Marine Fixed-Wing Air, Required or Retired?
SUBJECT AREA - Aviation
Title: Marine Fixed-Wing Air, Required or Retired?
Author: Major Terrance A. Gould, United States Marine Corps
Thesis: The USMC must be proactive in redefining its fixed-wing aviation
role; it must look for and exploit gaps in sister services capabilities.
Background: On February 12, 1993 General Colin Powell, Chairman Joint Chiefs
of Staff, released the latest? "Roles and Missions" document for the Armed
Forces. This document, along with the previous two drafts, has drawn severe
criticism from several vocal members of Congress as being too easy on the
military in not cutting out redundant missions. Members of the Senate Armed
Services Committee have said they will rewrite the roles and missions
statement if the military is unwilling to do so. In light of the intense
scrutiny that this document is receiving, the USMC must be prepared to defend
the requirement for its fixed-wing aviation assets, and articulate the need
for those assets into the next century. Before articulating the need for
fixed-wing aviation, the USMC must critically examine the history, doctrine,
and equipment of the United States Air Force and United States Navy. In
examining the current doctrines of the USAF and USN, the USMC must look at the
strengths and weaknesses of each, and look for possible gaps in their
capabilities. The USMC must be ready and willing to use its fixed-wing assets
to fill those doctrinal gaps.
Recommendation: The Marine Corps needs to prepare to defend the requirement
for fixed-wing aviation, by continuing to provide an expeditionary air arm,
and by filling gaps in the doctrine and capabilities of the sister services.
Marine Fixed-Wing Air, Required or Retired?
Thesis: The USMC must be proactive in redefining its fixed-wing aviation role;
it must look for and exploit gaps in sister services capabilities.
I. U.S. Air Force Doctrine
A. Historical View
B. Current Doctrine
II. U.S. Navy Doctrine
A. Historical View
B. Current Doctrine
III. U.S. Marine Corps (aviation) Doctrine
A. Historical View
B. Current Doctrine
IV. U.S. Marine Corps (aviation) Doctrinal Changes
A. Within Sister Services
B. Within the MAGTF
MARINE FIXED-WING AIR, REQUIRED OR RETIRED?
In 1948, all four services met in Key West to delineate the roles and
missions for each of the Armed Forces. This delineation of roles allowed each
service to plan, budget, and procure individual systems and develop service
support organizations for the smooth operation of that service. Each service
jockeyed for more roles and missions, because it resulted in larger annual
budgets. As each service increased their respective missions, redundancies
appeared in service capabilities, weapon systems, and support organizations.
The Reorganization Act of 1986 (Goldwaters/Nichols Act), attempted to
streamline the Department of Defense (DOD) by forcing more integration and
interoperability between the services, thereby reducing interservice
redundancies. It required the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) to
examine the roles and missions and submit a triennial report with changes to
the roles and missions. In 1989, Admiral William J. Crowe submitted his
"Report on Roles and Functions of the Armed Forces," the first report since
the 1948 Key West Agreement. In his report, Adm. Crowe called for several
changes including "A sweeping reorganization of the intelligence organizations
that support our forces." (5:16) This was just a start, and now it was time
for General Colin Powell to submit his triennial report.
On 12 February 1993, General Powell released his report on roles and
missions. The initial response from Congress suggests that Gen. Powell's
report is not tough enough on the military and does not cut out much of the
perceived redundancies. Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Les Aspin is currently
reviewing the report and will be sending his recommendations to Congress.
