By By Andrew Drwiega, Military Editor | October 1, 2010
|Marines from 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 3rd Marine Logistics Battalion, prepare to board a CH-53 Super Stallion on September 2. Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 361 is one of the major personnel and cargo transport units for 3rd MAW (Forward). USMC Sgt. Deanne Hurla|
Andrew Drwiega, Rotor & Wing (R&W): Sir, firstly thank you for making time to talk to me today. I would like to start with an outline as you see it as the role of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) here at Camp Bastion.
Col. Fippinger (CF): 3rd MAW is part of a U.S. Marine Corps Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF), which is a small Marine
Expeditionary Force (MEF). We are tied to supporting what the MEF commander decides in terms of missions, but that really means supplying aviation combat power to the guys on the ground. As the MEF moves around the battle space we provide the logistical supply and sustainment for all of the stuff the grunts need, but we also deliver aerial reconnaissance, surveillance and, of course, the kinetic part.
R&W: What’s your assessment of the area of operations [AO] that 3rd MAW is being asked to cover in Afghanistan?
CF: This is a relatively small AO compared to some of the distances we were flying in Iraq, which were quite a stretch. In comparison this is very manageable for us. I have flown around the AO over 10 times in the previous two months so I have got a pretty good feel for it. Although the country itself is big, this AO is very manageable for our footprint.
R&W: How does the operational plan fit into the overall objectives of the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF] strategy?
CF: The ISAF commander decides what the overall mission is and the regional commanders are in support of him and that overall mission. Nobody can come up with their own agenda that is for sure. We can come up with a solution to how we tackle the problem within our region. With the Helmand river valley as the dominant feature and therefore the economic engine for the region, that is where our missions focus. The main economic driver here is agriculture and of course that largely means the poppy and how that fuels and finances activities.
The British were spread too thinly to do the whole RC, but now we are up close to 20,000 marines—we have got the capability to spread out and do much more. We are down toward the border now and out to the west. It is not just about the poppy harvest, it is also a seasonal thing. You will hear reference to the fighting season. Over the last several years there is an ebb and flow through the year. There is much more manpower available to them [the Taliban] in the summer and that level of violence will increase—in fact we are seeing that already [mid May].
R&W: So there is a firm connection between the fighting season and growing of poppies.
CF: In general the number of kinetic events and number of troops getting in contact with the enemy are in the historically contested areas, which is where the poppies are grown. But then we are also interested in where they take it to, where it is refined and then how they get it out of the country.
And it is of course a sensitive issue. Because we are not going to secure hearts and minds if we take food off the table of the average poor farmer, and that’s his source of income.
That is where we have a complex set of circumstances that are typically outside the military realm. There is a big gap between security and the Afghan government coming in and them providing the ordinary people with persistent and long-term solutions. It is the gap between the two which is the area we will be working on.
R&W: Is the Afghan National Army getting more involved?
CF: The capabilities of their forces are limited. They are using some contract support but it hasn’t been a big factor in our operations so far.
R&W: Does 3rd MAW have all the assets that you require in this type of environment?
CF: I think the force balance is just right. In many ways we are the main effort here in Helmand Province and in Kandahar in the next Province. The Taliban’s ancestral support is from this region. With an in-depth mission analysis we looked at back in CONUS we looked at the number of troops on the ground, the ramp space we had and the number of missions that we had to do and figured the optimum mix of aviation to support those missions. We aren’t supporting all the functions of Marine Corps aviation missions that a MAG would normally be required to do as there is no air threat, limited surface to air threat—relevant when you are talking low and slow rotary wing helicopters, but the limiting factors were only the number of spots where we can put our assets.
R&W: How did the recent increase in troop numbers influence the capacity of the MAG?
CF: When we went from 10,000 to almost twice that because we added a Regimental Combat Team to the area, we increased all our aviation assets—we brought in another four CH-53s, another two C130s, another two MV-22s and in another week we will go from the AV8 Harrier to Hornet, two of which will have the Advanced Tactical Air Reconnaissance System (ATARS) providing imagery to the ground combat teams. We have gone up in the order of capability as we haven’t wanted to be in a situation where we have too many folks in one area and not enough lift. When you are talking over 16 CH-53s, that is a lot of lift.
R&W: How about unmanned aerial systems?
CF: The numbers and influence of UAS are increasing all the time. We have the ability to ask for theater and national level assets that deliver hours of persistent capability. We also have our organic Scan Eagle and Shadow systems in the USMC. They can go out from their central location into the spokes and transmit back.
R&W: And there are more sensors on the manned aircraft that feed into the overall intelligence gathering system right?
CF: These days more platforms than not, I’m talking of manned ones, have the ability to take high fidelity, day/night pictures of areas of interest and data link that back to the tactical air command center here at Camp Bastion. This allows us to direct fires, vector assets in, provide updates. But the UAS platforms don’t run out of gas as quickly as the manned one, so you get situational awareness over time with no breaks where Harriers, Hornets or helicopters have to go home for fuel or whatever, so they deliver you that continuity.
R&W: How have UAS changed the way you operate and prosecute operations?
CF: These assets are stacked up above, overhead where we are working. So instead of spending a lot of time over the radio, in the old days we had to have long dialogue to get the new guys up to speed on the tactical situation: “here’s this building, and what’s happening over here, this is where our guys are etc.” That was all valuable time you had to invest to get yourself up to speed. Now they are getting that video feed before they are on station. They are getting radio communications with that UAS pilot on the ground on what is going on and even the coordinates. So everything can happen so much quicker and we can be so much more responsive. And it isn’t just returning fires or providing close air support, it is also all the other missions, including medical evacuation, casualty evacuation, and resupply of perhaps ammunition, water and medical to a FOB. So what you aim for, and what it is helping us do, is getting inside the loop of the enemy in terms of reacting quicker to those dynamic situations and taking advantage of that.
R&W: What is your overall impression of the MV-22 as a MAG asset?
CF: Well, it has been a long time coming. It is funny you should mention that as Second Lt. Fippinger in 1984 was at Marine Corps headquarters when we were first talking about that concept, so it has been a long time. It is a transformational leap ahead in so far as capability is concerned. What we have been able to do is prove the brochure, if you will. The added capability for medium lift and in assault support is living up to its billing. We are not babying the aircraft; we’re taking it into dusty landing zones, unimproved landing zones, day and night. We are taking it just as close to the action on the ground as anything else. It hasn’t let us down one bit.
You are talking about an aircraft that can fly as fast as a fixed-wing aircraft. I was in one the other day and over the ground we were going 270 knots. A CH-46 does around 110–120 knots maybe.
You are above the small arms, the unsophisticated threat that we have here, the light triple A and RPG. We haven’t seen any shoulder fired, man-portable weapons in a long time.
R&W: Finally, some are calling this the second helicopter war [after Vietnam]. How do you see it?
CF: I wouldn’t characterize this as a helicopter war. When you’ve got to take down a building you can’t do it with a helicopter. When you have to close down the opening to a cave system, again you can’t do it with a helicopter—you have to do it with a bomb. While we aren’t doing a lot of that [currently], that is still very relevant here.
We can share our fixed-wing assets. In addition to Marine Corps Harriers and Hornets, we get our share of ‘purple air’—all assets controlled by the air component commander—[which] also comes from [locations including] Al Udeid [in Qatar]. Sometimes we will have F-16s, F-15s, B1s and even coalition Tornados and Mirages, and they can all be here in minutes. So it is more than a helicopter war.