notional Marine injuries that subsequently require team support, medical attention and evacuation.

Following amphibious landing, Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 plan their assault on hostile village during the PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

With the battle raging in the heart of the village “High Speed, Heavy Lifting” Assault Hovercraft -(officially “Landing Craft Air Cushion” vehicles (LCAC)) FLY ashore to unload numerous Light Armored Vehicles (LAVs) and High Mobility Multi Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs – generally known as Humvees). Soon, the village is teaming with Marines. AAVs, LAVS, HMMWVs with devastating firepower create a perimeter around the village to defend from counter attack.

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 provide notional covering fire during village assault. Action takes place during the PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration) amphibious assault on hostile village at Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit BLT 1/5 advance while clearing hostile village during PMINT exercise (Navy PHIBRON -Marines MEU Integration). Red Beach, Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, CA

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 remove weapon from notional deceased hostile. Action takes place during the PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration) amphibious assault on hostile village. Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

Alvarez emphasized that this specific training event mimicked real world scenario, “it puts Marines in a place where they must differentiate and make decisions.” The workup period is high tempo and relentless. Repeated exposure to intense “real world scenarios” discipline Marines physical and mental skills to respond like muscle memory when on mission.

US Navy LCAC unloads LAVs & HMMWVs in support of amphibious assault by the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 on hostile village during the PMINT exercise (US Navy PHIBRON & USMC MEU Integration). Red Beach, Camp Pendleton, CA.

With PMINT behind them, the final two months of workups remain. 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, Public Affairs Officer of the 15th MEU indicated the next stages as the Composite Training Unit Exercise (COMPTUEX) where the ARG/MEU will exercise assigned mission essential tasks ensuring they are fully prepared for the Certification Exercise (CERTEX). Upon successful completion of CERTEX, the 15th MEU will be officially certified for their Western Pacific (WESTPAC) / Central Command (CENTCOM) deployment with the America ARG.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to: Lt. Col Richard Alvarez, Executive Officer of the 15th MEU; 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, Public Affairs Officer, 15th MEU; BLT 1/5 and the entire 15th MEU; the support team from Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, and the U.S.S. America ARG.

 

We Went Inside Realistic Urban Training with the U.S. Marine Corps 15th MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit)

Recently Todd Miller of The Aviationist joined the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) for “Realistic Urban Training” (RUT), a live fire assault on an “urban complex” on the ranges at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) in Twentynine Palms, CA.

The 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is working up in preparation for their deployment this summer to the Pacific. The 15th MEU will deploy on the U.S.S. America (LHA-6) Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) which includes the U.S.S. San Diego (LSD-25) and U.S.S. Pearl Harbor (LSD-52). The MEU is the smallest Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) numbering about 2,200 Marines. MEUs are broadly capable, forward deployed forces prepared to quickly respond to a global crisis of a humanitarian or military nature.

For observers gathered on the live range at the Marine Corps Air and Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) the first indication the exercise had started was the sound of the unseen jet aircraft at altitude sweeping the valley. Within minutes the “whump, whump” of artillery fired from miles away was heard, followed by artillery impact in the valley. VMM-161s (MCAS Miramar) UH-1Y Venom and AH-1Z Viper rolled into the valley and cycled the area, periodically making rocket runs and raining lead.

MV-22B Ospreys fully loaded with Marines from the Battalion Landing Team (BLT) came into the valley flying under active artillery fire (pounding simulated targets on the outskirts of the village).

MV-22 Osprey from the VMM-161 Greyhawks on landing approach with Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). During Realistic Urban Training (RUT), live fire training as part of workups to deployment. MCAGCC, Twentynine Palms, CA.

MV-22 Osprey from VMM-161 the Greyhawks of MCAS Miramar, CA full of Marines circle prior to landing – with artillery pounding positions in the distance. At the MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, CA during the 15th MEUs Realistic Urban Training (RUT) March 10, 2017.

MV-22 Osprey from VMM-161 the Greyhawks of MCAS Miramar, CA disembarks Marines during the 15th MEU Realistic Urban Training (RUT). March 10, 2017.

MV-22 Osprey from the VMM-161 Greyhawks on landing approach with Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). During Realistic Urban Training (RUT), live fire training as part of workups to deployment. MCAGCC, Twentynine Palms, CA.

The MV-22Bs landed and disappeared into clouds of dust, effectively obscuring the Marines as they disembarked. CH-53E Super Stallions appeared firing flares, and dropped into their landing zone. The conditions demonstrated the reality of what both man and machine must contend with in their design environment. This was no airshow. High temps, full loads, and “brown out” conditions when landing in the field. This is the norm; in the heat, the dirt, fully loaded, and in other circumstances landing on ships, night flying with NVGs, high altitudes, full loads, all with the very real potential of taking live fire. The aircraft crews of VMM-161 made it look second nature. This is their office.