Rep. Ronald V. Dellums, Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, calls
General Powell's recommendations as "Tinkering at the margins." (7:34)
Rep. Dellums went on to say:
For the first time in 45 years we are in a window of opportunity
where we do not face a major military threat from abroad. It seems
to me we ought to be able to use this time to root out our
organizational bad habits, the dysfunctional gaps and expensive
overlaps in military roles and missions . . . . (7:34)
The roles and missions debate took on an added dimension when SecDef Aspin
called for even larger cuts in the DOD budget and manning. SecDef Aspin has
submitted a plan for the force structure, and would like to see a shift in the
roles for the U.S. military. This shift in roles would be based on the fact
that the US is now lacking a superpower enemy. In making his force structure,
SecDef Aspin cites a list of lessons learned from the Gulf War: the use of
high-tech weapons capable of enormous and accurate destructive firepower,
computers, and highly trained soldiers. SecDef Aspin bases his vision for the
future military on equivalents of Desert Storm, Just Cause, and Provide
With the introduction of the new administration, and the DOD budget
cutbacks, maybe it is time for DOD to take a hard internal look at the roles
and missions statement, and develop a force structure to meet the future
requirements. If DOD does not initiate a more comprehensive roles and mission
review, it may be forced on DOD by Congress. The challenge is to build a
force structure based on capability and not threat. If the USMC hopes to
retain its truly expeditionary Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF)
capabilities, it must articulate its roles and missions into the 21st century.
Included in the roles and missions is the use of, and requirement for, USMC
fixed-wing aircraft, (one of the "four air forces"). The USMC must be
proactive in redefining its fixed-wing aviation role; it must look for and
exploit gaps in sister services capabilities.
To be proactive and look for gaps in fixed-wing aviation capability
requires a careful and critical look at where the services have been, and
where their equipment and doctrine are taking them. Doctrine and equipment are
complimentary, take years to evolve, and dictate what the services will be
capable of for the future. Current aircraft procurement from identifying the
requirement to operational introduction can be eight to ten years. Lessons
learned are also used in developing doctrine, and all the services
incorporated the lessons of the Gulf War: lessons such as interoperability,
capabilities, and limitations. Let's look at the USAF, USN, and USMC doctrine
and equipment to determine if it is possible for the USMC to justify the
existence of its fixed-wing aviation.
The USAF was created in 1946, but its doctrine can be traced back to the
U.S. Army's Air Corps Tactical School started in 1920, and the teaching of
Guilio Douhet and Billy Mitchell. Douhet developed a theory of air war that
broke down to five key points, most notable for this discussion were two:
first, "A nation must be prepared at the outset to launch massive bombing
attacks against the enemy centers of population, government, and industry-hit
first and hit hard to shatter (the) enemy," second, ". . . An independent air
force armed with long-range bombardment aircraft, maintained in a constant
state of readiness, is the primary requirement." (9:630) Mitchell was not so
concerned with the strategic aspect, "But rather the centralized coordination
of all air assets under the control of an autonomous air force command, freed
from its dependency on the army." (9:631)
Douhet's and Mitchell's teachings can be seen in the application of air
power during World War II, and the daytime, high-altitude, precision
bombardment of strategic targets against the Axis powers. Subsequent events
would reveal shortcomings in t heir theories which included "A gross over-
estimate of the self-defending capacity of bomber aircraft against a daring
and dedicated defending air force." (9:635) The almost devastating losses
suffered by the Allies in the daylight bombing raids prompted the development
of a long-range, fighter-escort capable of protecting the bomber force for the
duration of the mission. During the latter stages of WW II, the Army Air
Corps operated with air superiority, and near the end, total air supremacy.
During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, the USAF continued to operate with
air superiority. But, during the Vietnam War the USAF had to contend with an
elaborate, coordinated, and integrated air defense network over North Vietnam.
In having to deal with the North Vietnamese air defense, the USAF further
developed its doctrine by integrating a total strike package using bombers,
escorts, and special mission aircraft (jammers and electronic surveillance).
To outfit such a strike package required the use of many different types of
aircraft, all designed for a specific mission or threat, and each type
aircraft coming from a different unit. To solve the coordination problem, the
USAF put all the aircraft under one commander for centralized control.
The Gulf War was a culmination of all the previous lessons learned, and
showed the devastating power of the USAF, its equipment, and doctrine against
the fourth largest military force in the world. Desert Shield demonstrated
the USAF capability to airlift massive amounts of supplies and personnel.
