Corps reactivates East Coast helicopter squadron it closed in 2022

The Marine Corps officially has reactivated one of two light attack helicopter squadrons it shut down in 2022 as part of its overall force redesign.

Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron (HMLA) 269, under 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, stood back up at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina, on Monday, according to a Marine Corps press release.

“It was a decidedly somber day when HMLA-269 deactivated,” Col. Davis Fitzsimmons, commander of Marine Aircraft Group 29, said in the news release. “That was certainly reversed today.”

The “Gunrunners” squadron flies the AH-1Z Viper attack helicopter and the UH-1Y Venom utility helicopter.

The helicopter squadron was deactivated in December 2022 as the Marine Corps recalibrated its aviation needs and locations in a global shuffle that touched jets, fixed wing, helicopters and reached both coasts, Hawaii and Okinawa, Japan.

In his 2020 document laying out Force Design 2030, then-Commandant Gen. David Berger explained the squadron drawdown as related to the Corps cutting of three infantry battalions during the same force structure moves.

“While this capability has a certain amount of relevance to crisis and contingency missions which we must still be prepared to execute, it is operationally unsuitable for our highest-priority maritime challenges and excess to our needs with the divestment of three infantry battalions,” Berger wrote.

Personnel with the squadron rotated to other Marine units following its deactivation. But its equipment was preserved to “maintain a flexible ready bench for the service and preserve the ability to make future adjustments,” Marine officials said at the time.

Retired Master Gunnery Sgt. Lawrence Reeve Jr. told Marine Corps Times earlier in 2024 when the reactivation was first announced in March that he suspected, even in 2022, the squadron wouldn’t be gone for long.

Lawrence first served with the squadron in 1994 and later deployed with the unit to Iraq five times.

He doubted its disappearance mainly because the move left the entire East Coast with a single light attack squadron as the Marine Corps had shifted most of its assets to California, Hawaii and Japan.

Marine Corps Times attempted to reach the Marine Corps for comment on specifics regarding the decision to reactivate the squadron and received no response as of Friday.

While current variants of the Viper and Venom have been in active service since 2010 and 2008 respectively, which are relatively young for military aircraft, their basic designs date back to the 1960s and 1970s.

The Corps underwent a major upgrade program planning to update the aircraft’s Super Cobra and Twin predecessors through the 1990s that resulted in today’s helicopters.

In March, Bell Textron announced structural and power upgrades to the aircraft that it expects will keep them flying into the 2040s, which is the Corps’ current plan.

For what comes next, the service was closely monitoring the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program. A portion of that program called for a new future attack reconnaissance aircraft, which sought to replace both the Army’s OH-58 Kiowa Scout helicopter and its AH-64 Apache, a similar capability to the Viper.

However, the Army canceled the future attack reconnaissance aircraft portion of the program earlier in 2024, leaving a gap in how both services plan to move beyond existing, aging attack helicopters.

Along with HMLA 269, the Marines also deactivated HMLA-469 out of Camp Pendleton, California, in December 2022. That squadron remains deactivated.

The move aligned with the service’s most recently published aviation plan in 2022, which called for the active-duty light attack squadrons to draw down from seven to five and integration of the two reserve squadrons for necessary tasks.

At that time there were seven active light attack squadrons, one fleet replacement squadron and one reserve squadron each containing 15 Vipers and 12 Venoms. Another reserve squadron held 10 Vipers and eight Venoms, according to the aviation plan.

The service’s new configuration briefly had five active squadrons with the fleet replacement and reserve squadrons in the same setup.

The reactivation will push the numbers back up to six active squadrons.

In total, the Corps requires a mix of 284 Venoms and Vipers to fulfill those mission obligations. Over a five-year period from 2017 to 2021 the Vipers averaged a 72% readiness score while the Venoms managed 68%, according to the aviation plan.

More than 84% of the parts needed for the aircraft are interchangeable and the two platforms fly nearly a quarter of all Marine aviation flight hours.

On the fixed wing side, the Marine Corps deactivated its F/A-18 Hornet pilot training squadron in late 2023, and graduated its final AV-8B Harrier II mechanics earlier in 2024 after disbanding its Harrier training unit in late 2021.

Moves with the Hornet and Harrier are due to the jets being replaced by the F-35.

Squadron commander Lt. Col. Jens Gilbertson pointed out that HMLA-269 had been named the light attack squadron of the year by the Marine Corps Aviation Association eight times, more than any other such squadron in the Corps’ history.

“Ultimately, it was up to these Marines to get it done,” Gilbertson said. “They have discipline, and they have precision, and that’s the same discipline and precision they’re going to bring when they maintain and fly our aircraft.”

The Viper aircraft made news recently when a crew with the Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 262 Reinforced, 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit successfully struck a moving target at sea for the first time in the region with the new “fire and forget” AGM-179 joint air-to-ground missile.

Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.

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