Marine Tactical Aviation,
Why Keep It?
SUBJECT AREA - Aviation
Title: Marine Tactical Aviation, Why Keep It?
Author: LtCol R.D. Alles, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: The Marine Corps is unique among the military services because it is a force of
combined arms, together with supporting tactical air components. The Marine Corps
should retain this unique tactical air capability. This paper examines why.
Background: The Marine Corps provides a unique capability to our nation because of its
combined arms cohesion. Nicaragua was the beginning of an extensive tradition that
closely integrates Marine air and ground forces. A long historical precedent, from W.W.II
to the Persian Gulf, establishes the effectiveness of air and ground forces married together.
Because of doctrine, the Air Force is not well positioned or intentioned to support the
Marine Corps. Navy forces, while doctrinally compatible, are over-committed and over-
tasked. Budgetary pressure continues to force DOD reductions. Marine tactical aircraft
are 31% cheaper to operate than comparable Navy aircraft and 68% cheaper than
comparable Air Force planes. Removing Marine tactical air support from the Marine
Division results in a division that does not compare favorably with either a US Army
Mechanized or Light Infantry Division, in terms of fire support. Ongoing stand-downs of
naval gunfire support ships exacerbate this imbalance.
Recommendation: Retain Marine Tactical Aviation units at levels programmed in
current force structure plan.
AAF Army Air Force
AFM US Air Force Manual
ATO Air Tasking Order
BOQ Bachelor Officer's Quarters
CAS Close Air Support
CCF Chinese Communist Forces
CG Commanding General
CMC Commandant of the Marine Corps
CO Commanding Officer
CTF Commander Task Force
FEAF Far East Air Force
FM US Army Field Manual
FMF Fleet Marine Force
FMFM Fleet Marine Force Manual
FY Fiscal Year
FYDP Future Years Defense Program
InfDiv US Army Infantry Division
JFACC Joint Force Air Component Commander
JFC Joint Force Commander
LtCol/LTC Lieutenant Colonel
LtGen/LTG Lieutenant General
MACV US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam
MAF US Marine Amphibious Force
MAG Marine Aircraft Group
MAGTF Marine Air-Ground Task Force
MajGen/MG Major General
MarDiv US Marine Division
MAW Marine Aircraft Wing
MEF US Marine Expeditionary Force
MLRS Multiple Launch Rocket System
NGF Naval Gunfire
NKPA North Korean People's Army
RADM Rear Admiral
RCT Regimental Combat Team
RN Royal Navy
SATS Short Airfield for Tactical Support
TacAir Tactical Aviation
USAF United States Air Force
USMC United States Marine Corps
VADM Vice Admiral
W.W.I World War I
W.W.ll World War II
A-6E Grumman "Intruder" Tactical Bomber
AH-I Bell "Cobra" Attack Helicopter
AH-64 McDonnell Douglas "Apache" Attack Helicopter
AV-8B McDonnell Douglas "Harrier" Fighter-Bomber
EA-6B Grumman "Prowler" Tactical Jammer
EF-111 General Dynamics Tactical Jammer
F-111 General Dynamics Tactical Bomber
F-117 Lockheed Tactical Bomber
F-14 Grumman "Tomcat" Fighter-Bomber
F-15 McDonnell Douglas "Eagle" Fighter-Bomber
F-16 General Dynamics "Falcon" Fighter-Bomber
F-4 McDonnell Douglas "Phantom" Fighter-Bomber
F-4U Chance-Vought "Corsair" Fighter
F/A-18 McDonnell Douglas "Hornet" Fighter-Bomber
P-39 Bell "Aircobra" Fighter
P-400 Bell "Aircobra" Fighter(export-version)
SBD Douglas "Dauntless" Dive-Bomber
VMSB Marine Scout- or Dive-Bomber Squadron
Zero Mitsubishi Zero-3 Navy fighter
MARINE TACTICAL AVIATION
WHY KEEP IT?
With the conclusion of the Cold War in 1989 and the smashing victory of US led
coalition forces in the Persian Gulf Conflict, the stage was set for what President George
Bush called the "New World Order." This "New World Order" not only meant increased
"peace of mind" for the average US citizen, but more importantly it meant the "peace
dividend." Part of realizing this "peace dividend" was downsizing US Armed Forces and
looking for greater efficiencies. This led to Sen. Sam Nunn's famous "Four Air Forces"
speech on the Senate floor in July of 1993. The gist of this speech was to question the
need for certain components of our Armed Forces. Sen. Nunn did not specifically target
Marine Tactical Aviation but the question once again surfaced: Why does the Marine
Corps need its own Tactical Aviation?
That is the purpose of this paper, to examine why the US Marine Corps should
keep its Tactical Aviation. I will approach the subject from four different perspectives.
