A member of a Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team, or MMT, watches a CH-53E helicopter make its way down a landing strip near Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., to be refueled during Large Scale Exercise 23 on Aug. 11, 2023.

A member of a Marine Air Traffic Control Mobile Team, or MMT, watches a CH-53E helicopter make its way down a landing strip near Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., to be refueled during Large Scale Exercise 23 on Aug. 11, 2023. Defense One / Caitlin M. Kenney

How to hide a helicopter refueling point, and other lessons from a giant Navy wargame

A stealthy Marine logistics team was just one small part of Large Scale Exercise 23.

NEAR MARINE CORPS AIR STATION CHERRY POINT, N.C.—In the grass beside a small landing strip, a group of Marines with hand-held radios monitored a CH-53E helicopter as it taxied down to another group that was prepared to refuel the aircraft. The groups were honing new, less vulnerable ways to run a forward arming and refueling point, or FARP—a small but crucial aspect of the Corps’ efforts to prepare for future warfare. 

“What [the FARP] does is, it allows the Marines here to fuel and rearm the aircraft that come in, that allow them to continue to project power forward of a [forward operating base] or [an] installation in which they would have all life support, right? They would have all their fuel, they would have all their ordnance,” Col. Ginger Beals, commander of Combat Logistics Regiment, 2nd Marines Logistics Group, told reporters Aug. 11. “It allows us to do it in a more austere environment, it allows them to be expedient, and it allows for the pilots to be able to extend their range in which they're able to operate.”

The units at the FARP were both practicing the logistical operation and honing it for wider use under the Marines’ newish Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations concept. The Marines were part of the Navy’s Large Scale Exercise 23, a global live-virtual-constructive wargame that is also testing the related naval concepts of Distributed Maritime Operations and Littoral Operations in a Contested Environment.

Generally, the concepts explore how the Navy and Marine Corps can operate across vast distances—say, across the Pacific region—while remaining connected under hostile conditions, controlling geographic areas, moving supplies, and coordinating attacks.

The operations represent an important aspect of the exercise: allowing commanders to keep aircraft operating where they are needed, while also creating a challenge for  enemies.

At the FARP, “you're going to see that force multiplication of disaggregated forces out in the field, the Navy and the Marine Corps doing that. Think about that in the context of, that presents all sorts of targeting problems for the adversary,” said retired Adm. James Foggo, who is representing senior Pentagon officials in the exercise scenario.

“It also presents a problem for the adversary when we aggregate those forces. That's what [the Distributed Maritime Operations concept] is all about. And bringing together into a combat capable, power projection, lethal organization that's going to strike the enemy and destroy their forces,” Foggo said.

Marines at the FARP said their units are learning to be leaner and more adaptable, with an eye on what it will take to do this work in a harsher, more hostile environment.

One way they’re doing so is determining how to make FARPs harder targets for an enemy to find. 1st Lt. Anthony Viteri, a combat engineer with Marine Wing Support Squadron 271 who was overseeing the site, said they analyze the electromagnetic spectrum at the site before and after they arrive, to see what their activities look and sound like.

“And using [those] studies, we'll try to reduce that signature. So that's looking forward to seeing like, this is what a FARP emits. And then, one, how can we replicate it to do maybe like a decoy FARP. As well as how can we reduce that to make ourself less visible to anybody who's looking for us,” Viteri said.

The wing support squadron would typically run the FARP; however, this one was run by 2nd Marine Logistics Group’s 8th Engineer Support Battalion, which allowed more Marines to learn how to operate one, Viteri said, “because in the future fight, they might be the ones that are supporting us as well doing that.”

“So as we spread out more, we're going to need more support as far as personnel and equipment. So making sure that multiple people are cross trained on this is going to support that,” he said.

Capt. Jason Motycka, a CH-53E pilot with Marine Heavy Helicopter Squadron 464, said the exercise has allowed his unit to continue to refine how it operates in austere environments, in line with the Distributed Aviation Operations concept. That includes figuring out how to reduce the size of its “standard units of employment,” or what it would need in terms of Marines, equipment, fuel, and maintenance for a given length of time to do operations, Motycka said. 

“As we continue to do this, we refine those numbers so that we can kind of codify that and say, you know standard unit of employment is X number of [CH-53s], X amount of Marines, X number of H-1s [helicopters], X amount of Marines, so that we can go forward as an off-the-shelf package,” he said.

And knowing the minimum amount of equipment necessary to operate frees up space for more supplies that can support other helicopter units and makes them less of a target, Motycka said.

“So anytime that we go within the [weapons engagement zone], we're putting—we're going to be at risk. And that’s fine, that’s our job. That’s what we do. But as we can refine and bring those number[s] down, one, it makes it less observable, two, it reduces the risk,” he said, adding “So the more lean we can be, the more effective we can be, and survivable.”

One challenge the Marines anticipate facing in an austere environment is maintenance of the CH-53. To address that, during the exercise, they’re using a different type of crane than usual, sourced from the wing support squadron, which allows both units to work with and learn from each other, he said. 

Exercising and refining their tactics, techniques, and procedures now, may mean saving lives and time in the future, Motycka said.

“As we continue to refine these TTPs, so the next time we go to war it’s an off-the-shelf package that we’re ready to execute with,” he said. “And hopefully we're not paying the price with blood when we go into an engagement, because we've spent the time and training to prepare for that.”