Aviation Brothers in Arms: One MAG's Experience With and Attached Army Helicopter Task Force
Maj. Anthony Krockel
Given that the Department of Defense is increasingly spread thin across a number of operational areas, the likelihood of operating in a joint environment is ever increasing. While this concept is not new, the fact that it is being executed by rotary-wing aviation is. Aviation integration, however, presents its own distinct challenges. MAG-26 and the 1st Aviation Combat Brigades Task Force 227 (TF-227) experienced a number of these challenges, including command and support relationship friction, as well as a lack of understanding mission types, aircrew procedures, and mission approval processes. More integration training should be conducted in a training environment so that we can "train like we fight."
On 15 December 2009, Multinational Force-West (MNF-W) was given operational control (OpCon) by Multinational Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) of an Army rotary-wing TF (TF-227), consisting of eight AH-64D Apaches and six UH-60L Blackhawks, marking the first time in recent history that Army Apaches were placed under the command of a Marine unit. OpCon was then further delegated to MAG26 (Reinforced) (MAG-26 (Rein)). As a relatively unique relationship, there were multiple integration challenges to capture for similar situations in the future.
Prior to the integration of TF-227, two Army aviation units were attached to the MAG as the aviation combat element (ACE) for MNF-W- B Company, 1-214, a CH-47 Chinook company, and C Company, 5/1 58th, a UH-60A medevac company. The CH-47s were provided to the MAG to fill the gap left by the redeployment of MV-22B Ospreys. CH-47s came to MAG-26 (Rein) for a 9-month deployment and seamlessly integrated into the ACE. They were a flexible Army National Guard unit with a similar mission to Marine assault support platforms. Army UH-60s had filled the medevac role for MNF-W since 2003 and were very familiar with Marine processes and procedures. These earlier experiences provided a false reference of the potential complexities surrounding the integration of TF-227 with the MAG.
Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 269 (HMLA-269) redeployed to the United States on 15 December 2009, and B Company 1-214 redeployed on 1 December 2009. Prior to these departures, MNF-W petitioned MNC-I for an aviation assault support and attack capability to remain until the end of mission scheduled for no later than 1 March 2010. Upon assumption of OpCon by MNF-W and MAG-26, it became immediately apparent that the chosen command relationship and support relationship for the TF were inadequate and poorly defined, resulting in friction for the TF-227 detachment officer in charge (OIC).
Command Relationship vs. Support Relationships
In deciding the desired command relationship, MNC-I considered the anticipated division-level requirements - reconnaissance in support of the commercial air security program (CASP), a helicopter quick reaction force, 24-hour troops in contact (TIC) response, and medevac chase. Marine arguments against a direct support relationship to the 1/82 Advise and Assist Brigade (AAB) were based on concerns that 1/82 priorities might supersede MNF-W priorities, and MNFW would not receive adequate support if OpCon were maintained by the TF's parent unit, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade. As no support relationship was mentioned when placing the TF under the MAG, the MAG planned to employ TF-227 in general support of the MAGTF with priority of effort to 1/82 (AAB). A later fragmentary order (FragO) was published changing ownership of the CASP from MNF-W to the 1/82. During staffing of that FragO, the ACE reinforced the notion of "dedicated" versus direct support. Dedicated support provided MNF-W the right of first refusal for all missions with the excess allotted to 1/82 for direct support. Because dedicated support is not a doctrinal support relationship, the term was not used in the FragO. Instead, the FragO was published, establishing a direct support relationship between TF-227 and 1/82 beginning 15 January 2010.
Days after the change to the direct support relationship of Army helicopter assets, an Apache attack weapons team (AWT) launched in support of a 1/82 "immediate" joint tactical air request (JTAR) for a reconnaissance mission. Neither the Marine agency responsible for procedural control of the airspace, the direct air support center (DASC), nor the MAG's tactical air command center (TACC) was informed of this mission as the TF considered it in direct support of 1/82. The TF, thinking that an immediate JTAR from its supported unit did not require approval from MNF-W, launched in accordance with Army doctrine. After examining the issue, the ACE proposed to the MEF that approval for all immediate JTAR "missions" would reside with 1/82; however, due to the OpCon relationship and the responsibility of command, "launch" approval would reside with the TACC. This compromise provided one less level of bureaucracy for the Army and maintained the Marines desired command and control (C2).