First, I will examine the historical basis for USMC TacAir. Second, I will examine the
doctrine of the three services operating TacAir. Third, I will conduct a cost comparison
of US Tactical Air Forces, and finally,I will examine the firepower of a MAGTF as
compared to a US Army Mechanized and Light Infantry division.
As we examine the issue of Marine TacAir, the words of former Commandant
Gen. A.A. Vandergrift in his testimony on the future of the Marine Corps to Congress in
1946 are appropriate:
Sentiment is not a valid consideration in determining questions of national security.
We have pride in ourselves and in our past but we do not rest our case on any
presumed gratitude owing us from the nation. The bended knee is not a tradition
of our Corps. If the Marine as a fighting man has not made a case for himself after
170 years of service, he must go.1
Gen. Carl Mundy recently expressed the same sentiment when he said the functions of our
Corps must be able to stand up to examination in the light of day or they must go.2
The issue of the Marine Corps having its own TacAir is a highly charged,
politically emotional issue that often seems to transcend reason. Part of this fervor, on the
Marine side, comes from harsh lessons learned in major conflicts. On the Air Force side,
this issue usually revolves around the idea of specialized and centralized control of
Money drives the Marine TacAir issue. That is to say, those who seek its
elimination do so as a budget efficiency. It is rarely an issue during times of plentiful
funding such as during the mid-80's.
One of the most curious aspects of this debate is the Marine Corps' helicopter
force. Those who can get worked up into a virtual lather over devouring Marine TacAir
have practically no interest in our helicopters. It makes you wonder if the allegations
frequently leveled in Congress are true. Some services are not interested in helicopters
because "they aren't sexy enough." Modern day helicopters are certanly not cheap to
either purchase or maintain, especially when you are talking about a force of over 600
helicopters. One has to ponder the objectivity of those who overlook the helicopter and
zero in on the jet.
Aviation did not come into its prime until W.W.II. In W.W.I there were
tremendous air-to-air battles between opposing sides, and aircraft did play an important
interdiction role in several campaigns. However, aircraft did not have the far reaching
effects that would occur in W.W.II. For instance, on the naval side the aircraft carrier
displaced the battleship as the primary capital ship of the war.3 Likewise for the Marine
Corps, aviation had some play prior to W.W.II, such as in Nicaragua, but it did not reach
its prime until the war.
Marine Aviation's entrance into W.W.II was less than glorious. MAG-21 had 47
of its 48 airplanes destroyed during the Pearl Harbor attack. The record at Wake was
better, where Rear Admiral Kajioka (Japanese Task Force Commander) reported the
following in his diary: "Dec. 11-Wake Island landing after sunset unsuccessful because of
fighter plane opposition. Two destroyers sunk." The island fell on 23 December 1941 to
a considerably strengthened Japanese force.4
The defining point for Marine Aviation in W.W.II is at Guadalcanal. This
campaign drove home the debilitating effects of not possessing air-superiority. It
demonstrated the effectiveness of close air support, which the Japanese did not employ,
and interdiction of vulnerable targets such as transport shipping. Guadalcanal established
the importance of rapidly acquiring bare-bones (i.e., expeditionary), land-based airfields
when coming from the sea. These lessons are defining points that have shaped Marine
Aviation in the 50-odd years since Guadalcanal.
Marines landed on Guadalcanal on 7 August 1942. Preparations for the landing
were so rushed and the forces assigned so lean that officers involved nicknamed it
"Operation Shoestring."5 From the beginning, the Marine position on Guadalcanal was in
extremus. The Japanese response to the incursion was swift; the first strike (53 aircraft)
arrived at 1315 and seriously endangered the naval task force. Heavy clouds and fighters
from carriers Enterprise and Saratoga caued the strikes' bombs to fall harmlessly into the
The Marines would soon learn why having their own organic expeditionary air
support was critical. At 1810 on 8 August, VADM Fletcher (CTF 61 Expeditionary
Force) withdrew the carrier strike force leaving the Marines ashore and the Amphibious
Force at sea without air cover.7 One of the immediate results of this untimely withdrawal
was the absence of the tactical commander, RADM Crutchley, RN (CTF 62.2 Escort
Force), at the Battle of Savo Island, the most humiliating defeat suffered by the US Navy
in W.W.II.8 RADM Turner (CTF 62 South Pacific Amphibious Force) continued
unloading operations until 1200 on the ninth then departed leaving the Marines with four
days of ammunition and two sparse meals a day.9
The combined effect of the Battle of Savo Island, the absence of US aircraft on
Guadalcanal and the enemy's complete air superiority impacted significantly on the morale
of the Marines. No wonder Vandergrift personally greeted Maj. Richard Mangrum (CO
VMSB-232) when he arrived on 20 August with his 12 SBDs. Many young Marines shed
tears when they saw the arriving US aircraft. LtCol Gerald Thomas (G-3, 1stMarDiv)
remarked that no episode in the eventful campaign gave such a fillip to Marine morale as
the arrival of the first American planes.10
Historians widely credit Vandergrift with recognzing the importance of the airfield
on Guadalcanal. His original orders merely called for the sezure of"Tulagi and adjacent
positions." After the Battle of Savo Island, Vandergrift elevated the retention of
Henderson Field to his primary objective.11 This forced a pattern of action that would
dominate the island for several months. In the daytime, the Americans dominated the
surrounding land and sea areas making it extremely difficult for the Japanese to reinforce
their garrison. At night, the tables turned; the Japanese routinely delivered troops and
supplies and conducted an air and naval bombardment of the island.12
A curious aspect of Guadalcanal is that Army Air Force P-400's and P-39's,
assigned to the 67th Fighter Squadron, validated close air support as an effective mission.
These aircraft were no match for the Japanese "Zero" but provided valuable support to
Richard B. Frank's assessment of Henderson Field is right in line with other
..the Americans depended almost absolutely for sustenance on air control
mounted from Henderson Field. The crux of American vulnerability was not
merely the possession of the earth under Henderson Field, but the capacity to
employ that ground as an airfield. Thus, the Japanese only needed to prohibit the
use of the field.14
Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, provided the best opportunity to
utilize CAS of any of the island battles. The numerous caves, reverse slopes and clever
camouflage provided numerous CAS targets.15
It is interesting to note that MajGen Roy Geiger, a pioneer Marine Aviator (the 5th
Marine and 49th Naval Aviator) and commander of 1st MAW at Guadalcanal,
commanded III Amphibious Corps-consisting of the 1st, 2nd and 6th Marine Divisions.16
Additionally, Marine MajGen Pat Mulcahy commanded Tenth Army's Tactical Air Force-
composed of 4 Marine Aircraft Groups, 4 AAF Bomber Groups and 3 AAF Fighter
Groups.17 "Iceberg" planners were expecting to conduct a lot of close air support.
United States' forces flew 14,244 CAS sorties during the battle for Okinawa.
Ground commanders generally and sometimes enthusiastically praised the air support.
MG James Bradley (CG 96th Inf. Div.) characterized the CAS he received as "superior
throughout" the battle.18 The 96th Div. records the following action which required the
bombs to impact within 100 yards of their lines:
The squadron leader came in at terrirfc speed. Observers behind the US lines lost
sight of the plane below the 200' crest of the hill. Then suddenly the plane came
up out of nowhere with a terrific roar, climbing almost straight up... The rest of
the squadron dived on the hill, each loosing a bomb... Not one plane overshot its
mark' which would have been disastrous to the awaiting doughboys who, once the
runs were over, advanced and seized the hill which had held up their progress.19
The soldiers of MG John Hodge's XXIV Corps were unaccustomed to receiving
CAS. However, by the end of the campaign they had become insatiable in their demands.
Col. Vernon MeGee (CO Landing Force Air Support Control Units) said they expected
aviation to "dig the Japs out of caves and lay them out to be counted." Such was the
record of CAS at Okinawa.20
The conquest of the Philippine Islands provided a significant shaping ground for
Marine CAS doctrine and techniques. Military officers often forget that the 1st Marine
Aircraft Wing heavily contributed to the Philippine battle, becoming in essence the CAS
wing of MacArthur's Sixth Army. Marines flew almost half of the Luzon sorties between
27 January and 14 April 1945 with only 13% ofthe aircraft. Marines demonstrated the
soundness of their specialized approach to CAS.21
To say the Army was skeptical of the support they were about to receive is an
understatement. Army Aviators in their 1943 version of FM 100-20 insisted that:
In the zone of contact, missions against hostile units are most difficult to control,
are most expensive, and are, in genetal, least effective. Targets are small, well-
dispersed, and difficult to locate. In addition, there is always a considerable chance
of striking friendly forces... Only at critical times are contact zone missions
Army inifintry officers were equally skeptical of CAS due to many instances of fratricide in
the Pacific Theater.23
By the end of the Battle for the Philippines, the view from Army Intantry officers
was completely different. Commendations from LTG Krueger (CG 6th Army), LTG
Eichelberger (CG 8th Army), MG Mudge (CG 1st CavDiv), MG Patrick (CG 6th InfDiv),
MG Woodruff(CG 24th InfDiv), MG Martin (CG 31st InfDiv) and MGDoe (CG 41st
InfDiv) all cited Marine aviation units.24 Historians concluded "that Marine air could
handle all aspects of tactical air war and that Marine CAS was a dependable instrument for
inflicting maximum destruction on the Japanese."25
Post W.W.II the Marine Corps desired to shape itself as a force of "minute men..
held in readiness to be moved instantly with the Fleet to any part of the world." The
Navy supported this concept of an air-ground Fleet Marine Force built around divisions
and wings. This set the stage for battles, with the administration, over the future function
and role of the Marine Corps as an integrated, combined arms force. The administration
wanted to strip the Corps of its amphibious assault mision, transfer Marine Aviation to
the Air Force and constrain the Marine Corps combat functions such that it would revert
to a 19th century status. The Marine Corps responded by relying on its traditional
identification with Congress and the public.26 The final result was the National Security
Act of 1947 which stated that: "The Marine Corps shall be organized, trained and
equipped to provide fleet marine forces of combined arms, together with supporting air
components..." This legislative sanction set the framework for a task organized
approach which has since yielded the MAGTF.27
The Korean War was a shock to the United States both in terms of foreign policy
and military preparedness. The early days of Korea were black days for the United States,
which was unprepared both physically and mentally for such a conflict.28 One of the
bright spots in the early days was the introduction of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade
into the Pusan Perimeter. The 5th Marines and MAG-33 (equipped with F-4U Corsairs)
comprised the brigade. Army commanders were jealous of the Marines, not only because
of the blaze of publicity they got, but because they had their own air support. Clay Blair
in his excellent book, The Forgotten War makes the following comments about the
In addition to its organic tank and artillery battalions, the Marine brigade had its
own integrated, well-trained close air support. Whereas Army regiments still had
to request FEAF (Far East Air Force) close air support through a complicated,
slow, and unsatisfactory chain of command, the Marines had support aircraft close
at hand and virtually on instant call.29
The performance of the Marine brigade speaks for itself. Within a short time after
its arrival, the brigade, along with COL Mike Michaelis' "Wolfhounds" (27th RCT),
became LTG Walker's (CG 8th Army) "fire brigades." He used them liberally to shore up
critical positions in the Pusan perimeter.
As the brigade was deploying to Korea, arguments were already underway in
Washington as to who would control Marine Air once it arrived in Korea. Even though
the Korean ground situation was critical, the Air Force wanted to attack NKPA lines of
communication. The Air Force considered direct support of US ground troops as
wasteful and too dangerous to friendly troops. GEN MacArthur decided that for the time
being Marine Air would directly Support ground troops.
Korea provided numerous instances of the effectiveness of CAS and, likewise, the
utility of a combined air-ground team like the Marine Brigade. One particularly effective
CAS mission, on 11 Augt 1950, wiped out most of the vehicles in the NKPA 83rd
Motorized Regiment causing many enemy casualties.30 The attack by some 10 different
aircraft took only a few minutes to wreak havoc on the exposed enemy column.31
Another very effective use of Marine Air ocurred during the First Battle for the Naktong
Bulge from 17-19 August 1950. A combined Army and Marine attack supported by
Marine Corsairs effectively destroyed the NKPA 4th Div. The US 24th InfDiv alone,
buried more than 1200 enemy dead after the battle.32 A final example occurred on 3
November 1950 when the full CCF 124th Div. attacked the 7th Marines about midnight,
near the Chosin Reservoir. The Chinese got the upper hand, and the battle closed to hand-
to-hand fighting. However, at daylight Marine artillery and close air support devastated
the 124th, leaving 700 enemy dead and perhaps thousands wounded.33 The entire Chosin
withdrawal was a significant testimony to the effectiveness of Marine Air and Marines'
ability to employ it. In fact, the fast carriers of Task Force 77, disappointed by 8th Army's
performance in directing CAS, shifted to support X Corps where it knew Marine air
control parties were.34
Perhaps one of the best testimonies of the effectiveness of integrated Marine close
air support, in Korea, comes from GEN Joe Collins (US Army Chief of Staff as he
commented on the upcoming Inchon landing. He said, of the 1st Marine Brigade and its
highly effective organic close air support, that its withdrawal from the Pusan Perimeter to
land at Inchon would so weaken Walker's thin perimeter defenses that the NKPA might
crack through and decisively rout Eighth Army before Inchon could be mounted.35
One of the many results of the Korean War was the Marine Corps emerging with
the image of an air-ground force in readiness, unlike any of the other services.36 This
combined with the overall excellent performance of Marine forces in Korea and the
Truman Administration's desire to keep the Marines "in their place" (a desire that
"backfired") led to Public Law 416 (the Marine Corps Bill). This law clearly stated that
the Marines were a separate service with their own specific roles and missions.
Additionally, it mandated that the administration would maintain the Marine Corps at an
active force level of three divisions and three wings.37
The Vietnam War was a trying experience for the Marine Corps, as it was for all
the services. The chain of command, by itself, virtually guaranteed there would be inter-
service fights over who controlled what. The war did provide the opportunity for Marine
Aviation to demonstrate its expeditionary capability for high performance jet aircraft. 1st
MAW erected a Short Airfield for Tactical Support at Chu Lai while awaiting
construction of a permanent concrete runway. The SATS utilized steel matting and
catapult and arresting equipment for launching and stopping high performance aircraft in
In Vietnam, the Marines primarily used fixed wing units to support Marine ground
operations and maintained these assets under Marine operational control until 1967. Then
the all too familiar debate of who would control Marine air arose. The Air Force
maintained that pre-planned strikes were more effective than Marine "on call" missions.
GEN William Momyer (Military Assistance Command Vietnam Deputy for Air
Operations) wanted to expand control so that Marine air would fall under a common
theater air commander. Marine air would become responsible for all CAS missions in the
I Corps area releasing Air Force units to other more important missions. This was a
"backhanded" endorsement of the effectiveness of CAS, but it meant that Marine ground
units would lose the timely response of their air component The issue actually went all
the way to the President, and he decided in Momyer's favor. However, III MAF was able
to convince GEN Creighton Abrams that CAS would be more effective if he returned
operational control to III MAF. This occurred in May 1968. By 1970 a MACV policy
revision effectively gave Marines control of their air again and provided III MAF some of
the best CAS ever.39
The Persian Gulf War did not really provide sufficient opportunity to evaluate
CAS because of the reduced nature of the ground war. However, it did provide the
opportunity to somewhat evaluate CMC White Letter No. 4-86-- 1986 Omnibus
Agreement for Command and Control of Marine TacAir in Sustained Operations Ashore.
This letter specifies that the Joint Force Commander will dedicate Marine Air to the
support of the Marine mission but it also reinforces the Joint Force Commander's
authority to divert Marine air away from Marine ground support.40 Navy and Marine
aviation commanders were fearful and remain fearful that the Joint Force Air Component
Commander (normally USAF Gen.) will use the JFACC role to mount a futile interdiction
campaign to the detriment of the engaged ground forces, much like occurred in Korea and
Despite all the tension over the "Omnibus Agreement," air operations in Desert
Storm went off smoothly. The MEF provided Marine air to the JFACC as needed and still
had enough reserve remang to accomplish Marine CAS missions as required. What the
"Gulf War" failed to test is what will happen when the JFACC is short of assets to
conduct his strategic campaign. This was and remains the crux of the problem, when the
JFACC takes needed Marine Air away from the Marine commander.
Fleet Marine Force Manual 5-42 states the following:
The MAGTF commander uses aviation to project power well in advance of close
combat and to shape events in time and space. Using aviation, the MAGTF
commander not only attacks enemy positions that may impede his mission, but also
attacks follow-on forces and supply lines. Offensive air support allows the
MAGTF commander to influence fixture operations and project his will upon the
Simply stated, doctrinally, the Marine Corps expects to use its aviation in the
accomplishment of the MAGTF mission. The Marine Corps has shaped its forces to
integrate effectively together, and Marine ground forces consider the aviation component
of the MAGTF essential to their suceessful accomplishment of the mission. Aviation
Marines consider close support of the ground combat element as an essential mission.
Likewise, the US Navy views close support of ground forces in a favorable light.
Examining the new Forward... From the Sea document, I see a continuing emphasis on
littoral warfare and the increased cooperation that is necessary between the Navy and
Marine Corps. The Secretary of the Navy has packaged his naval forces -Aircraft Carrier
Battle Groups, Amphibious Ready Groups, Marine Expeditionary Units (Special
Operations Capable), Marine Expeditionary Forces and the Maritime Prepositioning
Force- into a Naval Expeditionary Force. Forward. .. From the Sea clearly implies the
combined operation and cooperation of Navy and Marine forces.43 Indeed, examining the
historical record of US Navy forces during W. W. II and Korea shows generally no
hesitation on their part to provide close support for Marines. Likewise, the same applied
to the Marines. Additionally, the Navy does not tend to become exclusively focused on
the strategic air campaign.
The Navy's problem comes not with the doctrine of close support for the ground
but in competing mission priorities. Navy carrier forces are not assigned a primary
mission of supporting Marine ground forces in any major contingency, unless the CINC
directs an amphibious landing. They have other missions such as flying JFACC assigned
strategic missions, providing air defense for naval forces or interdicting enemy coastal
naval forces. In certain theaters, such as North Korea, there is a significant submarine
threat which restricts the availability of carrier based air. Indeed, if we examine the
Guadalcanal campaign, we clearly see the vulnerability of combat ships operating in
confined waters and the tremendous casualties that the enemy can inflict onboard these
vessels injust a few minutes. So, the main problem with supporting Marine ground forces
comes not from Navy doctrine but from Air Force doctrine.
Air Force Manual (AFM) 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the US Air Force,
contains the essence of the how the Air Force views the use of airpower.44 One of the
prime tenets of aerospace power is centralized control/decentralized execution. AFM 1-1
Aerospace forces should be centrally controlled by an airman to achieve
advantageous synergies, establish effective priorities, capitalize on unique strategic
and operational flexibilities, ensure unity of purpose, and minimize the potential for
This prime tenet presents several problems for operational Marine commanders.
First, central control necessitates the removal of operational control of Marine TacAir
from the Marine commander. Second, the central controlling authority must be an airman.
This is clearly stated in AFM 1-1 which says: "An airman, acting as air component
commander, should be responsible for employing all air and space assets in theater."46
This is definitely not the case in a MEF. Aviation in the MEF is one of two other
components under the direct charge of the MEF commander, normally an infantry officer.
Third, Marines typically view the statement that says "minimize the potential for
conflicting objectives" to mean I (i.e., the JFACC) will strike targets I see as important,
not yours. This prime tenet of aerospace power presents a significant doctrinal problem to
the way Marines employ air.
Air Force doctrine views close air support as the least efficient use of air. AFM 1-
Close air support produces the most focused and briefest effects of any force
application mission; consequently close air support rarely creates campaign-level
effects. Although close air support is the least efficient application of aerospace
forces, at times it may be the most critical by ensuring the success or survival of
The problem that arises out of this and the preceding doctrine is that it leaves the
determination of who, if anyone, gets CAS at the JFC level. The JFACC is the principal
advisor to the JFC on matters of aviation employment. He is typically an Air Force officer
whom the Air Force has schooled in its doctrine. That doctrine says airpower should be
centrally controlled. He also presumes that he, as the senior airman, knows best how to
employ it and that CAS is the least effective use of airpower. If he controls Marine air, or
because of the elimination of Marine TacAir has the Air Force provide air support to the
Marines, it is somewhat unlikely that he will provide significant amounts of CAS to the
ground forces. This is especially true in situations like W.W.II and Korea, where heavy
ground fighting is in progress before the strategic or even interdiction air campaign has
had sufficient time to take effect.
In general, Air Force doctrine does not conform itself to the way the Marine Corps
fights its battles. The MEF commander utilizes his air to shape his deep battle and support
his operations in the close battle. The Marine Corps uses its air to augment the lower
level of organic fire support in the Marine Division. The shorter ATO (air tasking order)
cycle of the MEF enables the MEF to quickly move its air from deep to close battle. This
is not how the Air Force fights its air battle.
The pressure to reduce spending and increase efficiency across the Department of
Defense is extremely intense. Inside the Department of the Navy (DON), the total budget
at the end of the very lean 70's, was $86B (FY94 $). It rose to $118B (FY94 $) in 1986,
the height of the Reagan defense buildup. During 1995 it will fall to $71B (FY94 $) and
by 1998 it will fall to $66B (FY94 $). So by 1998, the total DON budget will decrease
23% from the sparse 1980 level and 44% from the 1986 level.48
A natural question arising out of this pressure to reduce spending is, whose tactical
air force is most inexpensive to operate? I have to confess, as a Marine I have always
wondered why everywhere I go in the armed forces, it seems as if everyone has more
money than the Marine Corps.
I deploy to Air Force Bases and notice their hangar facilities are more modern,
they have an abundance of maintenance equipment and higher quality BOQs and officer's
clubs. Their squadrons seem to have more troops than a Marine squadron. Talking to Air
Force enlisted men I discover they typically worked only an 8 hour shift, because they
have enough people to run three 8 hour shifts. Many of them were able to pursue off-duty
education. I could never let my enlisted Marines do that. They were too busy going on
deployments or working 12 hour shifts, six days a week. When a Marine F/A-18D
squadron deployed to Aviano Air Base, Italy, for Operation Deny Flight, they lived in
tents, ate in a field mess and received field duty orders. An Air Force F-16 squadron,
deployed for the same mission, lived in hotels and drew per diem.
Likewise, Navy squadrons never seemed to be as critical on funding for items such
as routine administrative supplies or face the kind of personnel operating tempo we have
in the Marine Corps. After working at Headquarters Marine Corps for three years, the
answers to these questions became obvious.
The following data was drawn from the 1992 Future Years Defense Program
(FYDP) under the area of General Purpose Forces, the category of Tactical/Mobiiity, and
the section Tactical Air Forces. I will compare the average cost of operating a tactical jet
aircraft among the services. For the Marine Corps, I considered the following aircraft as
tactical jets-AV-8B, A-6E, F/A-18, EA-6B. For the Air Force, I considered the following
aircraft tactical jets-A-10, F-4, F-15, F-15E, F-117,F-111, F-16, EF-111. For the Navy,
I considered the following as tactical jets-A-6E, F-14, F/A-18, EA-6B. Do not attempt to
compare data between the Air Force and Navy because there are variations in the type of
funding that each service included in each program element number.
Click here to view image
Comparing the two services with the Marine Corps, it costs the Air Force 68%
more and the Navy 31% more to operate one of their tactical jet aircraft annually; hardly a
bargain for the US taxpayer.
One of the frequent justifications cited by Headquarters Marine Corps for
possessing its own tactical jet aircraft is the issue of firepower or fire support.
