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  • Frank Visser

2022 Texas Rangers



As one of two reserve Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadrons within the United States Marine Corps, the VMGR-234 “RANGERS” are dedicated in the execution of the same precise tactical level objectives as their active component counterparts. Frank Visser visited VMGR-234, which has flown the KC-130 since 1975, and spoke with its former commanding officer.

Tasks

Until June of this year LtCol Bryan L. “Trip” Littleton III was the commanding officer of the squadron. He explains: “The Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron (VMGR-234) is a US Marine Corps reserve unit that operates ten KC-130J aircraft from NAS JRB Fort Worth, Texas. The squadron is comprised of approximately 350 Marines and Navy Corpsmen, and three civilian contractors are part of the squadron.”

As a reserve unit, approximately one-third is on active duty. This accounts for both ground and aircrew Marines. The squadron has approximately 43 pilots of which 75% are reservists. The pilots and aircrew are not ‘weekend warriors’, where reservists come in to fly one weekend a month. That’s not the case with VMGR-234”. LtCol Littleton continues: “Many of the enlisted aircrew, which are also reservists contribute tremendously throughout the month.” During any given year, around 3.200 - 3.500 flying hours are flown to include night sorties where night vision goggles (NVGs) are utilized. There is a difference between US Air Force C-130 squadrons and their counterparts within the US Marine Corps. When it comes to the US Air Force C-130 squadrons they typically have one or two skill sets of focus. For example, tactical airlift and transport. Whereas the US Marine Corps KC-130 squadrons perform the majority of KC-130J mission sets. The US Marine Corps missions include aerial refuelling of jets ( F/A18s, F-35s and AV-8s), helicopters and tiltrotor aircraft. Troop and cargo transportation, as well as aerial delivery of cargo and personnel; emergency re-supply and medical evacuation, from improved airfields as well as unimproved landing zones. LtCol Littleton: ”We cover the full spectrum of the capacity of the KC-130J. Aerial refuelling might be one of the top things we do, but we also move a lot of gear and people, and support missions around the globe.” One of the goals LtCol Littleton set for himself when taking command was to strengthen the relationship with Marine Aircraft Group 41 (MAG-41), and the other 12 subordinate units within the MAG. VMGR-234 was involved in the deployment of VMFA-112 “Cowboys” to MCAS Iwakuni, Japan and their redeployment last spring back to NAS JRB Fort Worth; as well as the Ranger’s own deployment in 2021 to Djibouti, Africa.

Upon taking command, the worldwide pandemic asked for a bit more creativity with the restrictions placed on VMGR-234, however the goals remained. LtCol Littleton: “ Initially, the biggest challenge was managing information flow and how rapidly it changed. When the world was told to stay home, we continued to come to work and fight, to execute the mission, and press-on. Along the way, we maintained a strong focus on working and training with our fellow aviation and support squadrons within MAG-41. Having received two safety awards and surpassing some training milestones, I would say we remained highly effective over the past two years despite the hardships of what our “normal” way of life was.”


History VMGR-234 The unit was activated as Marine Scout Bomber Squadron 234 (VMSB-234) in May, 1942. In December of that year, it started its first combat tour and went to Guadalcanal. In November 1943 the unit returned to the US, with their Grumman TBM-3E “Avengers” and was relocated at MCAS Miramar, California. There it was redesignated to Marine Torpedo Bombing Squadron 234 (VMTB-234). They were sent on another tour, but never saw combat as World War II ended. After the war the squadron was deactivated in March, 1946. Not soon after the squadron was reactivated as Marine Fighter Squadron 234 (VMF-234). In the 1950s the squadron was transformed into Marine Attack Squadron 234 (VMA-234) and started flying the Grumman F9F “Panther” in 1955, followed by the Douglas AD-5 “Skyraider” in 1958. When the unit received the Fairchild C-119F “Flying Boxcar” in December 1961, the unit soon after was redesigned as Marine Transport Squadron 234 (VMR-234). In 1970, the unit moved to NAS Glenview, Illinois, and flew the C-119Fs until 1975. That year they traded the C-119F for the Lockheed KC-130F “Hercules” and received their current squadron designation, Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 234 (VMGR-234). In 1991, still stationed at NAS Glenview the squadron supported in the Gulf War. They were deployed to the Persian Gulf for Operation Desert Storm. In 1994 the squadron was reassigned to Marine Aircraft Group 41 (MAG-41) at NAS JRB Fort Worth, Texas, which until today is their homebase.

