Marines Want VTOL Family of Systems for Future Vertical Lift

The Marine Corps have landed on a family-of-systems approach to developing its next rotary-wing fleet, as it refines requirements for its Future Vertical Lift program, service officials said on Wednesday. After Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger issued his Commandant’s Planning Guidance in 2019, the service began reassessing its needs for Future Vertical Lift. Now, […]

An MV-22 Osprey, assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 362, idles on the flight deck of amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD-8), Feb. 4. Makin Island is underway conducting routine operations in U.S. 3rd Fleet. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nadia Lund)

The Marine Corps have landed on a family-of-systems approach to developing its next rotary-wing fleet, as it refines requirements for its Future Vertical Lift program, service officials said on Wednesday.

After Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger issued his Commandant’s Planning Guidance in 2019, the service began reassessing its needs for Future Vertical Lift. Now, the Marine Corps is focused more on replacing capabilities rather than platforms, according to assistant deputy commandant for aviation Brig. Gen. Matt Mowery.

“Instead of thinking about strictly platform replacements, more of a capability requirement. So over the last two years we’ve really done a lot of analysis and reflection and coordination with the other services to really think about where are we going and what is the requirement that we need. So this may be the first time we’ve used this term outside of the Pentagon, but we’re not really talking [Attack Utility Replacement Aircraft] anymore. We’re talking VTOL family of systems,” Mowery said today at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual Expeditionary Warfare Conference.

“Looking at everything that we think is going to need to take off or land vertically and operate beyond 2030. So vertical take-off and landing, or VTOL family of systems – because what it does is it creates more of an umbrella program that things like a future [UH-1Y Venom] replacement, although again getting those capabilities once those platforms are end of life – but it also encompasses things like large unmanned logistics system airborne,” he added. “As we look at the distances that we’ve got to cover out in the Pacific, you know to have something unmanned that can do very repetitive work, risk-worthy, but over long distances and at an airspeed that’ll make a difference on the battlefield, that may be actually a priority for us over an H-1 replacement.”

Mowery noted that the Marine Corps is still taking delivery of the final H-1s it purchased, so the service is more focused on what technologies it will need to invest in for the future.

Sailors assigned to the Harpers Ferry-class dock landing ship USS Carter Hall (LSD-50) chock and chain a UH-1Y Huey, attached to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 (Reinforced), during flight operations in the Persian Gulf, July 10, 2021. US Navy Photo

“And we think a great place to start maybe this large unmanned logistics system airborne, maybe MUX/MALE next and then you start looking at H-1 and MV-22 next. You know all those things I think are going to share a whole lot of similarities and technology,” he said, referring to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) Expeditionary program, also known as MUX, and the medium-altitude long-endurance system (MALE) that the Marines want to develop.

After Berger issued the CPG, the Marine Corps scrapped the MUX effort to build a large Group 5 unmanned aerial vehicle that could operate off of the Navy’s amphibious ships to perform various missions. Meeting the numerous requirements with one air vehicle at an appropriate cost was no longer feasible, so the Marines shifted to a family of systems approach for MUX. In the meantime, the Marines have been operating and experimenting with the MQ-9A Reaper drones, which the service has previously described as the first UAS to fit under the MUX family of systems. The Marine Corps plans to use lessons learned from operating the Reapers to help develop MUX.

A long-range unmanned platform for the Marines would likely fit under the VTOL family of systems, Mowery said, and the service will flesh out this idea in a forthcoming Marine Corps aviation plan this year.

The Navy also wants a family of systems approach for its Future Vertical Lift maritime strike capability, which is expected to include both manned and unmanned aircraft, USNI News previously reported.

While the requirements for both the Marine Corps and Navy capabilities are still under discussion, the Navy’s mission needs have lined up with some Marine Corps missions like fleet logistics and the overall Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept, said Rear Adm. Shane Gahagan, the program executive officer for tactical aircraft programs,

“Can we get as many requirements that are common as possible across the forces and then the more you can be common, obviously the part supply gets better across the broad,” Gahagan said during a question and answer session with reporters. “But as was mentioned, the requirements are the key and where we have to diverge based on requirements is still being discussed, but I think going in that’s the plan with the Future Vertical Lift – a common site pictures on requirements and deviate only when we have to bring down costs of supporting and sustaining.”

The Navy and Marine Corps’ respective efforts to develop new rotary capabilities are housed under the same program office, but the services could have different requirements. The Navy likely needs helicopters that can operate off its destroyers and frigates more than the Marines.

