Prior to attending the United States Marine Corps’ prestigious Weapons and Tactics Instructor (WTI) course, each prospective student will successfully complete many prerequisite certifications, examples of which are: section leader, division leader, mission commander, night-systems instructor, low-altitude tactics instructor, forward air controller airborne instructor, or air combat tactics instructor. Those prereqs are met while serving at operational commands in their assigned platform.

There are over twenty-five courses or certifications which vary by aviation community, and in many cases, MAWTS-1 is the certifying authority for the prerequisite courses and certifications. The pilot training squadrons, such as VMFAT-101 (Hornet), VMAT-203 (Harrier), HMHT-302 (CH-53) and HMLAT-303(AH/UH-1) are considered entry level pilot training.

Fleet units provide a training progression where aircrew build their experience base and achieve WTI-prerequisite certifications. An individual who excels through those prerequisites within his or her squadron may be ready for the next level – becoming a United States Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructor.

A Marine Hornet from VMFA-251 lands, carrying an AGM_88 HARM.
A Marine Hornet from VMFA-251 lands, carrying an AGM_88 HARM.

“Our job is to train a Weapons and Tactics Instructor. This is an individual who is very experienced and has already achieved a lot,” said Colonel Bradford Gering. “They have advanced qualifications and designations that are part of their career progression, and we continue to develop them as subject matter experts in their particular profession. We develop them as tacticians, instructors and planners and integrators of everything that Marine aviation is able to do for the MAGTF and the Joint Force. After graduation, they go back and train their units. What we do here is essentially train-the-trainer. WTI is literally the pinnacle qualification.”

Major Brett ‘Nilla’ McGregor is an instructor pilot and the Assistant Operations Officer at MAWTS-1.   His Marine Corps career covers 11 years and over 1800 flight hours in the AV-8B Harrier.  His achievements prior to earning a role at MAWTS-1 included two tours with Marine Attack Squadron 211 (VMA-211) and a 3-year exchange tour flying the Harrier GR9 with the Royal Air Force, which included multiple deployments to Afghanistan.

An assignment to MAWTS-1 is usually a three-year tour and Major McGregor joined the command almost two years ago.

“My first year was in the Harrier shop doing Harrier-specific instruction,” McGregor explained. “I’m finishing my second year as the assistant operations officer for MAWTS-1.  As the assistant operations officer, I am the action officer for many WTI-related matters.  I run the planning conference and manage the day-to-day operations.  This coming year, I will take over as the Tac Air department head where I will have oversight for all of the fixed-wing aircraft at MAWTS.”

WTI: Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course

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AH-1 Grad Photo - WTI 1-14 - Curt Jans
MAWTS-1 Combat Camera documents much of each WTI exercise and is responsible for graduation photos. Pictured here is the AH-1 class from WTI 1-14.

He spoke about the instructor role and instructor selection, “MAWTS-1 is a tremendous responsibility, and I am very self-critical.  We are training the trainer.  That means I am not just impacting the person I’m instructing or evaluating but also all the others that they will go on to train.”  Almost all of the instructors have been through WTI as a student, including Major McGregor.

To become a WTI instructor, the first step is to get through the WTI course, then go back to the unit and have a successful tour as a training officer or as a WTI at an operational command. Once a person has demonstrated that, there is generally a hand-selection process done by their peers or unit instructors who evaluate MAWTS-1 instructor candidates. Final selection is made by the commanding officer of MAWTS-1.

At MAWTS-1, when WTI is not underway, the “train-the-trainer” mindset extends throughout the year.  The majority of the time, approximately two weeks out of every month, is spent on fleet support training which requires extensive travel and delivers the building block approach for training of potential WTI students.

USMC FA-18C 164881 (VMFA-251 AB-400) (LF7) [NYL           11Apr2013] - Curt Jans
F/A-18C Hornets from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 (VMFA-251) await the next WTI mission in the south cala.
“We also conduct other courses such as Commanders Course,” said Major McGregor. “We run this course once per year for prospective commanders or commanders who are about to take over aviation squadrons to give them the latest MAWTS-1 perspective on emerging tactics and the global situation.”

Between each WTI course, the syllabus is frequently updated.  MAWTS-1 is always looking to improve the course and to integrate new platforms.  For WTI 2-13, the class incorporated the AH-1 Zulu, the newest version of the Cobra, for the first time.  Looking forward, the instructor cadre is working to integrate F-35.

