MAWTS-1 Works F-35 Integration: The Case of HIMARS

By Robbin Laird

During my latest visit to MAWTS-1 in May 2018, the work of the MAWTS-1 team during WTI-18-2 was the focus of attention.

MAWTS-1 is working on reshaping Marine Corps approaches to moving forward from a primary focus on counter intersurgency.

The strategic shift from counter-insurgency to contested operations was the focus of the most recent seminar of the Williams Foundation provides a baseline examination of the strategic shift.

At MAWTS-1, one can see the focus on the key building blocks for shaping a capability appropriate to mastering the strategic shift.

The shift is a significant one, which requires reshaping approaches, leveraging new capabilities, and integrating those capabilities into the overall evolution of the MAGTF.

It is a work in progress, and one driven by technology, combat experience and cross-learning from other US services as well as allies.

An example of the work in progress is providing a capability for an advanced ground based strike missile to operate with greater lethality when guided by a low observable air combat system which identifies targets beyond range of sight and not identified by the systems organic to that ground based strike system.

This is an example of how the sensor-shooter relationship needs to evolve when operating at greater distance and in a contested battlespace.

F-35 Integration with Ground Fire Systems: The Case of HIMARS from on Vimeo. October 19, 2017.

The core approach is to find ways to leverage the F-35 to provide an expanded aperture of support for the Ground Combat Element when executing the ground scheme of maneuver in a peer-to-peer conflict.

As the F-35 operates in its low observable mode and generates through its DAS and integrated sensors a battlefield situational awareness ‘map,’ targets can be identified deep within the enemy’s operating area.

Targeting information can be generated to the Marines or to other joint forces to provide for precise fires targeting.

It is clear that the F-35 has an extraordinary sensor capability and sensor system integration, which can empower C2 in the operational battlespace.

In visits and discussions I have had with allied air forces flying the F-35 the use of the new systems was already evident.

In one case, an Air Force was using sensor data from its aircraft to provide significant SA to that ally’s navy as well as other capabilities for the fleet as well.

In another case, an ally is flying a single F-35 along a border where low flying threats are crossing the border regularly with drugs, weapons and other undesirable deliveries onto that ally’s territory.

The F-35 is providing coverage of the entire border area and delivering that information including guiding border forces to mission success.

The aircraft qua aircraft is part of the “renorming of airpower,” but the capability of the aircraft’s ultimate benefit is to leverage it as part of an information dominance capability, which is what I am calling F-35 2.0.

The Marines are clearly among the most inventive of forces in pursuing ways to leverage the F-35 as a multi-domain flying combat system.

But this is not simply going to happen without work of the aviation with the ground communities working closely together as they do at MAWTS-1.

For the Marines, working F-35 integration with HIMARS as one of the building blocks in F-35 2.0.

Last Fall, I discussed progress on this effort with the then Commanding Officer of MAWTS-1, Col Wellons, and one of his officers involved in the WTI course.

Question: Can you now describe the HIMARS integration with F-35?

Col Wellons: “This class we continued the learning process.

“We were able to validate and verify, via ground testing, the ability of the F-35 to share digital targeting information with a ground node

“But I will ask my Aviation Development, Tactics and Evaluation Department Head, LtCol Ryan Schiller, to further discuss the process.”

LtCol Schiller: “Utilizing the targeting capabilities of the F-35 and its inherent survivability as a 5th-gen fighter combined with the standoff range and capability provided by HIMARS gives us a key capability to fight and strike in the A2/AD environment.

“We are clearly expanding the aperture of our focus on how to leverage the F-35 for the MAGTF.

“With regard to HIMARS we are looking to shipboard use in certain scenarios as well.

The progress continued at WTI-2-18 and I had a chance to discuss the way ahead with Major “Doctor: Buxton, MAWTS-1 Air Office Department, Major Andrew Crist, Fixed Wing Offensive Support Specialists, and Major Joshua Freeland, a Direct Air Support Control Officer.

What these officers described was a clear work in progress, one which will relied on leveraging software upgrades on the F-35 but concurrent progress with regard to the software and hardware evolutions of the data link systems as well.

From this point of view, the F-35, much like the Osprey before it, is playing a forcing function within the USMC for change.

With the Osprey, significant change was driven in how the Marines operated in the land wars, and in how they approached counter-insurgency operations.

The F-35 has come precisely at the point when the strategic shift is underway and it is clear that the US and the allies are using the F-35 as a trigger point for broader transformation as well.

And through this effort, the Marines are looking at broader issues of the F-35 and its role within the overall effort to shape greater digital interoperability for the force as well.

The GCE fires elements use a data link communication system, which operates by sending what is called K messages.

The immediate challenge was to find ways to work the F-35 systems with an ability to work with the data links used by the GCE.

The data links for the GCE are being reworked to be more effective in its operational integration with the Air Combat Element.

As the GCE receives new software and hardware systems and as the F-35 evolves to its 3-F configuration an ability to link systems more effectively in the distributed battlespace will be possible.

But the Marines are working the opportunity to do so prior to arrival of the optimal situation.

As one Marine put it: “We are looking to build in surface fires capability into the F-35.

“We started by looking at ways we could use CAC2S as a gateway to enable us to move in this direction.”

CAC2S is the USMC’s C2 system designed to provide for integration between the ACE and the GCE. It like the F-35 is a work in progress

As the Marine Corps has defined CAC2S:

CAC2S will provide a complete and coordinated modernization of Marine Air Command and Control System (MACCS) equipment.