“Now, within that common PMA it doesn’t necessarily mean we’re buying the same systems. Doesn’t mean we’re not going to buy some of the same, but it certainly doesn’t tie us to that. What it does though is it allows for some real collaboration, right,” Mowery told reporters after the event. “The Navy, as they look to replace their [MH-]60, they may decide that they need to make a requirement that it needs to fit in a certain footprint, right, like maybe the back of a DDG, for example. Well, the Marine Corps doesn’t necessarily have that same requirement.”

Despite the services still developing the requirements, the shared program office enables “synchronization” between the Navy and Marine Corps, Mowery said, adding that the platforms and systems will likely use the same technology, networks and software.

“What we’re finding right now is that the technologies that both of us are going to need to be able to, you know, again – take off and land vertically, go farther than the [MH-]60 and an H-1, go faster – there’s a lot of shared technology that we’re going to see there. And those aircraft and those platforms are going to have to operate in the same battlespace. So we’re going to have to be connected to the same network. We’re probably going to be able to share a lot of the software and the boxes and the things that are going to enable those capabilities. So again, short answer, we’re – if we’re not tied at the hip, we’re working through the same channels.”

During an earlier panel at the conference, deputy commandant for combat development and integration Lt. Gen. Karsten Heckl said the Navy and Marine Corps’ tilt rotor aircraft are important to the mission in the Indo-Pacific and pointed to the use of the MV-22 and CMV-22 in the region. But Heckl said the services have not made any progress on Future Vertical Lift.

“Future Vertical Lift is something we’re still talking about. Unfortunately, my very humble opinion is having been at the start of this back in 2014, we’ve made no headway,” Heckl said. “So it’s something that we’re trying to pressurize and energize to get moving. But that’s a big one.”

Top Stories 2020: Marine Corps Operations

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020. 2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes […]

Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Austin McBain, a fire support specialist with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) Information Group, monitors a radio during exercise Summer Fury 20 in Yuma, Ariz., on July 14, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

This post is part of a series of stories looking back at the top naval news from 2020.

2020 was a turning-point year for the Marine Corps. After previewing changes to come in his Commandant’s Planning Guidance released last year, Commandant Gen. David Berger released a Force Design 2030 document this year outlining major changes in how the service would operate and equip itself. No longer would the Marine Corps be a service schlepping around tanks for sustained ground operations; rather, it would be light and mobile, using small ships to maneuver around islands and shorelines to attack an adversary from all angles and challenge their ability to track and target the small and on-the-move units.

And Berger didn’t stop at just releasing the plan: divestments are starting, new units are forming, wargames and exercises are reflecting new concepts of operations.

“In my professional opinion, we have to change. We have to move out now,” Berger told lawmakers recently.

Force Design 2030

U.S. Marines with Charlie Company, Infantry Training Battalion, School of Infantry – West, fire an M98A2 Javelin guided missile system during a field-fire demonstration as part of the Anti-Tank Missileman Course at Range 204B on Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California, Jan. 22, 2020. ITB trains, develops and certifies Marines as riflemen, as well as their primary military occupational specialty within the infantry field, before sending them to join the Fleet Marine Force. US Marine Corps photo.

Berger released Force Design 2030 in March, laying out the first iteration of his vision of what the Marines needed to morph into to be successful in the future: a focus on maritime campaigning; close integration with the Navy, especially in sea control and sea denial missions; an emphasis on small units that could maneuver around islands and shorelines and bring with them logistics, anti-ship missiles, surveillance equipment, or whatever else the joint force needed dispersed throughout the battlespace.

In some ways, this vision was a culmination of everything the Marines had been working towards: many of the concepts relied on using the KC-130J on expeditionary runways and using the F-35B’s vertical takeoff and landing capabilities to get into remote areas. But in some ways it was wholly new: no longer would the Marines conducting these island-hopping missions start out aggregated on an amphibious warship, drop out the back of the well deck in a connector and then move ashore for operations; instead, the concept would rely on Marines on small ships that don’t exist today, such as a Light Amphibious Warship (LAW) that is habitable for the crew for longer durations of time but can also directly beach themselves to put Marines ashore.

The release of Force Design 2030 wasn’t the end of the effort, but rather the beginning of a massive wargaming, modeling and simulation, and live exercise bonanza that will stretch into next year.

U.S. Marines with Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, traverse through water during an amphibious assault exercise, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, May 28, 2020. Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, and Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 3d Marine Regiment, conducted an amphibious assault exercise and military operations in urban terrain to increase littoral mobility proficiency in 3d Marine Regiment and advance the goals of the Commandant of the Marine Corps 2030 Force Design. US Marine Corps photo.

