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Eight U.S. Marine Corps AH-1Z Vipers with Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 369, Marine Aircraft Group (MAG) 39, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (MAW), take flight to participate in exercise Viper Storm at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, Calif., Dec.11, 2019. The AH-1Z Viper gives MAG-39, the Marine expeditionary force and the joint force the ability to deter potential adversaries and provide combat-ready units the capability to engage from the sea and over long distances against a near-peer threat. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Victor Mackson)

Photo by Pfc. Victor Mackson

Vipers Storm the Sky – Marine Attack Helicopters Demonstrate Naval Capabilities

19 Dec 2019 | 1stLt. Zach Bodner 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing

In a powerful demonstration of aviation lethality, 12 AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters proved their worth during a complex training event that combined sea based principles with expeditionary operations and live-fire engagements. The exercise, known as Viper Storm, took place in Southern Calif. Dec 11, 2019. The attack helicopters flew from two separate locations – one on the coast and one inland - and struck simulated enemy targets representing peer and near peer threats capable of denying naval and joint forces the freedom of navigation essential to maritime control and enhancing operational-level flexibility.

Beginning at Marine Corps Air Station Camp Pendleton, 8 Vipers took to the sea to hunt for maritime threats that could negatively impact simulated sea lanes. After being passed new targeting information they rerouted to link up with 4 additional Vipers and engage multiple land targets before rehearsing rearming at an expeditionary forward arming and refueling point. Once rearmed they again took to the sky to engage targets and support follow-on ground operations.

“Viper Storm was an opportunity to validate the modern maritime capabilities of the AH-1Z Viper to joint commanders within the Department of Defense, United States partners and allies, and potential peer adversaries,” said Col. William Bartolomea, commanding officer, MAG-39. “We were highlighting the maritime component of the Viper, the ability to go from ship-to-shore in a large element and address peer threats.”

Bartolomea’s comments underscore a shift in the Marine Corps’ focus back to the maritime domain. Gen. David H. Gen. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, released guidance earlier this year directing the Marine Corps be trained and equipped as a naval expeditionary force-in-readiness and prepared to operate inside actively contested maritime spaces in support of fleet operations. Viper Storm showcased the AH-1Z’s vital role in supporting Gen. Berger’s directions.

In the fall of 2017, U.S. Pacific Fleet defined sea control as total control of the seas for the free movement of all. It means control of air, surface, and subsurface areas, when and where needed. Sea control is crucial to national strategy and allows the Navy to use the oceans as barriers for defense and as avenues to extend influence and assistance where needed.

The exercise was designed to showcase the AH-1Z Viper’s capabilities and how the aircraft could operate symbiotically and in support of the Navy, flying from the sea and striking simulated threats that the Navy and joint force is likely to face.  In the week leading up to the exercise, Gen. Berger published an editorial in “War on the Rocks,” which stated “for the first time in a generation, sea control is no longer the unquestioned prerogative of the United States.”  Viper Storm demonstrated that the AH-1Z Viper is a uniquely qualified platform capable of enhancing sea control.

These exercises are essential for MAG-39 to maintain readiness and training standards. The 12 Vipers employed AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, emphasizing the versatility the Viper provides. With larger stub wings than its AH-1W Super Cobra predecessor, the Viper can carry a combination of up to 2 Sidewinders, 16 Joint Air-to-Ground Missiles (JAGM) or Hellfires, auxiliary fuel tanks, and up to 76 rockets with various fusing options, including the newest Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) LASER-guided rockets. This allows the platform to be tailored to any mission whether it be sea, land, or air related.  

The AH-1Z Viper is more lethal and survivable than its predecessor in large part because of the modernized ordnance, sensory, and communication equipment. For example, it can carry the JAGM, which will replace the Hellfire missile. The JAGM is a multi-sensor, aviation-launched, precision-guided munition for use against high-value land and naval targets. It provides precision point and fire-and-forget targeting day or night, regardless of weather.

The AH-1Z’s glass cockpit provides pilots with superior situational awareness and the upgraded Target Sight System has an incredible range that enables the Viper to detect and engage targets from distances not previously possible for Marine attack helicopters. Modern technology enables the Viper to cue naval and joint kill-chains, which is a capability Gen. Berger stated was important to complicate an adversary’s decision making calculus.  It is because of those technological advancements that Bartolomea, who grew up listening to stories of Cobra missions from his father, stated, “The Viper is not your dad’s Cobra.”

Viper Storm also focused on expeditionary operations to include its ability to refuel and rearm from a temporary location and then conduct assaults deeper inland.   The Chief of Naval operations directed the Navy and Marine Corps to master operational concepts in support of fleet-level warfare.  The intent is to provide fleet commanders the option of persistently posturing naval expeditionary forces forward in key areas as a complement to the seagoing elements of the fleet.  Viper Storm demonstrated this capability and showed that MAG-39 can conduct distributed operations in austere environments in support of maritime and joint objectives.

“Posturing Vipers forward is what the aircraft was made to do,” said Bartolomea. “We are an attack helicopter, killing enemy forces is what we do for a living. We don’t provide a whole lot of value on the ground unless we are refueling, rearming, and getting back to the air to engage the enemy or facilitate other joint weapons platforms and systems.”

Viper Storm would not have been possible without the diligent efforts of the Marines and Sailors of MAG-39 who “Fix, Fly, and Fight” the AH-1Z every day. It is thanks to their efforts that MAG-39 was seamlessly able to conduct this large-scale strike with AH-1Z Vipers and continues to stand ready to support Marine, naval expeditionary, and joint forces across the globe.

In conducting strikes from the sea and temporary bases inside a simulated peer adversary’s threat ring, MAG-39 demonstrated their commitment to remaining ready to enhance sea control and remain at the forefront of Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations development. As the Marine Corps shifts its focus from land-locked wars to rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, MAG-39 will continue to train its “Marines and Machines” to fight and win, from the sea.  Bartolomea summed up the event, “We demonstrated the unique 21st Century capabilities of the AH-1Z Viper from a maritime environment.  As we continue to adapt to near-peer threats in accordance with the National Defense Strategy and the Commandant’s Planning Guidance, we are focused on modernizing the digital interoperability, survivability, and lethality of the ‘Z’.  These improvements will help to maintain the operational viability of the Viper in support of naval and joint forces beyond 2030.”

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