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Should The United States Marine Corps Retain Tactical Aviation Assets

Should The United States Marine Corps Retain Tactical Aviation Assets?


CSC 1995









Title: Should the USMC Retain Tactical Aviation Assets?


Author: Major C.F.Mitchell, United States Marine Corps


Thesis: Marine Corps TACAIR assets are struggling to

survive in light of the declining defense budget, but this

is precisely the reason why the USMC should retain TACAIR

assets. No other service can provide the war fighting

capability per dollar spent.



Background: Whenever defense budgets are cut Marine Corps

TACAIR is usually one of the first areas up for review.

There are individuals in the USAF and USN who believe that

either service can provide TACAIR support to the Marine

Corps ground combat element if required. The history of

Marine Corps TACAIR employment up to current operations

today show that Marine Corps TACAIR assets are required.

The USAF and USN are both augmented today by Marine Corps

TACAIR just to fill their peacetime commitments. The cost

of Marine Corps TACAIR is significantly less expensive to

operate, maintain and deploy in comparison to the USAF or




Recommendation: The USMC must remain proactive in defending

its TACAIR assets by stressing the operational requirements,

fighting capability and effectiveness it provides per dollar



Should The United States Marine Corps Retain Tactical

Aviation Assets?




Thesis: Marine Corps TACAIR assets are struggling to

survive in light of the declining defense budget, but this

is precisely the reason why the USMC should retain TACAIR

assets. No other service can provide the war fighting

capability per dollar spent.


I. Introduction


II. Historical Employment of Marine TACAIR

A. Korea

B. Vietnam

C. Persian Gulf


III. Service Doctrine

A. United States Air Force

B. United States Navy

C. United States Marine Corps


IV. USMC TACAIR Employment

A. Cost Comparison with USAF/USN


V. Conclusion









The United States Marine Corps should retain tactical


aviation (TACAIR) assets. No other service can compete with


the USMC in providing a war fighting capability and


effectiveness, per dollar spent. Marine Corps TACAIR assets


are struggling to survive in light of the declining defense


budget; the target primarily being the F/A-18 Hornet. This


is not a new controversy but one that has surfaced time and


again long before the F/A-18 program went into development.


The issue always raised is that the United States Air Force


(USAF) or United States Navy (USN) can provide TACAIR


support to the United States Marine Corps (USMC) when


required. This issue surfaces whenever purse strings


tighten or roles and missions come up for review. Here we


go again! The Navy would like to absorb Marine TACAIR and


the Air Force would possibly benefit dollar-wise if Marine


TACAIR ceased to exist. The argument about which branch of


the services (including the Marine Corps) can effectively


support the Marine Corps ground combat element (GCE) during


amphibious landings or once established ashore, is wrought


with egos, rice bowls and professional jealousies.


The bottom line is dollars. Whether TACAIR supports


Marines in Somalia or the Persian Gulf, Marine Corps TACAIR


can do it for less cost than either the USAF or USN, and be


just as effective.


This paper will present a review of the historical


employment of Marine TACAIR, and aviation doctrine of the


USAF, USN and USMC. Current USMC TACAIR employment followed


by USMC TACAIR costs versus the USAF and USN is then




This is not an argument concerning roles and missions.


Marine TACAIR exists to support the Marine on the ground.


Whether GCE support occurs during amphibious or land based


operations utilizing close air support (CAS) or deep air


strikes (DAS) is irrelevant.


On 3 August 1950, the first Marine air strikes during


the Korean War, flown by VMF-214, flew off Navy aircraft


carriers striking strategic targets at Chinju and Sinban-ni.


VMF-323, operating off the USS Badoeing Strait, flew the


first Marine close air support sorties for 8TH Army units.1


Marine Night Fighter Squadron 513 (VMF(N)-513) based at


Itazuki, Japan, flew night interdiction missions operating


under 5TH Air Force. During the first 42 days of flight


operations Marine sorties totaled over 950, of which over


300 sorties flew in support of the United States Army (USA)


and Republic of Korea (ROK) Army.


VMF-323 embarked on the USS Badoeing Strait, and VMF-


214 embarked on the USS Sicily, provided CAS and air cover


for the amphibious landing at Inchon. After securing the


beachhead, MAG-33 established itself at Kimpo Airfield.


