Today's MAGTF--Fighting Blind?
AUTHOR Major Terry Hamilton, USMC
SUBJECT AREA - Warfighting
TITLE: TODAY'S MAGTF--FIGHTING BLIND?
Since the beginning of aviation hi story, aerial
reconnaissance has provided military commanders with a
dimension of knowledge that offered many advantages. From
1965 to 1990, the RF-4B Phantom II provided vital aerial
reconnaissance for the MAGTF commander. The decision to
decommission the RF-4B with no comparable replacement
degraded the MAGTF's autonomous capability and proposed
replacement assets may not adequately fill the void if
implemented as envisioned.
The RF-4B was unique in its capabilities. Its
specialized equipment allowed it to provide many different
types of aerial imagery products to support the MAGTF.
Although updated as often as technology would allow,
fiscal and supportability constraints forced its
retirement on 1 October 1990. Unfortunately, its
retirement was not without cost to the MAGTF. The loss of
the RF-4B created a degradation in targeting capability, a
lack of pre-mission planning information, an inability to
accurately and effectively assess bomb damage, and an
increased reliance on national and theater intelligence
assets that may or may not be available to the MAGTF on
the future battlefield. Several gap-fillers have been
used, including the U.S. Navy F-14 with TARPS, Unmanned
Aerial Vehicles, and the Marine Corps' F/A-18C. Each
offers some capability, but none duplicate the RF-4B's
performance and multisensor imagery capacity.
Even the RF-4B's eventual replacement, the F/A-18D,
may not adequately duplicate the capabilities of its
predecessor. The F/A-18D will be a multi-role aircraft
with missions ranging from limited fighter/interceptor to
night attack to aerial reconnaissance. The overall
training requirements, doubled over those of the RF-4B,
may result in the dilution of the Corps' imagery
capability as reconnaissance occupies only a small
percentage of the training syllabus.
The impact of such a multi-missioned aircraft is yet
to be seen, but limitations will be noticed.
Consideration must be given to dedicating F/A-18D assets
to the aerial reconnaissance mission if that function is
to be adequately fulfilled in the MAGTF.
TODAY'S MAGTF---FIGHTING BLIND?.
Thesis Statement: The decision to decommission the RF-4B
with no comparable replacement has seriously degraded the
MAGTF's autonomous capability and proposed replacement
assets may not adequately fill the void if implemented as
I. RF-4B History
A. Need for Dedicated Aerial Reconnaissance Platform
B. Evolution of the RF-4B
1. Airframe Characteristics
2. Reconnaissance Equipment
3. Technological Updates
C. Rationale for Retirement
II. Impact of Loss to the MAGTF
A. Degradation in Targeting Capability
B. Lack of Pre-mission Planning Information
C. Inability to Assess Bomb Damage
D. Reliance on National/Theater Assets
III. Analysis of Current Aerial Reconnaissance Assets
A. U.S. Navy Assets (F-14 TARPS)
1. Proficiency of Aircrew
2. Availablilty to MAGTF
3. Information Flow Back to MAGTF
B. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
1. System Capabilities
2. System Limitations
3. Performance in Operation Desert Storm
C. U.S. Marine Corps Assets (F/A-18C)
1. System Capabilities
2. System Limitations
IV. Comparison of RF-4B to Future Platform (F/A-18D)
A. F/A-18D Capabilities (ATARS)
B. RF-4B Training and Readiness Requirements
C. F/A-18D Training and Readiness Requirements
D. F/A-18D Shortfalls
TODAY'S MAGTF---FIGHTING BLIND?
Imagine the dilemma of a boxer who chooses to fight
while blindfolded. Technically, he can still fight, but the
absence of visual cues limits his ability to fight
successfully. This handicap would no doubt lead to a short
boxing career, but he certainly would not lack willing
opponents. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Consider, then,
a modern military force deployed 10,000 miles from home
conducting offensive operations to neutralize a well-
equipped and highly mobile adversary defending its homeland.
