Flying in Hunter-Warrior

By Major Lawrence Roberts, U.S. Marine Corps

During the exercise, we flew T-34Cs because they were easily supported and the second seat gave us additional operational and tactical flexibility.

Hunter-Warrior's unusual experimental design used a flattened command-and-control structure in conjunction with a force-on-force scenario. It pitted a high-technology sea-based Marine Expeditionary Unit-Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force (Experimental) [SPMAGTF(X)]-against a mechanized regiment-the 7th Marines at Twentynine Palms. The command element afloat was located at Camp Pendleton, and the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms was the operating area. Bearing in mind the limited nature of our test, we established the following objectives:

  • Gain insight into the requirements and capabilities of employing sea-based air in a maneuver environment-nonlinear, and rapidly changing-where decision making is pushed to the lowest levels.
  • Explore the capabilities air crews must possess when operating from a carrier, without traditional command-and-control, in a maneuver environment. Specifically, could air be more effective in a maneuver environment if tasked as a maneuver unit rather than a supporting unit?
  • Discover whether air crews can operate more effectively in a maneuver environment while operating with long-term mission orders, as opposed to doctrinal C 4 I.
  • Evaluate technologies that may be available to aid air crews in future maneuver warfare.

This last objective was unexpected. During the exercise, we communicated effectively with ground forces using the Newton Ericsson, a combination of the Apple Newton hand-held digital computer modified with a Global Positioning System (GPS) card and the Ericsson free-text burst-transmission radio. The communications net was a distributed information network similar to e-mail. It was not cockpit friendly, but it provided a peek into one technology that may enhance airground communications on a nonlinear battle field.

Our detachment of two T-34Cs was known as the Hunter Air detachment. We flew at altitudes ranging between 4,000 and 12,000 feet above ground level, operating during daylight hours under Visual Meteorological Conditions (VMC). The back seater primarily operated the Newton Ericsson. All key players had Newtons and could communicate with anyone else on the net. The positions of the Newtons also could be tracked on the battle map located in the Enhanced Combat Operations Center (ECOC). Employment of the Newton suggested ways that distributed information technologies can contribute to operations on a nonlinear battle field. Progress warrants additional experimentation in future exercises.

Hunter-warrior's initial phases demonstrated with renewed clarity that air provides a large portion of the battle picture. Friendly units were inserted into position by helicopter and simulated landing craft, air-cushion (LCACs). They moved on foot, and remained stationary for the most part, observing sensors that detected enemy movement through key terrain. Except for the insertion of the long-range contact patrols during the first day, and a Canadian reconnaissance vehicle, no friendly vehicles operated within the area during the first phase.

Air played a key role in painting the enemy ground order of battle during this phase. We often detected enemy movements at distances far greater than the ground units could, and the Newton Ericsson allowed us to transmit threat information to all subscribers on the net reversing the normal close air support equation where ground Marines detect targets and call in strikes. Hunter-Warrior pilots observed or attacked targets based on their close awareness of the ground mission, before the targets became problems or impediments to friendly ground movement. Often, the shadows cast by vehicles on the desert floor, regardless of type of camouflage used, were a dead giveaway to their location. But to detect the shadows, air crews maneuvered down sun of the threat, not an ideal situation when faced with an enemy armed with shoulder-fired missiles.

During the first phase, we flew missions traditionally associated with reconnaissance rather than with the Hunter concept, but these early sorties gave air crews and ground units an introduction to the experimental tactics. During this phase we experienced an incident of fratricide.

We learned several lessons:

  • First, it was not a result of over-zealous pilots anxious to kill something. A long-range contact patrol had spotted two light armored vehicles (LAVs) moving north into the battle space during daylight. The ECOC instructed the air crew to locate and destroy them. Unfortunately, the LAVs were friendly; the crews were on a self-initiated fix-a-flat-tire mission and did not tell anyone what they planned to do. Their presence in the battle space was unknown to all, including their commander, and therefore thought to be hostile.
  • Second, both pilots in the T-34C thought something was wrong: Why would two hostile LAVs operating alone, uncamouflaged, in the day, move at speeds generating huge dust clouds where no other enemy movement had been detected throughout the day?

The decision to allow air to kill the friendly LAVs occurred after all the friendly units were questioned concerning the whereabouts of all their vehicles.

Neither the flattened command-and-control nor the type of aerial fire support we were experimenting with caused the problem. More pilot initiative-not more centralized control-may have prevented the incident.

In the second phase of the exercise, the enemy advanced into the battle space with at least a company-sized unit. Naval surface fires and aircraft engaged most targets. We continued to fly traditional missions: strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR), supporting arms coordinator airborne (SAC[A]), and close air support (CAS) most of the time. Stationary enemy units were targeted by naval surface fires and mobile targets were targeted by the Hunter Air detachment and other conventional air elements (AV-BBs, AH-IWs). At the conclusion of phase II, the SPMAGTF(X) inserted a raid force consisting of an LAV company reinforced as the ground maneuver element, supported by Hunter Air flying as a maneuver element. This was the experiment we had been waiting for.

