How MAWTS-1 Works on Combat Innovation: A Look Back with Col Michael Kurth

By Robbin Laird and Ed Timperlake

We had the privilege to interview former Col Michael “Spot” Kurth on November 15, 2023, to get his perspective on MAWTS-1’s early years. Kurth had a distinguished career which included receipt of the Navy Cross for his service in the first Gulf War.

Although we discussed many aspects of his career, our primary focus was on his time with MAWTS-1. What he shared with us were perspectives on how MAWTS-1 provides combat innovation critical to combat success.

His direct involvement with MAWTS-1 gave him a unique perspective on its early leadership. He was a WTI student when Howard “Lopp” DeCastro was the first CO. He reported to MAWTS-1 as an instructor in 1981 when Bobby “Thunder” Butcher succeeded Lopp. He then served as an instructor for three years under Thunder and “Big Jake” Vermilyea.

His final year at MAWTS-1 was spent in the standup of the Aviation Development, Tactics and Evaluation Department (ADT&E) with Randy “Dragon” Brinkley at the helm.

He characterized their leadership as follows: “I would say that Lopp spoke truth to power. In a meeting with the CMC, he challenged the attending Wing Commanders on their readiness postures because they were not addressing training shortfalls and he ultimately prevailed. Thunder expanded the reach of MAWTS-1 into the fleet with regular unit visits and expanded relationships with Allied Air Forces. He also focused on expanding rotary wing participation and recruited Big Jake, a rotary wing pilot to be his relief.

“This established the precedent of rotating MAWTS-1 command between fixed and rotary wing aviators. Big Jake raised the bar for rotary wing by supporting operational requirements in survivability gear, defensive weapons systems for assault helicopters, better night vision devices, defensive air-to-air maneuvers, and large-scale lifts with improved attack helicopter weapons including offensive air-to-air capabilities.

“A close working relationship with Task Force-160, the Army’s Special Operations helicopter force, brought improved mission planning and night training techniques with their participation in the WTI course.

“Big Jake and Dragon believed that a small cadre of instructors representing the six functions of Marnie Aviation should remain for an additional year in a MAWTS-1 organization where they were free to apply lessons they learned as instructors to larger issues within the Marine Corps.

“Dragon established a close relationship with Navy Secretary John Lehman (himself a Reserve A-6 BN with some Vietnam experience) who was not happy with Navy Aviation’s losses during a carrier strike over Lebanon. Lehman was hugely impressed with the concept of MAWTS-1 and he lent his full support to improving the squadron and extending the concept to the Navy resulting in the establishment of Navy Strike Warfare University.

“In addition, Lehman facilitated  greatly improved access to intelligence and the construction of additional facilities, including a Sensitive Compartmented Information facility (SCIF). Working  with the Israelis, he helped establish an F-21A Kfir  Fighter Jet Aggressor Squadron at Yuma and the first “operator-to-operator” exchanges with the Israeli Air Force.”

Kurth described his experience as an instructor and then his transition into ADT&E as follows:

“The WTI course has an academic and then a flying phase. Despite featuring many first-class guest lecturers, the MAWTS-1 instructors made up the bulk of the academic instruction staff which progressed from generic topics to community and finally individual type/model/series specific topics over a couple weeks before flying.

“Flying then progressed in the reverse order; specific, community and then generic (meaning full scale integrated exercises with air and ground aggressors). Access to computing power was very limited in the mid-1980s so instructors created their own media using photos of photos in magazines or professional publications annotated with hand created labels then converted to slides that were shown with a projector.

“I presented two generic lectures during my tour; “Soviet Attack Helicopters” and “How to Make a Useful Presentation.” My community lectures were on helicopter evasive and Air Comat Maneuvers (ACM). The highest classification of these lectures was Secret, and this required my introduction to the Intelligence community, initially the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) and the Army’s Foreign Science and Technology Center (FSTC) for subject matter.

“I obtained a Top-Secret clearance and then, with the support of Secretary Lehman, was one of several moving to ADT&E granted Sensitive Compartmented Information Clearances (SCI) where we were cleared to the highest level for threat Intelligence and technology development Special Access Programs (SAP). In effect, very operationally experienced officers were exposed to the best information on what both the good guys and the bad guys were doing.”

This allowed the Marines at MAWTS-1 to get in front of the technology curve while working the training curve. As Kurth put it: “This really did give us the time to do a little thinking about these new systems to prepare for their introduction. It also allowed us to provide some input based on things we had seen in operations and training.

“We had a great feedback loop with the developers in industry and the labs because you know, none of this stuff got done without the labs and the test and evaluation units (VX-4 and VX-5) and the weapons centers across DoD.

“So, we got a chance to talk about and think about how we would employ all these systems as they came online. And in some cases, we could offer improvements or  modifications to what the developers were doing. This was part of what enabled the so-called revolution in military affairs (RMA) almost ten years later because we were dealing with stealth, precision guidance and navigation, significantly improved weapons effects, unmanned systems, multi-spectral sensors and receivers, communications and networks, etc.”

An element we discussed was working with foreign militaries to learn from their experience in combat. One example was with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) and lessons learned during the 1982 Peace for Galilee Operation. Here the Israelis crafted a wide range of innovations in how to attack Soviet equipment facing the Israelis, including how to improve the ability of attack helicopters to destroy armor, something clearly of interest to an attack helicopter pilot like Kurth.