Give this modern military force wide latitude in planning
and conducting these operations, but limit its ability to
collect tactical target imagery and analyze its success
through bomb damage assessment (BDA). Additionally, task
the commander of this force to minimize casualties and to
terminate the conflict as quickly as possible. Is this
scenario feasible? Unfortunately, it is not only feasible,
it is a current reality.
The Marine Corps has long prided itself in its unique
ability to fight as a Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF)--
a tailor-made, task-organized unit that quickly deploys and
arrives with "everything" it needs to accomplish a
particular mission. Obviously, an integral part of this
MAGTF is the aviation assets it contains. By doctrine,
Marine Corps aviation provides up to six distinct functions
in support of the MAGTF. (11:5-8) These functions can be
offensive, defensive, or supportive in nature, but each is
interrelated and gives the MAGTF its def initive combat
power. The inability to perform any of these functions can
seriously degrade the MAGTF's capabilities. One such
example is tactical aerial reconnaissance. Until 1 October
1990, the function of tactical aerial reconnaissance was
accomplished by the RF-4B Phantom II. Although an aged
airframe, the RF-4B possessed capabilities that enabled it
to be the MAGTF commander's tactical eyes. It was a
dedicated reconnaissance platform that could accomplish its
mission in almost any weather condition. The decision to
decommission the RF-4B with no comparable replacement has
seriously degraded the MAGTF's autonomous capability and
proposed replacement assets may not adequately fill the void
if implemented as envisioned.
In analyzing the situation, several questions come to
mind. What makes the loss of one series of aircraft so
significant? The RF-4B was not the first dedicated aerial
reconnaissance platform, nor will it be the last. What
impact will the loss have on the MAGTF? What short-term
assets will fill the void in the Marine Corps' tactical
aerial reconnaissance-gathering capability? What platform
will eventually replace the RF-4B and how can it best be
organized to fulfill its mission? These questions reflect
valid concerns and merit closer examination.
The need for a dedicated aerial reconnaissance platform
has been acknowledged since the very beginning of aviation
history. Even a cursory study of encyclopedic aviation
historical data would show that the first military
applications of scout aircraft in World War I were to
observe the enemy and collect information for future
exploitation. (3:29) The inherent advantages of seeing well
past one's own front lines into enemy territory has always
been understood by the prudent military commander. On any
battlefield, knowledge equates to potential power if that
knowledge is used correctly. Aerial reconnaissance simply
adds depth to the battlefield and extends the commander's
level of knowledge. How he uses that knowledge could mean
victory or defeat.
Like most reconnaissance aircraft that preceded it, the
RF-4B was not created in itself to be a reconnaissance
platform. It grew out of an already existing design--the
McDonnell F-4 Phantom II. Although the Navy/Marine Corps
can take credit for the birth of the F-4, the U.S. Air Force
gets the credit for creation of the RF-4 variant. Because
the Navy chose to retain its RF-8 Crusader and RA-5C
Vigilante assets to meet its shipboard reconnaissance
requirement, it did not order a reconnaissance variant of
the Phantom. (2:25) This created a dilemma for the Marine
Corps since it had neither the RF-8 nor the RA-5C.
Fortunately, the McDonnell engineers and Pentagon officials
recognized that the F-4's performance made it ideal for use
as an intelligence gathering platform. When the USAF
developed the RF-4C, the Marine Corps ordered that twelve F-
4Bs be converted to RF-4B standards, sharing much of the
same equipment as its USAF counterpart. The Marine Corps
bought a total of 46 RF-4B aircraft beginning in 1965 and
these aircraft became the longest serving Phantom variant in
the Marine Corps. (3:29) The squadron that flew the RF-4B,
later to evolve into Marine Tactical Reconnaissance
Squadron-Three (VMFP-3), was tasked to conduct multisensor
imagery reconnaissance in support of the Fleet Marine Force.
(14:5-38) The new squadron brought with it a new mission,
new aircraft, and new equipment.
The equipment aboard the RF-4B is what makes it unique.
