Marine Corps Close Air Support: What Aircraft Are Really Needed?
AUTHOR Major W. M. Jones
SUBJECT AREA Aviation
TITLE: MARINE CORPS CLOSE AIR SUPPORT:
WHAT AIRCRAFT ARE REALLY NEEDED?
I. Purpose: To show that the Marine Corps needs to reorganize
and restructure its close air support assets to better provide
close air support to the Marine on the ground.
II. Problem: Advanced technology has driven up aircraft
prices so much that we simply cannot afford the number of
airplanes required to provide adequate close air support.
III. Data: The Marine Corps currently plans to use F/A-18,
AV-8B, and A6-E aircraft for close air support. All three of
these are extremely expensive and are available in limited
quantities. The F/A-18 is primarily an air-to-air airplane
flown primarily by fighter pilots and doesn't possess a true
all-weather close air support capability. For these reasons,
the F/A-18 is not a suitable close air support platform. The
AV-8B is an excellent close air support aircraft, but it is not
all-weather capable and budget cuts have just reduced its
projected buy. The A6-E is the only all-weather close air
support aircraft we have, but it is getting old and the
replacement A6-F program has been cancelled.
IV. Conclusions: The Marine Corps will not fight a general
war by itself. It will most likely be used in third-world/
low-intensity conflicts where an expensive, high-technology,
close air support aircraft is not necessarily needed to provide
close air support.
V. Recommendations: The Marine Corps needs to use the F/A-18
primarily in the fighter role and utilize the AV-8B and A6-E
for close air support. We also need a new close air support
aircraft which is relatively inexpensive and can be used purely
for close air support. It's time to accept less expensive,
less capable aircraft in order to have the number of airplanes
we need to adequately provide close air support to the Marine
on the ground.
MARINE CORPS CLOSE AIR SUPPORT:
WHAT AIRCRAFT ARE REALLY NEEDED?
Thesis Statement. Technology has created improved weapon
systems, but at the same time has dramatically increased the
costs for those systems. It is very possible that technological
advances are not always the answer to every situation. In
the case of close air support aircraft, technology and rising
costs have caused a decline in the number of airplanes that
we can afford, so we must determine what type of aircraft will
enable us to have the numbers we need to support the ground
I. Current Close Air Support Aircraft
1. Primarily air-to-air
2. Not a true all-weather close air support asset
3. Cost approximately $20 million per aircraft
1. Good close air support aircraft
a. Not all-weather capable
b. Fuel tanks vulnerable to small arms fire
c. Cost approximately $2O million per aircraft
d. Budget cuts have reduced procurement
1. All-weather capability
2. Old aircraft with maintenance problems
3. Follow-on A6-F program cancelled
4. New A-12 program extremely expensive
II. Future Deployment For Marines
A. Third world, low-intensity
C. Marine Corps won't fight general war alone
III. Aircraft Needed To Support Future Hostilities
A. New close air support airplane
2. Relatively inexpensive
3. Carry sizable ordnance load
4. Good on-station capability
5. Purely used for close air support
B. Use of current aircraft
IV. Review of past close air support assets
V. Reorganization to pay for new close air support airplane
A. Reduce current A6 assets
B. Eliminate Marine Corps EA-6B's
MARINE CORPS CLOSE AIR SUPPORT:
WHAT AIRCRAFT ARE REALLY NEEDED?
The only purpose for close air support in the Marine
Corps is to support the fighting Marine on the ground. The
Marine Corps must be equipped to accomplish this fact, and if
a problem exist, then changes must be made. Technology has
created improved weapon systems, but at the same time has
dramatically increased the costs for those systems. It is
very possible that technological advances are not always the
answer to every situation. In the case of close air support
aircraft, technology and rising costs have caused a decline
in the number of airplanes that we can afford, so we must
determine what type of aircraft will enable us to have the
numbers we need to support the ground Marine. Most planners
want bigger and better equipment and don't want to hear any
thoughts about smaller, cheaper equipment, but the time has
come to do so because we owe the Marine on the ground the best
support we can give him. My concerns are voiced by others
such as David MacIsaac who wrote the following in his essay
"Voices from the Central Blue: The Air Power Theorists":
The only thing certain about the current pell-mell
pace of technology in conventional air warfare is its
spiraling costs, which are driving the price of individual
aircraft up into the tens of millions of dollars. Since
these cost increases must inevitably have the effect of
reducing the numbers that will be made available, if not
indeed the willingness to commit them to combat, some
airmen--usually lonely renegades--have begun to call
for a retreat to greater numbers of slightly less capable
aircraft. Should that happen, a true watershed would
be at hand, since never yet in the history of air warfare
have the pilots who fly and fight been willing to surrender
in advance a technological advantage. Nonetheless, the
increased vulnerability of aircraft to antiair defenses,
along with high unit costs, may combine to force a
reevaluation of tradional priorities. (8:646)
Before discussing what assets are needed to effectively
provide close air support, an analysis of our current assets
is needed. Currently, the Marine Corps utilizes F-4, F/A-18,
A-4, AV-8B, and A6-E aircraft for close air support. Since
the F-4 and A-4 are almost entirely phased out, this discussion
will be centered on the F/A-18, AV-8B, and A6-E aircraft.