The ground force entered the area with the mission of finding and attacking the regimental command post, supply points and air-defense sites, and disrupting the enemy's rear areas. The raid commander intended to avoid engaging enemy mechanized formations by using speed and surprise. This raid tested some of our basic ideas about integrating a fast-moving ground force with air, tasked as an adjacent unit, to form a combined-arms team within a limited deep operational maneuver group.

The team began planning the evolution approximately 12 hours prior to its execution. The pilots were very familiar with the enemy order of battle because of the daily flight operations they conducted throughout the battle space. As a result, they were able to provide the most current intelligence on the enemy's posture and location during planning for the raid.

Battle damage assessments (BDAs) and situation reports passed over the radio and Newtons often left unanswered questions. We worked directly with the ground forces in face-to-face briefs where timely intelligence provided by the Hunter pilots helped to shape the raid plan. The usefulness of our intelligence was directly proportional to our experience in operating over ground forces and how well we identified enemy ground equipment and tactics. More important, the intelligence was not filtered through a number of echelons before it arrived to the users. In addition to participating in operational planning, we briefed our portion of the combined arms concept to the MAGTF commander, and then executed the mission.

This type of interactive planning and execution by the participants was unique in my experiences as both an artillery officer and pilot. This was not a ground scheme of maneuver supported by an Air Tasking Order, but a combined airground scheme of maneuver with mission objectives. We designed the plan, briefed it to the commander, and executed it. Not only did this interactive process prove to be very effective and flexible in this scenario, it served to bond the air ground team into a more cohesive fighting force, fully aware of each others' strengths and weaknesses. Most important to the concept of operations, the GME and Hunter pilots had the authority to alter the plan, based on the enemy's reaction and our understanding of commander's intent.

The SPMAGTF(X) air officer (an F/A18 pilot with the rank of major) took over as the battle watch captain (BWC) during the raid, and was the focal point within the ECOC, for fires coordination and mission execution. His primary responsibility was to maintain overall battle field situational awareness and to coordinate naval surface fires and informal airspace coordination areas (ACAs). All participants operated on the same frequency. The commanders war-gamed the plan to test possible friendly counters based on postulated enemy actions The ground maneuver commander (Marine lieutenant colonel), raid force commander (Marine captain), Hunter air lead (Navy commander), the BWC, and other SPMAGTF(X) staff members participated in the impromptu war game.

The most important aspect of this collaborative process was that the participants planned and executed it without using intermediaries. This built a cohesiveness among the participants that paid off throughout the evolution as we changed the plan according to commander's intent and the changing threat reaction.

The Hunter pilots reported the ground order of battle simultaneously to the raid force commander and the battle watch captain in the ECOC . The flattened command-and-control environment allowed aviators to assume initiative and enhanced the speed of information flow. Current doctrine does not allow this type of relationship to exist and as a result, air power is largely reactive.

The area of operations encompassed Gypsum Ridge, Quackenbush Lake, Emerson Lake, and Gays Pass at Twentynine Palms. A fire support coordination line (FSCL) encompassing the entire raid force area of operations gave the Hunter pilots freedom to engage enemy forces that threatened to slow down, envelop, or otherwise prevent the raid force from accomplishing its mission. Fires coordination (between Hunter air, raid force, and naval surface fires) within the FSCL were informally managed in real time over the radio between the ground commander, air commander and the BWC.

The raid force simulated landing from LCACs to enter the area of operations. Two T-34s simulated Hunter air. One aircraft operated at the boundaries of the AO, while the other, acting as the Hunter air commander, maintained visual contact with the raid force as it progressed along the route. The Hunter air commander passed updated enemy order of battle via the common task force frequency to the raid force commander and the battle watch captain as the raid force approached the simulated landing beach. As the enemy order of battle developed, fixed targets were passed on to the BWC who authorized naval surface fires.

When Hunter pilots sensed a changing order of battle, they recommended that the raiders take an alternate route. For example, when two tank platoons were detected along the primary route, they were engaged by simulated naval surface fires. A previously undetected third tank platoon was then spotted moving toward the west, threatening the raid force as it entered the enemy force's western flank. The Hunter pilots, on their own initiative, engaged the previously undetected tank platoon as it closed to within five kilometers of the raid force. Simultaneously, the Hunter air crew alerted the raid force to a possible enemy command post camouflaged in a wash south of Hidalgo Mountain, paralleling the raider's route.

As the raid force turned north and entered Quackenbush Lake, the Hunter air commander alerted it to an enemy supply point camouflaged along the eastern side of Hidalgo Mountain. At this time an enemy counter-mechanized platoon was spotted by the second Hunter aircraft, eight kilometers to the northeast moving southwest. The Hunter pilots monitoring the outer battle (enemy positions beyond five kilometers from the raid force), engaged the enemy counter-mech platoon while the raiders destroyed the enemy supply point. In this situation, the Hunter pilots did not ask permission to engage these targets even though they were within the FSCL.

