MILITARY HMLA-773 RED DOGS
Joe Copalman tells us about the US Marine Corps’ East Coast Reserve rotor- wing warriors, HMLA-773 ‘Red Dogs’
Over the past 15 years, the US Marine Corps’ reserve component, Marine Forces Reserve (MARFORRES) has undergone a shift from being a strategic ‘in case of war, break glass’ reserve to an operational ‘ready bench,’ constantly supporting the active component while training and preparing for activation and deployment. Although still comprised overwhelmingly of select Marine Corps reservists (SMCRs) – Marines who drill one weekend a month and undergo two weeks of annual training per year – gone are the days of the ‘weekend warrior’ archetype. This is especially true for the ‘Red Dogs’ of Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773 (HMLA-773).
Equipped with a mixed fleet of Bell UH-1Y Venom (more commonly called the ‘Yankee’ or ‘Huey’) and AH-1W Super Cobra (or ‘Whiskey’) helicopters, the Red Dogs train to the same standards and are guided by the same mission statement as the active component HMLAs. Two major diff erences distinguish HMLA-773 from the Fleet Marine Force Huey/Cobra squadrons – basing and manning.
Unlike the active-component Marine Light Attack Helicopter squadrons, HMLA-773 is split between two elements based more than 1,200 miles (1,931km) apart. Prior to June 2016, the Red Dogs were split into three components, with the squadron’s ‘flag’ being at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. The Georgia component, HMLA-773(-) (known as the Minus) was disestablished to allow for the reactivation of HMLA-775, the westcoast reserve HMLA at Camp Pendleton, California. Currently, the squadron’s flag is at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst (JB MDL) in New Jersey, where the Minus relocated, replacing HMLA-773 Detachment Bravo. The Minus is where Lt Col Julian Rivera, the squadron’s outgoing commander at the time of AIR International’s visits, operates out of. The Red Dogs’ second element is HMLA-773 Detachment Alpha (Det A), based at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base (NAS JRB) New Orleans in Belle Chasse, Louisiana. While Det A still falls under Lt Col Rivera’s command, the day-to-day operation is managed by Lt Col Andrew Turner, who as commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 49 Detachment Charlie, is the site commander for HMLA-773, running day-today operations at Belle Chasse.
The ‘Minus/Det’ arrangement is nothing new or uncommon in Marine Corps aviation, with squadrons routinely split into smaller elements to support deployments. Most commonly, Marine Expeditionary Units (MEUs) are allotted small detachments from several Marine communities to comprise the MEU’s Aviation Combat Element (ACE), while the rest of the squadron, now a ‘Minus’ with the temporary departure of the MEU Det, will continue operating as a smaller unit, either at home station or on a different deployment. Whereas the ‘Minus/Det’ split is temporary for the rest of Marine aviation, that dynamic is flipped for the Red Dogs. Rather than splitting apart for deployments, HMLA-773(-) and Det A will typically merge and operate as a single, unified squadron. Deployments on active-duty orders are not the only example where elements of the Minus and the Det will operate together. During the summer of 2017, pilots, aircrew, and maintainers from MDL and Belle Chasse worked and flew together during Integrated Training Exercise 4-17 at Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, California, and again in the Texas-Louisiana border area during hurricane relief missions.
The second characteristic distinguishing HMLA-773 from the active component HMLAs is manning. Reserve aviation units do not accept new pilots straight from the training pipeline. Rather, MARFORRESrecruits experienced aviators from the active component or accepts those who left the military but then decided their days of flying in defence of their country were not quite over. As Maj Rob Dugan, operations officer for HMLA-773(-) explained: “We don’t get new guys, whereas the active component gets lieutenants, and they have a training cycle. All of my guys have at least been an aircraft commander, and I would say 95% of my pilots have been instructor pilots. If you look at the ranks, they’re all high-level qualified guys.” Dugan continued: “The average pilot in the squadron has 2,100- 2,200 [flight] hours, compared to an activeduty squadron. They’re average is 1,000 hours and below. You’re going to have some high-time guys and some super-low guys. I don’t have any low guys.”