CH-53E Super Stallion from VMM-161 the Greyhawks of MCAS Miramar, CA climbing out of the landing zone with Marines – headed home after a long day. Marines from the 15th MEU during Realistic Urban Training (RUT). MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, CA March 10, 2017.

CH-53E from the VMM-161 Greyhawks of MCAS Miramar drops onto range with Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) The 15th MEUS live fire, Realistic Urban Training (RUT) is underway at MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, CA.

CH-53E from the VMM-161 Greyhawks of MCAS Miramar drops into its dust shroud with Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The 15th MEUS live fire, Realistic Urban Training (RUT) is underway at MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, CA.

CH-53Es of the VMM-161 Greyhawks (MCAS Miramar) moving up and away full of Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). Realistic Urban Training (RUT), MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, CA.

MV-22 of the VMM-161 Greyhawks (MCAS Miramar) breaks free it’s “dust screen” and accelerates up and away with a hold full of Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Realistic Urban Training (RUT), MCAGCC Twentynine Palms, CA.

Once the Marine BLT off loaded, they found gravity in their own element. Fire teams quickly located and engaged simulated adversaries with suppressing fire. Mortar teams were established and drew the attack perimeter closer to the urban area. A fire team used anti-tank missiles to take out simulated armor, and on command BLT 5/1 unleashed a wave of steel rain on the urban environment. Marine squads and fire teams moved forward under cover to begin the meticulous effort to clear the urban area of threats. Breach charges obliterated doors, flashbangs stunned potential adversaries and heavy fire resonated as every interior corner was cleared. Throughout the assault the Marines navigated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and a variety of booby traps.

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 make their way from one complex to another during live fire exercise, Realistic Urban Training (RUT). RUT is one of the 13 missions the 15th MEU must master prior to deployment. MCAGCC at Twentynine Palms, CA March 10, 2017.

Marine from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 makes his way through the smoke towards a complex doorway during live fire exercise, Realistic Urban Training (RUT). RUT is one of the 13 missions the 15th MEU must master prior to deployment. MCAGCC at Twentynine Palms, CA March 10, 2017.

Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) BLT 1/5 provide suppressing fire on Urban environment during live fire exercise, Realistic Urban Training (RUT). RUT is one of the 13 missions the 15th MEU must master prior to deployment. MCAGCC at Twentynine Palms, CA March 10, 2017.

This is just one day in the aggressive six months of “crawl-walk-run” work-ups towards deployment of the 15th MEU.

Commanded by Col. Joseph Clearfield the 15th MEU is based out of Marine Base Camp Pendleton, CA. MEUs are scalable, composite units made of lethal ground combat (GCE), aviation combat (ACE), logistics combat (LCE) and command elements (CE). The 15th Meu includes the following units;
GCE, Marine Battalion Landing Team (BLT) 5/1;
ACE, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron VMM-161 (reinforced);
LCE, Combat Logistics Battalion (CLB) 15.
Realistic Urban Training (RUT) provided an insight into the depth and complementary nature of resources utilized by the MEU – and demonstrated the Marine philosophy that “no force fights alone.” A variety of combat capabilities ensures MEUs have everything necessary to penetrate contested space, complete objectives and exfiltrate – or secure and hold ground.

Urban operations are only one of thirteen mission capabilities that must be mastered prior to deployment. The combined MEU/ARG is fully capable of a wide variety of missions including (but not limited to);

  • Amphibious assaul
  • Amphibious raid
  • Maritime interception Operations (MIO)/Visit, board, search, and seizure (VBSS)
  • Advance force operations
  • Non-combatant Evacuation Operations (NEO)
  • Humanitarian assistance (HA)
  • Stability operations
  • Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP)
  • Joint and combined operations
  • Aviation operations from expeditionary shore-based sites
  • Theater security cooperation activities
  • Airfield/port seizure

Utilizing a Rapid Response Planning Process (R2P2) the MEU/ARG is fully prepared to respond to a crisis and initiate a mission in as little as 6 hours. The groups capability and proximity to areas of crisis position it as a force of choice to initiate, support and or achieve directed objectives

The Marines of the 15th MEU (and the other 6 MEUs) represent the United States of America as the providers of sustenance after humanitarian disaster, as law and order on the high seas, or as the last act of diplomacy – military force. America has entrusted them with the Nation’s weightiest responsibilities and they do America proud.

The Aviationist expresses gratitude to; 1st Lt Francheska Soto, Outreach Officer & Sgt Paris Capers, Mass Communication Specialist, I Marine Expeditionary Force (1st MEF); 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, Public Affairs Officer, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit; the entire 15th MEU; and the trainers and support team at the MCAGCC.

