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Marine Tactical Aviation: Cobra And Hornet, The Unbeatable Team

Marine Tactical Aviation: Cobra And Hornet, The Unbeatable Team


CSC 1993











Title: Marine Tactical Aviation: Cobra and Hornet, The Unbeatable Team



Author: Major H. A. Stockwell, United States Marine Corps



Thesis: In today's politically austere environment and declining budget, the Marine Corps must


re-think its composition of tactical aircraft for providing the Marine Air-Ground Task Force with


effective close air support and the supporting functions of tactical fixed-wing aviation.



Background: The Clinton Administration has set an ambitious goal of reducing the U.S. defense


budget by $127 billion over the next five years. This figure is more than double what candidate


Clinton called for in defense reductions and a much larger cut than many had anticipated. Not


satisfied with the Joint Chiefs of Staff review of roles and missions and proposed defense cuts, the


Administration has yet to develop an alternative plan leaving the services with little guidance on


how to structure near-term cuts. This delay still affords the military the opportunity to plan


and structure for the proposed cuts or yield to congressional legislation. Can the Marine Corps


substantially reduce its Tactical Aviation budget and maintain the ability to support the MAGTF?



Recommendation: For 23 years of service in the Marine Corps, the AV-8 Harrier has not


performed as envisioned and has failed to provide the MAGTF with an effective, cost-efficient fire


support platform. In this economically austere environment, the Harrier is an expense the


Marine Corps should do without. The AH-1W is fully capable of providing the MAGTF afloat the


flexibility the Harrier has failed to provide. With a one-for-one replacement, the AH-1W would


reduce the Marine Corps defense budget in excess of $4 billion and increase its flexibility and


firepower capabilities.








Thesis: In today's politically austere environment and declining budget, the Marine Corps must


re-think its composition of tactical aircraft for providing the Marine Air-Ground Task Force with


effective close air support and the supporting functions of tactical fixed-wing aviation.



I. Political and economic environment


A. Clinton's Administrative goals


B. Secretary of Defense policy


II. Early Marine tactical aviation


A. Officially recognized


B. Naval emphasis


III. Modern Marine tactical aviation


A. F/A-18 selection

1. Cost vs. multi-role capabilities

2. Concept of employment

3. Combat performance


B. AV-8 selection

1. Concept of employment

2. Technological inadequacies

3. Design limitations

4. Operational limitations


IV. Spectrum of threat


A. AV-8's performance


B. Replacement of the AV-8


V. Improving tactical air and fire support


A. AH-1W Cobra

1. Operational capabilities

2. Combat performance


B. Summary






Tomorrow's U.S. forces must have the power to respond quickly to crises in distant lands with an


operationally flexible, highly survivable and sustainable force. At the heart of Naval warfare


will be battle-space dominance -- and the United States Marine Corps. But today's Marine Corps


must survive a very difficult economic and political environment. The Clinton Administration


has set an ambitious goal of reducing the U.S. defense budget by $127 billion over the next five


years. This figure is more than double what candidate Clinton called for in defense spending


reductions over the next four years and a much larger cut than many had anticipated. (8:44)



Proposals to cut as much as $11 billion from the $266-billion Fiscal 1994 defense budget


mark the first step in overhauling the Pentagon's Base Force plan. But Defense Secretary Les


Aspin and his new defense team have yet to develop an alternative force plan, leaving the services


with little guidance on how to structure the near-term cuts. The Fiscal 1994 budget reduction,


which the Administration has place on the fast track, just scrapes the surface. Military service


responses to Secretary Aspin's call to cut $10.8 billion in spending represents 9% of the $127


billion in cutbacks now promised by the Clinton Administration by Fiscal 1997. (7:20) Some


have expressed misgivings that the Clinton Administration proposed reductions may cut too deep.


While the reductions begin slowly, they ramp up steeply in the out years, with a cut of $36


billion in Fiscal 1997 and $39 billion in Fiscal 1998. There is also uncertainty from where the


cuts will be subtracted. Additionally, as viewed by the new Administration, Secretary Aspin can


count on little help from the roles and missions review by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Senator Sam


Nunn (D-Ga.) and others had viewed the review as an opportunity to eliminate redundancy and


duplication among the military services and in the process allow lower budget levels without


sacrificing combat capability. But most of Senator Nunn's recommendations for consolidation have


been rejected as not feasible or not operationally sound. In the opinion of the Administration,


the services' unwillingness to tackle the emotionally charged roles and mission issue makes the


task of developing a smaller force structure to match fiscal realities all the more difficult. (7:21)



Force reductions now under review should preserve sufficient flexibility to cope

with a wide range of realistic contingencies, because levels that cause potential

adversaries to question U.S. capabilities could degrade deterrence and involve the United

States in otherwise preventable wars. (1:155)



What does all this mean to the U.S. military forces? As expressed by Secretary Aspin, "The


Fiscal 1994 budget marks the first step toward moving to a smaller but effective force structure


that relies on high quality, technologically advanced forces organized to cope with regional


threats." (7:21) The playing field has been defined as a $127-billion reduction, but the rules


have yet to be determined, which means that the services still have the opportunity to plan and


conform to the proposed cuts, or yield to congressional legislation. Future force structure


decisions could be left by default to the political interests of Congress. Such interests could prove


disastrous for Marine Corps Tactical Aviation (TACAIR) allowing those who contend the Marines


can do without their own TACAIR assets the opportunity to realize their wishes. (6:14)




Historically, as America's force in readiness, the Marine Corps has prided itself as the leader


of military innovation and the procurer of sensible, cost effective, multi-mission equipment to


cover a wide spectrum of operational requirements. This continued philosophy could reduce the


