MAWTS-1 and Innovation

By Ed Timperlake

We are publishing our book on MAWTS-1 later this year.

This is my introduction to the book:

The USMC Vietnam air ground war was the experience which shaped the founding of MAWTS-1 or the past was prologue for the formation of MAWTS-1.

The historical accounting for total aircraft and helicopter losses in combat in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam war has been listed in many after action historical surveys as close to 10,000.  Fixed wing losses are slightly fewer than helicopters.

The aircraft with highest causality rate was the F-4 Phantom II flown by Air Force, Navy. and Marine aircrews. Over 5000 were produced worldwide and approximately 700 lost in Southeast Asia with over 500 being direct combat losses.

For our aircrew lost in combat and also sadly many tragic accidents because of demanding operational tempo in unforgiving weather and terrain, theirs was a lasting story of the ultimate sacrifice of courageous  aircrews. Those aviators  showed undaunted courage.

For combat aviators in all services Navy, Air Force and Marines enough was enough.

Airpower leaders who survived and stayed in uniform after Vietnam made it their quest to identify significant deficiencies  in training, tactics and combat employment of airpower during the Vietnam War and to change the way training was done. They wanted to focus on training for reality and how to prevail, not simply to train.

Suggestive of this spirit was a brilliant spoof of the different reality between the senior political leadership’s PR  view of the war and their direct combat experiences which was developed in 1966 by USAF fighter pilots flying the Phantom II with the 12th Tactical Fighter Wing out of Cam Ranh Bay Vietnam.

They set up was a mock interview between an F-4 pilot and a reporter with the ubiquitous command political “spin” information officer sitting in to correct the pilots blunt truthful language. It was called “What the Captain Means” and the ending quote was insightfully prescient for what was to follow for almost a decade long war.

Reporter: “I noticed in touring the base that you have aluminum matting on the taxiways. Would you care to comment on the effectiveness and usefulness in Vietnam?”

Pilot: “You’re friggin right I’d like to make a comment. Most of us pilots are well hung, but ****, you don’t know what hung is until you get hung up on one of those friggin bumps on that goddamned stuff.”

WIO: “What the Captain means is that the aluminum matting is quite satisfactory as a temporary expedient, but requires some finesse in taxying and braking the aircraft.”

Reporter: “Did you have an opportunity to meet your wife on leave in Honolulu, and did you enjoy the visit with her?”

Pilot: “Yeah, I met my wife in Honolulu, but I forgot to check the calendar, and so the whole five days were friggin well combat-proof. A completely dry run.”

WIO: “What the captain means is that it was wonderful to get together with his wife and learn first-hand about the family and how things were at home.”

Reporter: “Thank you for your time, Captain.”

Pilot: “Screw you, why don’t you bastards print the real story instead of all that crap.”

WIO: “What the Captain really means is that he enjoyed the opportunity to discuss his Tour with you.”

Reporter: “One final question. Could you reduce your impression of the war into a simple phrase or statement, Captain?”

Pilot: “You bet your ass I can. It’s a f**ked-up war.”

WIO: “What the Captain means is it’s a f**ked-up war.”1

With such a funny but searing indictment of how the air ground war was fought each service with airpower assets came up with their solutions to incubate combat excellence and to shape a new direction of combat excellence.

The U.S. Navy, including Marine aircrews, came up with a Navy air-to-air fighter weapons school immortalized as “Top Gun.”

During the Vietnam War, Navy fighter pilots and aircrew were dying at an alarming rate,” explained Navy Cmdr. Dustin Peverill, a 20-year Navy veteran and two-time TOPGUN instructor. “The Navy was losing a lot of airplanes and, more importantly, a lot of aircrew.”

Despite having the technological edge, the Navy was experiencing unacceptable combat losses in Vietnam. In response, the service commissioned an investigation and tasked Navy Capt. Frank Ault to lead the effort.

The resulting report, known as the Ault Report, highlighted many performance deficiencies and their root causes, including the need for an advanced course to teach fighter tactics. The result was the Navy Fighter Weapons School, established at Miramar in 1969.