Image credit: The Aviationist’s Todd Miller

 

Salva

Four of the most experienced USMC F-35B pilots speak about their aircraft. And they say it’s exceptional.

The voice of the pilots is clear – the platform is working exceptionally. The F-35 is a platform with the ultimate level of sophistication, made simple. And therein lay the beauty of the F-35, and just why it will be so deadly, it’s simple.

The combined F-35 fleet now has over 75,000 flight hours, yet many continue to question the performance and value of the aircraft.  Much of this can be expected given early program challenges, and the reality that many of the F-35s capabilities are classified.  Add that many do not grasp the war the F-35 was designed to deter – or fight.  21st century warfare and capability has about as much in common with wars of the past as your 1970’s land line has to your smartphone.  It is in this “smartphone” battlespace that the F-35 is designed to fight and to do so with a distinctly unfair advantage.

To understand the significance and value of the F-35, cut through the complexity and noise.  Simplify.  Put aside the politicians “it does not work!” the ideologues, the self-proclaimed experts and listen to the voice of the pilots.  The pilots will take the aircraft into combat, their own lives in the balance as they penetrate contested space and are wildly outnumbered by adversary aircraft.

The USS America (LHA-6) with 12 F-35Bs on board (2 in Hangar) during "Proof of Concept" demonstration November 19, 2016.  Aircraft from VMFA-211, VX-23 and VMX-1 particpated with MV-22Bs and an AH-1Z & UH-1Y in a "strike exercise" off the coast of CA.

The USS America (LHA-6) with 12 F-35Bs on board (2 in Hangar) during “Proof of Concept” demonstration November 19, 2016. Aircraft from VMFA-211, VX-23 and VMX-1 particpated with MV-22Bs and an AH-1Z & UH-1Y in a “strike exercise” off the coast of CA.

The Aviationist and a handful of journalists recently had the opportunity to visit with four such pilots during a “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the USS America, Nov. 19, 2016.  The four pilots are some of the most experienced F-35B pilots in the United States Marine Corps (USMC) and their previous experience provides valuable context to their statements.

  • George “Sack” Rowell, Commanding Officer (CO) of VMX-1 (Marine Operational Test & Evaluation Squadron). Prior to the F-35, Rowell spent appx. 3000 hours over 18 years of flying the F/A-18 Hornet.  Previously the CO of VMFA(AW)-533
  • Col. Chad “Mo” Vaughn, CO of VMFA-211. Prior to the F-35, Vaughn spent a couple 1000 hrs over 13 years in the F/A-18A-D Hornet, as well as time in the F-16A-B Fighting Falcon/Viper and F/A-18 Super Hornet at NAS Fallon.
  • Col. Rich “BC” Rusnok, slated to become the CO of VMFA-121 in March 2017. Prior to the F-35, Price spent appx. 7 years flying the AV-8B Harrier II with additional time in the F/A-18 Hornet.
  • Col. John “Guts” Price, slated CO for VFMA-122 (2018). Prior to the F-35, Price spent appx. 1200 hrs and 10 years flying the AV-8B Harrier II, and has about 400 hrs in the F-35 over the past 3 years.

The pilots provide unique insights, a different perspective on the F-35 and its unique capabilities.  The comments have been edited for readability with best efforts made to maintain context and integrity of intent.

F-35B launchs off the USS America (LHA-6) during "Proof of Concept" demonstration November 19, 2016.

F-35B launchs off the USS America (LHA-6) during “Proof of Concept” demonstration November 19, 2016.

On a personal level as pilots, coming from other platforms and stepping into the F-35, do you have an “aha” moment that you can share?

Guts;  My first “aha” moment was a seemingly simple thing.  I was executing a familiarization flight near MCAS Yuma.  I was coming back to the airfield and I basically just turned the jet and pointed its nose at Yuma.  Immediately the jet is providing me the information of all the traffic that is out there in the airspace.  When I talk to approach for the first time they are telling me about the traffic that is out there that I already know about and I see it.  I can tell who everybody is that he is talking about and the jet also saw traffic that ATC hadn’t seen yet and I asked about it.  And I thought, “Holy Cow!” here I am coming back to the field from a simple familiarity mission and my jet is telling me everything about the operational environment I am about to go into.  In this case, something very simple, the traffic pattern coming back there, but I didn’t have to do anything to have that level of SA [Situational Awareness].  I can start making decisions about what altitude I wanted to go to, if I wanted to turn left or right, speed up or slow down.  There’s somebody coming up next to me, I want to get in front of them – or whatever.  It is a very simple example, but I thought WOW this is amazing that I see everything and can do that.

