2011 Articles

SEP xx 2010
Military Aviation >> USA: Back to Business - HMM-268 and the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit

I've driven along the I-5 from Los Angeles to San Diego many times over the last couple of years. The road skirts the California coastline and passes the edge of the massive US Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton - every time I drive past there seems to be something interesting happening within view of the road, be it armoured vehicles manoeuvring in the fields, helicopters picking up troops or occasional glimpses of the Navy's LCAC hovercraft on the shoreline. For Camp Pendleton is a massive military installation covering 125,000 acres which provides a base for the bulk of I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF), the parent unit of most USMC assets on the west coast. As such, it is home to the full spectrum of Marine Corps assets, including infantry, artillery, armoured units and amphibious vehicles.

In addition, there is an air station (MCAS Camp Pendleton, also known as Munn Field), home to a total of nine squadrons of helicopters. All of these units are assigned to MAG-39, one of the four component units of the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing. Along with MAG-16, MAG-39 provides rotary-wing assault support for I MEF. Today I am visiting MAG-39 to see how the end of Operation Iraqi Freedom has affected the operations of one of its component units in particular.

The majority of the Group's squadrons are designated HMLA (Marine Light Attack Helicopter) and operate versions of the Bell AH-1 and UH-1. Most of these squadrons are in the process of upgrading from the UH-1N Huey and AH-1W Supercobra to the UH-1Y Viper and AH-1Z Venom respectively, a move which represents a huge step up in capability for the light attack community.

The AH-1Z is the latest version of an attack helicopter which has become a Marine Corps stalwart since early versions entered service in the early 1970s. The current AH-1W Supercobra fleet was delivered in the 1980s and has seen plenty of action since, being involved in every conflict that the Marine Corps has taken part in during that period. When it came to replacing the fleet, despite some interest in a navalised Apache, it was decided that the best option was to procure an upgraded version of the AH-1, termed the AH-1Z.

The most conspicuous change from the original AH-1 is a new four bladed rotor and transmission system. The new system has fewer parts and is made from composite materials, resulting in better performance, less vibration and a lower acoustic signature. Less obvious are huge improvements in the avionics including a much enhanced targeting system and helmet mounted displays. The AH-1Z was declared combat ready in September 2010 with the fleet to consist of a combination of new build helicopters and AH-1Ws upgraded to the new standard.

In parallel to the AH-1Z development, the Corps also launched a program to upgrade the UH-1N fleet to a similar standard. The new model is the UH-1Y and features similar upgraded engines, transmission and four bladed composite rotors. Improvements in avionics and systems have also been provided. Although intended to be an upgrade package to the UH-1N, the decision was taken in 2005 to deliver the fleet as new build helicopters. The result is a faster, longer ranged helicopter with a much greater load carrying capability and firepower.

In addition to the HMLA squadrons, there are also three HMM (Marine Medium Helicopter) squadrons flying the venerable CH-46 Sea Knight, more commonly known as the "Phrog". The CH-46 has served the Marines admirably for over forty years and is now entering the final phase of its illustrious career, with its replacement, the Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey, entering service in ever increasing numbers.

Despite the decline in the fleet, the three CH-46 squadrons at Camp Pendleton remain very busy, with HMMT-164 'Knightriders' still actively engaged in training new Phrog aircrew. Alongside HMMT-164, the two operational CH-46 squadrons are HMM-268 'Red Dragons' and HMM-364 'Purple Foxes'. With the Osprey squadrons at Miramar only now reaching full operational capability, the burden of supporting expeditionary operations has fallen to these remaining CH-46 squadrons (along with HMM-163 'Ridge Runners' at MCAS Miramar, currently deployed as part of the 13th MEU).

At the core of US Marine Corps doctrine is the MAGTF (Marine Air Ground Task Force) concept. The MAGTF represents a combined arms task force, under a single commander, which is structured towards a specific mission. Any MAGTF will consist of four elements: the Command Element (CE); the Ground Combat Element (GCE); the Air Combat Element (ACE) and the Logistics Combat Element (LCE). Whilst the task force will always consist of these four elements, the size and composition will vary according to the task.

