Fleet replacement detachments, Blackjacks and Minotaur

UNITED STATES

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Sporting colours replicating those used by Russia on its latest Su-30SM Flanker H and Su-35S Flanker E fighters, F/A-18B Hornet BuNo 161924/AF12 seen in the low-fly network of southern California. The aircraft is assigned to Fighter Composite Squadron 12 (VFC-12) ‘Fighting Omars’, a reserve unit based at Naval Air Station Oceana, Virginia. Dan Stijovich

THE US Marine Corps plans to deactivate two of its fleet replacement squadrons (FRSs) as the types of aircraft they support decline in numbers. Instead, the service will stand up fleet replacement detachments (FRDs) run by operational squadrons to carry on replacement training until the legacy aircraft are retired, according to the 2018 Marine Corps Aviation Plan.

Although the AV-8B Harrier II attack aircraft is scheduled to remain in service until 2026, an AV-8B FRD will stand up in 2022, run by Marine Attack Squadron 231 (VMA-231) ‘Bulldogs’, an operational Harrier squadron based at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, North Carolina. That year, the Harrier FRS, Marine Attack Training Squadron 203 (VMAT-203) ‘Hawks’, will be deactivated. The VMA-231 FRD is planned to train Harrier crews for five years.

Similarly, the Marine Corps’ F/A-18 Hornet FRS, Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101 (VMFAT-101) ‘Sharpshooters’ based at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, will be deactivated in 2023. Its replacement training mission for remaining Hornet crews will be assumed in 2024 by an FRD assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 (VMFA-323) ‘Death Rattlers’, also at Miramar. The FRD is expected to train Hornet crews for six years.

The plan to phase out training for CH-53E Super Stallion heavy helicopter will be more complex.

The CH-53E FRS, Marine Heavy Helicopter Training Squadron 302 (HMHT-302) ‘Phoenix’ based at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, will begin to shift training in the CH-53K King Stallion in 2020, and by 2022 will have divested its CH-53Es. An operational CH-53E squadron,

Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 (HMH-466) ‘Wolfpack’ based at Miramar, will be redesignated Heavy Helicopter Training Squadron 466 (HMHT-466) in 2021, and become the FRS for the remaining CH-53E units.

In 2028, HMHT-466 will shed its FRS role and return to being HMH-466 as an operational CH- 53K squadron. That year, reserve squadron HMH-769 will begin to provide refresher training in the CH- 53E through to 2029. Fleet transition to the CH-53K is scheduled to be completed by 2032.

Shadow retirement, Blackjack deliveries complete

The US Marine Corps will retire its last RQ-7B Shadow UAVs by the end of FY2019 as it completes the transition of its UAV squadrons to the RQ-21A Blackjack, according to the 2018 Marine Corps Aviation Plan.

The RQ-7B, a surveillance UAV built by Textron, can be rail launched, but requires a short runway to land. The RQ-21A, built by Insitu, is launched from a rail assembly and recovered by a skyhook, greatly reducing the footprint of its land-support requirements and enabling it to be launched and recovered by a ship.

The force of four Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadrons (VMUs) is about halfway through transition to the Blackjack. VMU ‘Night Owls’ (VMU-2) based at Cherry Point led the way and has deployed detachments with Marine Expeditionary Units.

The squadron reached initial operational capability with the RQ- 21 in January 2016 and has since achieved full operational capability.

VMU-1, based at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, is scheduled to reach full operational capability in FY2018, while VMU-3, based at Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, will reach initial operational capability with the RQ-21A in FY2018. Assigned to the Marine Reserve 4th Marine Aircraft Wing, VMU-4 is scheduled to receive its first RQ-21As in FY2019, the year the last Shadows will be transferred to the US Army: the RQ-7 Shadow replaced the RQ-2 Pioneer, the Marine Corps’ first widely used operational UAV, in 2007.

The US Marine Corps also plans to activate an RQ-21A FRD at Cherry Point in 2019 to train operators for the RQ-21A.

Last US Navy Hornet deployment?

Deployment of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70), with Carrier Air Wing 17 (CVW-17) embarked, began in January 2018, and may become the last deployment of a US Navy F/A- 18C Hornet squadron.

CVW-17 includes Strike Fighter Squadron 34 (VFA 34) ‘Blue Blasters’, until recently one of only four VFAs that still flew the legacy Hornet rather than the newer Super Hornet.

The number of legacy squadrons is rapidly dwindling; VFA-131 ‘Wildcats’ is in transition to the F/A-18E, and VFA-37 ‘Raging Bulls’ and VFA-83 ‘Rampagers’ are reportedly slated for transition to the Super Hornet before their next deployments.

Even if VFA-34 ends up as the last US Navy F/A-18C Hornet squadron to deploy, the US Marine Corps is expected to continue deploying two legacy Hornet-equipped Marine Fighter Attack Squadrons with carrier air wings for another few years under the Tactical Air Integration Plan.

Minotaur

On January 31, L3 Technologies announced it had delivered the first production HC-130J fitted with a long-range surveillance dubbed the Minotaur Mission System Suite to the US Coast Guard.

L3 upgraded the aircraft with the government-furnished Minotaur system jointly developed by the US Coast Guard and US Navy at its Waco, Texas facility. Full system integration of two additional HC-130Js and will retrofit four more. L3’s contract includes an option to configure five additional aircraft.