The Timeline for the Tiltrotor Enterprise: A Con-Ops Perspective (Part Three)

By Robbin Laird

Focus on the Peer Fight and Great Power Competition: 2017-

The Trump Administration re-focused defense on what they referred to as the Great Power Competition. As the 2017 National Security Strategy noted: “After being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally. Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime. In short, they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor.”

The Osprey by the time of the 2017 NSS had achieved maturity and was ready to adapt to the strategic shift in U.S. policy. The Osprey was now operating with the F-35B and the USS America had come to the Navy so a new ARG-MEU was clearly being created.

MV-22B Ospreys with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Reinforced), 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), perform flight operations from amphibious assault ship USS America (LHA 6) in the Philippine Sea, Jan. 30, 2021. The 31st MEU is operating aboard ships of the America Expeditionary Strike Group in the 7th fleet area of operations to enhance interoperability with allies and partners and serve as a ready response force to defend peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region (Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Brandon Salas)

The new con-ops which would emerge with the re-emphasis on great power competition was two-fold. The shift to distributed operations for the joint force and the need to deal with gray zone conflicts posed by authoritarian adversaries. The Osprey was well positioned to contribute to both demands.

The nature of the shift and its implications for the USMC was well articulated by the then CO of MAWTS-1, Col Gillette when I interviewed him in Yuma in the Fall of 2020.

Col Gillette: “Working through how the USMC can contribute effectively to sea control and sea denial for the joint force is a key challenge. The way I see it, is the question of how to insert force in the Pacific where a key combat capability is to bring assets to bear on the Pacific chessboard. The long-precision weapons of adversaries are working to expand their reach and shape an opportunity to work multiple ways inside and outside those strike zones to shape the battlespace.

“What do we need to do in order to bring our assets inside the red rings, our adversaries are seeking to place on the Pacific chessboard?

“How do you bring your chess pieces onto the board in a way that ensures or minimizes both the risk to the force and enhances the probability of a positive outcome for the mission? How do you move assets on the chessboard inside those red rings which allows us to bring capabilities to bear on whatever end state we are trying to achieve?

“For the USMC, as the Commandant has highlighted, it is a question of how we can most effectively contribute to the air-maritime fight. For us, a core competence is mobile basing which clearly will play a key part in our contribution, whether projected from afloat or ashore.

“What assets need to be on the chess board at the start of any type of escalation? What assets need to be brought to bear and how do you bring them there? I think mobile basing is part of the discussion of how you bring those forces to bear.

“How do you bring forces afloat inside the red rings in a responsible way so that you can bring those pieces to the chess board or have them contribute to the overall crisis management objectives? How do we escalate and de-escalate force to support our political objectives?

“How do we, either from afloat or ashore, enable the joint Force to bring relevant assets to bear on the crisis and then once we establish that force presence, how do we manage it most effectively?

“How do we train to be able to do that?

“What integration in the training environment is required to be able to achieve such an outcome in an operational setting in a very timely manner?

Question: Ever since the revival of the Bold Alligator exercises, I have focused on how the amphibious fleet can shift form its greyhound bus role to shaping a task force capable of operating in terms of sea denial and sea control. With the new America-class ships in the fleet, this clearly is the case.

How do you view the revamping of the amphibious fleet in terms of providing new for the USMC and the US Navy to deliver sea control and sea denial?

Col Gillette: “The traditional approach for the amphibious force is move force to an area of interest. Now we need to look at the entire maritime combat space, and ask how we can contribute to that combat space, and not simply move force from A to B.

“I think the first leap is to think of the amphibious task force, as you call it, to become a key as pieces on the chess board. As with any piece, they have strengths and weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses are clear, such as the need for a common operational picture, a command-and-control suite to where the assets that provide data feeds to a carrier strike group are also incorporated onto L-Class shipping. We’re working on those things right now, in order to bring the situational awareness of those types of ships up to speed with the rest of the Naval fleet.

Question: A key opportunity facing the force is to reimagine how to use the assets the force has now but working them in new innovative integratable ways or, in other words, rethinking how to use assets that we already have but differently.

How do you view this opportunity?

Col Gillette: “We clearly need to focus on the critical gaps which are evident from working a more integrated force.   I think that the first step is to reimagine what pieces can be moved around the board for functions that typically in the past haven’t been used in the new way.

“That’s number one. Number two, once you say, “Okay, well I have all these LHA/LHD class shipping and all the LPDs et cetera that go along with the traditional MEU-R, is there a ship that I need to either tether to that MEU-R to give it a critical capability that’s autonomous? Or do I just need to have a way to send data so that they have the same sensing of the environment that they’re operating in, using sensors already in the carrier strike group, national assets, Air Force assets et cetera?”

“In other words, the ship might not have to be tethered to a narrowly defined task force but you just need to be able to have the information that everybody else does so that you can make tactical or operational decisions to employ that ship to the max extent practical of its capabilities.

“There is a significant shift underway. The question we are now posing is: “What capability do I need and can I get it from a sister service that already has something that provides the weapons, the C2 or the ISR that I need?”