Marine TACAIR doctrine is built around supporting


amphibious landings. This does not necessarily mean they do


it from aircraft carriers. Another amphibious landing,


planned for Wonsan on the east coast of North Korea, was


supported by Marine air from Kimpo and eventually Wonsan


airfields. Throughout the war Marines continued to fly off


aircraft carriers and airfields. The support structure,


much like today, allowed this to take place and is the


essence of flexibility.


The Vietnam War saw Marine aviation primarily land-


based at Da Nang and Chu Lai. Marine All-Weather Fighter


Squadron 212 (VMF(AW)-212) embarked aboard the USS Oriskany


and attacked strategic ground targets in North and South


Vietnam. General Westmoreland projected a need for more


TACAIR assets, which could only be provided by Marines at


that time. Admiral Sharp (CINCPAC) and General Westmoreland


requested that a second air base be established in South


Vietnam and received approval from the Secretary of Defense


in March 1965.2 That base became Chu Lai and initially


operated as a short airfield for tactical support (SATS)


until the runways and support facilities were constructed.


The main employment of Marine TACAIR was in the


delivery of air-to-ground ordnance in direct and close


support of ground troops. The Navy wanted more Marine


squadrons afloat to support the carrier decks, but that


meant decreasing the number of squadrons ashore supporting


Marine ground units; the Marine Corps could not do both.


Higher sortie rates are generated when supporting ground


units with TACAIR from land bases vice aircraft carriers.


Twelve of the Marine Corps 27 fighter-attack squadrons


deployed to Vietnam.


During the Persian Gulf War Marine TACAIR flew


primarily from land bases with the exception of 20 AV-8B


Harriers aboard the USS Nassau. TACAIR assets during the


first phase of the war struck strategic targets as far north


as Baghdad and eventually transitioned to striking tactical


targets. A myriad of missions to include deep air strikes


(DAS), interdiction, suppression of enemy air defenses


(SEAD), and CAS was accomplished by 202 TACAIR assets, which


accounted for over 9,000 sorties flown and 33,000 pieces of


ordnance delivered.3 A total of 566 Marine aircraft (fixed


wing and rotary wing) in theater accounted for approximately


11% of total coalition sorties flown during the war, with


only 7% of the total aircraft supporting the war.4



USAF Doctrine


Current USAF doctrine of "Global Reach-Global Power,"


described in Air Force Manual 1-1 (AFM 1-1), outlines the


doctrine and priorities for employment of aerospace power in


future conflicts and will carry the USAF into the next




United States air power is defined as the United States

Air Force--not because of its name or any theoretical

concept that air power must be unitary, but because of

the military tasks that have been assigned to the Air

Force, that it is organized and prepared (given the

means) to perform, and that will not be performed at

any significant level of effort except by the USAF.5


The basic tenet of AFM 1-1 is that "Controlling the


aerospace environment is a prerequisite to accomplishing


other aerospace roles and missions." AFM 1-1 also points


out that "The most effective and efficient scheme is


control of all aerospace assets by a single joint force air


component commander (JFACC), responsible for integrating


employment of all aerospace forces within a theater of




The USAF has in the past and will continue to argue


that there is no requirement for USMC tactical aviation


assets and that when required the USAF can provide the


support to the ground combat element (GCE).



USN Doctrine


The Secretary of the Navy (SecNav), Chief of Naval


Operations (CNO), and the Commandant of the Marine Corps


(CMC) developed and implemented a new Navy-Marine Corps


strategy on 28 September 1992. The updated strategy


"Forward...From the Sea" encapsulates the vision of our


future Navy and Marine Corps power projection role. It


emphasizes the capability to project power ashore with the


emphasis on littoral warfare.6 This doctrine, developed in


response to the current challenges, is a shift in focus from


global threats to a more regional focus, and concentrates on


littoral waters and maneuver from the sea.


A conference convened during the summer of 1993 at


Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada, brought together all the


Carrier Air Wing Commanding Officers to discuss the future


of carrier aviation. Areas discussed included pilot


training, munitions, lines of communication, aircraft


procurement, and roles and missions. During two days of


discussions not once did the role of amphibious operations


or close air support come up. Let there be no doubt that


the mindset of today's Navy is still long range power


projection from the sea.



USMC Doctrine


The primary mission of Marine Corps aviation is to


participate as the supporting air component of the FMF in


the seizure and defense of advanced naval bases and for the


conduct of such land operations as may be essential to the


prosecution of a naval campaign.7 A collateral mission of


Marine Corps aviation is to participate as an integral


component of naval aviation.9


The mission of Marine Corps aviation has not changed


since Alfred A. Cunningham remarked, "The only excuse for


aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting


troops on the ground to successfully carry out their




The Commandant co-authored the current Navy and Marine


Corps doctrine. "Forward...From the Sea" emphasizes the


cohesion between the Navy and Marine Corps as the US shifts


from a global threat to a more littoral, regional strategy.


