US Military Aviation

JUN 14 2011
Military Aviation >> USA: The 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

Miramar is most famous as the former home of the US Navy's Pacific Fleet fighter squadrons and the legendary Top Gun school. The Tomcats and "Fightertown USA" are long gone now, however, with the base passing from the Navy to the Marine Corps as part of the Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) programme of the mid-1990s. Today Miramar is home to a much more diverse and potent force in the form of the 3rd MAW.

These are exciting times for Marine Corps aviation as the Corps welcomes several new types into service, with the prospect of more to come in the next couple of years. At the moment, the Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey is replacing the CH-46 Sea Knight with the UH-1Y and AH-1Z supplementing (and eventually replacing) the UH-1N and AH-1W.

Further new types will arrive in the near future with the CH-53K program providing a replacement for the CH-53E and the F-35 set to replace a whole raft of tactical aircraft such as the AV-8B Harrier and early models of the F/A-18 Hornet.

Responsible for almost all Marine aviation on the west coast of the US, the 3rd MAW can trace its history back to World War II, being first commissioned in November 1942 at MCAS Cherry Point, NC. Its units played a full role in the war, conducting operations in the Pacific Theatre as well as training new Marine pilots.

The end of the war brought deactivation for the wing, but the outbreak of the Korean War lead to its re-establishment, once again at MCAS Cherry Point. In 1955, however, the unit switched from east coast to west, making a move to MCAS El Toro, CA, and it has remained home based in California ever since. Shortly after the move to El Toro, the 3rd MAW assumed command of the helicopter squadrons at nearby MCAF Santa Ana (later MCAS Tustin).

The Vietnam War saw the wing deploy personnel and equipment to South East Asia in support of combat operations there. At the end of hostilities, all units returned to the US and the 3rd MAW was reorganised into its current form.

The 3rd MAW next saw action during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when 40 squadrons were deployed to the Persian Gulf. After the conflict was over, elements of the 3rd MAW remained in the area to support Operations Provide Comfort and Southern Watch.

The end of the Cold War brought dramatic reductions in the size of the US military as whole; the Base Realignment And Closure (BRAC) act sought to rationalise the number of bases that each of the services operated from. As part of this process, the US Navy moved out of its base at NAS Miramar and the base was turned over to the Marines in 1999. The Air Stations at Tustin and El Toro closed and the wing's assets became concentrated at Miramar and Camp Pendleton in California and Yuma in Arizona, with Miramar being home to the command headquarters.

Shortly after the move to Miramar came the unit's next taste of combat action; since 2001 elements of the 3rd MAW have been constantly deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

Today the 3rd MAW consists of four Marine Aircraft Groups (MAGs). At Miramar there is MAG-11 and MAG-16, MAG-13 is based at Yuma, and MAG-39 at Camp Pendleton. Each of these groups contributes its own unique skills and capabilities and each will be the subject of future, detailed articles on GAR.

At Miramar, MAG-11 is made up of three Marine Fighter Attack Squadrons (VMFA) flying the F/A-18A+/C Hornet and two Marine All Weather Fighter Attack Squadrons (VMFA(AW)) with the F/A-18D. There is also a single squadron of KC-130J Hercules and the Marines' F/A-18 training unit.

Also at Miramar is MAG-16, which specialises in assault support operations, using a mix of conventional helicopters such as the (CH-53E Super Stallion and CH-46 Sea Knight) and the revolutionary (in every sense) MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor.

Camp Pendleton is a large complex to the north of Miramar and is home to I Marine Expeditionary Force, consisting of infantry and armoured vehicles. There is also an airfield within the camp and this is home to MAG-39, which is composed of Light Attack Helicopter (HMLA) and Medium Helicopter Squadrons. The HMLA squadrons are currently in transition from the UH-1N and AH-1W to the UH-1Y and AH-1Z.

The final combat element to the 3rd MAW is MAG-13, based at Yuma, AZ. This unit consists of four Marine Attack Squadrons (VMA) flying the AV-8B Harrier II.

The USMC's role is that of expeditionary warfare, with the emphasis being on amphibious assault. The Corps has the ability to deploy a combined arms force unique among the US armed services, with the force taking the form of a Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF).

The USMC is organised into three Marine Expeditionary Forces (MEF) - I MEF at Camp Pendleton; II MEF at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and III MEF at Camp Courtney, Okinawa, Japan. I MEF is composed of a HQ element, the 1st Marine Division, the 3rd MAW and the 1st Marine Logistics Group.

When deployed, a MAGTF will reflect this structure, consisting of a command element, a ground combat element, an aviation combat element and a logistics element. The MAGTF can vary in size and composition according to the requirements of the mission, but will always include these four elements. There have been occasions when the whole of a MEF has been deployed (such as Desert Shield/Desert Storm), but it is more common for units to deploy as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) or a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

The USMC is renowned in the US and throughout the world for its superb flexibility and strength. In the further parts of this series we will describe some of the aircraft that the Corps operates and meet some of the people who make the Marines such a formidable fighting force.

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