The result of this experience is not necessarily a squadron that provides anything doctrinally different from an active-force HMLA, as the Red Dogs operate under the same active-duty mission statement and train to the same standards. The critical difference is that with no new lieutenants fresh from the training pipeline to nurture through the training and readiness syllabus to get them combat qualified in the Yankee or the Whiskey, HMLA-773’s pilots simply focus on staying current on their respective type. Combined with the fact that reserve squadrons are not in the same deployment cycle as the active HMLAs, this lack of a requirement to train junior pilots for the next deployment – which may only be months away for an active squadron – means that HMLA-773 is available to support exercises, training courses, and other events that would disrupt the training schedule of an activeduty HMLA if it was called to support.
Keeping reservists ready
With most of HMLA-773’s pilots being traditional reservists, most of them are not flying the Yankee or the Whiskey as their full-time jobs. The Red Dogs’ incoming Commanding Officer, Lt Col Brian Stempien, is an attorney in his civilian job. Discussing the variety of civilian jobs held by Red Dog pilots, Maj Dugan told AIR International: “We’ve got guys in seminary. We’ve got guys who are bankers, guys who are airline pilots, guys that are firefighters, cops – we’ve got guys who are yacht captains.” This diversity of civilian careers introduces challenges that activeduty squadrons do not have to deal with. Like active-duty aviators, HMLA-773’s pilots have annual flight hour minimums to meet and combat-relevant qualifications like night flying to keep current. With demanding civilian work schedules and the impossibility of being able to accomplish all required flying strictly on drill weekends, Red Dog pilots do far more than the one-weekend-a-month/two-weeksa- year drill requirements.
Lt Col Scott Hanford, a squadron pilot with HMLA-773 Det A explained, “If you just do one weekend a month, you’re going to have a hard time getting your minimum flight hours, because there’s a lot of stuff going on on those weekends that you may not be flying. The Marine Corps Ball is a big event, so typically flights are limited on that weekend. We’ve got some safety stand downs and other stuff that has to happen throughout the year. There’s going to be a handful of weekends where you come in and there is no flying because of all the admin stuff.” Explaining how he and other reserve pilots maintain their flight hours, Hanford continued “What I try to do is come in for at least four days, so that way I’ve got four days out of the month as opposed to just a weekend to make my flight hours. That’s what most of us who are flyers try to do. You just couldn’t do it if you just came in for a weekend.”
Whiskey and Yankee
The Red Dogs were the last operator of the Bell UH-1N Huey, retiring the type in August 2014 and replacing it with the vastly improved UH-1Y Yankee. Lt Col Turner, who spent most of his Marine Corps career flying the UH-1N offered the following insight: “Operating in Iraq, if I wanted to take personnel on my aircraft, I may have had to give something up in order to make that happen depending on the length of that trip. That was just a limitation of how much weight I could take. On the Yankee, I don’t have that problem. I can fill that aircraft with personnel and it’s a non-issue. Now you’ve got a brand-new aircraft that can do everything we were asking of it and more. It’s a faster aircraft, it can hold more of a payload than the November ever could. Those types of things help us execute the mission.” In addition to being more capable in the utility missions, the Yankee is also a more potent gunship than the November was. As Major Dugan explained: “Our Hueys train to close air support. They’re looking to shoot if they need to. They are not solely defensive fires like you find on the other assault support aircraft. A Yankee will tip in just as fast a Cobra will. We’ll shoot to remain engaged until that thing is never going to engage anybody else again.” The increased power of the Yankee also allows it to carry more rockets than the November, as UH-1N crews often had to limit the number of rockets they carried in order to carry enough fuel for the mission.