Upon completion of a three-year tour, a WTI instructor will often go to a staff assignment to broaden themselves and their skills beyond aviation, or they may be lucky enough to earn a commanding officer assignment of another aviation unit.

USMC AV-8B+ 165397 (VMA-311 WL-00) (LF10) [NYL 19Oct2012]           - Curt Jans
A Harrier with VMA-311 “Tomcats” taxis from the south cala at MCAS Yuma to start a WTI mission.
NEO and HADR Exercises

As part of Assault Support Tactics 3, a course within the WTI curriculum, each WTI course previously included a Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) exercise.  The NEO exercise simulated air and ground evacuation of civilian or diplomatic personnel at a fixed location such as an embassy.  The intent of the NEO exercise was to provide WTI students with realistic, urban-environment training specific to an actual real-world mission.  The relevance of this training was reflected in the fact that sixteen NEO’s have been conducted at international locations over the past sixty years.  The most recent NEO occurred in Lebanon during 2006.

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At WTI, the NEO was actually a dual-site exercise.  The long-range part of the exercise used the Yuma Range Complex and Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center (MCAGCC) Twentynine Palms in California.  The short-range segment was conducted within the city of Yuma, Arizona.  Working with the citizens and civic leaders of Yuma and other communities, MAWTS-1 conducted the exercise at multiple public locations, but for the past few years, the primary location has been Kiwanis Park in Yuma.  The main phases of the NEO exercise included: insertion of an airborne security force to establish a perimeter, establishment of an evacuation control center, the deployment of a Quick Reaction Force (QRF) convoy, and the extraction of evacuees, the control center and the security force.  The QRF convoy was typically sent to a separate location to simulate recovery of isolated evacuees.

USMC MV-22B Ramp (2) [NYL 18Oct2012] - Curt Jans
As successor to the CH-46 Sea Knight, the MV-22B Osprey now dominates the MCAS Yuma north ramp during WTI.
During WTI 2-13 in April 2013, MAWTS-1 introduced a new twist to this urban aviation exercise – the Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise.  Colonel Gering explained the value of the NEO/HADR exercise and the different elements of the HADR.

“Both exercises provide the students with a really unique opportunity to fly in a real, urban environment.  This can’t be duplicated with this level of fidelity in range space.  The air flow and the training for the aircrew look very similar to the NEO.”

With the HADR exercise, “The ground forces are getting a different type of training – focused on a mission where they are providing relief supplies, such as food and water, to an area that cannot sustain a mass migration of people.  We did this to enhance the training of the battalion that participates in WTI – to let them train to yet another real-world mission.  These missions are often dictated by nature – flooding, storms, natural disasters.  Marine Expeditionary Units, mobile and deployed throughout the world, are particularly well-suited to this type of mission.”

USMC KC-130J 167108 (VMGR-252 BH-108) (RF4) [NYL           12Apr2013] - Curt Jans
A large-force evolution during FINEX weekend typically begins with the launch of KC-130J’s.
Well-known and large-scale HADR missions include the multinational response to the Indonesian earthquake and tsunami of 2004 and the Japan tsunami of 2011.  Another recent Marine Corps HADR mission occurred during November, 2013 in the Philippines.  Elements of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing and the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Brigade were among the first to arrive in the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan devastated parts of 36 provinces.  Marine Corps relief efforts were focused primarily in Leyte Province and included surface and airborne maritime search and rescue, airlift support, distribution of relief supplies and logistics support.

Participants in the exercise at WTI always include Marine Corps aviation, Marine Corps ground forces, and representatives of the US Department of State (NEO only).  A typical HADR/NEO exercise includes assorted aviation assets: CH-53s for assault, transport and extract, UH-1s for close air support, an F/A-18 as a Tactical Air Coordinator – Airborne (TAC-A), a KC-130 for refueling, and one O-2A acting as a surrogate UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems are restricted from the airspace over the city).  MV-22B Osprey operations are conducted at Twentynine Palms with TAC-A support typically provided by AV-8B Harriers and F/A-18 Hornets.

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In the next installment, we’ll look to the future of WTI and the changes in store as the face of warfare changes. Coming soon!!