ABOARD USS KEARSARGE -- The arsenal of aircraft comprising the Aviation Combat Element of the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) provides an impressive array of capabilities ranging from troop transport to aerial surveillance. However, the ability of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron-162 to strike targets with decisive force is largely attributable to the squadron’s ordnance division, which sends each aircraft and pilot off with the tools needed to fight and win.
The 22 Marines in the ordnance division have been arming MEU aircraft with a variety of ordnance an average of several days a week since USS Kearsarge arrived in the northern Arabian Gulf in May to support maritime security operations and stage the 26th MEU for support of U.S. Central Command. The division has had the responsibility of arming each UH-1 Huey, AH-1W Cobra, CH-46E Sea Knight, CH-53E Super Stallion and AV-8B Harrier in the squadron.
The Marines have actually been arming these same aircraft for several months, but operations in the CENTCOM theater have seen a shift from using a mix of live and practice ordnance to a near exclusive line-up of live ammunition, bombs and missiles. This change reflects the MEU’s engagement in operations supporting the Global War on Terrorism, and the job the ordnance specialists perform in support of "real-world" missions is one they take seriously and are proud of.
"The Marines have been excited to load live ordnance, knowing that it is going to support the Marines on the deck. They take great pride in knowing that ordnance will come off the aircraft accurately when the time comes," said Capt. Graham E. Thomas, officer in charge of the ordnance division.
Ensuring that ordnance such as bombs and missiles are released accurately is a vital task of the division, but only one of many tasks the Marines are responsible for. The full list of responsibilities includes the storage, handling, assembly, disassembly, loading, downloading, arming, de-arming and transportation of the ACE’s full range of ordnance and weapons systems. Additionally, they must check ordnance release and control systems and conduct bomb rack safety checks on each mission-tasked aircraft.
Due to the technical precision and safety requirements related to handling ordnance and arming aircraft, each Marine in the division is subject to scrutiny and advanced training prior to becoming part of any ordnance team. They undergo background checks, must pass explosive handling physicals and be eligible for a security clearance before being considered for further training. The Marines then begin a series of certification qualifications that, ideally, will have them progress from team member to team leader and then quality assurance officer (QASO) within the division.
Team leaders have the responsibility of making sure each weapon is loaded and armed properly while the QASO ensures all is right with the aircraft once it is fully loaded and armed.
The team leader works "hands-on" with his team while "the QASO sees the bigger picture," said Gunnery Sgt. Steven A. Blassingame, staff non-commissioned officer in charge of the fixed-wing side of the division. "The QASO signs a logbook when everything is checked over after arming," said the Anderson, S.C. Marine, who keeps precise records on the qualifications of each Marine he oversees. He is equally meticulous with the logbook entries for each aircraft.
This attention to detail is important not only in making sure ordnance will function properly when needed but also to ensure dangers inherent to handling the ordnance are minimized. Live and inert munitions each present unique risks that the Marines are constantly aware of.
The 25-lb MK-76 practice bomb, commonly used by the Harriers for training, is not a high-explosive weapon, but it contains an explosive cartridge that is detonated by percussion, said Sgt. Michael R. Hartmeyer, fixed-wing ordnance QASO from Norwalk, Conn. Special care is taken with the transportation and physical handling of this weapon.
Hartmeyer said live bombs and missiles are typically not percussion weapons, and the greatest danger is not the risk of detonation if a weapon is physically mishandled. Rather, items such as ammunition used by the Cobra helicopters are electrically primed, and static can cause the munitions to be "set off." To prevent this from occurring, several measures are taken by the Marines and Sailors aboard the Kearsarge. These include rocket tubes being coated with Hazards of Electromagnetic Radiation to Ordnance (HERO) reducing paint, adjusting the use of electrical equipment aboard ship during operations and team members being aware of their clothing. "We don’t wear static producing clothing," said Hartmeyer.
Although the ordnance division Marines have conducted the majority of their operations aboard ship since deploying in March, they are prepared to do their work anywhere required.
"If the guys go ashore, they work at the FARP (forward arming and refueling point) conducting hot tube load operations," said Thomas. This allows the aircraft to land, refuel and take on more ordnance without shutting down, a capability that greatly enhances the MEU’s support of potential contingency operations in the region.
As the strategic reserve in the CENTCOM area of operations, the 26th MEU and the Marines of the ACE ordnance division stand ready to respond to any call to action.
Regardless of what missions may await or where they may take place, Hartmeyer says of his job in the ordnance division, "There is significance in directly supporting other people."
To read more about the 26th MEU (SOC), log on to www.usmc.mil/26thmeu.