During Desert Storm, General Horner conducted a strategic air campaign using a
classic combination of the previous lessons learned, evolving doctrine, and
specially designed, state of the art equipment. The USAF gained and
maintained air superiority using F-15 fighters, and crippled the Iraqi Command
and Control network using special mission aircraft and precision bombing.
Then, he conducted a strategic bombing campaign designed to destroy the will
and capability of the Iraqi government to wage war.
The success of the air war in the Gulf led to the current USAF doctrine
of "Global Reach-Global Power," described in Air Force Manual 1-1 (AFM 1-1),
Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force (March 1992). AFM 1-1
outlines the doctrine and priorities for employment of aerospace power in
future conflicts and will carry the USAF into the next century. The basic
tenet of AFM 1-1 is that "Controlling the aerospace environment is a
prerequisite to accomplishing other aerospace roles and missions." Another
critical point is "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 operations." AFM 1-1 also outlines doctrine for deciding targets.
First-priority targets should be those whose destruction can
have the greatest effect on the war as a whole-in short, the
enemy's (strategic) centers of gravity. Second-priority targets
should be those which effect the outcome of an entire campaign
within a theater of operations. The last priority should be those
targets affecting only the outcome of individual battles. (1:8)
These principles along with current weapons systems such as the F-117, B-2,
and F-22 will guide the USAF into the next century and dictate how aerospace
power will be employed.
The "Global Reach-Global Power" doctrine has several shortcoming that
must be addressed. First is the time factor. This new doctrine relies
heavily on the fact that the conflict cannot be time critical. In Desert
Storm, all the forces had sufficient time to buildup combat power before the
war started. With a reduction in overseas bases, time becomes even a bigger
factor. Second is the reliance on host-nation or neighboring nation support
to house the air wings once they arrive in theater. The USAF is not capable
of operating from an austere airfield, but must rely improved facilities. As
the USAF discovered during "Operation Eldorado Canyon" (1986 bombing raid on
Libya), not all friendly nations will allow the use of their facilities or
airspace for offensive actions. Third, is the premise that air superiority
must be gained before commencing Offensive Air Support (OAS). This relates
directly to the time factor, we may not have the luxury of time to gain air
superiority before commencing bombing operations in support of ground forces.
Fourth is the issue of JFACC, and whether he controls air assets according to
the USAF doctrine, or whether he coordinates air assets according to the
U.S. Navy carrier aviation doctrine can also be traced back to the 1920s,
with the first carrier takeoff from the USS Langley by Lieutenant V. Griffin
on 17 October 1922. From 1922 to 1929, carrier aviation stagnated under the
reigning battleship mentality. During Fleet Problem IX, in January 1929,
Captain Joseph M. Reeves demonstrated the power of carrier aviation when he
launched a mock strike of seventy aircraft from the USS Saratoga on the Panama
Canal. "The planes struck without warning in an attack deemed so effective by
the referees that they ruled the locks at the Pacific end of the canal
destroyed." (10:35) The USS Saratago's performance changed naval warfare; she
had demonstrated that a speedy aircraft carrier could independently attack
enemy installations with devastating results. Admiral William V. Pratt, the
Black Fleet Commander for this exercise, was so impressed that he moved his
flag to the USS Saratoga for the return trip to the U.S. In his postexercise
critique he made the following comment, "Gentlemen, you have witnessed the
most brilliantly conceived and most effectively executed naval operation in
our history." (10:35) In 1930, Admiral Pratt was named Chief of Naval
Operations (CNO), and it was during his tenure that the carrier became the
nucleus of an independent offensive unit in the fleet.
