Steel Knight 23: MAG-39 Came to Play
21 Dec 2022

Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 39 combined with the rest of 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), 1st Marine Division, 1st Marine Logistics Group and Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG) 3 during exercise Steel Knight 23 to refine naval integration across southern California and off the coast of San Diego. MAG-39’s unique mix of light attack and utility squadrons, medium tiltrotor squadrons and an aviation logistics squadron allows the group to fulfill all six functions of Marine Aviation in support of the Marine Air Ground Task Force and fleet maneuver.

As part of this naval integration, elements of Marine Light Attack and Utility Squadron (HMLA) 369 and Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 364 embarked USS Tripoli (LHA 7), flying offensive air support missions to interdict maritime targets in support of I Marine Expeditionary Force (I MEF) and ESG-3, tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel (TRAP) missions in support of the aviation combat element, and close air support and assault support missions in support of 1st Marine Division.

From USS Tripoli, the Gunfighters of HMLA-369 demonstrated their ability to conduct air interdiction of small maritime targets, employing the AGM-179 Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM) to successfully destroy a moving target at sea. In addition to being able to engage and destroy small boats with laser-guided rockets and 20mm cannon from their AH-1Z Vipers and with laser-guided rockets and machine guns from their UH-1Y Venoms, MAG-39 AH-1Zs can use the JAGM to conduct precision targeting of small- and medium-sized maritime targets from up to 8 kilometers away, giving the supported commander a powerful new tool to use in a contested maritime space.

“The JAGM brings the lethality of the AH-1Z in the maritime environment to another level,” said Maj. Michael Harper, HMLA-369 detachment officer in charge.  “It is a very smart missile with a multi-mode seeker and several different fusing options, which means more flexibility in dealing with different types of targets, terrain, and countermeasures; increased accuracy; and reduced pilot workload against small targets in the water.  What we did during Steel Knight is just more proof of that.”

HMLA-369 also conducted flight operations aboard USS Jackson (LCS 6), demonstrating the ability to land multiple aircraft on Independence-variant littoral combat ships as ‘lily pads’ to extend their operational range and to integrate with U.S. Navy manned and unmanned aircraft.

North and west of the USS Tripoli MAG-39 detachment, VMM-164 and HMLA-169 provided direct support to 1st Marine Regiment, flying numerous assault support and close air support missions out of Fort Hunter Liggett, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, and Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton. Flying missions in support of 1st Marine Division is second nature to MAG-39; as the only Marine Aircraft Group that is co-located on a Marine Corps Camp, the pilots and air crew of MAG-39 work with their ground-side peers daily. Each squadron at MAG-39 has a battalion logo from 1st Marine Division painted on one of their aircraft, meant to display the special relationship forged through shared battlefields over the years.

"This is another great opportunity for us to reinforce relationships and hone our skills at fighting alongside Blue Diamond (1st Marine Division), the rest of 3rd MAW, I MEF, and our Navy brothers and sisters with ESG-3,” said Col. Nathan Marvel, Commanding Officer of Marine Aircraft Group 39. "Naval integration is nothing new for Marine aviation, this is just us building out warfighting skills for the next fight. A big part of what MAG-39 is doing at Steel Knight is refining how we conduct sea control and sea denial in support of I MEF and ESG-3 maneuver.

One key consideration for MAG-39 is the kind of battlefield they are preparing to fly, fight and win on. The maritime battlefield presents new challenges, and that is something that MAG-39 and the rest of 3rd MAW is preparing for.

“For the MAG-39 squadrons, fighting a near-peer maritime force does not come without challenges,” Marvel continued.  “We have demonstrated new missions, tactics, weapons and capabilities to effectively find, fix, track, identify and target maritime networks during competition and conflict.  The maritime terrain will be contested.  Being ready to contribute directly to that fight includes MAG-39 trained and prepared to provide expeditionary support to Anti-Submarine Warfare, Maritime Offensive Air Support, Aviation Logistic Support and Reconnaissance / Counter-Reconnaissance. You add proxy maritime militias and hybrid warfare into the mix and the fight becomes very complex and uncertain.  The utility and ubiquity of Marine aviation is a warfighting multiplier in that fight.  We did it daily in Helmand and Al Anbar.  We can hunt them, and we can kill them.  Concurrently we are continuing to build out capability in survivability, interoperability and lethality.  We have recently added Link 16, Joint Air-to-Ground Missile, and Intrepid Tiger II to name a few new capabilities. All of this will contribute to the fight in the littorals; it enables distributed, survivable, sustainable and lethal sorties by MAG-39 squadrons.”

While the AH-1Z Vipers, UH-1Y Venoms and MV-22B Ospreys of MAG-39 field impressive technology, the real strength remains the Marines and Sailors.

“At the end of the day, our real strength is in the Marines,” Marvel said.  “They are the blue-collar warrior class of aviation.  I couldn't be prouder of everything they've done these past couple of weeks and what they will continue to do in the future fight."

MAG-39 provides combat-ready naval expeditionary forces whenever and wherever needed. MAG-39 and 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing remain combat-ready, deployable on short notice, and lethal when called into action. Steel Knight is an annual combined-arms live-fire exercise led by the 1st Marine Division that ensures I MEF and ESG-3 are optimized for naval expeditionary warfare in any contested maritime space.