Nicknamed TOPGUN, the school’s mission was — and still is — to train aircrew in all aspects of aerial combat to be carried out with the utmost professionalism. In its early days, its students were trained over the course of four weeks on F-4 Phantom II aircraft to get better at one-on-one aerial combat, also known as dogfighting.

“When TOPGUN graduates began to go back to the fleet in the early 1970s and the air war started back up, the Navy’s kill ratio jumped. TOPGUN worked,” Peverill said. “It validated that the training, the subject-matter expertise and, most importantly, the professionalism that it produced worked in combat and it produced results.”2

The USAF created a brilliant multi-aircraft extremely demanding with safety stressed exercise that is known as “Red Flag.”

According to the 414th Combat Training Squadron:

RED FLAG was established in 1975 as the brain child of Lt. Col. Richard “Moody” Suter and one of the initiatives directed by General Robert J. Dixon, then commander of Tactical Air Command, to better prepare our forces for combat.

Lessons from Vietnam showed that if a pilot survived his first 10 combat missions, his probability of survival for remaining missions increased substantially. Red Flag was designed to expose each “Blue” force pilot to their first 10 “combat missions” here at Nellis, allowing them to be more confident and effective in actual combat.

This same principle continues to guide Red Flag today, with the goal of preparing Air Force, Joint, and Coalition pilots, aircrew and operators to fight against a near-peer adversary in any combat environment.

Tasked to plan and control this training, the 414th Combat Training Squadron’s mission is to maximize the combat readiness, capability and survivability of participating units by providing realistic, multi-domain training in a combined air, ground, space and electronic threat environment while providing opportunity for a free exchange of ideas between forces.

Aircraft and personnel deploy to Nellis for RED FLAG under the Air Expeditionary Force concept and make up the exercise’s “Blue” forces.

By working together, these Blue forces are able to utilize their diverse capabilities and weapons systems to execute specific missions, such as offensive counter air, suppression of enemy air defense, combat search and rescue, dynamic targeting, and defensive counter air.

These forces use various tactics to attack NTTR targets such as mock airfields, vehicle convoys, tanks, parked aircraft, bunkered defensive positions, missile sites, and conduct personnel recovery efforts. These targets are defended by a variety of simulated “Red” force ground and air threats to give participant aircrews the most realistic combat training possible.

The Red force threats are aligned under the 57th Operations Group, which controls seven squadrons of USAF Aggressors, including fighter, space, information operations and air defense units.

The Aggressors are specially trained to replicate the tactics and techniques of potential adversaries and provide a scalable threat presentation to Blue forces which aids in achieving the desired learning outcomes for each mission.

A typical RED FLAG exercise involves a variety of attack, fighter and bomber aircraft (F-15E, F-35, F-16, F/A-18, A-10C, B-1B, B-2A, B-52H, FGR4, MQ-9, etc.), reconnaissance aircraft (MQ-4B, RC-135, U-2S), electronic warfare aircraft (EC-130H, EA-18G and F-16CM), air superiority aircraft (F-22A, F-15C, etc), airlift support (C-130, C-17A), Search and Rescue aircraft (HH-60G, HH-60W, HC-130J, CH-47), aerial refueling aircraft (A330, KC-130, KC-135R, KC-10A, KC-46A, etc), multi-domain Command and Control platforms (E-3, E-8C, E-2C, E-7A, R1, etc) as well as ground based Command and Control, Space, and Cyber Forces. 

Four U.S. military services, their Guard/Reserve components and the air forces of numerous other countries participate in each RED FLAG exercise. Since 1975, 29 countries which includes (EPAF a consortium of Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Norway) and NATO (AWACS) have joined the U.S. in these exercises and several other countries have participated as observers.

RED FLAG has seen 30,268 aircraft and has provided training for more than 529,722 military personnel, of which 164,724 are aircrew members flying more than 423,248 sorties and logging more than 783,907 hours of flying time.3

We have visited both training centers several times in the past and have seen how they are evolving training now for today’s high-end fight.

After Vietnam, the Marine Corps created their own weapons training squadron; MAWTS-1, the  Marine Air Weapons Training Squadron based at MCAS Yuma Az. In this book, we tell their story.