World War II was to serve as the proving ground for carrier aviation and
power projection. In early 1942, the United States and Japan would engage in
the Battle of the Coral Sea, a naval battle in which the opposing fleets would
never sight each other. Carrier aviation became the deciding factor in such
battles as Midway, the Eastern Solomons, the Santa Cruz Islands, and the
Phillipine Sea. Near the end of the war, Admiral Marc Mitscher, Chief of Naval
Aviation, issued a press release asserting "Japan is beaten and carrier
supremacy defeated her." (10:170)
Following WW II, Navy doctrine and equipment shifted several times as the
U.S. Navy attempted to grapple with the changing world picture. During the
Cold War, naval emphasis was on "blue water operations" and countering the
Soviet Fleet. Naval aviation and carrier doctrine centered on over-the-
horizon battles employing nuclear weapons. Aircraft were designed for long
range strikes or for protection of the fleet from massive Soviet bomber
attacks. The U.S. Navy shifted back to conventional power projection ashore
during the Vietnam War. Aircraft carriers were continuously deployed to the
Gulf of Tonkin from 1965 to 1973 to support U.S. and South Vietnamese ground
forces and for long-range strikes into North Vietnam. Following Vietnam, the
Navy again went through a period of shifting emphasis back to countering the
Soviet threat, but found itself involved in more regional conflicts. Aircraft
carriers were used as the quick reaction U.S. presence in such places as Iran
(Desert One hostage rescue operation), Lebanon, Libya, Grenada, and Panama.
During Desert Storm, the U.S. Navy reverted to the power projection role
with one carrier operating from the Red Sea and up to four carriers operating
from the Persian Gulf. The Gulf War allowed the U.S. Navy to demonstrate the
versatility, flexibility, and capability of carrier aviation. Carrier
aviation was used to augment and support General Horner's air campaign.
Following the successes of the Gulf War, 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 new strategy is titled ". . . From the Sea." "This
document marks a sea change in naval strategic thinking. It details a new
naval philosophy for today's world." (8:1) The doctrine was developed in
response to the current challenges, a shift in focus from global threats to a
more regional focus, and concentrates on littoral waters and maneuver from the
sea. It must be remembered though that one capability has remained
predominant and preeminent, and that is power projected from a carrier to
shore. "In Naval Aviation that capability to project power is our core
competency. It is that which separates us from the other navies of the
The biggest shortcoming in the new Navy doctrine is the equipment that it
must use to implement ". . . From the Sea." USN ships have been designed and
equipped to defeat the Soviet Navy in blue water operations. Few are designed
or prepared to operate in the littorals, ("brown water"). This is evidenced
by the lack of minesweepers and mine countermeasures in the USN fleet.
Aircraft carriers require large amounts of space to maneuver for air
operations and self-protection, and are normally escorted by a host of surface
combatants. By switching to the littorals, the Carrier Battle Groups (CVBGs)
must operate closer to shore and risk exposing themselves. This vulnerability
was demonstrated as early as 1929, when the USS Saratoga was ruled sunk after
she had launched her planes in a mock attack against the Panama Canal, during
Fleet Problem IX. The wide spread export of relatively inexpensive, high-tech
weapons, such as the Exocet Anti-Ship Missile (ASM) used against the HMS
Sheffield and USS Stark, have compounded the danger of operating in the
Marine Corps aviation began on 1 August 1912, when after two hours and
forty minutes of instruction at Marblehead, Massachusetts, First Lieutenant
Alfred A. Cunningham soloed in a Curtiss Seaplane, thereby qualifying to
become the Marine Corps' first pilot. In its first five years, Marine
aviation expanded rapidly as the U.S. geared for entry in World War I.
"From the outset (of the war), the Corps was assigned two disparate aviation
missions reflecting its close relationship with the Navy, while still
emphasizing direct support of Marines--Antisubmarine patrols using seaplanes,
and ground support using landplanes." (4:14) First Aeronautic Company (USMC)
was the first fully trained and equipped American aviation unit to go overseas
in WW I. During the war, Marine aircraft flew fighter and ground support
missions in support of Marines and Allied forces. By the end of the war,
Marine aviation had expanded to 340 aircraft.
