U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harrier pilots with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 263 (Reinforced), 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), conducted a bilateral aviation exercise with French air force fighter pilots in Djibouti, Africa, March 26 to April 2, 2014.
The weeklong exercise was intended to maintain proficiency and learn new tactics while building lasting relationships between allied nations.
“This has been a great experience for us,” said U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Kyle McHugh, VMM-263 (Rein.) Harrier pilot and native of Aberdeen, Md.
The MEU’s pilots flew air-to-air missions, dogfighting French Mirage 2000 pilots; as close air support, striking and bombing ground targets; combat search and rescue; tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel; and strike coordination/armed reconnaissance.
“Within the large air war, we flew those different roles and got to be a piece of the puzzle and see how the whole picture worked in actual execution,” explained McHugh, who also serves as the squadron’s assistant logistics officer. “It’s the most challenging environment we’ve had a chance to train in.”
The MEU’s pilots flew approximately 35 sorties and accumulated approximately 40 flight hours, flying missions with and against the Mirage pilots. The Mirage pilots were assigned to local French air force Fighter Squadron 03/011 Corsica, as well as visiting French air force Fighter Squadron 02/005 Ile de France.
“The missions we do here are very complex with very little time to prepare and coordinate,” said French air force Capt. Joan Dussourd, Fighter Squadron 02/005 Mirage 2000 fighter pilot. “It forces us to be very efficient.”
Each mission included several aircraft with different tasks, such as Harriers flying close air support while Mirages provide fighter support and dogfight against role player enemy Mirages. Throughout the week, there were as many as 12 aircraft participating at any given moment.
“They’re very tactically proficient in air-to-air and we consider ourselves to be very tactically proficient in an air-to-surface environment,” noted McHugh. “The ability to learn from one another in a combined forces environment, we’d be very lucky to ever have this experience again.”
In the end, the exercise helped both forces learn the other’s mindset, said Dussourd.
“I think when you fly the same missions with someone, you learn about them,” added Dussourd. “We’ve gotten to know the Marines and learned their mindset, which is very flexible. Ours is also, so we work well together.”
The squadrons and individual pilots established good working relationships throughout the exercise and built a strong foundation for other U.S. military squadrons to train or work with the French squadrons in the future.
“I’ve already seen how well trained and skilled they are in air-to-surface missions, but I was not in the air when they fought air-to-air, so I’m very interested to see how they did,” said Dussourd, who had never flown with Harriers before this exercise. “It’s important that we have chances like this in the future, to mix our knowledge. We appreciate the way the Harrier pilots work: very professional and skilled.”
The 22nd MEU is deployed with the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group as a theater reserve and crisis response force throughout U.S. Central Command and the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility.