Marine Reserve Aviation: Capable Of A Larger Role?
SUBJECT AREA - Aviation
Title: Marine Reserve Aviation: Capable of a Larger Role?
Author: Major C. E. Mamzic, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: Through the transfer of more aviation units to, and
a reorganization of the Marine Corps Reserve, the Marine
Corps can effectively reduce force structure while
maintaining combat capability.
Background: The end of the Cold War and the lack of any
clear, discernable military threat , along with the lack of
money to fund it, has resulted in a mandate for change in
the size of the military. All services are trying to
structure their forces accordingly to reduce size, yet
maintain combat capability. Transferring forces to the
Reserves has been a cost effective method of reducing
force structure while maintaining capabilities.
Lessons learned from Reserve participation in Operation
Desert Storm show that Reserve aviation units are
generally combat ready and able to deploy on short notice.
However, Reserve inf antry units may require additional
training after mobilization before they are ready for
deployment. Additionally, when mobilized, Reserve units
serve in active duty commands.
Recommendation: In order to maintain combat capability
while reducing force structure, Marine Corps force planners
should transfer more aviation units to the Marine Corps
Reserve, and incorporate Marine Reserve units in active duty
Marine Reserve Aviation: Capable of a Larger Role?
Thesis: Through the transfer of more aviation units to and
a reorganization of the Marine Corps Reserve, the Marine
Corps can effectively reduce force structure while
maintaining combat capability.
I. Present defense situation
A. World tension reduced
B. U.S. cannot afford a large military
C. All services will be smaller
II. The Marine Corps will be smaller
A. Need to be smaller and cost effective
B. Need to maintain combat capability
C. Transferring assets to the Reserves is
III. Reserves are cost effective
A. Cost less than active duty
B. Capabilities similar to active duty
C. Participated in recent combat operations
IV. Lessons learned from DESERT STORM
A. Reserve infantry not effective
1. Marine performance versus National
2. Small versus large unit employment
3. Historical problem
4. Possible problem for Marines
B. Aviation performed well
V. Reasons for Reserve aviation performance
A. Technical skill specialization
2. Enlisted aviation specialists
B. Require aircraft adaptable to Reserves
1. Easy to fly
2. Easy to maintain
VI. Marine Corps implementation
A. Considerations of units
B. Reorganization considerations
Marine Reserve Aviation: Capable of a Larger Role?
With the end of the Cold War and the defeat of Iraq,
world tension has been significantly reduced. With this
reduction in tension, and the lack of any clear, discernable
military threat has come a mandate for change. The
traditional American aversion to maintaining a large,
standing military coupled with the fact that we can't afford
it anyway, means the armed forces will be considerably
smaller in the future. All the services are trying to plan
and structure accordingly. This task is especially
challenging for the Marine Corps. But there is a way that
it can be done.
Marine Corps force planners are faced with the task of
structuring not only a smaller force, but one that is still
strong and capable enough to deal with any future
contingency. Furthermore, the Corps must not only be
smaller, but more cost effective as well. Therefore, the
search is on for a way to reduce size while maintaining
capability at the minimum cost. Through the transfer of
more aviation units to and a reorganization of the Marine
Corps Reserve, the Marine Corps can effectively reduce force
structure while maintaining combat capability.
Transferring forces to the Reserves has been one of
the most cost effective ways to reduce active duty forces.
This is because Reserve units cost approximately 30% of what
regular units of the same size and type cost. (1:18) And,
although it varies from unit to unit, Reservists'
capabilities are generally as good as active duty units.
Indeed, it was recognition of the cost effectiveness of
Reserve forces that led to the increased reliance on the
Reserves and eventually to the Total Force Policy of the
Department of Defense. This policy, an accepted fact of
life, in effect mandates that the U.S. cannot respond to an
emergency without mobilizing at least part of the Reserve
forces. (14:47) The mobilization and participation of
Reserve units in all recent major crisis has clearly
validated this policy.
Reserve forces were mobilized and participated in both
recent major combat operations conducted by the United
States: Operation JUST CAUSE in Panama in 1989, and
Operations DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM in 1990-1991.
While the preponderance of Reserve units that participated in
these operations were combat support, combat service
support, and strategic aviation units, some ground combat
and tactical aviation units did participate in DESERT
SHIELD/DESERT STORM. In general, they performed very
well, providing vital support to coalition forces throughout the
theater. (4:31) The important lesson to be learned from
these operations is why some forces performed better than
others, and then shift forcesto the Reserves accordingly.