So far, the first Marine Littoral Regiment was stood up in Hawaii to start experimenting with things like long-range ground-based anti-ship missiles, as well as either LAW prototypes or surrogates to start understanding what operations might look like with these new units and new capabilities. The service also entered into Phase III of the Force Design effort, described as a “campaign of learning approach” where teams will basically stress test the plan as it exists today by asking difficult questions of it and seeking answers through wargaming and experimentation. Much of this learning will culminate in a massive 2021 Large Scale Exercise that will involve multiple carrier strike groups and amphibious ready groups and will focus on the new operating concepts: Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO), Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment (LOCE), and Expeditionary Advance Base Operations (EABO).

Though much is still to be learned through the ongoing campaign of learning, Berger is sure enough that they’re heading in the right direction to call for a restructure of Marine forces in the Pacific, to spread out beyond hubs in Japan and South Korea. While deterring China in the Pacific is his main focus now, later experimentation may look at creating alternate unit formations better tailored to challenging Russia in the North Atlantic, for example.

Of course, this is all coming at a time when defense budgets are expected to be flat or declining, so Berger said all along that he’d create a plan that the Marine Corps could pay for within its current topline. To do so, the service has taken a “divest to invest” strategy, announcing that “by the year 2030, the Marine Corps will see complete divestments of Law Enforcement Battalions, Tank Battalions and associated Military Occupational Specialties (MOS), and all Bridging Companies. Additionally, the Corps will reduce the number of infantry battalions from 24 to 21; artillery cannon batteries from 21 to 5; amphibious vehicle companies from 6 to 4; and reduce tilt rotor, attack, and heavy lift squadrons.” A further review would be conducted to see if the aviation reductions – specifically, limiting F-35 squadrons to just 10 aircraft each instead of 16 – should lead to a reduction in the planned buy from contractor Lockheed Martin.

F-35 Operations

F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 211 and the 617 Squadron sit on the flight deck aboard HMS Queen Elizabeth at sea on Oct. 6. 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter was among the best examples this year of the Marines pivoting in stride and refocusing towards Berger’s vision. Though fielding the F-35B and C jets has been decades in the making for the Marine Corps, ongoing F-35B and nascent F-35C activities this year nested well into the priorities of Force Design.

After spending 2019 learning how to incorporate the vertical takeoff and landing F-35B into the Marines’ island-hopping EABO concept, they took it a step further this year: incorporating the carrier-based F-35C into those plans.

The Marines’ first F-35Cs began flowing into Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., in late January to support Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 314, the first squadron to transition to the next generation of carrier-based Marine aviation. In March the squadron was certified “safe for flight,” meaning they could train on their own without the supervision of the fleet replacement squadron, and earlier this month the squadron reached initial operational capability. Among the first things the squadron did after achieving IOC: demonstrating the ability to quickly rearm and refuel at expeditionary land bases, a centerpiece of EABO that will allow the Marines to stray far from their aircraft carriers and conduct stealthy missions on behalf of the joint force.

U.S. Marines with Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 314 and Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352, Marine Aircraft Group 11, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conduct a new expeditionary landing demonstration with M-31 arresting gear Interim Flight Clearance (IFC), on Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., on Dec. 3, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Noting an expected deployment in late 2021 aboard aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN-72), Maj. Robert Ahern, a pilot with VMFA-314, explained the urgency of the expeditionary landing and refueling, saying that as early as next year “we may be called upon to execute expeditionary advanced base operations. We need to be able to do this. This is something that hasn’t been done yet with the F-35C.”

A second tenet of future military concepts that the Marines’ F-35 community has focused on this year is interoperability and close collaboration with allies. In September, the “Wake Island Avengers” of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 211 flew to the United Kingdom to begin training ahead of a joint deployment aboard aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth (R08). The U.S. Marines and their U.K. counterparts conducted a group exercise and participated in NATO exercise Joint Warrior off Scotland.

“With a total of 14 jets and eight Merlin helicopters, it’s the largest concentration of fighter jets to operate at sea from a Royal Navy carrier since HMS Hermes in 1983, and the largest air group of fifth generation fighters at sea anywhere in the world,” the Royal Navy said at the time.

VMFA-211 will deploy with Queen Elizabeth in the spring.

Major Events

Recruits with Alpha Company, 1st Recruit Training Battalion, wait in line at Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, Sept. 22, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic – and the relative ease of blue-water navy exercises compared to the greater precautions needed for amphibious warfare and other ashore training drills – the Marines kept busy this year around the world.