The doctrine remains predicated on the traditional


expeditionary role of the Marine Corps and the need for


joint operations capable of projecting power ashore and


further inland if necessary.



USMC TACAIR Employment


With recent reductions in the defense budget, the


services are reviewing their roles and missions in an effort


to sustain their current structure. Marine TACAIR is viewed


as a target for a way to cut spending. An argument used is


that only once since WW-II has an amphibious landing


occurred (Inchon) and should one occur in the future either


the Navy or Air Force can support it. This implies that


Marine TACAIR exists solely to support amphibious landings,


which is wrong. As stated in FMFM 5-1 "... Marine Corps


aviation is to participate as the supporting air component


of the FMF in the seizure and defense of advanced naval


bases and for the conduct of such land operations as may be


essential to the prosecution of a naval campaign." Marine


Corps TACAIR's sole mission is to support FMF operations,


regardless if the mission is amphibious or not.


The focus of the Marine Corps is, and has been for


decades, expeditionary operations and other duties that the


President directs. For over 40 years it has trained,


organized, and equipped itself for expeditionary operations.


Amphibious operations are just one way to employ the Marine


Corps under the expeditionary umbrella. Although Marine


TACAIR has not been involved recently in wartime amphibious


operations, neither has the GCE. This is not a reason to


dissolve the Marine GCE nor does it carry any weight in the


argument to dissolve Marine TACAIR.


Marine tactical air combat power serves Marine ground


forces as airborne artillery. This allows the force to


remain light and to maintain its expeditionary "on-call"


focus. The Army, in contrast, historically lacking reliance


on Air Force close air support, has invested heavily in


attack helicopters, tanks, armored vehicles, artillery


pieces and MLRS launchers. It also acquired the Patriot,


originally designed as a long-range anti-aircraft missile.


Over the past five years a reduction in Marine ground


artillery by 45 percent severely reduced the GCEs combat


effectiveness.10 This puts more emphasis on the use of


TACAIR to provide heavy firepower for ground combat. The


Air Force in recent years has openly put little emphasis on


close air support and discussed the options of dissolving


their A-10 squadrons. Who then will provide support to the


Army when required, let alone the Marine Corps should its


TACAIR be dissolved? Realistically the Navy, although


contrary to "Forward...from the Sea", can not be counted


on due to the aviation elements linkage to the carrier and


possible limited ability to navigate to within a reasonable


distance of the area of operations. Retired Air Force


General McPeak would like to believe that even if the Air


Force gave up the close air support mission, "In an


emergency, we would always be able to augment the Army and


Marine Corps with multirole fighters and gunships."11 In


light of the recent Persian Gulf War this type of thinking


is very flawed. US Air Force A-10 squadrons flew in excess


of 8,000 missions while US Marine Corps TACAIR flew over


9,000 missions.12 Had Air Force A-10 squadrons and Marine


Corps TACAIR been dissolved prior to the Persian Gulf War,


who would have made up the missions? Certainly not the


Navy, where sortie generation is limited by the carrier, and


neither would the US Air Force, who already had a full


schedule. Air Force A-10 pilots have publicly said on


programs such as "Wings" that they flew three times a day,


remaining in the cockpit for 10-12 hours reaching total


exhaustion. F-15 and F-16 pilots also approached over


tasking and required medication to help remain alert.


Supporting maneuvering ground forces requires much more


than an aircraft and pilot. If the combination does not


have the proper training and currency it becomes


ineffective. One of the most telling arguments for


maintaining Marine TACAIR, in light of the US Air Force


position to give up the close air support mission, comes


from the Air Force's own official history.