Grouped into three basic categories, it includes Side
Looking Airborne Radar (SLAR), infrared detectors, and
cameras. SLAR records a high definition radar picture of
the terrain on either side of the flight path. It has the
advantage of providing acceptable imagery at night, in light
rain, dust, smoke, or haze. Covering large areas quickly,
it can also serve as a moving target indicator. (9:10-9 and
10-10) An infrared detector is used to locate enemy forces
under cover by measuring heat differentials. In essence, it
detects and measures differences in temperature. While it
can be affected by atmospheric conditions such as dust,
smoke, or fog, it is passive and resistant to jamming.
(9:10-9 to 10-10.) Finally, cameras capable of looking
forward, vertically, and to the side are mounted on
rotatable mounts in the nose camera bay to provide hard copy
photographic data. (4:54) The advantage of photography is
that it produces the most familiar, easily recognizable
picture to be used by aircrew or commanders. Flexibility in
terms of angle, film speed, and scale make this product a
most effective tool. It is limited, however, by all the
factors that limit normal sight: low visibility, cloud
cover, and darkness. (11:113)
As would be expected, the RF-4B was updated as often as
technology would allow and in 1978 the SLAR/infrared
equipment was improved and a carrier inertial navigation
system was added. (5:373) The airframe evolved with
additional electronic countermeasures (ECM) antenna
fairings, thicker wings, larger main landing gear, and a
slotted stabilator to improve transonic stability as well as
slow-speed handling during landing. (4:54) In fact, Marine
RF-4Bs have been subjected to so many minor changes that no
two aircraft fly, handle, or perform precisely alike.
Experienced aircrew simply memorize each aircraft's
"personality" and adjust accordingly.(3:30)
The uniqueness of the RF-4B in many ways contributed to
its early retirement. According to representatives from the
Aviation Plans and the Aviation Weapons sections at
Headquarters, Marine Corps, the decision to retire the RF-4B
was driven by fiscal and supportability considerations that
seemed to outweigh the benefits of the intelligence data
produced. The RF-4B was manpower and maintenance intensive.
This was a characteristic shared by all Phantoms, but
aggravated by the RF-4B's additional requirement for unique
avionics support and the photo processors/interpreters
necessary to produce the intelligence data. The requirement
to maintain assets in CONUS and a continuous detachment in
the Western Pacific simply compounded the supply and support
problems. As the F-4 began to be replaced by the F/A-18 in
the Corps' fighter/attack squadrons, spare parts shortages
and maintenance problems worsened. At the same time, a move
was afoot within the Navy and Marine Corps to identify and
to consider for termination aircraft communities that were
highly mission-specific, including the RF-4B. After
extenive consideration of cost versus dividend, the Marine
Corps' Deputy Chief of Staff for Aviation made the decision
to standdown the RF-4B. On 1 October 1990, the Corps'
dedicated tactical aerial reconnaissance capability ceased
What impact will the loss of the RF-4B have on the
MAGTF? Its loss is significant because no other US Navy or
Marine Corps aircraft currently has the capability to
produce the variety of intelligence imagery that it
provided. Its multisensor capability made it unique in its
performance. The RF-4B's ability to provide timely updates
of the battlefield in almost any weather condition was the
cornerstone of successful planning and subsequent execution.
It allowed planners to shape the battlefield and reduced the
element of risk for ground commanders. Consequently,
shortfalls will be felt, most notably in the areas of
targeting, pre-mission planning, and BDA.
The RF-4B provides near real-time visual imagery that
can be used to effectively establish and prioritize targets.
This imagery allows planners to identify enemy weak points,
defenses, critical areas of vulnerability, troop or supply
locations, and other essential elements of information. Not
only does this allow planners to shape the future battle,
but it also allows the Air Combat Element (ACE) commander to
establish target priorities so that assets are allocated
efficiently with no duplication of effort. Enemy weaknesses
can be exploited and strengths reduced. This ability to
identify and prioritize targets using near real-time data is
not only cost effective but also allows the MAGTF commander
to "fight smart" as current Marine Corps leadership demands.