The Marine Corps has already shifted enough of its
relatively limited combat support and combat service support
forces to the Reserves. It has also already transferred its
least mobile artillery systems (self-propelled howitzers) to
the Reserves, leaving little room for force structure
reduction in the limited remaining artillery organizations.
By default, what remains for consideration are infantry and
tactical aviation units.
Very few Reserve infantry units were mobilized during
Operations JUST CAUSE and DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM.
Of those units mobilized, only the Marines were found to be
The primary reason for Marine Reserve infantry units
being found combat ready was that they were mobilized as
companies and battalions to fill out active duty divisions.
This absolved them of the requirement to master the
complexities of larger unit fire support coordination
maneuver, logistics and so forth. (4:32)
The present Marine Corps active duty infantry force
structure enabled the Reserves to be employed as
company/battalion fill-outs. With Marine active duty
infantry units already heavily tasked with forward
presence/deployment missions, any further reductions in the
size of the active duty infantry force structure could lead
to a concomitant increased reliance on larger Reserve units.
The Marine Corps can expect to experience problems similar
to those experienced by the U.S. Army in 1990 in mobilizing
and employing regimental size Reserve infantry units.
Most Reserve infantry units are organized and drill
primarily at the company level, rarely training at the
battalion/regimental level, and even less often as parts of
divisions/corps. They sometimes participate in larger unit
operations during their two weeks of active duty each year,
but not often enough to maintain proficiency. It was lack
of proficiency at the regiment/brigade level that led to the
Army National Guard roundout brigades being considered not
ready for combat. As lessons learned in World War II, and
relearned in Korea and DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM show,
it takes more than 40 days of active duty training a year to be
an effective regimental size maneuver unit. (2:41)
This lack of proficiency in larger unit operations
means commanders planning to use Reserve infantry forces
for combat operations must allow suff icient time after
mobilization for training as larger units. (10:22) Time
that may not be available for our nation's "force in
readiness," the Marine Corps. For example, the 48th
Infantry Brigade (Georgia Army National Guard), the roundout
brigade of the 24th Infantry Division (Mechanized), required
70 days of intensive training at the National Training
Center, Ft. Irwin, California after mobilization before it
was certified combat ready. (13:15) Fortunately, the
brigade was not needed in the brief war, and it never
deployed to the theater. Clearly, transferring forces you
might need on short notice to the Reserves is not the way to
go if it will take two months or more before they are ready
On the other hand, Reserve tactical aviation units
participated in both Operations JUST CAUSE and DESERT
SHIELD/DESERT STORM. Their performance in combat, was by
all accounts outstanding, equal to that of their active duty
counterparts. (9:44) They were mobilized, deployed, and hit
the ground running. This performance validated the
mobilization criterion for Reserve tactical aviation units
requiring them to deploy to a theater of crisis within 72
hours of mobilization. (14:117)
Why are Reserve aviation units better prepared to
assume their combat role than are Reserve ground combat
units? Primarily because aviation missions are flown by a
handful of highly trained and skilled aircrew who normally
operate independently or in larger packages with other
highly skilled aircrew. Therefore they do not have the
problems associated with trying to fight and maneuver a
large unit whose members are not accustomed to working
together. The challenge is to obtain, train and then
maintain the proficiency of highly skilled aircrew. Reserve
aviation units have been able to do this.
Military aviation is a skill that takes a great deal
of time and expense to learn and master, but once mastered
is comparatively easy to maintain proficiency in. The
general capability of an aircrewman is a function of
experience, and the generally accepted measure of experience
for aircrew is accumulated flight time. It is an accepted
fact that the more flight time experience a pilot has in his
warfare specialty (air-to-air, air-to-ground, transport,
etc.) the better an aircrewman he is. Once you get above a
certain level of flight experience, you need considerably
less flight time to maintain proficiency. All you have to
do to maintain proficiency is to fly. This is why it is so
important that aircrew stay in flying billets and keep their
hands on equipment.
Active duty aircrew often find themselves being
assigned to non-flying billets such as recruiter, forward
air controller, Headquarters staff officer, etc. Reserve
aircrew rarely fill billets such as these. Rather, they
stay in flying billets throughout the Reserve establishment.
It is a truism that in the Reserves, every aircrewman who
wants to fly can fly. They therefore keep flying,
maintaining the proficiency they gained on active duty, and,
in many cases accumulating as much military flight
experience as their active duty contemporaries who are
periodically assigned non-flying tours. As a result of
these career patterns, Reserve aircrew are as proficient as
active duty aircrew. They are one of the keys to the
success of Reserve aviation units. They are not however,
the only key.