Perhaps most challenging was the rotational deployment to Darwin, Australia, which was put on hold in March due to the growing pandemic.

In May, the service announced it would resume its annual rotational deployment after Australia agreed to grant an exemption to its COVID-19 travel restrictions. The Marine Rotational Force-Darwin (MRF-D) would involve about 1,200 Marines – just half the originally planned 2,500, due to COVID – who would train in the Northern Australia region. All were required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in Australia, with COVID tests being given at the beginning and at the end of the quarantine period.

Though a smaller group than originally planned, with no manned aviation assets deploying this year – but some unmanned aircraft for intelligence-gathering – the group worked with their Australian counterparts on increased interoperability in command-and-control, fire support coordination and aviation planning.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. David Reece, a joint terminal attack controller with 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, looks over his notes during Exercise Iron Fist 2020 on San Clemente Island, California on Feb. 6, 2020. US Marine Corps Photo

Prior to the pandemic, the annual bilateral Iron Fist exercise at Camp Pendleton, Calif., took place in January and February to help improve the capability of Japan’s first Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade, which stood up in 2019 and will reach full capability next spring. About 310 Japan Ground Self-Defense Force soldiers came to California to operate off USS Pearl Harbor (LSD-52) and USS Portland (LPD-27), with an emphasis on infantry, amphibious assault vehicle, reconnaissance and medical training.

Japan established the ARDB to better position its self-defense forces to thwart off and defend incursions into its 3,000-plus islands — particularly in the southwest, including the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.

Later in the year, Marines out of California were involved in fighting historic wildfires up and down the West Coast. In September Marine Wing Support Squadron 373 deployed to support the aerial firefighting mission on the Slink Fire, which spread onto training areas of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center north of Yosemite National Park. Later in the month, 7th Engineer Support Battalion under 1st Marine Logistics Group at Camp Pendleton was trained for ground firefighting and divided into strike teams that would be paired with a corpsman and an experienced professional firefighter. The Marines ended up at the August Complex Fire, where they were given extra responsibilities such as protecting a helicopter landing pad from the encroaching fire.

Accidents and Safety

Marine Corps AAV-P7/A1 assault amphibious vehicle driver with Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, drives an AAV-P7/A1 up the well deck ramp of the amphibious landing dock USS Somerset (LPD 25) during training to increase Navy-Marine Corps interoperability in the eastern Pacific on July 27, 2020. US Navy Photo

Eight Marines and a sailor died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank off the coast of California on July 31.

Fifteen Marines and a sailor from 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit were aboard the AAV that had been training on San Clemente Island and then swam into the water to return to USS Somerset (LPD-25). They reported taking on water, and while eight Marines were recovered immediately – one of whom was pronounced dead at the hospital shortly afterwards – seven Marines and the sailor were still missing.

Submarine support ship HOS Dominator was brought in the next day to assist in the search and rescue, and the Marine Corps paused all AAV operations. By Aug. 2, the Marine Corps declared the missing men presumed dead and transitioned to a recovery operation.

The sunken AAV and human remains were located on Aug. 4 and recovered Aug. 8.

Two investigations were launched – a Naval Safety Center Investigation and a Command/Line of Duty Investigation – and Commandant Berger said at a recent hearing that the command investigation was nearing its conclusion but that it hadn’t reached his desk yet. Still, in October the commander of the battalion landing team was relieved of command.

A Marine KC-130 crash lands in California Sept. 29, 2020.

In Marine Corps aviation, a KC-130 and a F-35B collided in air on Sept. 29 during a mid-air refueling. The F-35B pilot safely ejected. In a feat of fantastic flying, the KC-130 pilot from Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 352 lost two engines, had a potential fire onboard, had just partial control of the aircraft, and yet landed safely in a farm field and saved all Marines onboard.

An MV-22B Osprey belonging to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 163, based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, was extensively damaged while parked at a general aviation airfield near the U.S.-Mexico border. While the aircraft was unattended, a skydiving plane rolled into it, damaging the left engine compartment, wing and landing gear and both propellers.

Marine MV-22B Osprey after being struck by a Twin Otter skydiving plane on May 30, 2020. City of San Diego Photo

In March, two Marine Raiders were killed in northern Iraq while supporting Iraqi Security Forces in the fight against ISIS.

In July, an early morning shooting at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., temporarily locked down the training grounds. After investigating, police determined a Marine died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.