Traditionally Marines have used their air somewhat like flying artillery. This caused an
Army Regimental Commander writing back to Washington during Korea to say:
The Marines on our left were a sight to behold. Not only was their equipment
superior or equal to ours, but they had squadrons of air in direct support. They
used it like artillery... we just have to have air support like that or we might as
well disband the Infantry and join the Marines...50
The US Army has overcome their lack of Air Force air support by procuring
significant amounts of artillery and attack helicopters for their combat divisions. A natural
question that arises is, how does a Marine Corps Division stack up against an Army
Division in terms of fire support? The following two tables compare the fire support in a
Marine Division with an Army Mechanized Division and an Army Light Infantry Division:
Click here to view image
Click here to view image
When strictly comparing the firepower of artillery and attack helicopters both the
Army Mechanized and Light Infantry Divisions have more fire support; although, the
Light Infantry Division has a good deal of its firepower provided by the 105mm howitzer.
The fire support problem is even more critical if I consider the reductions in Marine
artillery tubes and Naval Gunfire support (NGF). These are assets the Marine Corps has
historically relied on in its amphibious role. The following chart shows the active duty
reductions in Marine Artillery Tubes and US Navy 5" and 16" Naval guns:
Click here to view image
The overall drawdown for USMC artillery is 50% while the NGF reduction is 44%.
The net result of existing organic fire support plus reductions, is an "undergunned"
Marine Division. However, if we include the fire support provided by fixed wing Marine
aircraft to the Marine Division the situation changes:
Click here to view image
Including Marine TacAir puts the Marine Division on a more even footing with the
Army Division. Deleting that capability would put the Marines at a significant fire support
So, why should the Marine Corps keep its TacAir?
Guadalcanal shows the key role expeditionary air can play when the enemy
severely presses our naval and ground forces. Since Guadalcanal, the Marine Corps has
specifically designed its aviation to operate from small, bare-bones airbases like Henderson
Field. Its aircraft are capable of short field takeoffs and arrested landings. Its maintenance
is seif-contained and portable. It possesses the ability to construct expeditionary airfields
where none existed before. Finally, it has its own movable air traffic control facilities.
Other services can operate from land bases, but none of them has all the key components
to operate from small expeditionary airfields.
The later W.W.II battles of Okinawa and the Philippines were excellent proving
grounds for finely coordinated CAS in an offensive environment. The overall effect of
W.W.II and the resulting National Security Act of 1947 was a service with a unique
identity as a combined arms force. Korea demonstrated how extremely effective CAS
could be in a gravely defensive environment. It also confirmed the desire of the Air Force
to pursue strategic targets at the expense of the ground forces. The congressional fallout
of Korea, Public Law 416, was to fix the size of the Marine Corps and validate its image
as an air-ground force in readiness, unlike any other service.
Doctrinally, I do not see a problem with the Navy supporting Marines on the
ground; one could hardly argue since Navy and Marine pilots did it successfully from
carriers in both W.W.II and Korea. The Navy's problem comes from the availability of
carriers to dedicate solely to ground support. Conversely, Air Force doctrine is definitely
not supportive of the way a MEF commander desires to shape the battlefield with his air.
The cost data speaks for itself with Marine air being at least 30% cheaper than its
nearest competitor. Ultimately, removing the fixed wing air component from the MEF
will leave the Marine Division woefully under equipped with fire support.
When I consider all this together, I find a historical place for both the Marine
Corps and its tactical aviation. I find the other services either doctrinally unwilling or
operationally too committed to participate in close support. I find a functionally capable
Marine force that costs less. Finally, when I separate the Marine Division from its tactical
aviation, I have an "undergunned," light infantry division with amphibious capability.
If you had a choice between a Seiko and a Rolex, you would probably pick the
Rolex. But if you are buying for somebody else you would pick the functionally
equivalent, but less expensive watch: Seiko.
1Millet, Col. Alan R. Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps. (New York, NY:
The free Press, MacMillan, 1991) page 460.
2Mundy, Gen. Carl E. Presentation On USMC Roles and Missions. US Marine Corps Command and
Staff College, Quantico, VA 22134. Fall 1994.
3Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second
World War, (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1963) pages 578-579.
4Sherrod, Robert Lee. History of Marine Corps Aviation in W.W.II. (Baltimore, MD: Nautical &
Aviation Publishing Co. of America, 1987)page 41.
5Morison, page 166.
6Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. (New York, NY:
Random House, 1990) page 68.
7Morison, page 172.
8Frank, page 83.
9Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. (New York, NY: The Free
Press, MacMillan, 1984)page 195.
10Frank, page 140.
11Frank, page 607.
12Spector, page 197.
13Sherrod, page 82.
14Frank, page 606.
15Sherrod, page 385.
16Millett, page 433.
17Sherrod, pages 372-373.
18Sherrod, pages 409.
19Sherrod, pages 410-411.