As the raiders moved through northern Quackenbush, the second Hunter air crew spotted another tank platoon moving south. While engaging the tanks, the Hunter air commander directed the raiders to turn west toward Emerson Lake using an alternate route. As the raid force moved west, the Hunter commander directed it to engage an Avenger air-defense site spotted along the route. At this point, the raid force got separated from its antimechanized platoon. As the raiders destroyed the Avenger site, the antimech platoon drove through enemy positions and was isolated and destroyed. The Hunter air crews saw that the antimechanized platoon was about to enter an area with a sizable concentration of enemy forces, but were unable to turn it around. Direct communications with the platoon probably would have prevented this. The remainder of the raid force recovered and the mission ended.

The raid was a very limited exercise but it generated some observations that warrant further experimentation.

  • Reconnaissance pull in maneuver warfare: The most important observation is that Hunter air may direct the ground forces or vice versa, based on who has the greatest amount of situational awareness, without having to ask permission from the MAGTF commander. Hunter attacks and enemy reactions quickly opened and closed doors along the raid force route. As this happened, Hunter air pulled the raiders through the gaps. This is something new. Hunter Air is not just armed reconnaissance, nor is it CAS. It is an additional capability air power may bring to the high-tempo, maneuver-warfare battle field.
  • Face-to-face planning between participants speeded up the decision cycle and greatly enhanced the capability of the maneuver force to function as a single entity within the commander's intent.
  • The high-speed decision cycle and speed of execution seemed to flow from two preconditions: the participants who planned the event were responsible for executing it, and the designation of alternate commanders to take over if necessary. The speed of the event did not seem to allow for radio operators or intermediaries to be part of the process.
  • Effective fire support and quick decision cycles can be planned informally. When speed of movement is essential, time constraints probably will not allow for formal ACAs. The plan must be simple enough so all concerned know who is responsible for what targets. More important, they can react to the rapid movement of aircraft throughout the battle area so air doesn't slow down the effectiveness of the ground force. The Hunter air crews had the best situational awareness on the enemy's ground order of battle by the virtue of their vantage point and, as a result, coordinated much of the fire support from the air, working through the battle watch captain in the ECOC.
  • The speed of movement of the maneuver group did not allow the use of the Newton as previously described. It permitted the ECOC to observe the friendly and enemy movements as the battle progressed. Conventional communication was essential to the success of the maneuver force's high-speed decision cycle.
  • Hunter air could not have worked if it were scheduled via the slower decision cycle of the conventional Air Tasking Order (ATO) process. The desired assets and air crew would have to be put together and then held until the maneuver force was put to work.
  • Air scheduled by ATO is a supporting arm. If air is to function as part of a maneuver force, is must be treated as if it were an independent maneuver unit in the five paragraph order.
  • Hunter air functioned well with mission-type orders. The slower decision cycles implicit in doctrinal control measures used inside of the FSCL would be very difficult to employ in a fast changing battle such as the one described.
  • Air crews need more training in maneuver environment in order to be able to execute the multitude of missions in a complex and chaotic environment. On the high-speed battlefield, we cannot slow down our decision cycles and stop fighting while waiting for close air support aircraft to arrive.
  • Rarely can aviators train with a regimental-size unit. Force-on-force experiments such as Hunter-Warrior and free play combined-arms exercises are necessary to test this concept of air power employment.

My experience in Hunter-Warrior convinced me that we should press on toward the objectives stated in Admiral Spane's report. Although there is potential, our limited use of Hunter Air does leave many unanswered questions.

For example, can the concept of a ground maneuver force combined with a Hunter air unit work effectively when the command elements are separated by many miles? How do we structure our training and doctrine so that we increase the understanding and trust between key commanders in the field? What technologies can help the Hunter concept to speed up the observation-orientation-decision-action cycle for combined arms team? How can Hunter air provide the long-duration battle field presence required for this type of mission execution with modern fighter aircraft? (Our air crew situational awareness was artificially high because of the T-34s' long time on station. We could not have maintained that level if we had been required to cycle on and off a tanker).

Hunter Warrior had its limitations, but the most enduring lesson I learned is the overwhelming importance of operational experimentation. We uncovered questions that theoretical analyses on a clean sheet of paper could not have revealed. Naval forces are in a period of strategic reorientation from a global war at sea to a regional one in the littorals. I believe operational experiments like Hunter Warrior, like earlier ones at Culebra in the 1930s, are the best way to prepare our armed forces for the 21 st century.



Conferences and Events

WEST 2017

Tue, 2017-02-21 - Thu, 2017-02-23

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Tuesday, 21 February - Thursday, 23 February 2017 Co-Sponsored by AFCEA International and the U.S. Naval Institute. Registration...

View All

From the Press

Guest Speaker & Book Signing

Tue, 2016-12-13

Guest Lecturer

Tue, 2016-12-13 - Sun, 2016-11-13

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership