Aviation in the Mountains: Training Marine Aviators for Operations in Complex, Compartmentalized, and Mountainous Terrain
Capt. Bart A. Betik
Mountains, often associated with extremes in weather conditions, complexity in terrain, and high altitudes, are located across a significant portion of the world. Currently the Marine Corps finds itself engaged, once again, in an area of operations that presents the MAGTF with extreme challenges. Combat operations in Afghanistan have posed requirements for which Marine aviation has been less than prepared to address at both the unit and individual aircrew levels. Marine aviation must mitigate training shortfalls in order to effectively take the fight to the enemy in areas of operation comprised of complex, compartmentalized, and mountainous terrain at medium to high altitude.
Understanding what defines this type of environment is the basis for shaping Marine aviation training in order to meet current and future operational requirements. No single definition exists, and there are multiple Service publications, books, and papers that provide descriptions and definitions of mountainous and cold weather environments. Maintain and Cold Weather Warfighting: Critical Capability for the 21st Century by Marine Lt. Col. Scott W. Pierce defines a mountain and cold weather environment as characterized by one or more of the following attributes: persistent ambient air temperature below minus 5 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 21 degrees Celsius); persistent mean snow depths of approximately 20 inches; significant glaciated terrain; rugged, severely compartmented terrain; and combining mean slope angles of 45 degrees with elevation differentials exceeding 1,000 feet (300 meters) and with peaks exceeding 8,000 feet (2,430 meters) above sea level.1 Operations in Afghanistan, particularly in Regional Command (RC)-East and northern portions of RC-South, fall within this definition. Marine aviation must possess a consistent and reliable capability to operate in this environment for the long term and not solely focus on the current situation.
Current Opinions: Ground Perspectives
Several Marine ground commanders who have served in Afghanistan have indicated a strong preference for Army aviation over Marine aviation, specifically in the assault support role. This stance is primarily based on specific airframe capabilities/limitations, individual aircrew proficiency, and views of risk management and mitigation. Understandably, there are numerous variables at play, including asset availability and capability, specific area of operations, sourcing of assets, and training, both specific predeployment training and standard training and readiness (T&R) manual or Service equivalent requirements.
There are significant risks and tactical implications to conducting rotary wing and tilt-rotor operations in a mountainous environment that require a consistent and reliable capability in order to carry out combat missions. As noted by Major Asim Malik of the Pakistani Army:
Aviation is critical to mobility, timely logistics, and precision fĂ¬repower. Pilots should be well trained in mountain flying and in understanding in hi n try men's problems in mountain terrain.2
This quote describes the substantial requirement for aviation units and aircrew to be current and proficient in mountain operations from an army that trains and utilizes aviation assets on a routine basis in mountainous environments. The operations and training conducted by Pakistani pilots provide for a force-in-readiness as opposed to current Marine Corps training programs that force aircrews to develop flight experience once deployed to an environment defined by complex, compartmentalized, and mountainous terrain at altitude.
Current Opinions: Air Perspectives
The need for specific training for operations in a mountainous environment is heavily debated across the Marine aviation assault support community. Generally, the T&R manuals for each type/model/series platform differ slightly in overall T&R requirements. Conditions and requirements also vary and may not be clearly defined or defined at all.
Much of the debate centers around concerns that T&R requirements are already too vast to account for the development of a combat-capable aviator while concurrently maintaining squadron core capabilities. This situation has resulted in a low or nonexistent priority for training in a mountainous environment with squadrons often opting for simulated evolutions or basic training in confined terrain. Training in actual mountainous terrain and at medium to high altitude can provide for nearly all significant environmental conditions to be presented and, potentially, presented at the same time. This will allow for basic familiarization and understanding of the environmental effects to be planned for in the future.
Defining the Requirement
Multiple factors have resulted in a diminished ability to conduct training and maintain capabilities for Marines across the MAGTF. In order to provide for training in this environment, the requirement must be clearly defined and prioritized accordingly. Observations and recommendations have been compiled by a variety of means, such as the Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned, after action reports from units in various theaters, and papers/discussions at various intermediate- and top-level schools. Many of these sources describe the same situations and make the same recommendations time and time again. In order to address support shortfalls, a synergistic effort between all elements of the MAGTF is required to identify requirements and design training plans, whether T&R manual based and/or through changes to predeployment training programs (PTPs).
The Way Ahead
Flying in mountainous terrain at high altitude requires an understanding of the operating environment and a practical application of skills within it. The U.S. Navy and U.S. Army have identified such a requirement and have developed schoolhouses to address the training shortfalls within their respective training programs. Both programs are focused on basic familiarization of power management skills, aircraft performance, safety, and aircraft capabilities. Marine Corps aviation could benefit significantly from both of these courses of instruction by either developing a similar program or sourcing aviators to attend these courses on a regular basis. In any event, changes to T&R manuals and/or PTPs will be required.
T&R manual recommendations include standardized conditions identified and implemented, specific altitude requirements (medium to high altitude) implemented, selected core basic skill phase requirements added to core advanced or core-plus phases with the mountainous/altitude conditions and requirements implemented, and/or instructor pilots regularly sent to the U.S. Navy Mountain Flying Course or the U.S. Army High Altitude Aviation Training School. Predeployment training recommendations include an aviation combat element (ACE) PTP designed for and executed in a mountainous and medium- to high-altitude environment and/or squadron detachments scheduled and regularly supporting Exercise MOUNTAIN WARRIOR at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Center.
The Marine Corps and Marine aviation are in the development of new doctrinal and operational planning publications. The mountain operations doctrinal publication and the how to plan air assault operations publication will provide requirements and planning guidance in the conduct of operations in a mountainous environment. In order to execute operations in complex, compartmentalized, and mountainous terrain at altitude and operate doctrinally, training and preparedness must be developed from the individual aircrew levels through the ACE and ultimately the entire MAGTF.
Operating in an environment defined by complex, compartmentalized, and mountainous terrain at altitude imposes significant challenges to all Marines across the MAGTF. T&R must be a priority, focused on the basics, in order to prepare all Marines to take the fight to the enemy in any climate and place, and at any time. As a major supporting element, the ACE, specifically the assault support community, must be trained and at the ready in order to support effectively, efficiently, and safely.
1. Pierce. Lt. Col. Scott W., Mountain Weather Warfighting: Critical Capability for the 21st Century, monograph published in May 2009, School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS.
2. Malik. Major Muhammad Asim, Pakistan Army, Mountain Warfare: The Need for Specialized Training, thesis published in June 2003, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS.