4th Marine Aircraft Wing Reinforces Active-Duty Marine Aviation

U.S. Marines deployed to Honduras prepare a CH-53E Super Stallion from Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 772, Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 49, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), to make the flight to Haiti as part of the Hurricane Matthew response in October 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps photo)

By 4th Marine Aircraft Wing Public Affairs

Tragedy struck Haiti early Oct. 4 as Hurricane Matthew, the first Category 4 storm to hit the island in more than 50 years, wiped out roads, farmlands and infrastructure, destroyed thousands of homes, and left many Haitians homeless and desperate for help. Fortunately, U.S. Marines with Joint Task Force Matthew arrived quickly with aid a day after the storm lifted.

In the ensuing weeks, Marines delivered 478,000 pounds of food, first aid supplies and other critical provisions to Haiti’s most affected citizens. Having trained to coordinate with partner nations throughout Central and South America specifically for missions like this, the “Hustlers” of Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron (HMH) 772, a Marine Reserve heavy-lift squadron attached to the Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Southern Command, were poised for duty. By employing a forward presence, the Special Purpose MAGTF was geographically and operationally prepared to deliver needed humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

The Marine Corps Reserve and its aviation combat element, the 4th Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), combine to make a coordinated operational force. Every day, Marines of 4th MAW fight, support and train alongside their active-duty brethren.

Marine Corps Reserve History Steeped in Sacrifice, Dedication

A KC-130T with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 234, Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, flies in formation on the way to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Upon landing at Fort Campbell, VMGR-234 conducted an aviation-delivered ground refueling mission in cooperation with the Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment.. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kirstin L. Henning)

 

The Marine Corps Reserve and its aviation element were both established during World War I. With minimal preparation, they earned their skills with scars from on-the-job training and trials by fire on battlefields such as Belleau Wood, Iwo Jima and later, Korea. For this reason, the history of Marine Corps Reserve aviation exemplifies sacrifice and dedication. Adaptability is organic to 4th MAW, as they must hone, modify and apply their skills to each mission.

In 2002, then-Lt. Col. Bradley James commanded a Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 234 detachment that was “chopped” to the 3rd MAW, an active duty command, and deployed to the Middle East. Ultimately, that detachment was reassigned to the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) (Special Operations Capable) and participated in combat operations in Afghanistan.

James and his Marines helped the 13th MEU overcome the “tyranny of distance”—the MEU was based on ships operating in the Arabian Sea, more than 400 miles from the forward-operating base they supported at Camp Rhino in Afghanistan. Moving Marines and supplies this far was a significant challenge that required combining the capabilities of both the KC-130 Hercules, which provided tactical airlift in addition to its primary aerial-refueling mission, and the CH-53 Sea Stallion, the Marine Corps’ heavy lift helicopter. Because small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades targeting air crews presented significant tactical challenges, most missions were flown at night.

The Reserve KC-130T “Battle Herc” provided tactical assault support by delivering ammo and other supplies over longer distances. It also brought cargo closer to the battlefield and helped refuel aircraft at lower altitudes, where aircraft are subjected to more turbulence. In addition, the plane’s night-vision capabilities allowed Hercules air crews to perform these tasks in the dark.

A KC-130T with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR) 234, Marine Aircraft Group 41, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, flies in formation on the way to Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Upon landing at Fort Campbell, VMGR-234 conducted an aviation-delivered ground refueling mission in cooperation with the Army 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Kirstin L. Henning)

 

To perform these missions, VMGR-234 employs a cadre of experienced Reserve pilots who draw on skills honed in their previous active-duty careers and their current civilian jobs as commercial pilots. They spend time training aggressively with their active-duty counterparts all year.

Today, James commands the 4th MAW as a brigadier general. After learning to fly many variants of the KC-130 aircraft on active duty, he joined the Reserves in 1993 and has matched his skills to the MAW’s evolution for the better part of his Reserve career, giving him a unique perspective on the MAW.

“We used to prepare for the ‘big one,’” James said, referring to the Cold War-era focus on large-scale engagements with a major adversary.

Those plans came to fruition during the invasion of Iraq, which evolved into a counterinsurgency and required the Marine Corps to adapt. The 4th MAW Reserve units were called on to integrate with active duty, forming elements ranging in size from small detachments to complete squadrons.