The AH-1 has been the Corps’ primary gunship since Vietnam, when it employed AH-1Gs borrowed from the Army against Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army troops. Though most of the Marine Corps HMLAs have transitioned to the AH-1Z Viper or Zulu, HMLA-773 still flies the AH-1W Whiskey. Speaking to the AH-1W’s strengths, Major Dugan told us: “The Whiskey is good at loitering. It will not sneak up on anybody, that’s for sure. What the Whiskey brings is a long-range punch that can see things from the aspect of the guy on the ground. We’re also very responsive. We’re only going to be three to five klicks [kms] over your shoulder, and when we come over your shoulder, we can employ ordnance much closer.” Whiskey crews have a variety of weapons available to them, from the highly-accurate M197 20mm Gatling-type cannon under the nose, to unguided rockets capable of carrying a wide assortment of warheads such as high-explosive, flechettes, smoke, and illumination, and the AGM-114 Hellfire anti-tank missile. The Red Dogs began transitioning to the AH-1Z this year.
Both the Minus and the Det have a small cadre of active and active-reserve Marines to run the squadron between drill weekends, maintaining aircraft and flying with reservist pilots coming in between drills to get flight time and work on refreshing their qualifications. Speaking about the role of the Red Dogs’ active and active-reserve Marines, Hanford told AIR International: “The activeduty guys actually do a preponderance of the work throughout the month so that when we come in, things are pretty much set up for us to do whatever we need to be doing that weekend, whether that be ground classes or flying or whatever. When we come in, there’s really not a whole lot of prep work that we have to do prior to getting here other than making sure that we know what the game plan is and we’re ready to execute it.”
When not deployed, the Minus and the Det operate locally and independent of one another. Either entity may support events such as exercises. Major Dugan of the Minus in New Jersey explained: “What we do is spread a lot of the tasking. If we get fragged to support MARSOC [Marine Special Operations Command] in Tampa, NOLA [the Belle Chasse Det] goes. But if we get tasked to support MARSOC in Indiana, we’ll take it because we’re geographically closer. It allows us to cover a larger area of responsibility, actually.”
Exercise support comprises a fair amount of HMLA-773’s flying. With active component HMLAs on established workup and deployment cycles, the pilots and aircrew in those squadrons are focused on progressing through their training and readiness syllabuses, getting instructors current on their qualifications and first-tour lieutenants qualified for deployment. Exercises like MARSOC’s Raven - typically held in Gulfport, Mississippi - or joint force exercises that require light attack and/or utility helicopter support do not often align with what the active HMLAs are doing, and this is where having units outside of that deployment cycle proves its value.
Joint force training
With neither the Minus nor the Det residing aboard a Marine Corps Air Station or Marine Corps base, opportunities to integrate with Marine infantry units for training are not as common as they are for the activecomponent HMLAs. This does not mean that HMLA-773 isn’t training with ground units though, as both the Minus and the Det find opportunities to support local joint force partners. Major Dugan at HMLA-773(-) highlighted one such opportunity, telling AIR Inernational: “We just got done with WarEx, which is hosted by the 78th Training Division, US Army, 84th Training Command. They were validating the Army’s 101st Airborne Division’s Global Response Force, which is their rapid response force in case something happens. We had a company of Black Hawks from 8/229th [a US Army Reserve attack helicopter battalion] come in with a company from the 101st and do an airfield seizure of a Navy airfield, to then turn it over to the Air Force guys for flow-of-forces for port-of-entry operation. That’s something that most HMLAs would not get to experience.” Down south, Det A finds similar opportunities, particularly supporting special operations forces.
In addition to supporting MARSOC, Det A also supports the training of Air Force Combat Control Technicians (CCTs) at Hurlburt Field in western Florida. As Lt Col Turner explained: “We get to do some training with STTS, the Special Tactics Training Squadron, that’s at Hurlburt airfield. They’ve got some ranges out there, which is beneficial to us because we can shoot our rockets and guns. Whereas in Gulfport we’re doing simulated close air support [CAS], out there I can actually do CAS where I’m shooting my guns and shooting my rockets. It gives us that training environment where that’s another event that we need to do to stay proficient.” He continued: “We get to go out there and work with their JTACs or Forward Air Controllers. We give them training because they need to be on the ground working the communications piece and talking aircraft onto a particular target and getting that aircraft to shoot at that target. They get the training out of it, and we get the training out if because I actually get to shoot and do the reverse role of working the talkies with them”.