The key driver for combat learning is to trust those who put it all on the line and empower them to band together to share, and never stop learning. It is often said in the air, ability leads not rank. If allowed the key dynamic for having success in airpower engagements in both air-to-air and air-to-ground missions begins with trusting the insights of squadron fighter pilots as they progress through the ranks. The very good ones, the best of the best, always want to leave a lasting legacy for those that follow.

This was evident from the very start. The first commanding officer at MAWTS-1 was LtCol Howard DeCastro. His combat awards include a Legion of Merit (non-combat), a Distinguished Flying Cross (DFC) and  20 Air Medals He was selected as the “Marine Aviator of the Year,”  receiving the Alfred A. Cunningham Award named for the first Marine aviator.

We have interview him and several of the commanders of MAWTS-1 and their interviews concluded the book. In fact, our concluding piece is Marine Birthday Ball speech which DeCastro gave in 2019 in Yuma.

As he underscored in that speech:

The challenge for us 41 years ago, and the challenge for you today, is to continually improve. To improve takes an understanding of enemy capabilities and projecting their future capabilities so we can develop the hardware, software, tactics, and our own capabilities that keep us always in the lead. 

Every one of you should be proud to have earned the right to be assigned to MAWTS, and you should be proud of what you are accomplishing. 

I was going to give you a motivational speech, but then I realized you are just like the original members of MAWTS-1. 

You are completely self-motivated, are never satisfied with the status quo, and you will keep thinking, keep communicating, keep innovating, and keep pushing each other to make Marine Air and the Marine Air Ground Team better every day. That is who you are, and you know how important it is to keep getting better. 

You know that the Marines on the ground trust you and are counting on you. For everything you have done and all you do, I thank you!   

The core point really is this: You are completely self-motivated, are never satisfied with the status quo, and you will keep thinking, keep communicating, keep innovating, and keep pushing each other to make Marine Air and the Marine Air Ground Team better every day. 

That is what MAWTS-1 success in training is based on, namely the drive to excellence and the innovation of the squadron pilots. And MAWTS-1 early on understood that fixed wing, rotary wing and with the addition of the Osprey, tiltrotor aircraft, flown by pilots and their team driving innovation was the key.

I wrote a piece in 2016 which I entitled: “Squadron Fighter Pilots: The Unstoppable Force of Innovation for 5th Generation Enabled Concepts of Operations.” And this is the spirit and driving force of innovation at MAWTS-1 – the squadron pilots across the flying force.

The skillfulness and success of fighter pilots in aerial combat is an extensively researched yet modestly understood and fundamentally complex concept.

Innumerable physical and psychological factors along with chance opportunities affect a pilots facility for success in air combat.

Perhaps the best narrative of the intangibles of the skill and courage of a fighter pilot was captured by the author Tom Wolfe in his seminal work The Right Stuff.

From the first day a perspective fighter pilot begins their personal journey to become a valued and respected member of an elite community, serving as an operational squadron pilot, the physical danger is real.

But so is the most significant force for being the absolute best that a fighter pilot can feel which is day in and day out peer pressure by those they really and truly respect, their squadron mates.4

Put it in the hands of the warfighters and let them drive the innovations needed for the fighting force is a key to the kind of training which goes on at MAWTS-1. As a former CO of MAWTS-1 and a former Deputy Commandant of Innovation, LtGen “Dog” Davis put it:

This is what Lt. General “Dog” Davis (an AV-8 pilot), the Deputy Commandant of Aviation, once the I Pad generation pilots coming into the force:

“I think it’s going to be the new generation, the newbies that are in the training command right now that are getting ready to go fly the F-35, who are going to unleash the capabilities of this jet.

They will say, ‘Hey, this is system will give me. Don’t cap me; don’t box me in.”5

Senior combat pilot commanders many coming out of the Vietnam war, albeit much junior at the time, achieved two magnificent victories by winning the air rivalry against the USSR in the Cold War and achieving historic air combat success in the magnificent air campaign of Desert Storm.

The lesson for the air power rivalry between the US and USSR is rather straightforward: the technology had to be available, but it also had to be successful understood and employed.

A historical take away from the cold/hot war air battles is that in the air-to-air mission a country that equips its fighters with airborne radar and sensors allows more autonomous action and actually favors tactical simplicity and operational autonomy—even though the equipment becomes more complex.