“We Operate Every Day”

Col. J. Braatz, Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 49, 4th MAW, has a unique perspective on the Marine Corps’ evolution over the past 20 years. He serves as the example of a combat-weathered, active-duty Marine whose experience and skills are crucial to the development of the Reserve MAW. The Marine Corps Reserve employs of Marines who are currently on active duty to help 4th MAW reservists prepare for war. The 4th MAW uses this training to maintain and operate millions-of-dollars worth of aircraft every day.

Braatz spent the majority of his career with the active component. Recognizing his talent, the Marine Corps chose him in June 2016 to command MAG-49, a Reserve unit, marking his second stint with 4th MAW. (From 2009 to 2011, he commanded a Reserve helicopter detachment in Belle Chasse, Louisiana.)

Braatz shares his unique perspective on the relationship between active-duty and Reserve Marines and how that relationship has changed: “The line between Selected Marine Corps Reserve [drilling] reservists and active duty has really dissipated,” he said. “There is hardly any space between us now.”

Braatz explained that through combat operations during Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, as well as ongoing relationships between the active and Reserve forces, a level of trust has developed that did not exist previously.

“The Marine Corps is the nation’s expeditionary force in readiness and must be ready to fight at a moment’s notice. The Marine Corps Reserve is an operational force that reinforces, supports and augments the total force. As such, 4th MAW is more relevant to the Marine Corps than ever.”

While that trust was initially formed in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, it is now sustained by enduring, habitual relationships between active-duty and Reserve Marines that are fostered daily.

“We operate every day,” Braatz said. “We have to fly aircraft every day. We have to fix aircraft every day.”

He explained how MAG-49 integrates with other MAGs throughout 2nd MAW, an active-duty command. “We try to do joint operations, provide a place for them to come and train with us,” he said. “We maintain their aircraft; they maintain ours. They have developed memorandums of agreement with the MAGs in 2nd MAW.”

The daily interaction between MAG-49 and the MAGs of 2nd MAW is not unique. Those relationships exist throughout 4th MAW, both inside and outside the United States.

Marine Air Control Group (MACG) 48, which owns all of 4th MAW’s aviation command and control agencies, integrates routinely with MACG-18, its active duty counterpart under the 1st MAW in Okinawa, Japan, said Col. Paul Weaver, MACG-48 Commanding Officer.

“MACG-48 looks at itself as MACG-18’s other half,” Weaver said. Any time that combatant command conducts an exercise or operation, he explained, Reserve Marines from MACG-48 integrate throughout MACG-18.

Fortunately, many of these opportunities exist each year in major security cooperation exercises such as Ulchi Freedom Guardian or Key Resolve. In these operations, MACG-48’s Reserve Marines are eager to contribute their relevant historical knowledge and wealth of experience, which are used to create operational plans and mission sets.

These relationships are mutually beneficial—active-duty Marines benefit from much-needed support of daily, operational requirements, and Reserve Marines benefit from the experience of supporting those requirements. As part of a total force that faces readiness challenges, active-duty units cannot support every requirement, allowing 4th MAW units to step in and gain valuable experience. Over multiple evolutions, 4th MAW units have become the preferred, go-to solution for Marine forces commanders and their operational planners.

Maximizing Training Time

F-5N Tiger II jets stand by on the flight line aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C. Marine Fighter Training Squadron (VMFT) 401 worked with Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron (MAWTS) 1 to conduct the Marine Division Tactics Course at the air station. VMFT-401 provided the adversary air while the MAWTS-1 instructor pilots taught and evaluated MCAS Beaufort F-18 pilots during the course. Both VMFT-401 and MAWTS-1 are stationed aboard MCAS Yuma, Ariz. (U.S Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ashley Phillips)

To Reserve Marines, who must meet the same standards as their active-duty counterparts, maximizing training time is critical. The 4th MAW employs creative and efficient methods to accomplish this task. Combining drill time and using extended annual training periods and short-term active-duty operational support orders allow 4th MAW units to provide critical operational support to the active component, while giving Reserve pilots much-needed flight hours.

The units also leverage traditional Reserve training opportunities, such as drill weekends and two-week annual training periods. For example, MACG-48 synchronizes drill periods to provide training opportunities to units scattered from coast to coast across the United States. During these drill periods, command and control skills are practiced in an environment where units are geographically dispersed, just as they are on the modern battlefield.