Kurth noted: “I participated in the operator-to-operator exchange Secretary Lehman initiated. We spent a week in Israel visiting all the operating bases, looking at their weapons, looking at their capabilities and having discussions across the board, whether it was attack helicopter employment or fighter ops, deception operations, destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD) or long-range strike. It was an operator-to-operator relationship which opened the aperture on our thinking about innovation.

“An interesting event occurred when we stopped in DC on our way back from Israel. Dragon had several names under consideration for his relief and he hadn’t yet met one of them, so I let that guy know we were coming through town, and he offered to host the team at his house. After a great evening Dragon pulled me aside and said “no need to look any farther” – the officer in question was Fred “The Assassin” McCorkle” who became the 5th MAWTS-1 CO.”

Kurth’s involvement in understanding foreign military systems was an important part of his tour. As he noted: “While serving as an instructor at MAWTS-1, I became the DIA’s Subject Matter Expert (SME) on Soviet helicopters and joined the European Tactics Analysis Team as the only rotary wing member analyzing Soviet tactics against helicopters.

“Working closely with VX-5, who already demonstrated the feasibility and effectiveness of employing sidewinder missiles from the AH-1 Cobra, we developed air-to-air employment tactics. We mounted a Tactical Aircraft Training System (TACTS) pod, essentially a dummy AIM-9, that could be tracked on the range emulating the weapon’s performance in a “virtual” way just as the fighter community did for ACM training and debrief.  We then flew attack helicopters against both fixed and rotary wing aircraft for our edification and to provide informed advice to the US Army on their air-to-air field manual.”

Another training innovation involved pilot training to prevail against electro-magnetic detection and guidance systems. Here the geographic location of MAWTS-1 was crucial. The Marines could fly north into Navy and Air Force Electronic Warfare (EW) ranges to train. Training meant not just the employment of an aircraft’s systems to survive but experiencing how their signature was observed from the actual systems used the  to kill them. This allowed pilots to have a wholistic understanding of how to fight and win in an EW environment.

As Kurth underscored: “Pilots were gaining an understanding of what it was like for their opponents trying to kill them. They were learning how to employ their countermeasures. How much and where the terrain can mask you – when and where you can you be seen. What does the radar horizon look like? And then for the anti-air defensive guns, what is the elevation range of the guns? This defines their lethal zone.”

In short, MAWTS-1 training is rooted in understanding the evolving world of combat capabilities and how to shape standardized training to best positions the Marines for combat success. And Kurth’s own career and combat performance was a testimony to what MAWTS-1 contributed to the success of Marine Corps forces participating in Desert Storm.

Kurth’s squadron, HMLA-369 with 18 AH-1Ws and 6 UH-1Ns, was the first Marine combat unit on the ground in Saudi Arabia in August 1990 assigned to defend against an expected Iraqi armored attack against coastal Saudi oil facilities. He had two MAWTS-1 instructors with him who provided exceptional desert and night operational training of the squadron’s crews as well as the crews of follow-on squadrons.

Mike “Rifle” DeLong was the MAWTS-1 CO at the time. He basically mobilized the squadron to support the war effort in any way they could. While he was focused on maintaining the training mission in CONUS, he deployed any officer he could spare in support of USMC deployed operations – and they found themselves welcomed into the operational planning cells at each level of Marine command.

In an article published on 26 May 2016, Roger Showley highlighted Kurth’s involvement in that war in an article entitled, “Pilot Flew 10 hours continuously in Persian Gulf battle.”

Showley wrote:

Michael Kurth vividly remembers that day in February 1991. For 10 hours, he led squadrons of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft through several miles of “thick black smoke that turned day into night,” generated by Kuwaiti oil fields that Iraqi forces had set ablaze.

“I clearly remember the sound of burning oil wells when we got close to them,” he said. “You could hear the roar above the noise of the helicopter. The landscape seemed like something out of Dante’s ‘Inferno.’”

Kurth was credited with rallying his team to destroy as many as 70 Iraqi armored vehicles that day.  Ten months later, President George H.W. Bush awarded Kurth the Navy Cross, one of two awarded during the Persian Gulf War. That recognition for combat heroism is second only to the Medal of Honor. 

“I was just doing what I get paid to do, what the taxpayers pay me to do,” Kurth said at the time. “I’m certainly gratified, but I’m also having a hard time putting it into perspective. I guess I just wish there was a better way to recognize everybody else.”

The Navy Cross citation describes Kurth’s bravery this way: “With total disregard for his own safety, he flew under and perilously close to high-voltage power lines. Placing himself at grave personal risk to intermittent Iraqi ground and anti-aircraft fire, Lt. Col. Kurth flew continuously for 10 hours during the most intense periods of combat, twice having to control-crash his aircraft.”

Kurth said the fateful day in 1991 began at 5:30 a.m. and extended into the night. “There were a number of highlights, but what sticks with me the most is the teamwork, ingenuity, tenacity and sheer will of Marines,” he said. “Nothing was going to slow any of us down as the environmental conditions were probably tougher than the enemy. I can only imagine what they — the enemies — thought as this very organized Marine Corps combined arms machine pursued them through this nightmarish smoke, oil, obstacles and minefields.”

After the Persian Gulf War, Kurth earned a master’s degree in national security and strategic studies in 1992 at the Naval War College and then chose to end his military service in 1996 at the rank of colonel.

Kurth said the Marine Corps and especially his time with MAWTS-1 taught him leadership, discipline, strategic thinking, and focus — assets that prepared him well for his work in the private sector after leaving military service. His advice to today’s youths: “Always challenge yourself, be truthful and remember that people are relying on you to do the right thing.”

Kurth- Michael M