The Commandant of the Marine Corps directed the establishment of Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 3 (VMU-3) as part of the expansion of the Marine Corps to an end-strength of 202,000 active duty Marines. The addition of a VMU would enable the Marine Corps to decrease individual squadron operations tempo and free up capability to be used for further tasking by the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Commanders. The United States Marine Corps activated VMU-3 on 12 September 2008 at Twentynine Palms, California as a part of Marine Air Control Group-38, 3D Marine Aircraft Wing, I Marine Expeditionary Force under LtCol James W. Frey as the first commanding officer and SgtMaj R. Mendez Jr as the first Sergeant Major.
The Phantoms took to the skies for the first time 10 days after activation on 22 September 2008 with the Shadow 200 Tactical Unmanned Aircraft System (TUAS). VMU-3 then supported several exercises including STEEL KNIGHT, several MOJAVE VIPERS, DESERT SCORPION, and a Weapons and Tactics Instructor’s course (WTI). In support of WTI, VMU-3 became the first USMC UAS squadron to utilize a UAS as a Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance Coordinator (SCAR-C) platform and perform the role of forward observer for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS).
In preparation for the first squadron deployment, VMU-3 stood up three detachments. The inauguration of Detachment Alpha arose to support Shadow 200 TUAS operations in OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF). Detachment Bravo activated in order to support ScanEagle operations in OEF. Detachment Charlie activated in order to support ScanEagle operations for Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). By January 2010, just sixteen months after the unit's activation, the Phantoms of VMU-3 found themselves deploying in support of OIF and OEF 9.2. VMU-3 provided over 225 hours of UAS support per day - equivalent to keeping nine UAVs continuously airborne - the highest rate in USMC history. The amount of support provided to the MAGTF was achieved by only 112 deployed Marines, one sailor, and four augments from MACG-38 units, as well as civilian contractors.
Over the course of VMU-3's seven month deployment, employment of the Shadow UAS evolved from a basic collections asset to a multi-role, fully integrated platform. The Phantoms not only built-up the existing infrastructure in theater, but maximized the support to the ground combat element (GCE) in terms of quality and quantity of hours. Furthermore, the Phantoms provided invaluable support to numerous major operations including the seizure of Marjeh during OPERATION MOSTARAK. The shadow UAS flew over 3,000 hours and over 500 sorties while Scan Eagle totaled over 17,500 hours through an average of 7 sorties per day. The Phantoms of VMU-3 raised the bar for UAS employment and rewrote the book on Tactics Techniques and Procedures (TTPs).
In the fall of 2010, VMU-3 continued to make history by pioneering new tactics and concepts. The Phantoms supervised the successful Inaugural Flight Operations of the newly-established VMU-4 in Yuma, AZ. The Phantoms supported the first-ever deployment of Marine Corps UAS aboard a Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) by providing a Subject Matter Expert (SME) to advise the 13th MEU Staff and Headquarters Marine Corps (HQMC) on the proper employment of Maritime UAS Operations. In addition, the Phantoms, in support of WTI 1-11, successfully provided laser guidance for Hellfire missiles and Laser Guided Training Rounds (LGTRs) to target impact. VMU-3 recorded this Proof of Concept and developed community-wide TTPs for hosting laser-guided weapons from all capable platforms.
The Phantoms continued to prep for their next deployment during exercise ENHANCED MOJAVE VIPER and then deployed again in April 2011. Actions in theater motivated a convoy commander to write a letter of appreciation to the Phantoms, thanking unmanned aerial vehicles for saving his life in Afghanistan. The Phantoms returned from deployment in November and prepared for another deployment by supporting a WTI course, an ENHANCED MOJAVE VIPER, and a Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC) exercise. As proof of the Phantom’s commitment to its mission, they were awarded with the 2011 Commandant's Aviation Trophy for outstanding performance of a Marine aviation squadron.
In keeping with an ever increasing tempo, the Phantoms prepped for another deployment by supporting multiple ENHANCED MOJAVE VIPER exercises. They deployed to OEF 13-2 from October 2012 to May 2013 and flew missions from Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) Dwyer, Shukvani, Payne, and later at Camp Leatherneck. VMU-3 supported multiple units with Shadow, ScanEagle, and Aerosonde UAS. They supported 2nd Battalion 7th Marines (2/7), Combat Logistics Regiment 15 (CLR-15), 12th Georgian, 32d Georgian, Regional Command Southwest Regimental Combat Team (RCT), and Weapons Company 3rd Battalion 9th Marines (3/9). The Phantoms flew over 2,300 sorties and over 21,000 flight hours during the deployment. VMU-3 also supported units with Cargo Resupply Unmanned Aircraft System (CRUAS) missions with 463 sorties.
After returning from theater, the Phantoms supported several Integrated Training Exercises (ITXs) and WTI 1-14. By October the focus shifted to the relocation from Twentynine Palms, California to Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. VMU-3 officially joined the Hawaii community in June 2014 and supported several LAVA VIPER exercises both during and after the relocation to Kaneohe Bay. Setting up a new squadron in Hawaii came with many challenges. The Phantoms continually rose to these challenges and declared Initial Operations Capable (IOC) on 28 February 2015. After obtaining flight frequencies and airspace clearance, VMU-3 launched an RQ-7b Shadow on 19 September 2015, marking the first VMU-3 flight at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Kaneohe Bay. VMU-3 accomplished the final milestone of the move to Hawaii and declared Fully Operational Capable (FOC) on 1 December 2015.
The Phantoms now carry out their mission under the command of Marine Aircraft Group 24 (MAG-24), 1st Marine Aircraft Wing (1st MAW), Third Marine Expeditionary Force (III MEF). VMU-3 is currently looking forward to the new capabilities the Tactical Common Data Link (TDCL) upgrades will bring to the Shadow system. The Phantoms also expect to receive the MQ-21 blackjack unmanned aircraft system. The blackjack will bring a shipboard capability, advanced payloads, and an increased endurance capability to the VMU-3 arsenal.
LtCol James W. Frey
12 September 2008 - 17 June 2010
LtCol Timothy G. Burton
17 June 2010 - May 2012
LtCol John D. Thurman
May 2012 - 18 June 2014
LtCol Brynn H. Schreiner
18 June 2014 - 15 April 2016
LtCol Kenneth W. Phelps
15 April 2016 - Present
SgtMaj R. Mendez Jr
12 September 2008 - September 2010
SgtMaj J. L. Johnson
September 2010 - 28 June 2013
SgtMaj Christopher W. Nagle
28 June 2013 - 4 June 2014
SgtMaj Jason Perry
4 June 2014 - Present