The flagship of VMGR-234 is this KC-130J (BuNo 169229), which is fitted with a specially painted Texas flag tail.


Modifications

When entering service with the US Marine Corps in 2000, the KC-130J could already operate under expanded threat environments. It has self-protecting systems, like chaff and flares that are designed to defend against a number of ground-to-air and surface-to-air threats. To increase the survivability of the KC-130J, modification programs are executed, like the Block 8.1 updated cockpit and AN/AAQ-24. The Block 8.1 cockpit upgrade includes a new flight management system that complies with communications, navigation, surveillance and air traffic management mandates.

During any given year the Rangers of VMGR-234 execute around 3.200 - 3.500 flying hours worldwide.

The missions flown by VMGR-234 include aerial refuelling of jets, helicopters and tiltrotor aircraft. Troop and cargo transportation, as well as aerial delivery of cargo and personnel; emergency re-supply and medical evacuation.


It also boasts enhanced Global Positioning System (GPS) capabilities, improved communications systems, and improvements to the KC-130J’s Identify Friend-or-Foe (IFF) technology. The addition of the DoN LAIRCM, a laser-based self-protection system, increases survivability of the aircraft and aircrew in the event of an airborne attack. It was designed to defend against surface-to-air infrared missile threats This system will also be fitted on the US Marine Corps MV-22 tiltrotor aircraft. As modifications first go to the fleet, VMGR-234 has not received them yet. The first KC-130J fitted with these upgrades was handed over to VMGR-252 at MCAS Cherry Point, North Carolina in 2021. The new software upgrades are coming, but it has been a slow process. When installed it should improve the navigation systems and also provides expanded operations with the self-protecting systems. Another modification program was the upgrade of the ADSB system onboard, which provided more data.

A KC-130J of Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 234 (VMGR-234) over Western Texas.

Deployments and exercises

It has been a busy time for the “Rangers” over the last two years. To participate in the North African Response Force (NARF), the “Rangers” were deployed to the French Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, the Horn of Africa in 2021. This was done in support of AFRICOM’s Combined Joint Task Force, with the mission set of promoting regional stability, dissuading conflict, and protecting U.S. and coalition interests. LtCol Littleton: “We had a combination of skill and ability that I am extremely proud off. Each aircrew consisted of a senior commander with junior co-pilot. This also accounted for the aircrew.” It allowed the detachment to train the juniors, which was invaluable for the Rangers in their support to other flying units, like French Mirage 2000s. The primary mission was aerial refuelling, but a number of cargo and logistic missions were flown. If necessary other tasks like Medical Evacuation (MEDEVAC) could also be executed. The area of operations was within AFRICOM. LtCol Littleton continued: “We had one aircraft on one hour notice while the second was conducting training missions. We had an opportunity to combine some of these training missions

with the French and other allies. For aerial refuelling there are two types of baskets, a high-speed, and a low-speed drogue.” The first is used for refuelling jets and the other for helicopter or tiltrotor aircraft. For each aerial refuelling flight, the correct drogue is installed on the aircraft. LtCol Littleton: “Our training with the French worked out very well, which makes me proud that we were able to conduct several opportune, bi-lateral training missions.” When Operation Allied Refuge (OAR) started, LtCol Littleton: “We had a detachment of about 65 Marines in the Horn of Africa, when it all started to happen in Afghanistan it was an opportunity for the “Rangers” to jump in and help pull out Americans as well as Afghan nationals that have helped us in some form during the last twenty years of Operation Enduring Freedom. Our objective was to provide support to OAR and get as many Afghans and fellow Americans out of the country.”