The other key to the success of Reserve aviation is
the enlisted aviation specialists. Like the aircrew in
squadrons, they are for the most part highly trained and
skilled technicians. (14:69) What must also be recognized,
however, is that these technical skills take time to master,
and once mastered, must be properly utilized to maximize
gains on training invested, and to prevent skills atrophy.
As in the case of sending aircrew to non-flying
billets, sending skilled, experienced enlisted aviation
specialists to the drill field, recruiting duty or one of
the many other non-Military Occupational Specialty (MOS)
related billets makes little sense. Unfortunately, it is a
fact of life on active duty, but not in the Reserves. It is
not unusual therefore, to find Reserve enlisted aviation
specialists with as much MOS proficiency as their active
The major lesson learned from Operation DESERT STORM
was that units that specialized in a single weapons system
or function deployed effectively. (4:32) It was the
specialized nature of the jobs of the aircrew and enlisted
aviation specialists that enabled them to function as well
as they did when mobilized. Whether operating from a base
in the United States or one in Saudi Arabia, the tasks
Reserve aircrew and airmen are required to perform remain
For those who doubt the value of the "specialist"
career path, consider that Air National Guard/USAF Reserve
units have won "Gunsmoke," the biennial Air Force-wide
bombing competition three out of the last six times, beating
out the best of the active duty Air Force. (3:15) Marine
Corps Reserve aviation units routinely do outstanding on
their Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation System
(MCCRES), using the same standards as active duty units.*
Both of these events are evaluations of combat readiness in
that they require well trained personnel and well maintained
equipment to score well. From personal experience, I
routinely observed high standards of performance by many
units of the Air National Guard and the Marine Reserve while
serving as Operations Officer for two years of a Marine
Reserve A-4M Skyhawk/CH-53A Sea Stallion aircraft group.
Clearly, specialization pays off, is necessary, and should
be capitalized upon.
The Marine Corps should capitalize on the adaptability
of aviation to the Reserves. Significant reductions in
active duty force structure would result, with no reduction
in ground combat units. The actual size of a force
structure change moving aviation forces to the Reserves is
larger than what most people think.
All Marine Corps aviation units have a large tail-to-
tooth ratio when you consider the supply, support and
intermediate/depot level maintenance activities required to
support them. Proportionate shares of these units could
also be transferred to the Reserves, or, in some cases,
eliminated entirely. Recruiting, administration,
infrastructure, etc., could also be reduced, making the
total reduction greater than just the sum of the personnel
in the actual squadrons transferred. In total, a
significant reduction in manpower and costs with negligible
loss of capability. The question is which units to transfer
to the Reserves.
The first units to consider for transfer to the
Reserves are the Fighter/Attack (VMFA) F/A-18 units. In
this era of joint operations, it is difficult to envision
the Marine Corps going it alone. More likely we will fight
under an air superiority umbrella provided initially by
either U.S. Navy carrier aviation or U.S. Air Force assets,
and eventually in conjunction with them. Indeed, in many
future contingency scenarios, such as low intensity
conflict, we may not need supersonic strike-fighters at all.
The Marine Corps cannot afford to maintain twelve squadrons
of F/A-18's on active duty for a mission they are unlikely
to be called to fill.
The Marine Corps should, however, maintain a smaller
number of F/A-18's on active duty, but the preponderance in
the Reserves. The F/A-18 Hornet is an outstanding aircraft
that once mastered by your average Reserve aviator is easy
to maintain proficiency in. It is also easy to maintain.
Both these points make it a natural for the Reserves.
Additionally, an examination of the capabilities of
potential adversaries would show that Reserve F/A-18 forces
would have both an experience and technological edge over
all of them. The F/A-18 is the finest multi-mission
aircraft in the world; we would be foolish to give up its
capabilities when we could retain it for a fraction of the
cost. This is especially so if we face the prospect of the
Navy "borrowing" the remainder for carrier deployments.
The Marine Corps should also consider transferring
more aerial refueling (VMGR) KC-130 assets to the Reserves.
A requirement for a large number of KC-130s on active duty
existed when the Marine Corps used to ferry its own
squadrons to Europe and WestPac, but not since the U.S. Air
Force assumed the strategic refueling mission. Tactical in-
flight refueling, the primary mission of VMGR, is a mission
that tactical aviation units need to practice infrequently.