In air-to-ground, airborne simplicity indicators are usually smaller formations and allowance to maneuver independently into weapon launch envelopes primarily in a weapons-free environment. Embedding technology into the weapon itself –bombs and rocket-fired weapons– has also made a revolutionary difference.

In air combat a nation must always assume a reactive enemy can develop the necessary technology to try and mitigate any advantages. With the worldwide proliferation of weapons even a second or third world nation might have state-of-the art systems. The air war in Vietnam was a technology peer-to-peer war.

In the book Fighter Pilot by his daughter Christina Olds, the story is told of Gen. Robin Olds, a Triple Ace with sixteen kills in aerial combat beginning with WWII chasing down Nazi Luftwaffe and Messerschmitt. Olds was next appointed to Command the famous 8th TAC Fighter Wing out of Udorn and Ubon, Thailand — these are the “Top Guns” of the Air Force and the 8th TAC Fighter Wing and also called themselves the “Red River Rats,” the Navy and Marine pilots often wore patches calling themselves “Yankee Air Pirates” it was that kind of war.

Olds  flew into “the 9 gates of Hell,” aka North Vietnam, no less than 101 times dog-fighting enemy fighter jets including Russia’s notoriously fierce MiG 21. Once crossed into North Vietnam, these top Air Force, Navy and Marine fighter crews faced staggering odds of making it back every time, but they flew into North Vietnam repeatedly anyway.

As Olds reported, “There were more anti-aircraft guns within a 60-mile radius of Hanoi than Germany had possessed in all of Europe.”

The air war over the skies of Vietnam and in the Middle East in the Yom Kippur War was between two aviation technology peer competitors because of USSR TacAir type/model/series (T/M/S) support to aerial advisories.

Stephen Ambrose in his award-winning book Citizen Soldier about the U.S. Army fighting in Europe during WWII made a brilliant point: Intelligence does not make decisions. Decisions are made by the mindset of those receiving the intelligence.

Consequently, the lesson on the Cold War US-USSR rivalry is that air combat leaders must be able to adjust during the course of an air battle or war by changing strategy and tactics, to achieve exploitation of the enemy’s mistakes or weakness.

Aircrews must be adaptable enough to follow changing commands from leadership and also, on their own initiative, to change tactics to achieve local surprise and exploitation. Like the quote in Animal House, “knowledge is good.” In the cockpit, it can be a lifesaver and aid in mission accomplished.

Among the most intangible qualities of a combat force are those cultural factors that influence its basic fighting capabilities. These qualities can be of paramount importance.

To take what is the most sensational example, consider the Kamikaze pilot. No mere quantitate assessment of the Japanese tactical aviation forces of the Second World War could have accounted for Kamikazes. Only an assessment of cultural characteristics could have keyed analysts to the possibility.

In retrospect, we can understand that the Japanese belief in the divinity of their empire and the cultural abhorrence of shame could allow for creating pilots sufficiently motivated to embrace suicidal missions.

The example of Kamikazes is not representative of this discussion, but only illustrates those cultural factors, despite their intangibility, must somehow be reckoned with.

One of the essential elements of creating a successful combat air crews is simply motivation often expressed as dedication, heart, will, ambition or competitiveness. It captures the qualities of a fighting force that makes its warriors enthusiastic rather than lackadaisical or dispirited.

Of course, inside the ever-advancing complexities of 21st Century 5th Gen aircraft technology and the resulting con-ops there is a factor of also recognizing a fighter pilots technological capability match which is the capacity of a pilot to understand and operate the rather sophisticated technology of their state-of-the-art aircraft.

The challenge for any serious nation that invests in an Air Force is to select, train and employ the best combat air crews that they possibly can. If pilots could be engineered like engineering ever advancing physical technology, it would have already been done. But that is not the case so an approximation of pilot effectiveness can be made on basis of training until real combat becomes the final and ultimate judge.

Techniques for transforming fledging students into proficient combat pilots have evolved through the years as the result of much research and development. Although training techniques constitute a necessary, although not completely sufficient, component, they are actually becoming increasingly important as weapons and warfare become more complex.

