The Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, which recently returned home from an eight-month deployment to support 5th Fleet, operated with a unique mix of new and legacy aviation equipment as the look of the Aviation Combat Element (ACE) is in flux.

MEU Commanding Officer Col. Matthew St. Clair said Dec. 5 at the Potomac Institute for Policies Studies that the deployment was his first with the Marine Corps’ new Expeditionary Fire Support System – a 120mm mortar gun and trailer that can be transported in a V-22 Osprey or CH-53 heavy-lift helicopter – and it was the Marine Corps’ last deployment with the legacy UH-1N utility helicopter. The newer model, the UH-1Y, is “a four-bladed aircraft, has an improved engine, has different avionics, but allows each aircraft to move about nine combat-loaded Marines – which is a significant upgrade from the legacy, which you got about four combat-loaded Marines in it and if it wasn’t too hot and too humid out you might get that package up.”

The 26th MEU just returned from the last deployment with the legacy UH-1N helicopters. All future deployments will bring the newer UH-1Y, above, with more lift capacity and improved avionics. Photo: U.S. Marine Corps.

St. Clair said MEUs have gotten significantly heavier since 2001, in large part because of the need for extra personnel and vehicle armor to protect against roadside bombs. And the next big-deck amphibious ship being built, the USS America (LHA-6), will not have a well deck to support surface connectors that can bring heavy equipment ashore, so anything coming off the big-deck has to be light enough that a V-22 or CH-53 can transport it.

Because of that, St. Clair said he expects to see more of the 120mm mortar systems in future MEUs, and fewer Humvees and 7-ton trucks. Those heavy vehicles could be brought into theater by Military Sealift Command ships if needed, or could be kept in forward storage areas through the MEU Augmentation Program to help address mid-deployment shortfalls or unanticipated needs.

“What’s the ACE of the future going to look like? Maybe more of the UH-1Ys and less V-22s or less 53s,” St. Clair said. “We’ll have eventually the 53-K, enhanced range and capacity to lift. So those are very interesting discussions that are occurring in my service, the Marine Corps, right now: what that MEU may look like and how it embarks, especially when you have an amphib that doesn’t have a well deck.”

Capt. Jim Cody, commodore of the Kearsarge ARG, said at the same event that he wrote a point paper to the Navy suggesting some changes in the equipment mix. He had MH-60S helicopters for search and rescue missions and some logistics support, he said, but he said future ARGs would benefit from having MH-60Rs as well.

“Two Romeos and two Sierras would be the best mix. And if you couldn’t, three, with one of them being a Romeo, would help a lot,” he said. The MH-60S does not have a datalink or radar, so the ARG could use the MH-60R to increase its situational awareness.

To that end, the Kearsage ARG also had access to the Scan Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle during the deployment. The system flew from the USS San Antonio (LPD-17) to “enhance our recognized maritime picture,” Cody said. Though it never flew operational missions, it was allocated time on the flight deck each day.

“We flew it almost every morning, sent it up to validate AIS [Automatic Identification System] tracks as well as just check out what was out there, look at our common operational picture, validate the radar picture,” he added.

St. Clair said that the contractor-owned, contractor-operated Scan Eagle was strictly a Navy asset on the deployment, but beginning in 2014 the Marines will have the Small Tactical Unmanned Aerial System, a government-owned and operated variant of Scan Eagle, to use on its deployments.