KC-130J (BuNo 169228) was the aircraft used by VMGR-234 during Operation Allied Refuge. It received the name Queen of Kabul, seen here just above the door entrance.


He continues: “The skill and ability of the VMGR-234 Marines, present and able to assist in the evacuation mission of OAR could not have been better. We had a combination of combat-tested veterans and first-time deployers that jumped at the opportunity to put in the long hours in an effort to help.” And so, a team of four pilots, six enlisted air crew, and six maintainers attached to VMGR-234 conducted eleven lifts and evacuated 838 Afghans and moved over 226,720 pounds of cargo out of Afghanistan.To keep up the skills of the aircrew and ground personnel within VMGR-234, training is essential. For Fiscal year 22 the Rangers participated in several exercises. Last May two KC-130Js participated in “Emerald Warrior”, which took place at Eglin AFB in Florida. During the same month the squadron participated in exercise “Raven Support” from Gulfport International Airport, Mississippi, to train joint missions with the Army’s 82nd Airborne. It was followed by another training exercise “Gun Slinger“ with the US Army, which was held in June at Fort Riley in Kansas. Navy Air Facility El Centro (Arizona) was visited in July and in August the “Rangers” participated in exercise “Northern Lightning”, held at Volk ANGB in Wisconsin. To have enough weapons instructors with the squadron VMGR-234 will also participate in WTI 1-23. This weapons instructor course is held at MCAS Yuma, Arizona. LtCol Littleton: ”We do not stop. If the “Rangers” are not conducting real-world missions or supported-unit operations, we are involved in continuous training sorties and exercises. The “Rangers” are poised and ready to support in any climate, at any time, with any ally.”

VMGR-234 is part of the Marine Aircraft Group 41 (MAG-41) and stationed at NAS JRB Fort Worth, Texas.

Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 234 (VMGR-234) has 10 KC-130Js in its inventory.

Return to base for this VMGR-234 KC-130J, touching down at runway 36 at NAS JRB Fort Worth. Proud Before his assignment as the commanding officer, LtCol Littleton was the executive officer at VMGR-234. During that time, he decided that he would like to focus on a leadership role to build on the relationship with the squadron’s higher command. Focusing on the relationship with all of the units within MAG-41, became his primary objective. When he became CO in February 2020, that objective was challenged by the pandemic. LtCol Littleton: “When COVID came around we had to be creative in how we were to accomplish our objectives.” When the world stayed home and hid, the “Rangers” of VMGR-234 showed up to execute their job. LtCol Littleton: “I am absolutely most proud of the will and determination that the Marines in this squadron maintained in order to push through the challenges and obstacles of the last two years.” He continued: “What we do during the day we can also do at night, so we don’t stop and don’t stagnate, it is what keeps us fresh and proficient. Personnel wise the reserve squadron is typically more senior in rank than the active component fleet squadrons. There are a lot of experienced aircrews within the squadron and the amount of weapons instructors are double of a regular fleet squadron. While we are technically a reserve squadron, and our mission is to augment, reinforce and sustain the Active Component, the “Rangers” of VMGR-234 are comprised of some of the most talented and unique individuals I have ever met, and our day-to-day operations go so much farther than just supporting the aircraft. Not only do the reservists in this unit have civilian jobs, sometimes two or three, they show up here ready to go, as if the Marine Corps were their only occupation, and warrior was their only job title. The milestones that we have made, with a fraction of the force of an active duty unit, and the readiness that we have maintained, proves how valuable a squadron of our make-up and caliber can be. I am incredibly proud to serve the Rangers of VMGR-234 as their commanding officer. These Marines are some of the finest in the Corps, and are only getting better.”

As one of two reserve Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadrons within the United States Marine Corps, the VMGR-234 “RANGERS” has 10 KC-130Js in its inventory.

A full report on VMGR-234 "Rangers" was published in Combat Aircraft Journal, issue December 2022.


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