A MAGTF can vary in size from a full Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) down to a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), the smallest task force which can be deployed for general operations - a smaller force may be deployed on occasion, but such a force would be more specialised for one role in particular.

Since 2003, USMC resources have been inevitably focused on Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). This has led to some units being moved away from traditional MEU deployments in order to focus their energy and expertise on the conflict in Iraq. One such unit is HMM-268 'Red Dragons', which is the focus of my visit today.

On arrival at the HMM-268 hangar, I'm met by Capt Ed Romagnoli, a CH-46 pilot from the squadron. Capt Romagnoli is fairly new to the unit having been assigned to 268 for just over a year. He's currently a co-pilot who will make the transition to commander shortly. As we walk across the ramp he explains a little about how the squadron is preparing for the challenges which face it in the coming months.

There's a real buzz around the Red Dragons' facility at the moment. From the commanding officer downwards there is a feeling of excitement, of preparing for a new and very important task. When the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit sets out later this year, HMM-268(REIN) will provide the Air Combat Element of a MEU for the first time since 2001.

I'm fortunate enough to be able to get a few moments with Lt Col Chad Blair, HMM-268's commanding officer and his enthusiasm for the task at hand is obvious.

"I'm excited to brag about our squadron and also the 11th MEU! The way that the CH-46 squadrons have been aligned since OIF is that there would be a standing requirement to support OIF with the CASEVAC (CASualty EVACuation) mission. The CH-46 was, and is, the best platform for CASEVAC - it's proved itself in Vietnam and Iraq in that mission. The MEU, however, is our bread and butter. In terms of the institution of the Marine Corps and embracing the MAGTF concept, the MEU is our bread and butter.

"So, we dedicated three '46 squadrons on the west coast to do the standing CASEVAC in Iraq while the other three continued to do the MEU cycle. There are three west coast MEUs so three '46 units were supporting that. But this squadron was earmarked as one of the OIF squadrons so was pulled out of the MEU mix. So we've got a generation gap of not only CH-46 pilots but also marines across the board really, as the Marine Corps focus has been in Iraq - money, training and manpower has been focused on OIF.

"So, there's a generational gap in experience. There's been a much smaller percentage within the institution committed to the MEU, so we're seeing that in the squadron where just over 10% of our marines, pilots and maintainers have experience within the MEU."

From the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, HMM-268 distinguished itself in the CASEVAC role. The squadron's facility at Camp Pendleton is adorned with memorabilia and souvenirs from past OIF deployments; one of the most poignant is the "CASEVAC Bell", which was rung to signal a requirement for a helicopter and medical team to airlift a wounded soldier, an all too common occurrence during the height of the insurgency.

Now OIF is officially over and US combat operations in Iraq have ceased. This has allowed squadrons such as HMM-268 to get back to their regular routine business, in this case the MEU commitment - even if a MEU deployment is anything but routine!

There are three MEUs assigned to the west coast. At any one time, one will be deployed, one will be working up for deployment and one will be resting and re-equipping following a deployment. Currently HMM-268 is in the workup phase as Capt Romagnoli explains.

"Once they decide which units are going on the MEU, the HMM (or indeed the VMM in the case of Osprey units) becomes the core of the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) and other squadrons will attach elements to the HMM. So we ended up getting three Yankees (UH-1Ys) and four Zulus (AH-1Zs) from HMLA-367 'Scarface', who are based down the flightline here and four CH-53s from HMH-462 'Heavy Haulers' at Miramar.

"Then they decide on a 'chop date' which is when you detach from the air group and attach to the MEU and that date is when the other elements come to the squadron. In this case it was May 2nd when we picked up the CH-53s and the 'skids' (ie UH-1/AH-1s) and you also get other detachments from the control group etc."

At this point HMM-268 became HMM-268(REIN), with the suffix meaning 'reinforced'. As well as the additional helicopters, a number of AV-8B Harriers are also assigned to the ACE. the Harriers will remain based at Yuma until the MEU deploys onto the boat, but are still able to take part in the workup from there.