From an aviator's perspective, the second major area in
which the lack of RF-4B support is felt is pre-mission
planning. Whoever coined the phrase "a picture is worth a
thousand words" must surely have been an attack pilot!
Without imagery, maps are the pilot's only tools that help
him create a mental picture of a target area during his pre-
mission planning. No amount of map study can generate a
mental image of a target as effectively as can a photograph.
Knowing in advance what a target will look like from a
specific attack heading breeds a degree of confidence and
allows the pilot to concentrate on the myriad of other tasks
that demand attention during a strike mission. This
heightened degree of familiarity enables a greater degree of
precision in weapons delivery, a greater probability of
success for that mission, and the safe return of two scarce
commodities--the pilot and his aircraft.
Perhaps the most significant shortfall felt by the
absence of the RF-4B is in the area of BDA. The value of
high priority targets is such that their destruction or
neutralization can determine the momentum and ultimate
success of a campaign. The ability to accurately and
immediately assess the results of the attacks on these
targets controls momentum and drives future targeting. The
MAGTF does not currently have that capability. Anyone who
closely followed CNN's continuous coverage of Operation
Desert Storm would be aware of the problems of BDA during
the early stages of the air campaign because of weather.
When Allied aviation assets were making significant impacts
on Iraqi forces, momentum seemed to slow as planners awaited
BDA. The RF-4B could follow in trail of the attack
echelons, offset from the target to minimize the effects of
smoke, dust, and enemy defenses, and create the imagery
required to accurately accomplish BDA. This capability
would allow targets to be scheduled much earlier in the
subsequent targeting process if a reattack was warranted.
Vital momentum which could directly affect overall success
would be maintained. As was seen in Southwest Asia, BDA on
today's battlefield will be much slower and less accurate,
if obtainable at all.
Finally, the absence of the RF-4B causes reliance on
national or theater assets external to the Marine Corps to
provide the aerial reconnaissance support so vital to
success. Unfortunately, smaller MAGTFs--the Marine
Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) and Marine Expeditionary Unit
(MEU)--may not be of sufficient priority on the national
level to warrant allocation of limited national assets. In
contrast, even a notional Marine Expeditionary Brigade
contained up to seven RF-4B aircraft before their
retirement. (15:3-5) In addition, some national assets,
particularly satellites, display a degree of predictability
in overflight times, resulting in the possible exploitation
of that asset. It may even be possible that coverage of the
desired area is not available.
So where does the MAGTF stand? Current plans call for
the F/A-18D to replace the RF-4B in the Marine Corps.
Unfortunately, the F/A-18D will not be capable of performing
this reconnaissance mission until 1994. (12:3-7) How will
the Marine Corps get tactical reconnaissance support until
then? Besides the national assets mentioned above, the
methods envisioned include the U.S. Navy's F-14 with a
Tactical Air Reconnaissance Pod System (TARPS), Unmanned
Aerial Vehicles, and the Marine Corps' F/A-18C. Each
provides some degree of support and each offers unique
advantages and disadvantages--but all fall short of a
dedicated tactical aerial reconnaissance platform.
The F-14 TARPS system utilizes a pod mounted underneath
the fuselage to house a forward oblique or vertical frame
camera for photographs, a low/medium-altitude panoramic
camera, and an infrared reconnaissance set. (6:369) Its
capabilities seem to approximate those of the RF-4B, but it
loses its attractiveness when evaluated as a useful MAGTF
support tool. To begin, only 49 F-14s were modified to
carry the pod in its initial introduction to the Navy.