There are, of course contributors to pilot proficiency other than training techniques. The inborn abilities some pilots seem to possess play a huge part. But there is little reason to believe individuals with these natural abilities exists disproportionately among nations.

In fact, the actual combat history of kill ratios show that many nations can produce both Aces (5 kills) and even super-aces with many, many aerial victories. What clearly does play a role and can differ significantly from one nation to another are the cultural and social qualities that give aircrews the motivation to fight and the basic capacity to successfully use the technology in the aircraft and weapons they fight with.

“Flying should be an inherently dangerous business to weed out the weak sticks,” is a Marine pilot’s saying. One would hope that there could be less dramatic and much more cost-effective method for developing aviators.

Understanding the cascading progression of how a nation that is serious in acknowledging the value of meritocracy in aerial combat selects and trains crews is simple to diagram, yet it is the unforgiving  execution of rewarding excellence that means everything:

The cascading steps to producing a competent aircrew of an airpower-enabled fighting force that can prevail in any engagement and thus win wars can be broken down in phases to more easily understand the progression to excellence in the air:

A nation’s cultural factors that include simple motivation and advanced technology capability

A selection process that includes a rigorous human/technology match screening process within  the  consideration of the pool of candidates.

Flight training that has to have a rigorous sorting process with a robust syllabus.

Combat training that is based on a dynamic iterative training and readiness syllabus, the source of instructors and exposure to live firing and ordinance employment with appropriate use of simulators and ever improving dynamic tactics, along with demanding training ranges with enough airspace allotted to engage in multi-platform operations that  incorporate both realistic air and ground threats.

Proficiency training which if everything in the previous steps is solid and unforgiving and then can include war experience, or as necessary intense combat simulation events, a pilots annual flying rate always with a command eye on the realism of aircrew training, and time in type.

It is in the early training toward their “Wings,” all the worlds air forces must train their pilots to simply fly successfully so at least they will not crash their aircraft essentially safely flying around the base flagpole. However, the real focus of creating successful squadron fighter pilot rests with the dynamics of combat training and then subsequent continuous proficiency training as the individual rotates in and out of a squadron.

The list is not complete but combat training for the first tour “nugget” has drivers such as a Training and Readiness (T&R) syllabus. Different Air Forces have different names, but it is a check list of “hops” of  increasing in complexity that a newly arrived aviator must successfully accomplish to advice in sequence in order to become fully combat qualified.

A key intangible, that should never be overlooked, is the source of instructors during this combat training cycle, along with measurable indices such as live firing/weapons release, and simulator training Combat training is a progression of building block sorties of more and more demanding tactical and weapon training flights that will ultimately rise to the level to operate their fighter against the highest threat environment in the world.

Military technology is always relative against a reactive enemy and MAWTS-1 leadership and instructors know this perfectly. Modernization of military forces, especially air combat assets can usually be driven by three dynamics.

One is  to gain and successfully integrate  new capabilities, for example over the history of MAWTS the type/model/series (T/M/S) of aircraft progressed from the F-4 to the F/A-18 to the F-35.

To add new components which provide for enhanced or more reliable operation of existing equipment, hence the ever improving both synergistically and independently developed weapons  of a fighting air force.

To simply replace worn-out equipment, often seen as advances in a developed T/M/S aircraft for example the decades long improvements from the F-4B to F-4S.The “block” improvements of the F-35 is following this modernization trajectory.

In addition to human factors the key is warfighters at all levels understanding and acting on ever improving modernization of combat technology.

In aviation basic airframe performance enhancements of payload, range, maneuverability and speed to then enhancing aircraft system performance by incorporating a successful payload utility function of target acquisition to target engagement is the key at the squadron level.

However, in combat the total force performance capability goal is always to strive for excellence in having command and control systems that can tie it all together.

Honoring, and empowering humans engaged in the deadly serious occupation of defending their fellow citizens as combat warriors in putting their life on the line is everything in a military analysis before any future technology discussions can begin.

It is no good to talk about future technologies without starting from the nature of warfare and of human engagement in that warfare.

Often looking at ground battles from the earliest recorded days, the forces engaged had a simple guiding rule — kill the enemy in greater numbers. There is no hard and fast rule from history of what tips a battle one way or another except one core principle: with the will and means to continue to degrade ones opponent winning is enhanced.

