USS ESSEX, At sea --
Long range strikes and real-time reconnaissance footage are capabilities the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit gains from Marine Attack Squadron 214, and the 31st MEU would not have these capabilities without the unique characteristics of the AV-8B Harrier.
With six AV-8B Harriers at their disposal, VMA 214 adds numerous capabilities to the 31st MEU that would not be possible with only helicopters. Ranging from providing commanders real time video footage of the battlefield to making precision strikes with laser guided weapons; the Harrier serves a vital role in the Marine Air Ground Task Force at sea that is the 31st MEU.
The short take off, vertical landing of the Harrier, an ability completely unique to the aircraft, is what enables the 31st MEU to maintain fixed wing aircraft while at sea.
The average Nimitz-class aircraft carriers are more than 1,000 feet long, and are equipped with steam catapults and arrestor wires for launch and recovery. The assistance required by all other fixed wing aircraft during takeoff and landing makes operating from amphibious ships impossible.
The Amphibious Assault Ship USS Essex (LHD 2) has about 200 feet less flight deck length than an aircraft carrier and provides no assistance to aircraft during takeoff or landing. This makes the Harrier the only fixed wing aircraft in existence capable of supporting the a MEU.
“The unique capabilities of VMA 214 are vital to the successful operation of the 31st MEU as a force in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Col. Andrew R. MacMannis, the commanding officer of the 31st MEU. “There is no replacement and we cannot accomplish all of our mission essential tasks without the fixed wing capabilities they bring.”
Once in flight, Harriers have the capability to provide close air support through the use of a 25mm Gatling Cannon; both laser guided and joint direct attack munitions, and air-to-air or air-to-ground missiles.
It can also provide the 31st MEU with reconnaissance photos by either recording the data internally and bringing it back aboard the ship for the command, or by linking up to Marines on the ground and transmitting real-time data to them. By doing this, Marines on the ground can see exactly what the pilot of the plane can see, according to Gunnery Sgt. James Parise, the maintenance control chief of VMA 214, 31st MEU.
“The harrier is so special to the MEU because there are no other aircraft that can operate on an LHD class ship,” said Parise. “The only other aircraft that can support us have to be land based.”
He went on to say that VMA is an integral part of the MEU, and is normally with them during every deployment.
The 31st MEU is the only continuously forward-deployed MEU and remains the nation’s force in readiness in the Asia-Pacific region.