One of the unique ways 4th MAW integrates aviation training and readiness efficiently is by flying as aggressor squadrons. Marine Fighter Training Squadron (VMFT) 401, a Reserve squadron, currently performs the role of an aggressor, or adversary, squadron. As such, they work hard to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of training both Reserve and active-duty squadrons.

“We probably have some of the most proficient pilots in the Marine Corps as far as air combat tactics,” said Maj. Luke Knorra, a former F/A-18 pilot who serves as an instructor at VMFT-401. Knorra explained the unit leans on its pilots’ combat experience, which creates “massive experience in the ready room.”

One reason for the increasing demand is to train all the new F-35B pilots as the Joint Strike Fighter integrates into the Marine Corps.

VMFT-401 regularly sends a detachment to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, to perform the aggressor role for Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501, which trains all new F-35B pilots.

“We are tasked with being one of the sole training aids to VMFAT-501,” Knorra said.

In addition, 4th MAW also operates with other Reserve units. In June, 4th MAW participated in the fifth integrated training exercise aboard the Marine Corps Air-Ground Combat Center in Twenty-Nine Palms, California. This live-fire exercise comprised, Reserve units from the ground combat, aviation and logistics elements under the command of a regimental headquarters. It serves as an important component of the Marine Corps Reserve’s “Training and Readiness Plan,” which employs five-year cycles so that, at any given time, the Reserve component has 3,000 Reserve Marines ready to fight.

The Reserve Marines in 4th MAW

A CH-53E helicopter from HMH-772 makes the flight from Honduras to Haiti as part of the Hurricane Matthew response, bypassing a lonely island on the otherwise empty route over the Caribbean Sea. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Staff Sgt. Derek Torrellas)

Reserve Marines face unique challenges. Although they meet the same, unwavering standards required of all Marines, they are forced to meet them it in just a fraction of the time. They balance their military careers with a civilian occupation, school and family. Although the standard Reserve Marine’s training consists of 48 drill periods and two weeks of annual training per year, usually more time is demanded of them, and 4th MAW Reserve Marines dedicate this additional time selflessly.

“What we have found is that it takes longer for our maintainers and aircrew to gain the same qualifications as their active-duty counterparts, which is normal, because they train less often,” said Master Gunnery Sgt. Ronald C. Gooden, senior maintenance chief at 4th MAW’s Aviation Logistics Division. “However, once they get those qualifications, then their ‘op tempo’ can far exceed what is considered normal for a reservist.”

Gooden said a large part of his job entails getting orders approved for active-duty operational support and extended annual training to provide this additional time.

“You get out of it what you put into it,” said Capt. Stephanie Mills, who recently became the first Reserve Marine to graduate from the Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course in nine years.

“I take on more, and I study in my free time,” said Mills, a Reserve air support control officer with Marine Air Support Squadron 6, MACG-48. Her duties as a drilling reservist involve more than one drill weekend a month and two weekends a year, but with that increased demand for her time comes increased satisfaction.

Staff Sgt. Derek Torrell, who serves as a Reserve crew chief with HMH-772, echoed those sentiments when describing the need to maintain currency between drill periods. “We don’t want the drilling reservists to spend idle time at home,” he said.

Like Mills, Torrell spent several years on active duty before transferring to the Reserve component. While on active duty, he deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan once. He considers his deployments as a Reserve Marine to be his most satisfying.

In 2013, he deployed to Okinawa for six months as part of the Unit Deployment Program established in 1977 to allow units to gain operational experience. Last year, Torrellas deployed again, this time to Honduras as a member of the Special Purpose MAGTF–Southern Command. He served alongside many Reserve Marines, supporting the crisis response efforts in Haiti when Hurricane Matthew hit.

“It was rewarding on a different level,” he said of that mission. “I appreciated my time in Iraq and Afghanistan, but you get a different kind of satisfaction from this.”

Poised for the Future

The Marine Corps is the nation’s expeditionary force in readiness and must be ready to fight at a moment’s notice. The Marine Corps Reserve is an operational force that reinforces, supports and augments the total force. As such, 4th MAW is more relevant to the Marine Corps now than ever. Its men and women train, integrate and operate with the active component every day in each combatant command across the globe.

“My job as commanding general is to serve as a provider. My job is to get our units and Marines ready to go do great things,” James said.

And his Marines are ready for that next fight, whenever and wherever it occurs.

Written by 4th Marine Aircraft Wing Public Affairs.