MARINE CORPS AIR STATION YUMA, Ariz. --
Marine Aircraft Group 13, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, conducted its monthly iteration of the Fifth Generation Friday training series, here, Sept. 8, 2023. Fifth Gen. Friday is a standardized training exercise unique to MAG-13, which provides F-35B Lightning II pilots real-world exposure to fighting and training against potential peer adversarial platforms.
MAGs haven’t historically run large-scale 5th Gen. versus 5th Gen. aircraft exercises like this. Exercises of this nature are typically executed at specialty schools like Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course (WTI) or TOPGUN, or during Air Force-hosted training like Red Flag -- a two-week advanced aerial combat training exercise. All four MAG-13 F-35B Lightning squadrons, Maring Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 122, VMFA-211, VMFA-214, and VMFA-225, participate in the monthly event.
The first iteration of 5th Gen. Friday was in February 2023. Pilots tested traditional Marine Corps aviation tactics and began fighting as a Group, rather than a squadron element. Routine squadron training doctrinally applies divisions of four F-35s, while Group-level training increases this to 20 or more total aircraft.
MAG-13 pilots who spearheaded the development of 5th Gen. Friday drew on experience from the Marine Corps’ WTI, Marine Operational Test and Evaluation Squadron One (VMX-1), and inspiration from the Air Force’s Weapons Instructor Course and the Navy's TOPGUN exercises. They also aimed to tailor the training objectives according to the resources available to MAG-13 squadrons.
“The structure has been deliberately built to minimize the tax on the squadrons, meaning the administrative phases, mission planning, etc. are standardized and repeatable,” said Lt. Col. Tyler B. “Chicken” Sanders, MAG-13 Operations Officer. “The key word is repeatable; to build proficiency in the mission set, aircrew, and tactical controllers, there must be repetition.”
This event construct has built a standardized, repeatable training exercise that creates minimal burden on the squadron, while providing training outcomes equivalent to large-scale, joint evolutions.
MAG-13 executes 5th Gen. Friday events once or twice per month, each consisting of approximately 25 aircraft and two fight periods. The fight periods begin when the jets take off, split into blue air and red air elements, and execute their missions. The blue air element is the “friendly” fighter aircraft executing Marine Corps aviation tactics. Meanwhile, the red air element represents a peer adversary.
“We have to be very good, and we have to be very proficient in what we do,” said Maj. John “Yardsale” Rose, VMFA-214 Executive Officer. “Our prioritization of training in our day-to-day lives needs to support that.”
The foundation of such dynamic training is compared to the seven-on-seven football training program that is used across college universities; this training program focuses on perfecting the basics: passing, catching, and fitness. MAG-13 pilots train with this same mindset during 5th Gen Friday. Group-level leaders provide the mission and intent to their subordinate squadrons and enable training that focuses on the fundamentals of problem-solving, tactics, and performance under stress to outmaneuver an adversary.
Fifth Generation Friday provides advantages over everyday simulator training. While simulators allow for more frequent hands-on training and help pilots develop muscle memory, they don’t provide the same kinesthetic feedback of flying. When fighting against living, breathing threats, pilots must also consider weather, fuel, and the location and status of their wingmen.
Fifth Gen. Friday’s critical outcome is the proficiency and confidence the F-35 pilots who may one day face adversarial advanced fighter aircraft in real world, force-on-force circumstances.
“No longer do we have to train to just 3rd and 4th generation fighters, now we have to train to 5th generation capabilities,” said Col. Roy J. Nicka, MAG-13 Commanding Officer.
Fifth Gen. Friday is a force multiplier for Marine Corps tactical aviation that enhances the effectiveness of F-35 support to the Marine Air-Ground Task Force and the joint force. As the Marine Corps fosters its combat aviation capabilities, it reinforces its function as a force in readiness against a capable peer or near-peer adversary in any clime and place.
“You get something out of every time you fly, and everyone is getting reps and sets,” Nicka said. “Now, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing can be even more lethal.”