CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan --
On the morning of June 1, the United States Marine Corps’ 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward) and United Kingdom’s Joint Aviation Group integrated under one command. Brig. Gen. Andrew W. O’Donnell Jr., the 3rd MAW (Fwd) commanding general, led a historical flag raising ceremony with his British counterpart, Group Capt. Nick Laird, the JAG commander.
Since then, the two forces have been operating in unison under O’Donnell’s authority, as the sole aviation combat element of Regional Command (Southwest) – the command responsible for operations in Helmand and Nimroz provinces. They have completely pooled their resources and manpower in order to support the missions across one of the most dangerous and influential regions in Afghanistan.
“As two separate organizations, we both have strengths,” said Laird, “but combined we have exceptional agility to react to a very determined enemy and insurgent campaign.”
The JAG brought more than 30 rotary-wing aircraft to 3rd MAW (Fwd)’s collection of aviation platforms. Both forces now contribute everything from light attack helicopters to cargo and troop transport aircraft in order to support the Afghan National Security Forces and coalition service members throughout the province.
“We have the additional resources to support the ground forces in a far more comprehensive way than we previously had in this part of the country” said Laird, who has been deployed to Afghanistan several times over the years. “I think with the number of aircraft we bring to the table, and the number of aircraft [the U.S.] brings to the table, we get synergies and efficiencies. I strive for what is intelligent tasking – making the best use of our aircraft. Basically, ‘sweating the metal’— ensuring we don’t have empty helicopters flying around the battle space. That’s working very well and we’re seeing efficiencies on a daily basis.”
Under the new unified leadership, the larger aviation combat element has taken advantage of economies of scale across multiple mission sets. The U.S. and U.K. aviation forces are simultaneously pounding the enemy with firepower from attack aircraft, while replenishing supplies and sustainment to ground troops. Perhaps even more importantly, the integrated air wing directly affects counterinsurgency efforts by moving Afghan government officials across the battle space, linking the country’s people with their governing leaders. Together they coordinate a wide range of supporting efforts - from agricultural and school supplies to reconstruction and development materials. Later this month, U.S. Marines, their U.K. partners and Afghan National Security Forces will plan and coordinate air support for the national elections.
Afghanistan’s scorching temperatures in the south and mountainous terrain in the north make flying these combat missions enormously complicated. One would think that adding new aircraft and different aviation terms would create even more complex problems for the two commands. But the U.S. and U.K. forces quickly synced together and made the transition flawless.
“I’m awestruck by the professionalism and dedication on both sides of the Atlantic, down to the most junior enlisted,” said Gen. O’Donnell. “It really makes you feel good when you see people as dedicated to the mission all the way through the ranks.”
The ranks are seamless, according to the general. “We are totally integrated. Here at the operational level as a Wing headquarters, we have more than a dozen staff officers who work inside of, and are incorporated with, the wing. It’s very important to note that these British members of our team are not liaison officers – they are action officers. They are staff officers who work side by side with the 3rd MAW staff.”
U.S. and U.K. planners on staff with 3rd MAW (Fwd) have already coordinated more than a dozen named operations since the integration. One of the most publicized was Operation Tor Shezada, or Black Prince, in which U.S. CH-53E “Super Stallions” with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 466 inserted more than 100 U.K. ground forces into the Nad-e Ali area, where they partnered with ANSF and U.S. Marines to clear the area of the Taliban threat. Another more complex mission, Operation Big Iron, involved several U.S. and U.K. aircraft teaming up to transport everything from troops and cargo to howitzers and humvees into the mountainous Kajaki Dam area. Months after the initial troops and supplies were airlifted into the area, U.K. and U.S. Marine aviators are still providing logistical and fire support to their ground brethren operating at Kajaki. The successful execution of Operation Big Iron stands as a testament to the combined accomplishment of the two aviation units’ planning and dedication to the overall mission.
“Our communication is phenomenal,” said U.K. Maj. Dan McBride, an operations and future planning officer with 3rd MAW (Fwd), adding that the U.S. and U.K. personnel thrive on the close relationship they’ve built. “We work in close quarters, and sharing a sense of humor and banter helps build that trust and improve communication – it creates a synergy.”
U.S. Marine Maj. John Jaeski, a 3rd MAW (Fwd) planner who works with McBride, said the Marines appreciate the friendship, and the benefits will reciprocate for years to come.
“Coming here and working with the British means that, in 15 years or so, when today’s officers become tomorrow’s generals, the relationship between the U.S. and U.K. will be that much stronger because we have a better understanding of how we work and appreciation for each other,” he said.
The services are learning from each other in all sorts of ways. In late June, the U.S. Marines tested a new capability to drop emergency supplies of water and ammunition to troops without having to land and put the aircraft in danger. They used low-cost, low-altitude parachutes to float bundles of water to the ground, testing methods of keeping the cargo safe and delivering on target.
By early August, the JAG was using the lessons learned from the U.S. tests to experiment with the concept using its CH-47 Chinook.
“This theater really creates an appropriate environment for [aerial delivery] because of the restricted [ground] movement,” said McBride. “We started looking at what the U.S. was doing and found it was working well, so we took that concept and built on it.”
McBride added that the U.K. is hoping to share information as well, as they try to bring in aviation tactics and weapons instructors to work with the American pilots.
Outside of the headquarters, it’s now common to see U.K. personnel on U.S. aircraft; U.K. medical aircraft and teams racing in to rescue troops, regardless of nationality; and U.S. and U.K. aircraft teaming up on missions as escort, overwatch, close air support, or troop and cargo transport. With the exception of the different colors in their uniforms and helicopters, it’s difficult to tell these teammates apart. This partnership can really only be truly described as “one team, one fight.”
“The relationship between the U.S. Marine Corps and U.K. aviation is a very long and illustrious one,” Laird said with a proud smile as he sat back in his chair staring off into the hallway where images of U.S. and U.K. aircraft adorn the walls. “That relationship is forged through blood and sacrifice over almost 100 years and has never been stronger than it is right now.” The unquestionable competency of both national forces can be seen on a daily basis through consistent success on the battlefield.