Ip 5-7 describes the F/A-18 in the following manner:
The F/A-18 is a single place, twin engine, all-weather,
strike fighter which began to replace the F-4 in FY83.
It has an internal 20 mm M-61 gun mounted in the nose and
can carry over 7,000 pounds external load, including
Sidewinders, Sparrows, and other conventional munitions.
Only the F/A-18 is capable of both intercept/destruction
of enemy aircraft and ground attack under all-weather
The above description of the F/A-18 really sounds impressive,
but I do not consider it a good close air support aircraft
because it is used primarily in the air-to-air mode and is
flown primarily by fighter pilots. Even though it has an
all-weather capabilty, it is not an all-weather close air
support aircraft because it cannot deliver ordnance in the
close proximity of friendly troops in an all-weather condition.
It can attack other types of targets in all-weather conditions,
but is not capable of providing all-weather, in-close, close
air support. The A6-E, utilizing a Radar Beacon Forward Air
Controller (RADFAC) AN/PPN-18/19, is our only true all-weather,
close air support aircraft. Therefore, the F/A-18 is a $20
million dollar plus fighter with a good-weather, visual, close
air support capability only. The F/A-18D will help some as
it is to be primarily an attack aircraft, but we don't have
it yet, and like all our other aircraft, it will be very
IP 5-7 describes the AV-8B as:
The AV-8B is a single seat, transonic, vectored
thrust, light attack aircraft. The AV-8B ... is capable
of increased payloads, extended range, and offers improved
reliability and maintainability. It is manufactured by
McDonnell Aircraft Company and is designed with a V/STOL
capability to provide increased responsiveness to ground
force close air support requirements through basing
flexibility and high sortie rates. Configured with the
Angle Rating Bombing System (ARBS), it provides an
extremely accurate first pass attack capability and
high-kill probability through the use of passive Laser
.Spot or TV tracking. The aircraft is also equipped with
an inertial navigation system and is being currently
evaluated for a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) system.
The AV-8B is equipped with two GAU-12 25 mm guns. (13:2-3)
The AV-8B is truly a Marine Corps close air support
aircraft due to its V/STOL capabilities, but it has some serious
problems. The first problem is that it, like the F/A-18, is
not an all-weather, close air support aircraft. The next
problem is that its fuel tanks are vulnerable to small arms
fire. The third, and most important, is it cost almost $20
million dollars. The 4 January 1988 Navy Times stated that
the 1988 buy of AV-8B's will be reduced from 32 to 24 and the
future reduction will result in a shortage of 45 AV-8B's for
the Marine Corps. (7:27) This is a classic example of my
thesis in that technology has driven the cost up so much that
we cannot afford the airplane. The real loser is the ground
Marine because now he has less assets available to support
him when he desperately needs close air support.
IP 5-7 describes the A6-E as:
The A-6 is a twin-engine, all-weather medium attack
aircraft operated by all-weather attack squadrons (VMA [AW]).
The Marine Corps flies A6-E's equipped with Target
Recognition and Attack Multisensor (TRAM) Equipment.
The A6-E has the capability to navigate, locate, track,
and attack stationary and moving targets without visual
reference to the ground or the target. The TRAM possesses
a laser designator and an FLIR detector. Additional
all-weather close air support is available through the
use of a Ground-Based, Radar Beacon Forward Air Controller
(RADFAC) AN/PPN-18 which allows the identification of
non-radar significant targets to the A-6 by a ground
forward air controller. The A-6 delivers conventional
ordnance and nuclear weapons in all-weather conditions.