(6:369) Given the advertised autonomous nature of the
MAGTF, consider the reality of having a TARPS-capable
aircraft available for support in al1 cases. Additionally,
the primary role of the F-14 is fleet air defense and air
superiority--not aerial reconnaissance. Some consideration
has to be given to the effectiveness of a crew that performs
this mission on a part-time basis. Finally, because the F-
14 would most likely be operating from a carrier somewhat
removed from the MAGTF, the ability to recover, process, and
disseminate the data could be diluted.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) represent a wave of new
technology that offers some attractive options to the MAGTF
commander. Under the current, but evolving UAV doctrine,
one UAV company is provided per Marine Expeditionary Force
(MEF). Assigned to the Surveillance, Reconnaissance, and
Intelligence Group (SRIG), the UAV company is composed of
three flight platoons with each platoon operating one short
range UAV system consisting of eight aircraft. (13:C-1) The
Marine Corps presently operates the AAI Corporation's
Pioneer aircraft. (1:20) Overall responsibility for UAV
operations is retained at the landing force level with
operational control of the UAV normally delegated to the
Ground Combat Element (GCE) commander. (13:C-2) In theory,
the UAV is designed to collect, disseminate, and exploit
combat intelligence in near real-time. It can provide fire
support adjustments at greater distances and reduced risk to
personnel. (8:I-2) Other advantages include the ability to
perform rear area security, report BDA, accomplish radio and
data relay, and provide for electronic warfare. It has a
day/night capability and a reduced probability of detection
due to low infrared, visual, and radar signatures. (10:2-2)
Unfortunately, technology is not perfect. The UAV cannot
operate in icing conditions or in visible moisture. Video
quality is reduced by certain weather conditions and
battlefield obscurants and it has wind limitations for
launch and recovery. Special fuel is required and the
Pioneer UAV has a line-of-sight transmission limitation.
While multiple simultaneous sorties are possible, sensor
data can only be actively processed from a single UAV at a
time. (10:2-2 and 2-3) As with any emission-generating
equipment, the Pioneer can be electronically jammed. (10:2-
The Pioneer UAV performed well during Operation Desert
Storm, flying 900 hours in 277 separate flights. (1:30) It
proved, however, to be highly suceptable to small arms fire.
Of the 40 Pioneer UAVs deployed to Southwest Asia, 26 were
either damaged of destroyed. It should be noted that of the
26 damaged, about 75% could be repaired and returned to
duty. (1:20) Unfortunately, the damaged or destroyed UAVs
created a requirement for some $17 million in fiscal
appropriations to buy l2 to 14 new aircraft. If this
funding is not approved, the military could lose two of its
six units designed to operate the Pioneer. (1:30) Perhaps
the UAV will develop into an adequate gap-filler for MEU or
MEB operations, but its range of approximately 90 miles will
limit its usefulness to the MEF commander as his area of
interest could often exceed the Pioneer's capabilities.
The F/A-18C has a limited capability to provide BDA.
Carrying a built-in strike camera, the F/A-18C can
automatically photograph targets before, during, and
immediately after weapons employment. Again, it would seem
that battlefield obscurants could limit its effectiveness.
The F/A-18C can also carry a forward looking infrared (FLIR)
pod sensor to record reconnaissance data, although the FLIR
mission requires slower aircraft speeds and higher altitudes
to allow time for FLIR interpretation. This allows FLIR
missions to be performed only in a permissive threat
environment due to pilot workload. (12:3-11) Integrated air
defense systems, though, are seldom permissive.
The final question to be addressed concerns the
capabilities of the Marine Corps' follow-on reconnaissance
platform--the F/A-18D. How does it compare to the RF-4B and
how can it be used to its greatest advantage? The question
can best be answered by examining the projected F/A-18D's
reconnaissance capabilities, then comparing RF-4B and F/A-
18D training requirements.
As stated earlier, the F/A-18D will assume the tactical
aerial reconnaissance role as soon as the Advanced Tactical
Air Reconnaissance System (ATARS) is developed. This will
most likely occur in 1994. ATARS is projected to modernize
tactical reconnaissance by utilizing state-of-the-art
technology--data links, electro-optical sensors, and
recorders. The aircrew will be able to see a target and
transmit that target data to a ground system in real-time.
ATARS will also offer an enhanced capability to detect
targets at night and in bad weather. (12:3-7) If the amount
of development time is any indication of potential, ATARS
will be a very capable system.
