Captain Jason “Strap” Schulze has been an AV-8B Harrier pilot for four years. He flies with Marine Attack Squadron 223 (VMA-223) based at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina, and he is the Pilot Training Officer – responsible to train the junior pilots in the squadron. A student at WTI 2-13, he described his selection for the course and the experience of working through the syllabus.
“The command selected some of my peers and I to attend WTI based on timing, current experience, qualifications and the course schedule,” he recalls. “I was really excited and nervous as well. I expected an extremely challenging, demanding environment, and it was a very educational experience. I expected a greater level of integration with Marine Corps aviation assets that we don’t necessarily get exposure to on a frequent basis.”
At Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, the Harriers integrate with EA-6B Prowlers and a HMLA [Marine Light Attack Helicopter] squadron, but the training is not integrated anywhere near to the level it is at WTI.
The planning and the exposure to the bigger picture and understanding the capabilities of integration at the USMC’s Weapons and Tactics Instructor course is simply something Marine Corps pilots don’t see on a regular basis, and that experience is what graduates take back to benefit their respective squadrons. A further benefit of WTI is the ability to meet other Marines who are training officers in their squadrons, which opens doors to greater levels of integration between airframes and the ability to exchange ideas and tactics with one’s peers.
Within the Hornet community during the flight phase, WTI students fly every other day, with the non-fly days consumed by mission planning. The flying sequence at WTI begins with specific evolutions, then progresses to common evolutions and finally to generic evolutions. Actual evolutions are frequently updated or changed in order to better represent current global threats and scenarios, but in general, a Hornet driver at WTI will typically start the flying phase with an airfield strike and low altitude tactics stan check.
Next comes Close Air Support (CAS) missions, day and night, with the student acting as a Forward Air Controller – Airborne (FAC-A), and also working with ground-based FACs or Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs). Successive CAS missions become more complex, integrating with other platforms such as AV-8 Harriers, AH-1 Cobras and UH-1 Hueys. Students also must contend with simulated enemy air defenses which, on the range, may include SAM batteries such as the SA-6 or SA-8.
After CAS comes armed reconnaissance, which is often a mission to seek and destroy SAM batteries and SCUD missile mobile launchers. Then Offensive Anti-Air Warfare (OAAW), and Offensive Air Support – each at day and at night. Finally, at the end of the last week is FINEX, the ultimate generic evolution.
The Hornet WTI completes multiple sorties including CAS, Defensive Counter Air, escort missions and strike missions attacking large, complex targets as part of a large force package which includes aerial refuel, tactical electronic warfare (EA-6B Prowlers or other ECM platforms), and strike from fixed-wing and rotary wing assets. Completing each mission successfully is never guaranteed, and additional complexity, both simulated and actual, occurs with aircraft maintenance issues, mission timing and mission priority changes.
The focus of MAWTS-1 and the WTI course will continue to be supporting the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) by creating subject matter experts in Marine Corps aviation weapons and tactics – creating the best-of-the-best, the trainers who train within the fleet squadrons. Every student and instructor confirms the intensity level is very high. Think of it as an entire semester of graduate school crammed into seven weeks.
The future will bring integration of new technology and new aircraft, namely the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The JSF training and readiness program is being worked with the Fleet Replacement Squadron (VMFAT-501) and Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121), the first operational F-35B squadron. Of course, the WTI program for the F-35 will continue to be developed after the JSF comes online later this year.
In addition, the ongoing relocation of the Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) squadron (VMX-22) for the MV-22 Osprey to MCAS Yuma is expected to drive synergy and benefits since VMX-22 will be next door to MAWTS-1, the squadron responsible for MV-22 tactics. The colocation at MCAS Yuma is expected to be mutually supportive and will surely drive enhancements and additions to the WTI syllabi.
The WTI course is certainly one of the most comprehensive advanced-level courses in military aviation. The team at MAWTS-1 has earned the squadron’s reputation as the supreme source of Marine aviation tactics, and this is reflected in the performance of WTI graduates. MAWTS-1 has also earned multiple awards and citations including the Meritorious Unit Citation, the Navy Unit Citation and Squadron of the Year from the Marine Corps Aviation Association.
The author wishes to thank the following Marines for their time and outstanding support for this article: Colonel Bradford Gering, Major Brett McGregor, Major J Dale, Captain Staci Reidinger, Captain Jason Schulze, 1st Lieutenant Kathryn Whichard, Corporal William Waterstreet and Corporal Zachary Scanlon.