The A-6E is a dynamic close air suptort aircraft, but it
is twenty-five year old and the Marine Corps only has fifty
of them. We desperately need an updated A-6, but due to aircraft
procurement cuts, Congress just dropped the new A-6F program.
That leaves us with a sadly aging fleet of A-6E's that has
been suffering through serious maintenance problems such as
What's the answer to the A-6 problem? Well, on 14
January, 1988, The Washington Times reported that a $4.38
billion dollar contract had been awarded to General Dynamics
and McDonnell Douglas Aircraft Co. to design the A-12 which
will replace the remaining 343 A-6's (Navy and Marine Corps).
The eventual cost to the Navy and Marine Corps for the A-12
is in the vicinity of $45 billion. (1:A8) Once again, technology
has driven the costs so high that the Marine Corps will not
be able to afford many of these airplanes and the ground Marine
will once again suffer from a lack of close air support.
From the above discussions on the F/A-18, AV-8B, and
A6-E, it becomes evident that the spiraling cost of technology,
and our philosophy of bigger is better, has left us with a
serious gap in our close air support aircraft.
The next question to consider before deciding what assets
are needed for close air support is to determine what type
of scenario will the Marine Corps most likely fight in. I
think that we will be called to fight third world, low-intensity
conflicts or to act as a peace-keeping/peace-presence force.
But are we equipping our close air support assets for those
types of contingencies? I don't think so. Our high-tech
assets are geared mainly for a global, general war, and that's
not where the Marine Corps is most likely going to fight.
Philip Gold echoed this thought in his article in Insight
where he stated that since 1981 we've spent nearly $500 billion
on upgrading the Navy (Marine Corps included) and have trained
for general war with the Soviets, but have grown pathetically
inept at lesser, more likely, contingencies. (5:8)
Recent history also backs up my feelings on where the
Marine Corps will be sent. Grenada and Lebanon definitely
weren't general war and we definitely didn't need all our
expensive, high-tech aviation assets to conduct those operations.
Even in Vietnam we wasted our close air support assets. My
opinion is that the F-4 was a greatly mis-used asset. It was
used primarily for good-weather, visual, close air support
instead of the air-to-air work it was primarily designed
for (mainly because there wasn't an air-to-air threat). It
just doesn't make sense to use a $20 million dollar asset when
something a quarter of that cost could do the job just as well.
What action the Marine Corps will be called into next
remains to be seen, and we need to be prepared to go wherever
and whenever the President tells us. The way I see it, the
Air Force, Army, and Navy should be high technology services
which serve as a deterrence to the Soviets against a general
war, while the Marine Corps should act as the President's
elite force that is called to put out all the "brush fires"
the United States gets involved in. The following two
paragraphs from Col. Donovan's article, "What Kind of a
Marine Corps?", echo my thoughts on what is needed for the
.... Marine Corps planners seek to visualize what
kind of Marine Corps is needed in order to best contribute
to our balanced naval forces and the execution of national
strategies. In the process, they have tended to become
fascinated with high technology gadgets and fancy weaponry--
a tendency that gives rise to a danger of neglecting
the Corps' basic weapons, its well-trained and well-led
Many continue to question the Marine's organization,
training, and equipnent for future battles. The Marine
in Vietnam did not experience much more success in adapting
to the environment than did the U.S. Army. They attempted
to apply conventional amphibious doctrine to counter-
insurgency with limited effect. Now the Marines are
arming for higher technology, mechanized warfare in
Europe and the Middle East. These areas are considered
vital to U.S. security interest and now exert an important
influence on Marine planning, training, and new equipment.
History, of course, indicates that the Marine Corps will
more probably be employed in other areas for other
The following exert from the January, 1988 issue of
Marines shows how the Commandant feels the Marine Corps ought
to be equipped.
Q. ... You replied that the Corps has to be both
heavy and light, and went on to give some of your reasons
why. Could you amplify that answer?
A. The Marine Corps has always been concerned with
size, weight, mobility, and flexibility with regard to
equipment acquisition. This concern is rooted in the
fundamental concept that amphibious forces must be light
enough to go where they must, yet heavy enough to win
once committed. This concept is a constant, applicable
to any and all types of missions which may be directed
by the National Command Authority.
