MARINE CORPS AIR STATION BEAUFORT, SC -- The lead vehicle in a convoy has just been severely damaged by an improvised explosive device during combat operations and all the experienced Marines are unable to repel further enemy assault.
With F/A-18’s screaming by, AH-64A/D Apache helicopters loitering overhead and ground forces anxiously awaiting air-support, the successful coordination of lethal firepower lies in the hands of a junior Marine.
This scenario was one of many practiced by several Marine Aircraft Group 31 Hornet Squadrons and Marine Wing Support Squadron 273 during Operation Carolina K-Bar recently.
“This exercise has definitely helped me,” said Sgt. Andrew Gordon, a supply clerk from MWSS-273. “During my six years in the Marine Corps I have never got to do anything like this before.”
The training exercise, held March 10 through today, was designed to provide Marines with the skills needed to conduct offensive air support operations in both urban and non-urban environments, integrate with actual ground forces and joint aviation assets, and focus on real-world execution of expected combat missions.
“The whole point of this exercise is so the Marines can get some hands on action,” said Staff Sgt. Dy Siboura of MWSS-273. “It really gives Marines the information to know what they need to do and the confidence to do it.”
The exercise allowed Marines on the ground to talk directly to aircrews, an opportunity that most Marines may never experience. Which is all part of MAG-31’s intent to provide meaningful training evolutions that mimic operations that are presently being conducted in forward-deployed environments, according to Col. Robert S. Walsh, the commanding officer of MAG-31.
“In the past, the majority of our training occurred to our east over the Atlantic Ocean, simulating air-to-air combat. Our training focus now is to prepare our squadrons to support the wide range of ground operations currently being conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Walsh.
The training was held at several locations, to include the Townsend Bombing Range in Georgia; Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, N.C.; Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.; Pope Air Force Base, N.C.; and the special use airspace overhead Beaufort County.
“The world has changed and now these (convoy operators) are finding themselves in the front lines of the war because of IED’s in Afghanistan and Iraq,” said Air National Guard Lt. Col. Jim O’Brien, the commander of Townsend Range. “We want to make sure that they understand that they have air support available to them and to let them get more familiar with the interaction with air support, so if something does happen they know they have someone looking over their shoulder to provide immediate assistance.”
Although it is not uncommon for the Marines of Fightertown to participate in training exercises, this one was unique, according to the exercise coordinator Maj. George Rowell, a MAG-31 training officer. The exercise’s primary focus was on the air-to-ground fight, yet at the same time the focus was on close air support, forward air control (airborne) and convoy escorts.
“Our pilots know that we lose more Marines and soldiers to IED’s and eliminating the enemy is their number one goal,” said Rowell.
The exercise wasn’t just for the Marines on the ground, it was a training exercise for the aircrews of MAG-31 as well. The MAG-31 squadrons flew more than 180 sorties throughout the exercise. After being called in for air-support one section of jets would fly over the convoy to simulate real air support while other jets would simultaneously fly over Townsend range and drop ordnance.
“We do a lot of large force exercises,” said Maj. Scott Creed, a MAG-31 training officer. “But we wanted to focus on the air to ground fight; the supporting of the Marines on the ground.”
The intent of this exercise was to prepare its participants for a possible deployment to the Middle East, according to Creed.
“The exercise was an attempt to train for the environment we are currently in, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and try and use the exact same tactics, techniques and procedures that they use overseas in preparation for when we deploy,” said Creed. “We are attempting to incorporate the latest procedures that are coming out of Iraq.”
The elements that made this training exercise unique was the use of Marine, Army and Air Force assets and the opportunity for air and ground forces to interact directly with each other just as they would in the field.
“No one service is going to do everything by itself. We all have to work together,” said O’Brien. “We are a total American fighting force and that’s how we go to war.”