Following WW I, Marine aviation saw expeditionary duty in Haiti and later
in Nicaragua. During the Second Nicaraguan Intervention in 1927, Marine
aviation went to assist Marines and the Nicaraguan government in suppressing
guerilla forces. Missions included flying supplies, conducting message drops,
evacuating wounded, reconnaissance and observation, and more important, attack
missions in close support of Marine ground forces with Marine pilots acting as
ground observers. This attempt at close coordination was to be the
springboard for building the Marine Corps air/ground team,
In 1934, the USMC published the Tentative Landing Manual which defined
amphibious warfare and the role of Marine aviation. From 1934-1942, the
Marine Corps Schools at Quantico conducted field exercises to refine and
improve on the doctrine. The 1936 exercises were probably the must useful in
determining the shortcomings of Marine aviation. It was noted that the Marine
Corps had no airplanes specially designed for the attack missions, but was
using observation and fighter aircraft as makeshift expedients. In 1937, the
recommendation was made again that the Marine Corps needed modern attack
planes and "That attack aviation should become an integral component of Marine
Corps aviation if it was to carry out one of its primary missions. . . ."
(2:54) By 1940, most of the problems had been worked out, but one interesting
note is the Marine Corps Schools aviation section doctrinal statement
concerning close air support (CAS); "When aviation is acting in close support
of the ground forces, its striking power should be used against [only] those
targets which cannot be reached by the weapons of the ground arm." (2:58)
World War II was to be the proving ground for Marine aviation doctrine.
While the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps worked together on the Pacific island
hopping campaign, one problem surfaced that needed immediate attention, and
that was a command and control problem. The USN preferred to exercise close
overall control using Navy officers aboard ship out of immediate contact with
the ground situation. The USMC opted for a more flexible system that
eliminated various links in the chain of command and whereby pilots were
coached onto their targets by air liaison personnel at the front lines. The
Marine method was finally adopted, and at the end of the war, CAS was
officially defined as "Attack by aircraft of hostile ground targets which are
at such close range to friendly front lines as to require detailed integration
of each air mission with the fire and movement of the ground forces in order
to insure safety. . . ." (2:59) A more meaningful definition was offered by a
soldier on Mindanao: "Close air support means that those bombs are so close
that if you don't get in a hole or down, you're likely to get your backside
full of arrows." (2:58)
Marine aviation doctrine has remained basically unchanged throughout
Korea, Vietnam, and Grenada. The command and control problems were solved
with the standardization of CAS procedures in the Navy and Marine Corps.
During Desert Storm, a new twist was added to the problem and that was how to
integrate a Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) into the larger theater air
operations run by the Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC)? The only
other changes have been to the aircraft and equipment used to conduct the six
functions of Marine aviation.
As stated earlier, the Commandant has coauthored the current Navy/Marine
Corps doctrine entitled ". . . From the Sea." This latest doctrine emphasizes
the close bond between the Navy and Marine Corps as the U.S. shifts from a
global threat to a more littoral, regional strategy. It is still predicated
on the traditional expeditionary role of the Marine Corps and it stresses the
need for joint operations capable of projecting power ashore and then further
inland if necessary. More importantly, its emphasis on littoral warfare
focuses on flexible Navy and Marine Corps expeditionary capabilities, not on
The one weakness on the Marine side of the doctrine is the total reliance
on external support to transport Marine aviation to the region. This is an
issue that the Marine Corps must overcome if it is to retain the quick
reaction that it is known for. Currently, to overcome that weakness, Marine
squadrons are deploying aboard carriers, but this alone will not solve the
problem. When Marine squadrons deploy to a carrier, those squadrons fall
under the "operational control" (OPCON) of the CVBG. The Marine air mission
will be dictated by the CVBG as long as the squadrons are assigned to the
If the Marine Corps is to keep its fixed-wing aviation assets, it must
sell "Marine Air" to the President, the Congress, and the American public. To
sit back and rest on its laurels will only invite disaster as the DOD budget
and personnel drawdown continues. Congress has already said that the
redundancies must be eliminated, including the need for four air forces.