20Sherrod, page 411.
21Millett, page 425.
22Sherrod, page 291.
23Sherrod, page 292.
24Sherrod, page 303.
25Millett, page 426.
26Millett, pages 451, 457, 463 and 464.
27Commandant of the Marine Corps. Green Letter No.1-80: Roles, Mission, and Structure of the Marine
Corps. (Washington, DC: USMC, 1980) page 2.
28Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea 1950-1953. (New York, NY: Anchor Books,
Doubleday, 1989) page XI
29Blair, page 194.
30Blair, page 197.
31Appleman, Col. Roy E. United States Army in the Korean War, South to the Naktong, North to the
Yalu. (Washington, DC: Center for Military History, US Army, 1992) page 275.
32Appleman, pages 310-318.
33Blair, page 388.
34Millett, page 495.
35Blair, page 224
36Millett, page 497.
37Millett, page 507.
38Millett, page 507.
39Millett, pages 586-588.
40Commandant of the Marine Corps. White Letter No. 4-86: 1986 Omnibus Agreement for Command
and Control of Marine TacAir in Sustained Operations Ashore. (Washington, DC: USMC, 1986) pages 2
41Millett, pages 630-631.
42United States Marine Corps. FMFM 5-42: Deep Air Support. (Washington, DC: USMC,1993) page
43Department of the Navy. Forward...From the Sea. (Washington, DC: DON,1994) pages 1, 4, 5, 7
44Department of the Air Force. Air Force Manual 1-1: Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air
Force. (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992) vol. 1, pages v-vii.
45AFM 1-1, vol. 1, page 8.
46AFM 1-1, vol. 1, page 9
47AFM 1-1, vol. 1, page 13.
48Forward...From the Sea, page 9.
49Department of Defense. Future Years Defense Program, 1992. (Washington, DC: US Government
Printing Office, 1992) General Purpose Forces, Tactical/Mobility category, Tactical Air Forces section.
50Headquarters, United States Marine Corps. APP-31 Comment on USN Support of MAGTF, dated 24
March 1994, page 1.
51Headquarters, Department of the Army. Field Manual 6-20-30, Fire Support for Corps and Division
Operations. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1989) pages A-2-3, A-5.
52Headquarters, Department of the Army. Field Manual 100-15, Corps Operations. (Washington, DC:
US Government Printing Office, 1989) pages A-1, A-12-14, A-29-31.
53FM 6-20-30, pages A-2-3, A-5.
54FM 100-15, pages A-1, A-12-14, A-29-31.
55Headquarters, United States Marine Corps. APP-31 Chart on USMC/USN Fire Support Reductions,
dated 20 March 1995.
Appleman, Col. Roy E. United States Army in the Korean War, South to the Naktong,
North to the Yalu. Washington, DC: Center for Military History, US Army, 1992.
Blair, Clay. The Forgotten War: America in Korea 1950-1953. New York, NY: Anchor
Books, Doubleday, 1989.
Commandant of the Marine Corps. Green Letter No. 1-80: Roles, Mission, and Structure
of the Marine Corps. Washington, DC: USMC, 1980.
Commandant of the Marine Corps. White Letter No. 4-86: 1986 Omnibus Agreement for
Command and Control of Marine TacAir in Sustained Operations Ashore. Washington,
DC: USMC, 1986.
Department of the Air Force. Air Force Manual 1-1: Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the
United States Air Force. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1992.
Department of Defense. Future Years Defense Program 1992. Washington, DC: US
Government Printing Office, 1992.
Department of the Navy. Forward... From the Sea. Washington, DC: DON, 1994.
Frank, Richard B. Guadalcanal: The Definitive Account of the Landmark Battle. New
York, NY: Random House, 1990.
Headquarters, Department of the Army. Field Manual 6-20-3O, Fire Support for Corps
and Division Operations. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1989.
Headquarters, Department of the Army. Field Manual 100-15 Corps Operations.
Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1989.
Headquarters, United States Marine Corps. APP-31 Comment on USN Support of
MAGTF, dated 24 March 1994.
Headquarters, United States Marine Corps. APP-31 Chart on USMC/USN Fire Support
Reductions, dated 20 March 1995.
Millett, Col. Alan R. Semper Fidelis: The History of the United States Marine Corps.
New York, NY: The Free Press, MacMillan, 1991.
Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy
in the Second World War. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1963.
Mundy, Gen. Carl E. Presentation on USMC Roles and Missions. US Marine Corps
Command and Staff College, Quantico, VA 22134, 1994.
Sherrod, Robert Lee. History of Marine Corps Aviation in W.W.II. Baltimore, MD:
Nautical & Aviation Publishing Co. of America, 1987.
Spector, Ronald H. Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York,
NY: The Free Press, MacMillan, 1984.
United States Marine Corps. FMFM 5-42: Deep Air Support. Washington, DC:
Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list