The other was the first time I vertically recovered the airplane.  The flight control law that the airplane has is unbelievable and I always tell the anecdote.  Flying AV-8B Harrier IIs, I only had one specific aircraft I felt like I could kind of go easy on the controls and it would sit there and hover.  I love the Harrier, love flying that aircraft, but there was work involved to bring it back for a vertical landing.  The very first time I hovered an F-35B I thought, I am the problem here, and I am just going to let the jet do what it wants to do.  The F-35 was hovering better than I could ever hover a Harrier without doing a thing.  That’s back to that workload comment I said earlier.  I am performing a vertical landing, and I have the time to look around and see what is taking place on the pad and around me. It is a testament to the jet.

BC;  I was conducting a strike mission and Red Air was coming at me.  In a 4th Gen fighter you must do a whole lot of interpretation.  You see things in azimuth, and you see things in elevation.  In the F-35 you just see the God’s eye view of the whole world.  It’s very much like you are watching the briefing in real time. 

I am coming in to perform the simulated weapons release, and Red Air is coming the other direction.  I have enough situational awareness to assess whether Red Air is going to be a factor to me by the time I release the weapon.  I can make the decision, I’m going to go to the target, I’m going to release this weapon.  Simultaneously I pre-target the threat, and as soon as I release the A2G weapon, I can flip a switch with my thumb and shoot the Red Air.  This is difficult to do in a 4th Gen fighter, because there is so much manipulation of systems in the cockpit.  All while paying attention to the basic mechanics of flying the airplane and interpreting threat warnings that are often very vague, or only directional.  In the F-35 I know where the threats are, what they are and I can thread the needle.  I can tell that the adversary is out in front of me and I can make a very, very smart decision about whether to continue or get out of there.  All that, and I can very easily switch between mission sets.

Mo;  I was leading a four ship of F-35s on a strike against 4th Gen adversaries, F-16s and F/A-18s.  We fought our way in, we mapped the target, found the target, dropped JDAMs on the target and turned around and fought our way out.  All the targets got hit, nobody got detected, and all the adversaries died.  I thought, yes, this works, very, very, very well.  Never detected, nobody had any idea we were out there.

A second moment was just this past Thursday.  I spent a fair amount of my life as a tail hook guy – [landing F/A-18s on US Navy Supercarriers] on long carrier deployments.  The last 18 seconds of a Carrier landing are intense. The last 18 seconds of making a vertical landing on this much smaller USMC Assault Carrier – is a lot more relaxed.  The F-35C is doing some great stuff.  Making a vertical landing [my first this week] on the moving ship, that is much smaller than anything I’ve landed on at sea – with less stress, was awesome.

Sack;  It was my first flight at Edwards AFB Jan ’16.  I got in the airplane and started it up.  I was still on the deck and there were apparently other F-35s airborne – I believe USAF, I was not aware.  I was a single ship, just supposed to go out and get familiar flying the aircraft.  As the displays came alive there were track files and the SA as to what everyone else was doing in the airspace, and I was still on the ground.  I mean, I hadn’t even gotten my take-off clearance yet.  I didn’t even know where it was coming from.  It was coming from another F-35.  The jet had started all the systems for me and the SA was there.  That was a very eye opening moment for me.

The second one, took place when I came back from that flight.  In a Hornet you would pull into the line and had a very methodical way in which you have to shut off the airplane and the systems otherwise you could damage something.  So you have to follow a sequence, it is very methodical about which electronic system you shut off.  In the F-35 you come back, you do a couple things then you just shut the engine off, and it does everything else for you.  Sounds simple, even silly – but it is a quantum shift.

F-35Bs stacked aboard the USS America (LHA-6) during "Proof of Concept" demonstration November 19, 2016. A total of 12 F-35Bs aboard.

F-35Bs stacked aboard the USS America (LHA-6) during “Proof of Concept” demonstration November 19, 2016. A total of 12 F-35Bs aboard.

The voice of the pilots is clear – the platform is working exceptionally. The F-35 is a platform with the ultimate level of sophistication, made simple.   And therein lay the beauty of the F-35, and just why it will be so deadly, it’s simple.

This article is but a small excerpt of the complete pilots discussion of our contributors full article found at The Second Line of Defense here.

The Aviationist thanks USMC pilots; Col. George “Sack” Rowell, Lt. Col. Chad “Mo” Vaughn, Lt. Col. Rich “BC” Rusnok, and Lt. Col.  John “Guts” Price; Captain Joseph R. Olson, Commanding Officer of the USS America and entire crew; Sylvia Pierson, Brandi Schiff, JSF/JPO PA; Capt. Sarah Burns and 1st Lt. Maida Zheng, USMC PAOs;  MV-22B pilots/crew and personnel of VMX-1.

Touchdown imminent during "Proof of Concept" demonstration on the USS America (LHA-6) November 19, 2016.

Touchdown imminent during “Proof of Concept” demonstration on the USS America (LHA-6) November 19, 2016.