Marine Corps Close Air Support: What Aircraft Are Really Needed? AUTHOR Major W. M. Jones CSC 1988 SUBJECT AREA Aviation EXECUTIVE SUMMARY 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? OUTLINE 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 Marine. I. Current Close Air Support Aircraft A. F/A-18 1. Primarily air-to-air 2. Not a true all-weather close air support asset 3. Cost approximately $20 million per aircraft B. AV-8B 1. Good close air support aircraft 2. Problems 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 C. A6-E 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 B. Peace-keeping/peace-presence C. Marine Corps won't fight general war alone III. Aircraft Needed To Support Future Hostilities A. New close air support airplane 1. Rugged 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 A. Corsair B. Skyraider 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 conditions. (13:2-7) 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 expensive. 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. (13:2-5) 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 wing cracks. 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. .... 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 fighting Marines. 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 purposes. (4:21-21) 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 time). 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 type. 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 guarded asset. 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 participating in. BIBLIOGRAPHY 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." Insight, 14 September 1987, pp. 8-9. 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. 13. U.S. Marine Corps. Marine Corps Development and Education Command. Fleet Marine Force Aviation IP 5-7. Quantico, 1987. 14. U.S. Marine Corps. Marine Corps Development and Education Command. Tasking USMC Fixed-Wing Tactical Aviation OH 5-3. Quantico, 1982.
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