Q. This says, then, that you have to have tanks on
the one hand, and the LAV on the other, as well as heavy
and light aircraft, and must keep on improving capability
at both ends of the spectrum.
A. The key here is that you must have your forces
prepared for the entire spectrum of conflict. You can't
have a force that is oriented soley to high-or low-intensity
conflict. We task organize for combat or crisis by taking
what we need to do what must be done. You need to be
able to reach into your reservoir aud use light artillery,
light armored vehicles, etc., but you also have heavier
equipment for certain requirements. (9:5)
If the Marine Corps will most likely not fight its next
conflict in a general war scenario, and since even the Commandant
agrees we need to be equipped with light, as well as heavy,
equipment, then why do we only have declining, expensive, high-
technology assets for close air support? We must change our
aircraft procurement and get assets that can really help the
Marine on the ground. Specifically, what the Marine Corps
needs for close air support is a rugged (able to withstand
small arms fire), relatively inexpensive aircraft that can
carry a sizable ordnance load, have a good on-station capability,
and also which is used purely for close air support. The
main factor must be its cost. It must be economical enough
for us to purchase an adequate inventory while also being able
to afford replacements due to combat and/or training losses.
With this affordable close air support aircraft, the F/A-18's
could be used mainly in the air-to-air mode or not used at
all unless a large war scenario was encountered, and the
limited number of AV-8B's and A6-E's could be better utilized
for specific missions such as night or all-weather RADFAC
and deep strike missions with the A6.
I cannot state the exact aircraft that is needed for
close air support other than the already mentioned criteria,
but we definitely need a new, less expensive aircraft to be
able to conform to Marine Corps doctrine which states: "Marine
Corps doctrine provides that FMF's will be employed as
integrated MAGTF's. The MAGTF's are tailored to accomplish
specific missions. The capability in this tailored force
is designed to exploit the combat power inherent in closely
integrated air and ground operations." (6:6) The only way
to exploit the aviation combat power of the MAGTF is to have
enough aircraft available to do the job. Without adequate
close air support assets (which is quickly happening in the
Marine Corps due to spiraling costs and old A6's), we simply
won't have a viable aviation arm in our MAGTF organization.
When designing a useful close air support aircraft, we
should take a look back in our close air support history to
remember what this country has and can co. In WWII, the F4U
Corsair was the Marine's best close air support aircraft.
The later version F4U-5N had a top speed of 408 knots
and also had a range of 1120 statute miles. Its ordnance
load consisted of four--20 mm cannon, ten--5 inch rockets,
and 5000 pounds of bombs carried on the centerline and pylon
racks. When you think about it, that's an awesome amount of
firepower and also the speed was only 42 knots less than the
450 knots that the A6 normally drops conventional ordnance
at. Also, its range was compatible with current aircraft.
So when you compare facts, what have we really gained in our
current, expensive, high-tech, close air support aircraft,
especially when the Marine Corps will most likely deploy to
low air-threat scenarios and definitely won't fight a general
war by itself?
Probably the most impressive fact about the Corsair was
that during WWII the Navy (Marine Corps included) accepted
11,415 Corsair's from three manufactures (Vought, Goodyear,
and Brewster). Vought, alone, averaged building 222 Corsairs
a month in l944. Can you imagine us today building 222 A6's
or AV-8B's a month? I don't think so. We have simply priced
ourselves out of effective close air support.
Another fact from history is that when additional aircraft
were needed in Vietnam, the AD-1 Skyraider was brought back
into service. It could carry 8000 pounds of ordnance and had
a 3000 mile range (which equated into a substantial on-station
Compared to current close air support aircraft, both the
Corsair and Skyraider were inexpensive, rugged, dependable,
quickly replaceable, and mission capable aircraft. I'm not
saying that we should build new squadrons of Corsairs or
Skyraiders, but they serve as outstanding examples of what
was done in the past, and thus serve as a guide we should
use when designing a new close air support aircraft.
The final question to answer is how do we pay for a new
close air support aircraft when all we are confronted with
are budget cuts. Well, I think the solution is a simple
one--we reorganize our assets. One of the largest cost in
any new aircraft is the pay of the aircrewmen and support
personnel. Well, I feel the following reorganization allows
a solution to all the costs problems associated with the new
aircraft. We'll look at my reorganization plan by aircraft
I wouldn't do anything to the current level of F/A-18's.
