By Dario Leone
Feb 20 2017
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“Adversary air is something we specialize in and provide to our customers. We study what the enemy does and we know what our pilots should be doing,” Maj. Benjamin Apple, VMFT-401 operation officer

Marine Fighter Training Squadron (VMFT) 401 worked recently with Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One (MAWTS-1) to conduct the Marine Division Tactics Course (MDTC) at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Beaufort. VMFT-401 F-5N Tiger II jets  provided the adversary air while the MAWTS-1 instructor pilots taught and evaluated MCAS Beaufort F/A-18 pilots during the course.

The four-week course took the top tier of Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 31 pilots and refined their skills in offensive anti-air warfare and anti-air defense. Six F-18 Hornet pilots and one Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) graduated, earning a MAWTS-1 qualification and a MDTC Instructor patch.

The course is held twice a year aboard MCAS Beaufort for all of MAG-31 F-18 squadrons. MAWTS-1 instructor pilots, based out of MCAS Yuma, Ariz., instructs and evaluates the MCAS Beaufort pilots. For those pilots who do graduate it provides a stepping stone to go on to the top flight school, Weapons Tactics Instructor (WTI) course.

“This course is one pre-requisite among others to eventually go on to the WTI course,” said Maj. Timothy Farag, the MAWTS-1 tactical air department head. “This course makes them proficient at air to air tactics. Upon completion of WTI, they will be experts on both air to air and air to ground tactics. They will be the overall subject matter experts of the F-18 Hornet.”

Both MDTC and WTI are fast paced, compact courses that test the top level pilots and turn them into masters of airborne tactics, prepared to meet the needs of a Marine Air Ground Task Force. Because of the sharp learning curve for both courses, the pilots need to be top notch with an aptitude far above their peers.

“The first week of MDTC is dedicated to academics,” said Maj. Benjamin Apple, the operations officer with VMFT-401. “Then the pilots spend a week doing dogfighting within visual range. The last two weeks are spent doing beyond visual range flights and simulations.”

The week of academics covers complex tactics, briefing and debriefing. The pilots not only need to excel in their flight time, but also in the debriefing time. Debriefing after a mission is critical, so that the pilots and WSO’s can see exactly what happened and how to improve. The second week of dogfighting is when Apple’s unit, VMFT-401, comes into the picture.

“We are the Marine Corps’ only adversary squadron,” said Apple. “Often the Marine Corps utilizes civilian defense contractors. What sets us apart is both our aircraft and the fact that we are uniform wearing Marines. Adversary air is something we specialize in and provide to our customers. We study what the enemy does and we know what our pilots should be doing. We provide the anvil on which our Marine pilots sharpen their sword.”

The VMFT-401 squadron frequently visits MCAS Beaufort to provide adversary air for the squadrons. During this visit their primary focus was to support MDTC. After the second week of air to air dogfighting, the pilots start to work up to larger, longer and more complex flying exercises. The exercises start off with a section, comprised of two pilots. Over the final two weeks they work up to a division flying against 10 adversary aircraft.

“We have the pilots train with both offensive and defensive anti-aircraft warfare,” said Farag. “Essentially the pilots will either be attacking a simulated enemy asset or defending against an oncoming adversary force, protecting a friendly asset. The entire time they are flying they are monitored by controllers who watch, record and analyze everything. When the pilots come back and have their debrief they need to know everything that happened during the exercise and learn from it.”

The debrief conducted after the flight is just as important as the flight itself. This is the pilot’s chance to show his control over the situation and most importantly, learn how they can improve. The competition for a seat at MDTC is stiff. Pilots need to be able to execute in flight and show control in the debrief.

“VMFT-401 works as an extension of MAWTS-1 for the duration of the exercise, working hand in hand as the instructor pilots,” said Farag. “As far as organizing and coordinating MDTC, that comes from Marine Aviation Training System Site Beaufort.”

The Marine Aviation Training System Site (MATTS) Beaufort coordinates and provides, adversary air, space to conduct briefs, debriefs, and reserves airspace. The MAG-31 provides the aircraft, assets, and maintainers. All of these components work together to ensure that everything is ready and available to ensure MDTC runs smoothly.

“The need for MDTC is huge,” said Farag. “The Marine Corps Training and Readiness Manual dictates that each squadron requires a certain number of WTI’s to ensure the Hornet community continues to meet the needs of the Marine Air Ground Task Force.”

The course culminated with a final flight and evaluation followed by a graduation at the Officer’s club aboard Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort Feb. 3, 2017. The course is a stride towards becoming a top aviator and subject matter expert within the F-18 Hornet community.

“We are honing pilots in air to air tactics maneuver and air superiority,” said Apple. “This has been a great trip for us. I love coming out to Beaufort and we are happy to be here, take our capabilities and bring those to the fleet.”

Both VMFT-401 and MAWTS-1 are stationed aboard MCAS Yuma, Ariz.

Photo credit: Lance Cpl. Ashley Phillips / U.S. Marine Corps

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.
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