CAC2S will eliminate current dissimilar systems and provide the MAGTF Combat Element with the hardware, software and facilities to effectively command, control and coordinate air operations integrated with naval, joint and/or combined C2 units.

CAC2S will comprise standardized modular and scalable tactical facilities, hardware and software that will significantly increase battlefield mobility and reduce the physical size and logistical footprint of the MACCS.  CAC2S Phase 1 successfully completed its Initial Operational Test and Evaluation (IOT&E) in 2011. 

Subsequently, Phase 1 received its full deployment decision on 25 Oct 2011 and limited deployment capability in February 2012. 

Phase 2 successfully achieved Milestone C decision in 31 Mar 2015 and IOT&E in Apr 2016. 

A Fielding Decision Review (FDR) was conducted on 11 Aug 2016 and ADM signed on 25 August 2016.

 As the Marine Corps gets its updated versions of CAC2S, they are looking to the new capabilities to provide an effective gateway between the message set capabilities of the platforms.

The DASC or the Direct Air Support Center is where the translation and validation occurs on the battlefield and where Link 16 messages from the F-35 would then be translated into K messages for the GCE.

As another Marine put it: “Link 16 J series messages received by the DASC will then be translated into the K series format which the GCE utilizes to generate fire missions and is passed along to fires approval authorities with airspace clearance”

During WTI-2-18, the Marines used a new VIASAT radio as part of the firing sequence for the F-35/HIMARS tandem.

And with a handheld radio able to handle Link 16 messages, and the team was able to use a Link 16 data link from the F-35 to enable a HIMARS firing.

But it was clear that working the integration was a hard task, one that needs to become much simpler to be effectively operational on the battlefield.

What is impressive for sure is seeing the Marines work the process and in a way that can inform both the upgrade processes on the F-35 as well as with regard to HIMARS and related equipment.

Clearly, working the data links and communications is a key part of being able to operate on the distributed battlefield. 

Although a work on progress, it is clearly working in the right direction towards the threat envelopes central to the nation.

Editor’s Note: in the 2017 USMC Aviation Plan, the way ahead for the ACE/GCE enablers was outlined.

As outlined in the 2016 Marine Corps Operational Concept (MOC) and throughout this year’s Marine Aviation Plan, the operating environment is evolving and our next conflict is largely unpredictable.

What remains constant though is the role of aviation’s enablers – the ability and credibility to control our own airspace and operate from expeditionary sites equates to MAGTF freedom of action.

As we field exponentially more capable systems, the ways in which the MACCS enables MAGTF freedom of action must evolve as well.

We now must refocus, innovate, and exploit the future of warfighting across the MAGTF in ways that are different from what has been done in recent history, such as recognizing the role information as a weapon and manning, training, and equipping a force where digital interoperability in the norm.

This transformation is what the aviation expeditionary enabler community has embarked upon.

The future MACCS and AGS communities will be highly expeditionary; operate in a distributed manner; and be capable of fusing and integrating MAGTF aviation command and control, sensor input and weapons data across the joint force to provide shared situational awareness and increase the decision space for the MAGTF commander.

Because of the unique position as the integrator between the ACE and GCE, the aviation enablers must ensure the ability to bridge divergent communication efforts within the MAGTF and joint force by providing beyond line‐of‐sight

(BLOS) tactical data links (TDLs), data forwarding, radio relay, tactical gateways, and ground‐based air defense (GBAD) capable of engaging low radar cross section targets.

The most critical resource is the individual Marine.

As we transition to a common set of equipment, new operational concepts, and operations in complex battle spaces, we must transition to a training paradigm that provides baseline knowledge for all AC2 operators to excel.

The goal for MACCS operators is to become air command and control experts who will assist the commanders and decision makers in receiving and interpreting operational information and translating this information into effective direction and control for Marine aviation.

The primary missions for our tactical agencies will remain throughout our MACCS modernization. As new common sets of equipment are fielded, the ability to employ future hybrid agencies becomes relevant.

For example, the clearance requirements for extended range munitions have made knowledge of the ground situation and MAGTF fires critical for all MACCS agencies.

The proliferation and persistent presence of UAS and civilian aircraft through the AO require all MACCS agencies to have access to an air picture.

Integration with special operations forces and the increased capabilities of new MAGTF platforms, such as the F‐35 and MV‐ 22, will enable hybrid employment options for MACCS agencies as we modernize and align our equipment and personnel.

We must recognize the significant challenges of the future operating environment and develop an aligned approach to fight and win.

The MACCS and AGS communities enable the MAGTF commander to maintain control of the battlespace, maximize effects, and shorten the kill chain.

The next generation of aviation expeditionary enablers are approaching Initial Operational Capability (IOC) of our AC2 family of systems (CAC2S, TPS‐80 G/ATOR, and CTN) and we are on pace to provide game‐changing capabilities to the MAGTF ensuring continued freedom of action.

The featured photo  shows Marines with 5th Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, arrive at one of their launch positions with the High-Mobility Artillery Rocket System at the Air Combat Element landing strip as a part of Integrated Training Exercise 3-18 aboard the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, Twentynine Palms, Calif., May 21, 2018.

The purpose of ITX is to create a challenging, realistic training environment that produces combat-ready forces capable of operating as an integrated MAGTF. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. William Chockeying