This is because as I earlier stated, I don't consider it a
good close air support aircraft, and feel we need its pro-
jected inventory to accomplish its air defense and limited
close air support missions.
I also wouldn't cut any AV-8B's because Congress has
already done that to us. The AV-8B is outstanding for good-
weather, visual, close air support, so we need all of them
we can get. If money wasn't an obstacle, a lot of AV-8B's,
augmented with A6's for the all-weather role, would be the
answer for Marine Corps close air support, but money is the
obstacle, so our AV-8B's are severely limited and must be a
I feel we need to reorganize our A6-E assets. Currently,
we have five squadrons with ten aircraft per squadron (twelve
when deployed onboard a Navy carrier--extra two are KA-6
tankers). As I stated earlier, I feel that the A6-E is a
must for Marine close air support because it is our only asset
with a true all-weather capability. The ground war doesn't
stop when the weather gets bad, so the close air support
can't stop either. I would, though, reorganize the five squadrons
into three squadrons with twelve aircraft each (this was the
squadron allocation until 1979). This would free approximately
twenty-four pilots for transition to the new close air support
aircraft and would eliminate approximately twenty-four NFO
billets. The total cuts would be a lot larger because the
above numbers don't account for non-squadron personnel holding
the MOS's. A substantial saving would also be earned in the
organizational and IMA maintenance reductions.
The final thing I'd do would be to eliminate the Marine
Corps' EA-6B's. As it stands, they are already more of a
national asset than a Marine Corps asset. I feel that the
Navy could easily absorb our EA-6B's, and we could operate
jointly with the Navy whenever EA-6B support is needed. The
dollar savings from this move, alone, could possibly support
a whole new fleet of inexpensive close air support aircraft.
In conclusion, the Marine Corps' MAGTF organization must
be flexible enough to exploit its combat power in a variety
of combat scenarios. We cannot tailor our forces strictly
with high-technology, expensive, weapon systems when less
expensive systems are better suited to our needs. I feel
that close air support aircraft are a classic example of
this. The time has come to realize that sometimes smaller
is better. We owe it to the combat Marine to have assets
available to provide him with sustained close air support,
and under our present system we can't do that.
In his 3 February, 1988 ALMAR message, the Commandant
clearly stated where he feels the Marine Corps is headed.
.... The Marine air-ground task forces which we forward
deploy around the world are not limited to amphibious
operations alone. Rather, they are capable of projecting
sustained, combined arms combat power ashore in order
to conduct a wide range of missions essential to the
protection of our national security interests. This
ability to project expeditionary military power is an
essential component of our national security strategy.
Expeditionary forces can be a critical factor in achieving
a positive outcome in regional crisis where we have no
established bases, logistics infrastructure or in-place
command and control mechanisms, because these are the
most likely contingencies we will face and our Marine
air-ground task forces are so ideally suited for such
circumstances, they should bear designations which
appropriately describe their full potential. (3:1)
The time has come to reorganize and restructure our close
air support aircraft so they can really support our Marines
in the type of scenarios the Commandant envisions Marines
1. Almond, Peter. "$4.38 Billion Contract Awarded For
Navy's Secret Fighter," The Washington Times, January
14, 1988, Section A., p. 8.
2. Almond, Peter. "Gray Returns His Marines to Basics,"
The Washington Times, January 12, 1988, Section A., p. 3.
3. CMC ALMAR msg O31956Z February, 1988.
4. Donovan, James A., Col., USMC (Ret). "What Kind of a
Marine Corps?" Marine Corps Gazette (December 1987), 21-22.
5. Gold, Peter. "Navy's Upgraded Fleet in Hot Water."
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6. Headquarter, Marine Corps. Marine Corps 1987 Concepts
and Issues. Washington, D.C., 1987.
7. Matthews, William. "Budget Slices Into Navy Aircraft
Purchases," Navy Times, 4 January 1988, p. 27.
8. Paret, Peter, ed. Makers of Modern Strategy. Princeton,
University Press, 1986.
9. Thomas, Vincent C. "Gen. Gray Discusses Corps' Future."
Marines (January 1988), 5-25.
10. Tillman, Barret. Corsair. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval
Institute Press, 1979.
11. Trotti, John. Marine Air First To Fight. Novato,
California: Presidio Press, 1985.
12. U.S. Marine Corps. Marine Corps Development and Education
Command. Close Air Support OH 5-4A. Quantico, 1985.
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