The great quip often credited to Grantland Rice who gives full credit to a fellow sportswriter comes to mind. As Hugh Keough used to say: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; but that is the way to bet.”

Such insights actually are biblical from The King James Bible (such poetic writing): “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happened to them all.”

At the most basic Payload Utility function, the key to combat success since the dawn of warfare is captured in a very simple example — the  great command guidance in the United States Marine Corps is to stress the very basic art of accurate marksmanship.[5]

“Ready on the Left Ready on The Right-Already on the firing line” and with that every Marine is trained in the use of their rifle.

Once trained and retrained and retrained until actual combat because their skills are never allowed to atrophy the individual Marine has in direct combat engagement using a very simple payload utility function in shooting the weapon. The combat utility of the basic rifle is acquire the target and then accurately engage to kill the enemy.

That type of engagement at the basic infantry level is no different than the senior Generals and Admirals having their fighting forces acquire and engage targets using many different mixed and matched payloads.

This universal way of war is often correctly referred to as combined arms, as layer after layer of direct and indirect fires, kinetic and non-kinetic, weapons are engaged to defeat the enemy.

In fighting against a reactive enemy in a larger battle, the aggregation and disaggregation of sensor and shooter platforms with actionable intelligence with no platform fighting alone is the commander’s goal.

Commanders at the highest level have to keep both cohesion of the combat engagement mission by effective communications, while concurrently relying on all to engage intelligently relying on their individual initiative to fight to the best of their ability.

Communicated information is essential. The key is to ensure a maximum of capability for combat operations to be able to operate independently with accurate real time dynamic intelligence at the right level at the right time to make their combat function superior to the enemy.

Very little is different from the deck of Navy Strike force or Air Battle or Ground Commander except the complexity of all the “moving parts” to be managed and employed to fight that are also spread out over very great distance.

At MAWTS-1, training the trainers embraces that after two decades of the land wars, the sea services need to learn to fight again in higher intensity operations. It means to master the ability to fight at the Speed of Light. This requires that a fighting force at all levels must take advantages of ever-increasing technological advances to make decisions using the speed of light intelligence, sensors and robust communication.

With advances in all forms of “tron” war, shorthand for information revolution, the moment battle begins, command and control is essential and has to have several attributes.

First and foremost, accurate information has to flow through robust redundant systems at the speed of light in making everything come together to fight and win. The infantry platoon commander trusts the training and combat effectiveness of each Marine to do the right thing using initiative in following orders in the heat of battle while also trusting higher commands to provide supporting arms, including air, to get it right and at the right time. The sea service air battle commanders trust that the aircrews are fully trained and motivated.

Thus, communication and intelligence capability in this  21st Century evolution/revolution of global coms and sensing is the connective tissue for human decisions with how to conduct successful operations and to successfully engage  payloads  with all fighting at the speed of light.

America is blessed that many in the defense industrial base in responding to combat requirements have answered the challenge to build systems of systems inside the emerging Kill Web way of fighting, vice obsolete Hub Spoke and linear Kill Chain thinking.

Existing command and control are always against a reactive enemy and there is a time dependent factor that is critical to force level combat. If a commander can count having the initiative with a combat ops tempo over the enemy, then his forces can be dynamically optimized as a coherent combat directed fighting force. This is the challenge of effective command and control, but ultimately the commander has to always have the wisdom and judgment to fight to win effectively.

Marrying force motivation with technological capability allows a superior trained  force to achieve combat performance over the enemy. It is a combination of appropriate combat equipment at all levels of any engagement operated by well-trained individuals .along with a satisfactory Inventory of weapons systems and platforms, including sufficient munitions at the start of a war. Such preparedness can make all the difference.

The biggest challenge in the rapidly exploding human/information dynamic in this 21st Century challenge of modern war is the ability to have all make accurate decisions using light speed.

MAWTS-1 meets the challenge of driving home all the essential elements for combat victory today and tomorrow and this book is their story.





Also see, my co-authored study, J.R. Hiller and E.T. Timperlake. “Exploratory Models of Pilot Performance in Air-to-Air Combat,” Naval War College Review (Vol. 34, No. 1, January-February 1981), pp. 82-92.