“I need to know how exploit information which benefits either my situational awareness, my offensive or defensive capability of my organic force. But you don’t necessarily need to own it in order to benefit from it.

“And I think that when we really start talking about integration, that’s probably one of the things that we could realize very quickly is that there are certain, assets and data streams that come from the Air Force or the Navy that make the USMC a more lethal and effective force, and vice versa.

“The key question becomes: “How do I get the most decisive information into an LHA/LHD? How do I get it into a marine unit so that they can benefit from that information and then act more efficiently or lethally when required?”

And with the pairing of the F-35B with the Osprey onboard the large deck amphibious ships the Marines obviously now contributed in a major way to the ability of the Navy to engage more effectively globally dealing with peer adversaries.

But the adaptation of the Osprey itself was underway. During a visit to 2nd Marine Air Wing in 2020, I learned of an exercise in which the Osprey was configured to play a key role as the quarterback of an operation.

I highlighted this exercise and interviewed Major Rew, the exercise’s air mission commander in 2020.

In a press release from November 5, 2020, this is how II Marine Expeditionary Force described the exercise:

Last July, North Carolina-based Marines organized an exercise in which they called Deep Water.

In a press release from November 5, 2020, this is how II Marine Expeditionary Force described the exercise:

“Marines with 2nd Marine Division, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, and 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing are conducting Exercise Deep Water at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C., 29 July 2020.

“II MEF conducts these training events on a consistent basis. This year, Exercise Deep Water will see two battalions conduct an air assault in order to command and control many of the various capabilities organic to II MEF in preparation for major combat operations.

“Exercise Deep Water 20 is a great opportunity for the Division to work with aviation units from Marine Corps Air Station New River and the Logistics Combat Element, as well. 2nd Marine Regiment will be the provide command and control over the 2nd battalion, 2nd regiment, and 3rd battalion, 6th regiment, the logistics and aviation units….”

During my visit to 2nd MAW in the first week of December 2020, I had a chance to discuss the exercise and its focus and importance with Major Rew, the exercise’s air mission commander.

I learned from Major Rew that this exercise combined forces from pickup zones in North Carolina and Virginia.

The exercise consisted of a force insertion into a contested environment, meaning they used air assets to clear areas for the Assault Force, which included both USMC (AH-1Z, UH-1Y, F/A-18A/C/D, and AV-8B) and USAF aircraft (F-15E and JSTARS). Once air superiority was established, the assault force was inserted by USMC MV-22Bs and CH-53Es.

The exercise also included support aircraft such as the KC-130J and RQ-21.

The planning and execution focused on bringing a disaggregated force into an objective area that required integrated C2 with Ground, Aviation, and Logistics Combat Elements.

This C2 functionality was delivered in part by an Osprey operating as an airborne command post with a capability delivered by a “roll-on/roll-off” C2 suite, which provided a chat capability and can be found at a mobile or static command post or even in an airborne C2 aircraft.

The use of MAGTF Tablets (MAGTAB) provided a key means of digital interoperability that allowed for real time information sharing to ground elements and aviators. The MAGTAB provided the visual representation of the integrated effects and outcomes to the command element.

ISR was provided by USMC assets and by a USAF JSTARS aircraft. They used their Network-On-The-Move Airborne (NOTM-A) system to provide interoperability for the commander and assault force.

As Major Rew put it, “I think having the NOTM-A kit on the Osprey is a big win because it provides so much situational awareness. With the Osprey as a C2 aircraft, there is added flexibility to land the aircraft close to whatever operational area the commander requires. There are many capable C2 platforms across the DoD but not all of them also have the ability to immediately land adjacent to the battlefield like the Osprey does.”

One aspect of mission rehearsals the Marines are developing is to leverage Joint assets in support of an assault mission and be able to provide information to that mission force as well.

To be clear, the Marines did not march to the objective area; they flew to their objectives in various USMC lift assets accompanied by USMC rotary wing and fixed wing combat aircraft.

They were moving a significant number of Marines from two different locations, hundreds of miles apart, to nine different landing zones.

Major Rew underscored: “We were working with a lot of different types of aircraft, and one of the challenges is trying to successfully integrate them to meet mission requirements.”

He added, “As the air mission commander, I was co-located with an infantry colonel who was the overall mission commander. We were in an Osprey for a significant period of time leading the operation from a C2 perspective.”

Featured Image: U.S. Marines with 2d Marine Air Wing take off after dropping Marines with 2d Battalion, 2d Marine Regiment, 2d Marine Division as part of Exercise Deep Water on Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, July 29, 2020. Deep Water is a 2d Marine regiment-led exercise designed to provide Marine Air-Ground Task Force capabilities, which increases lethality and combat effectiveness for future combat operations. The exercise included the largest air-assault conducted in decades. Credit Photo: USMC, 2nd MAW.

The two interviews are taken from Robbin Laird, The U.S. Marine Corps Transformation Path: Preparing for the High-End Fight (2021).