The workup phase is due to last approximately six months before the enlarged squadron begins its deployment alongside the other combat elements of the 11th MEU. This pre-deployment phase is vital to building up teamwork and understanding, not just between the different elements within the squadron but between all the elements of the MEU, emphasising the unique capability of the Marine Corps to raise a diverse and self contained force.

"The squadron becomes a composite squadron with all the different types of aircraft and then I would say 95% of the flying we do is in support of MEU training. Either with the battalion landing team, which is 3rd Battalion 1st Marines (3/1), or the logistics element which is CLB-11 (Combat Logistics Battalion). So we'll fly with them and do whatever together and that way we get to know each other and how to work with the other mission units within the MEU."

By definition, the MEU is an expeditionary unit, so key to this mobility is the vessel upon which the force is deployed. In the case of the forthcoming deployment of the 11th MEU, this will be one of the newest ships in the Navy.

"We'll be on the USS Makin Island, the newest LHD (Landing Helicopter Dock) we have and it will be the first deployment of that ship. We'll also have two small decks, one is an LPD (Amphibious Transport Dock) and one is an LSD (Dock Landing Ship) and that will give us the ability to split the elements of the group as we need to for whatever contingencies arise."

This will also be a significant event for the light attack units attached to the MEU - when the 11th MEU embarks in October it will represent the first deployment of the AH-1Z and only the second time that the UH-1Y has been deployed on a ship.

The deployment will be a Western Pacific (WESTPAC) cruise which should route out to Hawaii and then to South East Asia, where exercises will be conducted with the armed forces of friendly nations. Although there may be some exercise dates which will be set in stone, the key to any MEU deployment is flexibility - at the start of the trip there will be no clear plan of the route to be taken or the areas to be visited. This can bring its own challenges, as Lt Col Blair explains.

"Some of the things that are exciting about the MEU are the things which are frustrating about it. The main thing is uncertainty - if you don't deal with uncertainty well that can be a challenge.

"Squadrons that have been going to OIF have always had a report date and a return date. So, you know exactly where you are going and exactly what amenities are set up for you when you get there. This means you can get into your routine, whether it's walking patrols and coming back, when you are going to work out, fly etc. With the MEU there's a little more uncertainty about that.

"The thing about the MEU is the big picture, the strategic picture - sometimes there's more strategic value in holding us off the coast of a particular country. To explain to your most junior marines how important that is is difficult to do sometimes."

Lt Col Blair speaks as a veteran of five previous MEU deployments, one of the minority on the squadron who have experience in performing the mission.

"It's exciting for us, the few that have been on the MEU to be teaching and educating the next generation on what it's all about. I've got marines on the squadron who are three times combat vets who've never been out on the MEU yet.

"Because we are all very conscious of that, we talk about it and have extra training classes so we're very well prepared. Training we have but what we don't have yet is the experience. However, I think that we are compensating well by recognising some weaknesses and filling those voids with training."

The Red Dragons have a distinguished history, having started out as HML-268 operating the UH-1 during the Vietnam War. After a period of disbandment in the late 1970s the squadron reformed as HMM-268 on the CH-46 in 1979. Amongst other missions, HMM-268 pioneered the introduction of Night Vision Goggles (NVGs) and the unit also saw action during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.

As for HMM-268's association with the CH-46, the end may not yet be in sight, but it almost certainly lies just over the horizon. The squadron is scheduled to do at least one further MEU deployment and possibly a third - it is likely to be the final Fleet CH-46 squadron, although the aircraft will continue for a while longer in the hands of reserve units HMM-764 and HMM-774.

For now though, the squadron is embracing its return to Marine expeditionary operations with great gusto and anticipation. Lt Col Blair sums up his feelings thus.

"We're returning to our culture and I'm happy to be at the helm for this new chapter in the squadron's history."

After the triumphs and traumas of OIF, the return to the MEU cycle represents the closing of a chapter of history both for HMM-268 and for the US Marine Corps as a whole. A return to providing a deployed rapid reaction force ready to deal with a wide variety of contingencies while at the same time providing stability and strengthening links with friendly nations in the region. In other words, a return to the business of being Marines.

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