A separate issue was the continued influence of the TF's parent command, 4-227 Attack Reconnaissance Battalion. Located in Taji, 4-227 declined to grant complete command responsibilities to the TF OIC. Many local command decisions required input from the parent command. This contrasted with the relationship the MAG enjoyed with the Chinook and medevac units, which may have been a function of the similarities between assault support units and a better understanding of roles and C2 processes. Another potential exacerbating circumstance was that all parties knew that the OpCon relationship would only last 6 weeks due to the redeployment of Marine Forces from Al Anbar Province. The OIC held the unenviable position of serving two masters - one who wrote his fitness report and the other who commanded his unit - each with often doctrinally polar ideas of attack helicopter employment.
Upon receipt of OpCon of the Apaches, it became apparent that the allotted eight airframes included two permanently stationed in Taji, collocated with their higher headquarters and more robust maintenance capability (eight to make six). The requirement for administrative flights to and from Taji was not initially briefed and assumed tacit MAG approval. Because Taji is located in a higher threat area, Marine aircraft avoided that area during daylight hours; however, Army helicopter battalions routinely flew there during the day. The TF-227 OIC was again placed in the difficult position of serving two masters, each with different ideas of threat mitigation. In hindsight, Marines should not have pressed for OpCon of the TF given that it would be for such a short period of time. Instead MNF-W should have petitioned for OpCon to be retained by the TF's parent unit with a direct support relationship being tasked by MNC-I to MNF-W.
Mission Types and Aircraft/Aircrew Capabilities
The missions assumed by the Apaches mirrored the HMLA missions, to include medevac chase, CASP, and 24-hour JTAR/TIC support. Significant support limitations that remained unresolved during integration planning meetings resurfaced after mission assumption. The Apaches do not fly as single aircraft in escort for medevac aircraft. Unlike Marine Cobras, they do not train for this scenario and are not familiar with the dissimilar tactics and flight profiles of medevac UH-60s. They will only fly as a section in a detached escort profile. The Apache aircrews were also reluctant to fly medevac chase based on the amount of time required to start an Apache and the difference in cruise speed between the UH-60s and the AH-64s. During the summer months in Iraq it may take as long as 30 minutes to allow the necessary mission computers to cool down prior to take off. This was less of a factor during their December to January tour at Al Asad. The typical cruise speed for the UH-60s was in the 120 to 135 knots true air speed (KTAS) range, compared to the AH-64's 1 10 KTAS. This disparity allowed the UH-60 to outrun the Apaches, an important factor in time-critical medevac missions.
When prompted by the MAG to fly as a mixed section in order to conserve assets, TF-227 preferred to assign an entire AWT in support of medevac chase. The MAG's assumption that a single Apache would escort a medevac helo in emergency situations was misguided. When a situation requiring the potential use of a mixed medevac and chase aircraft section arose, the DASC directed an AWT section to separate in order to escort two different UH-60s to two different combat support hospitals in "red zones" during the day. Marine Cobras are readily able to execute this mission based on immediate tasking from the DASC and the authority delegated to the section leader. The Apaches, however, require permission from their tactical operations center (TOC) via blue force tracker message because it is not a prebriefed mission.
In another circumstance, when instrument meteorological condition weather was reported during a local reconnaissance mission, the TACC suggested launching an Apache in the local pattern for a weather pilot report. The TF refused due to the limited instrument flight capability for the Apache aircraft and aircrews. There are no valid approaches for the Apaches at Al Asad. Army pilots require an official weather brief (DD 1 1-175-1) for every flight. This is a significant difference between Army pilots and Marine pilots as Marine pilots can launch simply based on the latest reported weather conditions as long as they comply with visual flight rules. The unfamiliarity of the Apache's aircraft and capabilities created unrealistic expectations between the units.
Mission Approval Process
Among the many operational differences the MAG realized was the mechanism by which the Army plans and approves missions. In this distinctly different process, the first step is to obtain initial mission approval as per Army Regulation 95-1 (AR 95-1), Flight Regulations. This step is accomplished through the normal flight schedule approval process. It is not a detailed hazard and risk analysis for specific flight operations but rather an assessment of the unit's capability to accomplish the mission.
