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Marines restructuring aircraft assignments in Hawaii for potential row with China in western Pacific

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William Cole

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Mar. 14—The Marine Corps in Hawaii is losing all of its traditional helicopters—more than 35 in all—in a radical restructuring across the entire service branch to save $12 billion and spend it on new approaches to potentially fight China in the Western Pacific.

More than 600 Hawaii-based personnel will be displaced with the departure next fiscal year, but about that many will be needed with a new KC-130 refueling squadron and up to 15 aircraft that are coming, along with other changes, officials said.

The Force Design 2030 plan pursued by Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger is controversial and not without its critics.

Having KC-130s at Kaneohe Bay, meanwhile, will open a whole new chapter in aviation at the historic base, bringing back a fleet of big propeller aircraft that left with the reassignment of P-3 Orion submarine hunters several years ago.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 367 and Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 463 will deactivate in fiscal 2022 as part of the new force design, said Capt. Colin Kennard, a spokesman for the III Marine Expeditionary Force.

The Hawaii squadrons had three dozen or more aircraft in recent years, including AH-1Z Vipers, UH-1Y Venoms known as “Super Hueys, ” and CH-53E Super Stallions.

The Super Stallion squadron suffered a terrible loss in 2016 when two of the big transports collided off the North Shore, killing the 12 Hawaii Marines aboard both aircraft.

Two squadrons of MV-22 tiltrotor Ospreys, which can hover like a helicopter, remain operational at Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay.

“While the airframe-specific personnel and equipment associated with HMLA-367 and HMH-463 will depart, Marine Aircraft Group 24 will gain a KC-130 squadron in the years following the deactivations, ” Kennard said.

Some units also “will grow to support ” a new formation in Hawaii called a Marine Littoral Regiment that will be the first in the Corps. “This will result in manpower remaining relatively unchanged ” for Marine Aircraft Group 24, Kennard said.

The Marine Corps said the KC-130J provides tactical aerial refueling, assault support and multisensor imagery reconnaissance.

Given their range and capability, “Hawaii is an ideal home station, ” Kennard said. Marine Corps Base Hawaii’s two MV-22 tilt-rotor Osprey squadrons regularly conduct air-to-air refueling with VMGR-152, a C-130 squadron out of Iwakuni, Japan.

“This capability has been utilized multiple times during Osprey trans-Pacific flights between Hawaii and Australia’s Northern Territory, ” Kennard said, while emphasizing the KC-130 “provides a broader strategic asset ” in the Indo-­Pacific.

The Marine Corps commandant’s redesign over the next decade calls for an additional active-duty KC-130 squadron in addition to three now. The 2019 Marine Corps aviation plan shows that each of those squadrons has 15 aircraft.

Later this year, the Corps plans to activate in Hawaii its first Marine Littoral Regiment, which is key to Berger’s sweeping force redesign and is planned to allow troops to operate in small units with ship-killing missiles from islands that dot the Western Pacific.

Part of that redesign calls for a new class of vessel in Hawaii called the Light Amphibious Warship that can carry at least 75 Marines and pull up on beaches. The Navy wants 28 to 30 of the smaller amphibious ships.

“The Navy is currently analyzing basing options for LAW but has not completed necessary assessments to support final basing decisions, ” said Lt. Rob Reinheimer, a Navy spokesman at the Pentagon. Other Marine Littoral Regiments are expected to be based in Guam and Japan.

Frank Hoffman, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who is now on the board of advisers for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said he has concerns about Marine air-ground task force training and interoperability with the loss of the Hawaii helicopters.

An AH-1Z Viper is staged aboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Dec. 19, 2017. The first three AH-1Zs to be permanently stationed at Marine Corps Base Hawaii arrived Dec. 15, 2017. The attack helicopters will replace the AH-1W Super Cobras. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Kathy Nunez)

The big CH-53Es bring capability as sea-to-shore connectors to drop off Marines and missile systems on remote islands.

“One of the hard things Gen. Berger has to do is make the hard calls today to ensure his Marines have the tools they need tomorrow, and I think this is one of those tradeoffs, ” he said.

Two Hawaii CH-53Es already have been transferred to Okinawa, two Hueys were sent to Camp Pendleton in California, and two AH-1Z Vipers were sent to be decommissioned.

Berger has said the Marine Corps “is at an inflection point, and we must change, ” with the naval infantry built for large-scale land-borne operations. “Think Desert Shield, Desert Storm, ” he said. “We are built, ideally, for 1990.”

China, the pacing threat for the United States, has changed that landscape with missiles that threaten U.S. Navy ships and aircraft from great distances. Berger’s plan is to create fast-moving units that can operate as an “inside force ” in locations such as the South China Sea.

The new Hawaii Marine Littoral Regiment is expected to be made up of 1, 800 to 2, 000 Marines drawn mainly from the 3rd Marine Regiment at Kaneohe Bay.

Berger seeks to reduce the size of the Corps by 12, 000 Marines, get rid of all tanks, reduce cannon artillery, aircraft and infantry units and make other cuts to be more relevant in the 21st century. He wants to increase rocket batteries from seven to 21.

Dan Goure, a vice president at the public policy think tank Lexington Institute, questions Berger’s plan to cut aircraft and the ability of formations of 75 island-hopping Marines to resupply and defend themselves against ever-growing Chinese capabilities.

“Seventy-five-man Marine units won’t even be a speed bump ” for the People’s Liberation Army, he contends. The Marines need heavy forces and “getting rid of attack helos, heavy transports and reducing F-35 (Joint Strike Fighters ) is a bad idea, ” Goure believes.

Both the Marine Corps and Army plan to have “shoot and scoot ” missile forces to oppose China in the Western Pacific.

Adm. Phil Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command on Oahu, said the Army and Marine Corps should be equipped with High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems.

Davidson said last week it is important to have a “wider base ” of long-range firepower in the Western Pacific delivered by ground forces and that he was “encouraged by the enthusiasm ” of the Army and the Marine Corps to develop some of those capabilities.

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