Competition in close air support from Marine Corps

aviation in Korea at first proved painfully

embarrassing to the Air Force because of the superior

performance of the Marines. Marine flyers were

specialists in close support. It was their major

mission, they were trained for it, and their equipment

was optimized for the role. They were consciously part

of a well-honed team. Little wonder that Marine

aviation was almost universally praised by ground

troops and universally feared by the enemy, according

to POW testimony. The net effect of this competition

was to induce the Air Force to match the Marine Corps

performance or lose credibility.13


To integrate Marine TACAIR into the Navy would create a


severe shortfall in Navy and Marine TACAIR assets and would


not save money. Merely repainting aircraft and changing


uniforms does not decrease spending but will decrease combat


effectiveness. According to "The Department of the Navy's


Integrated Amphibious Operations and USMC Air Support


Requirements Study," Marine forces in a regional conflict


require the support of 15 carrier equivalents if Marine


tactical air support is not available, support that could


not be provided today.14 Also, as pointed out by a Center


for Naval Analysis study on Navy and Marine TACAIR,


integration is a force structure and capability reduction.


Integrating blue and green TACAIR assets would reduce


sortie-generation capability in one major regional conflict


by about 20 percent and significantly reduced the Department


of Navy contribution to theater strike.15 With full


integration (or even partial integration), the CV's may be


required to provide increased MAGTF support. This could


tether the CV to Marine Corps operating areas and thus limit


the CV's flexibility to the theater CINCs for other required




Cost Comparison


The Marine Corps is a force of economy. It operates on


about 6 percent of the defense budget, providing 20 percent


of the active divisions and 14 percent of the tactical


aircraft. Personnel strength levels are also significantly


more cost effective when compared to the other services.


The ratio of officers to enlisted Marines is 1:9.16 The


ratio of officers to enlisted in the Navy is 1:7, in the


Army 1:5, and in the Air Force 1:4.17


The question to be asked is which service can


accomplish the mission of supporting Marines with TACAIR at


a lower cost? Neither the Air Force nor Navy can compete


with the Marine Corps when it comes down to cost


effectiveness. The following evaluation of TACAIR costs


utilized the January 1992 President's Budget. This budget


had been through service, Office of the Secretary of Defense


(OSD) and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) scrutiny.


It reflects the last official executive department DOD


budget. Operations, maintenance, and manpower costs were




To replace Marine Corps TACAIR with Navy TACAIR would


cost almost $140 million dollars more per year in operating


and support costs. To replace Marine Corps TACAIR with Air


Force TACAIR would cost almost $398 million dollars more per




The following table reflects the operating and support


costs per one airframe during fiscal year 1993 (FY93).19


Included in the cost are manpower authorizations, peculiar


and support equipment, necessary facilities and the


associated costs specifically identified and measurable to


the type aircraft squadron and maintenance required.





F-15 2.4


F-15E 2.2


F-16 1.8


A-10 1.5


EF-111 3.1




F/A-18ACD 1.6


EA-6B 2.4


NAVY F/A-18AC 1.7*


EA-6B 3.0*


*Does not include intermediate maintenance or wing

operating and manpower requirements.


Clearly, the above figures document that Marine Corps


TACAIR is an economy of force when compared to the Air Force


and the Navy.





The Marine Corps receives constant pressure to justify


their requirement in maintaining fixed wing tactical


aviation. The Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (dtd 7 Aug


92) specifies that Marine Corps "Forces are deployed as


fully integrated MAGTF's ... combined arms forces consisting


of air, ground and combat service support units." It is


the "A" in MAGTF that gives the ground combat element the


firepower and lethality that embody the combat capability of


the MAGTF.


Due to the total force downsizing, each service branch


is straining to meet peacetime operational commitments while


trying to maintain combat readiness to support the national


security strategy. The United States military forces today


are currently capable of fighting just one major regional


contingency, not two, as called for in the current national


security strategy.


If Marine Corps TACAIR is decommissioned, who will


support the Marine Ground Combat Element (GCE)? The Navy is


currently straining just to equip its aircraft carriers with


TACAIR. Navy aircraft are heavily tasked supporting


existing OPLANs, and due to location, time and distance


factors, may not be capable to support the GCE. The Air


Force is also heavily committed in numerous OPLANs. Should


the Air Force dissolve its A-10 community (CAS mission


aircraft) a tremendous gap will be created. The firepower


contributed by the A-10 during the Gulf War had a


significant impact on enemy destruction in the close battle.


