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Marines Assess Direct Airborne Support

March 2012
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Magazine
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A team of Marines from Marine Air Support Squadron 2 and Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152 test the Marine Air-Ground Task Force aerial pallet system/special airborne response system (MAPS/SABIR) while in flight over Okinawa.

Help from above aims to save lives on the ground by offering onsite capabilities.

The U.S. Marine Corps is testing a set of systems that would enhance communications between air assets and boots on the ground. Troops in Okinawa used the technology initially during U.S.-only evaluations before moving on to experiments in various multinational events. And though the personnel who have experienced the systems in action say work still remains to perfect the offering, they would like to see it fielded if it reaches its potential.

Marine Air Support Squadron 2 (MASS-2), working in conjunction with flying squadrons, became the first unit to use the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) aerial pallet system (MAPS) with the special airborne mission installation and response (SABIR) system late last year. MAPS/SABIR is a combination of the two technologies into one onboard system, and though MASS-2 tested the technologies in a dual capacity, the two were developed separately. MAPS was created by Argon ST and SABIR by Airdyne Aerospace. Both companies had representatives at Okinawa during the tests for training and support purposes.

SABIR includes an articulating strut, referred to as an arm, to which various payloads can attach via pods. For the Marines, this payload is MAPS, which is one of a variety of payloads that the other system can carry. Once inside an aircraft, MAPS is secured for flight and remains static until users remove it from the plane. SABIR moves in flight to lower the pods. Marines installed the airborne system into KC-130J Hercules tanker aircraft for the testing, and it can be installed in any of those types of planes as long as they are wired for it.

According to Sgt. Steven M. Prats, USMC, aviation communications systems technician with MASS-2, MAPS/SABIRs would be used as airborne direct air support centers (DASCs). Representatives from Marine Corps Systems Command (MARCORSYSCOM) add that, in an operational context, the system provides the ability to extend the command and control functions of the DASC, allowing more flexible and responsive air tasking as well as more reliable communications.

These centers provide a direct link between forces on the ground and supporting aircraft, but airborne DASCs can offer the capabilities in an onsite capacity. “The main DASC on the ground, in a combat situation, typically displaces multiple times to collocate with [ground units] as they move further inland,” Sgt. Prats explains. “This displacement is mitigated by having a DASC in the air to relieve some of the pressure.”

An airborne center also can hover over an active location to offer ground forces the best chance to receive timely help. “The upside of having the DASC right there where the action is happening is that it could potentially save many lives by providing immediate air support in the form of air strikes and casualty evacuations,” Sgt. Prats states. He continues that the Marine Corps had similar capabilities under a former system that went out of use when Marines transitioned to C-130J aircraft. “Not only does the MAPS/SABIR system re-establish the capabilities of the UYQ, it provides more features—such as data and more radios—and room for growth,” Sgt. Prats says.

Testing of the new technologies is occurring in several phases with different groups of personnel. Two Marines from MASS-2 performed the safety of flight and basic functionality test at Patuxent River, Maryland, supporting a U.S. Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR) squadron. Once NAVAIR cleared it, MASS-2 took possession of it in Okinawa and ran flights to get another feel for the system. “It was nothing more than basic radio communications checks,” Sgt. Prats explains. “On the ground, communications were solid; but when we got in the air, functionality was intermittent with ground stations.” Those ground assets included manpack radios and an MRQ-12, a communications interface system with its equipment mounted on a Humvee. A small drill was conducted by the Marines on the second flight day. “Overall, optimal results were not obtained, but some success was observed,” Sgt. Prats says.

After the tests, users submitted their reports to program officials. Sgt. Prats explains that combat use of MAPS/SABIR remains to be determined and most likely will depend on Marines’ demand for and success with the system. Additional evaluations were scheduled to be conducted by the Corps at Ryukyu Warrior, an exercise conducted in Japan with units from the four U.S. military services; at Cobra Gold, a multinational exercise co-led by Thailand and the United States; and Balikatan, an exercise involving forces from the United States and the Philippines.

 

Personnel attach a payload pod to the SABIR arm.
Marines in Okinawa are conducting evaluations
of the MAPS with the SABIR system to provide
an airborne direct air support center for troops on the ground. 

Officials at MARCORSYSCOM explain that development activity testing of the system is now complete, but the receiving unit is refining the concept of employment via the in-house testing. According to the command, Marine air command and control systems squadrons would use the system aboard KC-130 aircraft. MARCORSYSCOM, along with Marine Corps Combat Development and Integration and Headquarters Marine Corps Aviation, gather feedback from users of the system.

In the future, MAPS and SABIR might split to operate with different units. Sgt. Prats explains that MAPS could stay with MASS-2 while SABIR is assigned to Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 152. “MAPS is only intended for C-130J operations and would be utilized in that capacity in real-world operations,” he explains. Before any of that occurs, users would like to see some adjustments made. “The system is currently not where we would like it to be, but with a little more work, we should be able to get it there,” Sgt. Prats says. “When we do, it will be a tremendous force multiplier.”

Testing has been patchy, with the evaluations at Pax River going more smoothly than the ones in Okinawa. “Regardless, the system brings several features to the table that are extremely beneficial,” the sergeant states. “If the system works as intended, it is definitely something we would love to bring to the field.”

One way he would like to see MAPS/SABIR improved is through the addition of several technologies that were scrubbed due to funding and policy. The gaps left by the cuts became apparent toward the end of MAPS implementation, according to Sgt. Prats. Specifically, he wants the AN/PRC-117G radios, which allow point-to-point data flow, reintroduced along with satellite communications hatch-mounted antennas and the INMARSAT data system. The latter allows operators access to a constant, worldwide data feed into the system while in flight to update and use DASC-related programs. “If these features could be added at a later date, it would increase the operational success of the system several times over,” the sergeant explains.

While the combined MAPS/SABIR effort is Marine Corps-centric, SABIR already is in use in the field with various military organizations. Airdyne officials explain that even as the Marine Corps flies it with MAPS, the Air National Guard employs it in operation Deep Freeze, which supports efforts in Antarctica. The Air Force’s Special Operations community has plans to use the system soon, and Canadian Forces recently took delivery of its first system, which will be dedicated to a search and rescue role.

SABIR originally was developed to meet a need in the special operations community for both U.S. and Canadian requirements. Airdyne representatives say that during that process, the Marines became interested in the technology and purchased two systems. The company supports the installation of and training for MAPS/SABIR under a contract with the Army Research Laboratory. Because SABIR already is operational, it was not being flight tested in Okinawa; Marines there are looking more specifically at the MAPS capabilities.

WEB RESOURCES
Marine Air Support Squadron 2: www.marines.mil/unit/1stairwing/macg18/mass2/Pages/default.aspx
Marine Corps Systems Command: www.marines.mil/unit/marcorsyscom
Marine Aviation: www.marines.mil/unit/aviation/Pages/default.aspx
Airdyne: www.airdyne.org