(11:149) The Reserves can easily support this training
requirement through coordinated block training and
As in the case of the F/A-18, the KC-130 is a perfect
airplane for the Reserves: easy to maintain proficiency in
(especially since it is multi-piloted) and relatively easy
to maintain. Considering that 33% of the Marine VMGR
aircraft that participated in Operations DESERT
SHIELD/DESERT STORM were from the Reserves, it is easy to
make the case that we could locate a larger percentage of
the Marine VMGR assets in the Reserves with no loss of
In the rotary wing community of Marine aviation, units
from all aircraft communities (UH-1, AH-1, CH-46 and CH-53)
were mobilized in support of Operations DESERT SHIELD/DESERT
STORM or to replace active duty units participating in that
operation, indicating the already high reliance the Marine
Corps has on Reserve helicopter units. These units also
performed well, but were often hampered by flying aircraft
not compatible with active duty units (i.e., RH-53, AH-1J),
of limited capabilities, and that, due to their age, were
much more maintenance intensive. Due to the present lack of
organic lift capability in the fleet Marine forces, and the
importance of vertical assault/support in any future Marine
Corps contingencies, the present rotary wing active/Reserve
mix is satisfactory. What is not satisfactory is, as
previously mentioned, the equipping of Reserve helicopter
Unlike Reserve fixed wing aviation units who have
upgraded to newer aircraft like the F/A-18 and KC-130T,
reserve rotary wing units are now flying a mishmash of
helicopters that are even more obsolete than their active
duty counterparts. Presently, in addition to the obsolete
CH-46 Sea Knight, the Reserves also fly the RH-53 Sea
Stallion (never on active duty in the Marine Corps) and AH-
1J Cobra (with no anti-tank capability). Plans call for all
of these aircraft to be upgraded in the future. However, if
we are to truly rely on the Reserves to reinforce the active
duty Marine Corps, we must ensure these upgrades actually
take place, and sooner rather than later.
The remaining fixed-wing aircraft, the AV-8B Harrier,
EA-6B Prowler, and F/A-18D Hornet (night attack variant) are
ill-suited to the Reserves. These aircraft require either
more frequent flying (AV-8B) or significant specialized
operations (F/A-18D, EA-6B) to maintain proficiency in than
Reserve pilots are capable of (11:45-87) It would therefore
not be prudent to place any of these units in the Reserves.
Lastly the remainder of the active duty Marine
aircraft wings, the command and control, wing support and
anti-air defense units are organized to provide functional
support to a Marine aircraft wing of any size. Regardless
of future reductions in size of the active duty wings, all
of these organizations need to remain on active duty for the
safe, effective operation of the wings. No reductions in
these organizations should be considered.
The preceding analysis dealt with the transfer of
forces from the active duty force to the Reserves to reduce
costs, but save capability. With an increased reliance on
the Reserves, the Marine Corps also needs to consider other
organizational changes to improve combat readiness.
Specifically, transferring Reserve forces to active duty
To make the best use of its limited Reserve assets,
and to achieve additional force structure reductions, the
Marine Corps needs to incorporate the units of the 4th
Marine Aircraft Wing into the active duty wings. In most
mobilization scenarios, 4th Marine Aircraft Wing units would
be mobilized and serve in active duty air groups anyway.
Assigning them to the active duty groups (or as Reserve
groups in active duty wings) would be a logical progression
in the move to a Total Force. Positive benefits of this
change in command structure would be:
1. Streamlined command and staff functioning.
2. Decreased command structure, both active and
3. Improved combat readiness through:
a. The active duty unit commanding a Reserve
unit would be responsible for the readiness of that unit.
b. Increased inter-operability of active and
c. Increased pride in Reserve units.
If these changes cannot be accomplished, at a minimum
the Marine Corps should establish habitual relationships
between Reserve units and active duty groups and wings,
similar to the long-standing relationships between Marine
direct support artillery battalions and infantry regiments.
Additionally, active duty wings should be assigned to MCCRES
Reserve units who would be under their command upon
mobilization. These two steps alone would have positive
effects on combat readiness, for little to no cost.
Operation DESERT STORM showed that the uneasiness of
depending on the Reserves can be eliminated. If needed,
they will be mobilized, and if mobilized, they will serve.
It also showed that some Reserve units, due to their
specialized nature perform better than other Reserve units.
By exploiting the unique capabilities of Reserve aviation,
along with an improved Reserve command structure, the Marine
Corps can reduce force structure, both active and Reserve
while maintaining combat capability.
To reduce size and save money while maintaining combat
capability, the Marine Corps should transfer more active
duty aviation units to the Marine Corps Reserve, and
incorporate Reserve units into the active duty wings. These
changes will result in an overall better manned, trained and
equipped Marine Corps, in sync with the Total Force Policy
of the Department of Defense.
* A review of MCCRES "Unit to Average" Reports for
1989-1991 shows Reserve aviation units scoring well above
many similarly equipped active duty units.
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