Though all the services have published new doctrines since the victory in
Desert Storm, the Marine Corps must be proactive and develop newer doctrine
that continues to articulate Marine Corps aviation capabilities into the next
century. In so doing, the Marine Corps must ensure that those capabilities
are disseminated using the media in a positive manner.
The Marine Corps cannot operate in a vacuum when it comes to developing ~
doctrine for its fixed wing aviation. It must develop a long-term strategy
using a careful mix of global change, international politics, defense
budgeting, high-tech equipment and manpower resources. In developing future
doctrine, the Marine Corps must continue to use those tenets of previous
doctrines that still hold true. Tenets such as the expeditionary capability
of Marine aviation to operate in an austere environment, the carrier
capability of Marine aviation to operate in a joint environment with the USN,
and the capability to operate as one unit with Marine ground elements as part
of a Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF).
Some additional aspects that the Marine Corps may exploit are to use
Marine aviation to support sister services like the Army or Air Force outside
of the normal MAGTF structure. Marine aviation must have that flexibility to
support a JFACC that is not in support of Marines on the ground. The Marine
Corps needs the capability to complement and integrate with the Army and Air
Force in conducting OAS missions. If the Marine Corps does not have that
capability, then it loses some interoperability. Another use of Marine
aviation is to continue the mix of a special use MAGTF aboard aircraft
carriers, complete with Marine fixed-wing assets, comparable to the MAGTF thal
deployed aboard the USS Roosevelt when it sailed on 11 March 1993.
Inside the MAGTF, Marine aviation should be task as a maneuver element,
similar to the Army Combat Aviation Brigades, vice a supporting element which
is it current role in the MAGTF. By integrating Marine aviation into the
ground scheme of maneuver and tasking them as a separate maneuver element, it
becomes a force multiplier and allows the MAGTF Commander additional
flexibility to accomplish the mission.
"Predicting the long-term adversaries of the U.S. is a difficult, if not
impossible, proposition. It is a dangerous exercise that may leave us
unprepared for the kind of conflict actually encountered." (3:40) The key to
developing future Marine roles and missions is deciding "What the U.S. will
face rather than whom." (3:48) In formulating the future doctrine, the Marine
Corps must realistically forecast personnel strength, in the event that it
drops below Base Force. It must budget wisely, to avoid problems like the
Medium Lift Requirement (MV-22 Osprey), and it must take into account the
volatility of international politics. Change demands new ideas, new
assumptions, and new approaches. Lastly, the Marine Corps must be proactive
in redefining future roles and missions. To procrastinate will allow external
forces, like the Congress, to dictate what the Marine Corps future roles will
be. "Democrats and Republicans alike on the Senate Armed Services Committee
warned that if the military does not eliminate duplication in the services'
role and missions they will." (6:1) What the Marine Corps needs to avoid is a
future doctrine/capabilities mismatch.
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Force, Washington, D.C. March 1992.
2. Crowl, Philip A. and Jeter A. Isely. The U.S. Marines and Amphibious
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3. Drew, Dennis M. "Recasting the Flawed Downsizing Debate." Parameters
4. Heatley III, Charles J. Forged in Steel. Charlottesville: Howell
Press Inc. 1987.
5. Matthews, William. "Echoes of 1946: What Now?" Navy Times. January 4
6. Matthews, William. "Final 'Roles and Missions' Spares Navy." Navy
Times. February 22, 1993: 6.
7. Maze, Rick. "Too Gentle, Or Too Harsh?" Navy Times March 8 1993: 34.
8. Mixson, RADM Riley D. "Naval Air: Projecting Power." Naval Aviation
News November-December 92: 1.
9. Paret, Peter. ed. Makers of Modern Strategy. Princeton: Princeton
University Press. 1986.
10. Reynolds, Clark G. The Carrier War. Alexandria: Time-Life Books.
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