The second step is mission planning and briefing, which involves detailed planning, risk assessment, and risk mitigation by the aircrew. A briefing officer, who is typically a more senior pilot and is current in the mission profile, reviews this process. This briefing officer discusses the following key areas with the aircrew:
The mission briefing officer briefs more indepth than the Marine operations duty officer (ODO) and provides a level of oversight and supervision that the Marine ODO does not. Marine ODO briefs consist of weather, friendly situation update, aircraft assignment, and any recent mission updates. The ODO is tasked primarily with administrative support of operations and, with regard to operational risk management (ORM), is responsible to ensure that flight leaders at all levels conduct the necessary ORM.
The third step is final mission approval based on the resulting mitigated risk. It is approved by the final approval authority that reviews the mission validity, planning, and risk mitigation and authorizes the flight in accordance with the commander's policy. If a crewmember or a mission parameter changes and increases the resultant risk, the mission pilot in command or air mission commander must be rebriefed and acquire reapproval. This point is noteworthy because when a Marine squadron commanding officer launches an aircraft, control is passed to the DASC as an extension of the TACC. Marine helicopters can be dynamically retasked for any number of missions by the DASC. If the crew is current and proficient for the new mission, they can immediately brief the new mission parameters in the cockpit. Conversely, Army helicopters maintain a direct chain of command to their TOC. Any changes to mission profiles need to be rebriefed to the final mission approval authority. The Army's AR 95-1 specifically states that "self-briefing is not authorized unless approved by the first officer in the grade of Lieutenant Colonel or above in the chain of command." Of note is the emphasis on chain of command. Even an air mission commander who is in control of the flight is not within the formal chain of command and cannot approve self-briefing.
Another example of employment differences between the Services is the AWTs autonomy with regard to tasking. Available AWTs will seek out tasking during an entire on station time, checking in with local brigade combat teams as they move across the area of operations. Marine helicopters inquire for additional tasking from DASC as the agency in contact with local assault support liaison teams or air liaison elements.
The unifying point regarding the differences in standing operating procedures (SOPs) and regulations is that many of these were not adequately resolved during the planning phase. Future coordination between Army and Marine helicopter units may be hampered by unknown SOP restrictions, which might preclude mission accomplishment. Based on the lack of preparatory training and integration with the Army, Marine planners must emphasize patience and flexibility during coordinated missions when time does not allow a derailed understanding of Army regulations and SOPs.
Despite time restrictions, there is much to gain by conducting predeployment familiarization and training between Army and Marine helicopter units. The use of a building block approach coupled with brief exchanges between 82d Combat Aviation Brigade at Fort Bragg, NC, and the squadrons at Marine Corps Air Stations New River and Cherry Point can be a mechanism for professional discussions, capabilities briefs, and tactical decision exercises. The Marine Corps has done little to encourage joint force aviation training for rotary-wing aircraft. United States Air Force and Department of the Navy fixed-wing tactical aircraft assets have productive integration opportunities with exercises like RED FLAG and common systems used by the combined forces air component commander. At an exercise like RED FLAG, a Marine F/A-18 squadron could receive minimal information through a road to war brief, a communications card, and the rules of engagement and integrate seamlessly with the Air Force. Could a detachment of Cobras do the same if attached to a brigade combat team? Would the converse be true for Army helicopter pilots in understanding the role of the Navy's TACC or the Marine Corps' DASC?
Once initial relationships have been established, cross-training could be implemented by exchanging divisions of assault support and attack aircraft for local training. Beyond this foundation, larger scale integration exercises could be conducted at Twentynine Palms and Fort Irwin, CA. Perhaps concurrently, the Services could work together to develop broad joint techniques, tactics, and procedures for employment of rotary-wing aircraft to complement Joint Publication 3-04, Joint Shipboard Helicopter Operations.
Despite the integration challenges faced by the soldiers and Marines of the MAG, the mission was accomplished safely and without any significant degradation of support. Both TF-227 and the MAG learned a great deal about working within the constructs of our distinct processes and procedures. I look forward to another opportunity to work and learn alongside our aviation brothers in arms.