MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, CALIFORNIA --
MARINE CORPS AIR STATION MIRAMAR, Calif. -- F-35B Lightning II squadrons of Marine Aircraft Group 13, 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing, participated in a weeklong iteration of suppression of enemy air defense training over Southeast California, during exercise Steel Knight 23.2, Dec. 4-10, 2023.
I Marine Expeditionary Force conducts exercise Steel Knight annually to assess and improve I MEF’s ability to fight and win against a peer or near-peer threat. Steel Knight 23.2 showcased Marine Air-Ground Task Force operations afloat and ashore. MAG-13 supported the exercise by providing close air support and suppression of enemy air defenses to the aviation and ground combat elements.
SEAD offensively disrupts or destroys enemy integrated air defense systems, allowing for follow-on missions from air forces or ground troops. By neutralizing, degrading or destroying surface-based air defenses, SEAD operations allow friendly aircraft to operate in contested airspace.
Three of the four MAG-13 F-35B Lighting II squadrons took part in “SEAD Week,” Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA) 122, VMFA-211 and VMFA-214. The F-35 is a multi-role fighter jet optimized to detect, identify and destroy air-to-air and air-to-surface threats.
“An objective of MAG-13’s SEAD Week is training to effective SEAD against a peer adversary,” said Col. Roy J. Nicka, the commanding officer of MAG-13. “Next to Marine tactical aviation air-to-air capabilities, SEAD will be Marine TACAIR’s most relevant contribution to the Joint Force in a contested environment.”
SEAD training increases the ability of fifth-generation fighter pilots to enter the fight first, strike targets deep within an enemy air defense system, enable follow-on strikes by supporting weapons platforms, and return home safely.
“We must focus on SEAD because that is where we see ourselves falling into the bigger picture in a modern conflict against a pacing adversary,” said Maj. Daniel J. Lengyel, the MAG-13 training officer. “It is one of the hardest mission sets to execute effectively and therefore requires a high level of focus to maintain proficiency.”
MAG-13 used this third iteration of SEAD Week to validate their skillset and progress to training with more capable threat pictures throughout the week. MAG-13 pilots refined baseline flight tactics and experience in a simulator through exposure to advanced surface-to-air threats.
“During dedicated SEAD weeks, we try to incorporate additional emitters that we don’t normally have on the ranges. We will book larger portions of airspace to be able to fight ‘as a MAG’ utilizing 8-ship tactics,” Lengyel said. “This type of training is usually hard to come by. Now, with SEAD Week, we can do it in our backyard.”
MAG-13 employs real-world emitters from range complexes within the local Yuma, Arizona, area that replicate the assets and capabilities expected from near-peer adversaries. Marine Fighter Training Squadron (VMFT) 401, 4th MAW, Marine Forces Reserve, MAG-13's adversary training squadron, provides red-air support to SEAD Week, adding pressure and dynamic environmental considerations. Pilots must focus on the air threat picture in addition to the surface threat picture – allowing for realistic, modern-day training across all threat factors.
“This is realistic training for us, as we expect any modern conflict to have an air threat as well as a surface threat to handle,” Lengyel said. “We’ve exercised executing node and forward arming and refueling point operations to also maintain proficiency for pilots and maintainers with an expeditionary mindset.”
3rd MAW provides the aviation combat element to I MEF, executing through the hub, spoke, and node concept. The hub, spoke, and node concept brings varying capability, survivability and sustainability levels to the MAGTF, to include forward arming and refueling points established at the node. Operating F-35Bs from a node provides depth and versatility in the battlespace and the expeditionary mindset pilots must maintain as they prepare to fight anywhere in the world.
“Ultimately, SK23.2 is about training the warfighter to be proficient and lethal in their craft,” Lengyel said. “For F-35B pilots, that specifically means being comfortable fighting as a MAG in a contested environment to be able to attrite enemy aircraft and surface-to-air systems.”
SEAD increases the flexibility and effectiveness of MAGTF operations while supporting joint and combined aviation operations across the spectrum of warfare. Mastering SEAD is critical to the success of the joint force in the future fight. The Marines of MAG-13 are prepared, launching up to 24 fighter jets per day and dedicating more than 300 flight hours to SEAD Week training.
“Our strength lies in our ability to fight as part of elements bigger than a squadron,” Nicka said. “SEAD Week showcased MAG-13’s ability to assimilate formations with pilots from across multiple units and for our maintenance departments to generate an impressive throughput of combat sorties.”
“You have pilots planning, briefing and debriefing. You have maintainers turning jets and conducting hot-fuel/hot-reload operations. You have intelligence Marines doing detailed threat kill-chain analysis, terrain study, and providing data to pilots,” Lengyel said. “It truly is a MAG effort, and with the exceptional hard work of all the Marines we can make this as effective as possible.”