It’s not just joint-force ground units the Red Dogs work with, as both elements train with Air Force and Navy fighters as well. At NAS JRB New Orleans, Det A is located next to Strike Fighter Squadron 204 (VFA-204), a Navy Reserve F/A-18 squadron. While the two units have not trained together recently, it is not uncommon. As Lt Col Turner explained: “We’ve worked with the F-18s here. There’s a range that’s about an hour to the north. We’ll go out to the range and do some forward air control, some FAC(A) with them, where I’m in my aircraft and I’m controlling the jets, or vice-versa.” Though MDL in New Jersey lacks locally-based fighter or attack squadrons, HMLA-773(-) still has opportunities to work with Air Force jets over the local ranges. As Maj Dugan told us: “If I want to work with jets, the closest jets to me are A-10s in Maryland and F-16s just down the road in Atlantic City.”
Red Dogs to the rescue
While training for war constitutes a sizeable portion of the Red Dogs’ flight hours, the squadron also trains for humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR) missions. Both elements of HMLA-773 conducted HADR operations during August and September of 2017 in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which flooded hundreds of towns along the coast of eastern Texas and western Louisiana. Lt Col Turner told AIR International: “This past summer, we were actively involved in some of the hurricane support in the Beaumont/Port Arthur area of Texas. We deployed there and worked quite a bit with the Coast Guard. We sent some Hueys over there from both here and the Minus, actually, up in New Jersey. They brought some of their Hueys down because it was that big of a deal.” Speaking of the types of support the Red Dogs provided, Turner explained: “There were folks who lost their homes, they were wading through water. We were able to set down on the road next to a flooded area and take on board civilian personnel who needed to get out of there and get to a different location, whether that was a hospital or to an evac site where they could find shelter and food.” Within the first four days of supporting rescue and relief operations, Red Dog Yankee crews had conducted around 20 such rescues, working in conjunction with Coast Guard HH-65 Dauphins from just down the ramp at Belle Chasse.
Additionally, HMLA-773’s Marines brought in blankets, food, and water to keep shelters stocked with necessities as more displaced families were rescued from flooded areas. The squadron sent five UH-1Ys to support Harvey relief and rescue efforts, with Det A providing three aircraft and two from the Minus making the long trip from New Jersey to participate as well. The crews and maintainers from both elements were primarily active-duty. As Lt Col Turner explained, “We were able to bring in a handful of SMCRs, some reservists. But it was such a quick response to get out the door, that the bulk of the aircrew and maintainers were active-duty or active reserve. That was due to the necessity of being out the door immediately.”
One of the challenges facing active-duty Marine aviation is a brain drain, as those pilots and aircrew with combat experience are either leaving the Marine Corps or being promoted out of gun squadrons as their careers follow the natural up-or-out trajectory. With MARFORRES aviation units being comprised of senior majors and lieutenant colonels, there is still considerable combat experience within units like HMLA-773. The Red Dogs have been activated for combat deployments twice over the past fifteen years – once in 2003 for what wound up being an 18-month deployment to Afghanistan, and again in 2007 for a seven-month deployment to Iraq. Though the scale, pace, and intensity of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have all declined dramatically since those peak years, the Red Dogs still train and operate as if they will be activated. Looking back on the Iraq deployment as an example of what his squadron can provide, Lt Col Turner told the author: “Those units that ended up deploying to Iraq, it was seamless. Those ground units that had close air support or escort or reconnaissance, they didn’t know that they were getting it from a Reserve unit. They might have known it in name, but the quality of the services that the unit was able to provide was seamless. That’s my goal – that if we’re called upon to deploy, it’s seamless, that we have the capability to provide services just like an active-duty squadron that has pilots who are there 24/7, whereas I’ve got reservists that come in. My job is to make sure that they’re ready to go.” AI