What asset will provide this support should the A-10 or CAS


mission be deleted from the Air Force? The F-16 and F-15E


could effectively do the mission, but what will be the


impact of taking these sorties away from their current


missions of interdiction and shaping the deep battle


Deleting Marine TACAIR would not only decrease the


effectiveness of the Marine Air Ground Task Force but also


degrade the Air Force and Navy missions by stripping


aircraft from them to fill the void. The CINC will have


fewer assets and therefor fewer options available. Sadly,


as the current creeping of hollow forces occurs, the end


result will lead to lives lost in combat due to decreased




Maybe the Air Force should concentrate solely on the


deep battle and strategic targets and relinquish the close


battle to Marine and Navy TACAIR-not only for the Marine


Corps but also the Army. Marine TACAIR can accomplish all


missions in the close battle as swiftly, effectively and at


a very significant cost savings than either the Air Force or




There is a very justifiable requirement to retain


Marine Corps TACAIR assets. Losing Marine TACAIR will


destroy the MAGTF and its ability to support the roles and


missions assigned by Title 10, U.S. Code. The United States


National Security Strategy, which is questionably


supportable now, would become unsupportable.


The United States Air Force and Navy do not have the


equipment or manpower to replace Marine Corps TACAIR during


wartime operations. Even now, during peacetime, neither the


USAF nor USN could fill in required USMC TACAIR UDP,


exercise and boat commitments that are tasked by the


Department of Defense. Marine TACAIR is currently being


considered to augment USAF aircraft standing alerts




The bottom line is dollars. If Marine TACAIR can


operate at a lower cost, which statistics show that it does,


then why are taxpayers spending more money on a more


expensive product to achieve the same results? Cutting back


Marine Corps TACAIR is not the answer.



1 Thomas E. Doll, USN/USMC Over Korea (Squadron/Signal

Publications Inc., 1988), 58


2The Marines in Vietnam 1954-1973, (History and Museums

Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps,1985), 95


3Marine Aviation Brief For The Secretary of Defense,

USMC Aircraft and Munitions: Performance in Desert Storm,

(WDID SWA 0049, 25 June 1991)




5Air Force Manual 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the

United States Air Force, (Washington, DC: GPO, March 1992),



6RADM Riley D. Mixson, "Naval Air: Projecting Power,"

Naval Aviation News, November-December 1992, 1


7US Marine Corps, Marine Aviation FMFM 5-1, Marine

Corps Development and Education Command, (Quantico, VA

1991), 1-1


8Ibid. 1-1


9Ibid. 1-1


10LtCol M.Scott Craig, "Let Marines Keep Tactical Air

Power," Defense News, October 24-30, 1994


11Col Robert S. Melton, "The Value of Marine

Aviation," Marine Corps Gazette, December 1994, 32


12Gulf War Airpower Survey, Volume V, Department United

States Air Force, Washington, D.C., 1993


13Col Robert S. Melton, "The Value of Marine

Aviation," Marine Corps Gazette, December 1994, 33


14LtCol M. Scott Craig, "Let Marines Keep Tactical Air

Power," Defense News, October 24-30, 1994


15Marine Corps Projects at CNA, "Navy/Marine Corps

TACAIR Integration," April-June 1994


16Department of Defense, Defense 94 ALMANAC, Issue 5,

(Washington, D.C. GPO, 1994), 24


17Ibid. 24


18Cost figures were based on the January 1992

President's Budget and calculated by HQ, USMC for the

Aviation Comment on: CMC Memorandum to PP&O concerning



19 Ibid.




Air Force Manual 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United

States Air Force, (Washington, D.C.: GPO, March 1992).


Craig, LtCol Scott M. "Let Marines Keep Tactical Air

Power." Defense News, October 24-30, 1994.


Department of Defense, Defense 94 ALMANAC, Issue 5,

(Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1994).


Doll, Thomas E. USN/USHC over Korea. Squadron/Signal

Publications Inc., 1988.


Marine Aviation Brief For The Secretary of Defense. USMC

Aircraft and Munitions: Performance in Desert Storm.

WDID SWA0049, 25 June 1991.


Marine Corps Projects at CNA. "Navy/Marine Corps TACAIR

Integration." April-June 1994.


Melton, Col Robert S. "The Value of Marine Aviation."

Marine Corps Gazette, December 1994.


Mixson, RADM Riley D. "Naval Air: Projecting Power." Naval

Aviation News, November-December 1992.


U.S. Air Force. Gulf War Air Power Survey, Department of the

United States Air Force. Washington, D.C., 1993.


U.S. Marine Corps. The Marines in Vietnam 1954-1973. History

and Museums Division. Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps,



U.S. Marine Corps. Marine Aviation FMFM 5-1. Marine Corps

Development and Education Command. Quantico, VA, 1991.


U.S. Marine Corps. Doctrine for Amphibious Operations

LFM 01. Washington, D.C., 1986


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