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NEWS | April 23, 2024

U.S. Army and Marine Corps forge joint efforts to enhance aviation tactics

By Balinda O’Neal Alaska National Guard Public Affairs

Aviators from the Alaska Army National Guard recently graduated from the Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructor course, April 22, marking a significant moment in the evolution of Army-wide aviation readiness.
Their participation marks the first time a conventional (not special forces) Army Black Hawk unit has participated in the highly competitive WTI course.
A 14-soldier team from the 207th Aviation Troop Command stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, participated in the rigorous, seven-week course at the Marine Corps Air Station, Yuma, Arizona, flying two UH-60L Black Hawk helicopters for more than 144 hours over the course of 16 progressively challenging simulated combat missions with a variety of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft.  
Aside from having two WTI qualified instructors assigned to the AKARNG, the 207th AVN TC will contribute to rapidly evolving Army-wide aviation doctrine necessitated by global security challenges. 

The U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, headquartered at Fort Novosel, Alabama, is leading the tactical transformation driven largely by revised Army Field Manual 3-0: Operations. The new doctrine shifts from an emphasis on counterinsurgency, the predominant approach for more than 20 years, to preparing the force to fight against a near-peer competitor in a large-scale combat environment.

U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 5 Dave Currier, a seasoned UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot and Weapons and Tactics Instructor assigned to USAACE, highlighted ongoing curriculum revisions for the Army’s Instructor Pilot Course. These revisions prioritize tactical instruction and incorporate a broader range of helicopter types into training scenarios. The initiatives also seek to optimize joint asset integration within training programs to bolster capabilities and mutual understanding across services.
This collaborative endeavor includes the Marine Corps WTI, a meticulously designed program that equips Marine Aviation units with instructors skilled in preparing squadrons for multifaceted combat scenarios.

“When we go to war, it’s going to be a joint fight,” said Col. Eric D. Purcell, commanding officer of Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One, at MCAS Yuma. He emphasized the course's mission is to provide advanced tactical training and certify unit instructor qualifications, fostering a robust aviation weapons and tactics framework.

Purcell elaborated on the longstanding relationship between MAWTS-1 and exchange pilots from the U.S. Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (Airborne). Currier, who was previously assigned to the 160th SOAR, has participated in nine iterations of WTI. 
The partnership grew in 2022, when AH-64E Apache Attack Helicopter pilots from the South Carolina ARNG’s 1-151st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion participated in the WTI course.

Highlighting the significance of cooperation, Purcell underscored the benefits derived from integrating Army aviators with Marine Corps counterparts. This sentiment was echoed by Capt. Cody McKinney, an AKARNG UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter pilot and recent WTI graduate, underscoring the synergy between Army and Marine aviation core competencies.

During the first phase of training, the AKARNG UH-60s integrated into the ‘heavy metal’ shop, 'heavy metal' being the Marine’s nickname for their heavy lift CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter. The UH-60s were also assigned ‘metal’ as part of their call signs – Metal 45 and Metal 46.
During the next phase, the AKARNG aviators began integrating with the Marine UH-1Y Venom [Super Huey] helicopter, a light utility asset. Purcell said this arrangement not only benefits the Army aviators but also offers flexibility in their training approach.

“There are some missions where the Hueys by themselves may not have a large enough class.  Throw in a couple 60s and now you get a really great training environment,” said Purcell. “Other missions where CH-53s are doing a lot of heavy lift, major troop inserts, having a couple 60s that can go out and do CASEVAC missions, go out and do smaller [Tactical Air Control Party] inserts, some recon inserts, and integrate into that larger mission provides a huge value.”

McKinney appreciated flying with a variety of aircraft from different components while training on core war-fighting functions.

"The experience gained here allows us to focus our efforts on increasing our lethality for our federal mission but at the same time it also makes us more effective for our state mission to help the people that rely on us back home," said McKinney. “With Alaska’s unique strategic positioning, it’s imperative to understand the evolving threat landscape and hone our skills to effectively counter dynamic and complex future conflicts.”

According to McKinney, the planning to attend the course took more than two years. The Alaska Air National Guard transported both UH-60 helicopters via a 176th Wing C-17 Globemaster III aircraft from JBER to Yuma. The Utah ARNG’s 2-211th General Support Aviation Battalion provided a spare helicopter and government vehicle to support the team.

“All of these different organizations gave up the best people that they had, their equipment and their time to be able to try to make Army aviation better as a whole,” said McKinney. “We knew that this was the apex of what rotary wing aviation has in the United States.”

To accommodate the demanding schedule with more than 30 periods of instruction, six days a week, 12 hours a day, the team assembled a dedicated group of UH-60 Black Hawk mechanics. MCAS Yuma is situated in the Sonoran Desert characterized by extreme temperatures, endless dust, and vast expanses of land edged by rocky, rugged mountains. No strangers to the harsh conditions of Alaska, the Guardsmen adapted to the new environment.

“With all of the training flights that they've been doing here, they run those helicopters through the ringers,” said Spc. Hannah Kinder, a UH-60 Black Hawk mechanic with 207th AVN TC, explaining her meticulous task of cleaning and maintaining the helicopters for optimal performance. “When they get back to the flight line, they're covered in sand and dust. We wipe them down and make sure that they run smooth for the next day.”

Kinder, who graduated from Advanced Individual Training only one year ago, said supporting WTI was a great learning experience.

“Having senior mechanics and that knowledge around me all the time has helped me learn different things about the helicopter and learn about different maintenance tasks that I haven't done at home yet,” said Kinder reflecting on her experience. “I've enjoyed thoroughly being able to come down here and learn how to train in a different environment and do maintenance on helicopters in a different place.”

Purcell explained that the focus of MTI goes well beyond the pilots.  Rather the course is intended to integrate all Marine aviation which includes ground support, command and control, crew chiefs and other officers and enlisted personnel. WTI graduates emerge as subject matter experts, equipped not only to lead and instruct but to advise commanders on navigating operational risks and threats.
“They have to know how to balance risk, the red threat and the blue threat, that's out there so that when we go into combat, we know exactly the threats that we're accepting and what we're not going to accept in order to achieve mission success,” said Purcell.

Currier said that discussions surrounding ongoing and future projects aim to strengthen Army aviation capabilities, with lessons learned from the WTI course poised to significantly inform training doctrine and combat tactics in countering near-peer threats.