The deficiency in the F/A-18D concept is that the
aerial reconnaissance mission will be only one of at least
six different missions that the aircrew will be expected to
perform. Current plans indicate that any F/A-18D aircraft
will be able to perform the reconnaissance mission. The
internal gun will simply be replaced by the ATARS package to
allow for mission accomplishment. This requirement alone
could lead to some very interesting maintenance and
reliability problems. It will be interesting to see if the
reliability of the ATARS is such that there will be no need
to prepare two aircraft to meet one mission or if the
maintenance crews will find themselves frantically uploading
and downloading ATARS packages.
The most significant shortfall of the F/A-18D concept
centers around training requirements and aircrew
proficiency. A comparison of the old RF-4B Training and
Readiness (T&R) Manual and the proposed F/A-18D T&R Manual
reveals some significant differences. An RF-4B
Reconnaissance Systems Officer (RSO) could become fully
combat capable (100% qualified in all phases and missions)
in 1O5.4 hours of flight time and 74 sorties. Approximately
45% of those hours and sorties related purely to the
reconnaissance mission. Overall, 42% of the RSO's combat
qualification training was dedicated to reconnaissance.
(16:7-5 and 7-6) This is not surprising for aircrew whose
primary function is aerial reconnaissance. Experience shows
that when aircrew concentrate on one area for a long time,
they become very efficient in that area.
When those figures are compared to the proposed F/A-18D
T&R syllbus--and this certainly cannot be taken as a strict
scientific study--a situation much like the F-14 TARPS seems
to arise. Because the F/A-18D was envisioned to replace
several aircraft in the Marine Corps, it had to be capable
of performing their missions. As a result, the F/A-18D is
expected to be a day/night bomber, a combined arms
coordinator, a limited fighter/interceptor, and a
reconnaissance platform. By way of comparison, a Weapon
Systems Officer (WSO) will be required to fly 199 sorties
and accumulate 251.9 flight hours to become 100% combat
qualified in the F/A-18D. (17:3-5) Considering that only 6%
of those sorties and 7% of those flight hours are dedicated
to reconnaissance, it is easy to see that the F/A-18D's
mission emphasis is elsewhere.
What does this mean in terms of an aerial
reconnaissance capability? Perhaps it means that if all
F/A-18D aircraft are reconnaissance-capable, the MAGTF will
be assured of having resident reconnaissance support at
practically all levels. On the other hand, it could mean
that the F/A-18D will be tasked to perform so many dif ferent
missions that the aircrew will not be completely proficient
in any of them. Hopefully, the ATARS package will be so
automated that a lack of aircrew proficiency will not
degrade mission completion or product quality.
The full impact of the F/A-18D's "do-all" mission will
not be felt until all systems are operational and squadron
commanders/operations officers develop methods of dealing
with the aircrew proficiency issue. The answer could be the
dedication of one of the six squadrons to a full-time
reconnaissance role, much like the RF-4B. Without exploring
all of the pros and cons of that option, the ultimate result
would be the availability of competent aircrew and correctly
configured aircraft to provide a function that is so vital
to MAGTF survival.
The RF-4B served a long and profitable career in the
Corps. It effectively fulfilled a vital function of Marine
Corps aviation. Budget constraints and cutbacks, coupled
with technological advances, forced the RF-4B into an early
retirement, the results of which were felt almost
immediately as witnessed in Operation Desert Storm. These
same budget constraints forced the development of a multi-
missioned aircraft that will dedicate only a fraction of its
time to aerial reconnaissance and will not be fully
functional until 1994. The assets available to fill the gap
are not collectively capable of providing the same degree of
responsiveness resident in the RF-4B. The full impact of
fiscal constraints and an overburdened aircraft may manifest
itself in compromised aircrew performance. The Marine Corps
should seriously consider the dedication of one squadron of
F/A-18D aircraft to the aerial reconnaissance role to
continue the success enjoyed by the RF-4B. If Desert Storm
is any indication, future conflicts will erupt quickly and
will dictate a "come-as-you-are" capability. The Marine
Corps needs to continue to organize and train to do just
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