Marine Corps' Tactical Aviation defense expenditures in excess of $4 billion over the next five


years and still increase flexibility and firepower capabilities for the long-haul. To accomplish


this evolution in today's politically austere environment and declining budget, the Marine Corps


must re-think its composition of tactical aircraft for providing the Marine Air-Ground Task


Force (MAGTF) with effective Close Air Support (CAS) and the supporting functions of tactical


fixed-wing aviation. Clearly a number of existing capabilities are no longer necessary or





Since the beginning of Marine Corps aviation in May 1912 and the first CAS mission in support


of Marines in Ocotal, Nicaragua in 1927, the Marine Corps has operated numerous types of


aircraft throughout a myriad of conflicts. In the early years, the Marine Corps often operated


inferior aviation equipment and received little attention as a formidable element However,


Marine aviation was officially recognized in 1939 when the Navy set forth Marine aviation's role:


The support of Fleet Marine Force (FMF) landing operations and replacement for naval carrier


squadrons. Be that as it may, the eve of World War II found Marine Air in little better shape


than it had been at the cessation of hostilities in 1918--an inferior condition shared by other


aviation branches as well. As World War II progressed, Marine aviation equipment and


capabilities grew. Specifically, Marine aviators refined CAS procedures in support of the FMF


which has evolved into the basis of today's MAGTF. (11:23)




Typically, the U.S. Navy purchased aircraft for the Marine Corps that placed a greater emphasis


on carrier replacement squadrons and their maritime missions than it did on supporting the FMF.


This emphasis required the operation of numerous types of aircraft that created an extreme


financial burden to the Marine Corps and undermined the capabilities to support the MAGTF


concept. However, in the late 1960's the Marine Corps made two monumental decisions that


would revolutionize Marine TACAIR. First, it terminated the planned transition to the F-14,


the Navy's chosen replacement for the F-4 and secondly, the Marine Corps' commitment to the


AV-8 Harrier. These decisions were the based on the Marine Corps pledge to reduce unnecessary


expense, increase flexibility and provide the MAGTF with the most effective and efficient weapon's


platform(s) available.


The decision to terminate the F-14 transition was based on the enormous expense to operate


the aircraft and its inability to support the Marine on the ground. The F-14, strictly a


maritime air-superiority fighter/interceptor lacked the capabilities of its predecessor, the F-4


to deliver air-to-ground ordnance. The Marine Corps was willing to retain the capabilities of the


venerable F-4 in anticipation of a new, highly advanced multi-role aircraft that was under


development for the Navy to replace the A-7 Corsair, the F/A-18 Hornet The F/A-18 was


projected to cost one-third the price of the F-14, but incorporated the most advanced technology


and capabilities of any aircraft in the world. Additionally, the fourth generation agile strike-


fighter design offered future growth potential well into the 21st century.




Since its introduction into the FMF in July, 1982, the multi-role F/A-18 has become the


work-horse of Marine TACAIR. The unique advantages of the F/A-18 come from a variety of


capabilities that encompass everything from long-term force structure requirements to everyday


operational capabilities. For example, the safety record of the Hornet has far exceeded that of


any tactical aircraft ever introduced into Marine aviation. As a result, attrition estimates have


been revised and procurement in future years can be earmarked for additional capability rather


than replacement of assets. The F/A-18 demonstrates approximately three times the reliability


of most other naval tactical aircraft while requiring only about half the maintenance man-hours


per flight hour. (5:22)




The F/A-18's ability to deliver a wide range of ordnance over extended distances in a high-


threat environment with incredible accuracy has not been matched by any other aircraft. A


distinct advantage of the Hornet displayed during Desert Shield/Storm is that it can be loaded as a


fighter and a ground-attack aircraft for multi-role missions. For example, on "D-day," four


Navy Hornets from VFA-81 were on a bombing mission targeted against an Iraqi airfield when they


detected two Iraqi MIG-21s seven miles away. The aircrew switched their F/A-18 strike-


fighters from the bombing profile to air-to-air, and downed both aircraft using sidewinder


missiles. They then continued their mission and scored direct hits on the enemy airfield. That


encounter produced decisive air-to-air and air-to-ground kills, while taking the versatile


Hornet through its multi-role paces. (12:129)




As Desert Storm documented, the multi-role F/A-18 can escort itself to the target, assume a


dual role of fighter support for the strike package and fighter support for the area as an air


superiority asset, and provide an on-call air-to-ground ordnance capability -- all within the


same mission and with the same aircraft. In terms of airborne responsiveness, the time


required to coordinate the mark of a target exceeds the time required for the aircrew to prepare to


execute the CAS mission. Additionally, the integration of the Night-Attack F/A-18D has added


austere all-weather, night-attack capabilities, providing the MAGTF with increased firepower


and depth of action 24 hours a day. Capable of five of the six functions of Marine Fixed-wing


(F/W) TACAIR, the F/A-18D has replaced and assumed the missions of the F-4, RF-4, A-4,


OA-4, A-6 and the OV-10. The ability of the multi-role F/A-18 to perform these functions has


substantially reduced Marine TACAIR expenditures by eliminating the training, maintenance and


logistical base required to support the different types of aircraft replaced.




The true flexibility of the F/A-18 was demonstrated in August of 1990, when four Marine


F/A-18A squadrons deployed to Bahrain in support of Operation Desert Shield. They maintained


a continuous Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) Combat Air Patrol (CAP) in the Arabian Gulf for Marines


on the ground and Naval forces afloat In December, two F/A-18C squadrons arrived at Bahrain


and by January 15th, the UN "deadline" for Iraqi's withdrawal from Kuwait, 83 F/A-18s were


on the scene: six F/A-18A/C squadrons and one Night-Attack F/A-18D squadron.




During Desert Storm, the Hornets of Marine Air Group-11 (MAG-11) flew over 5,100 combat


sorties which included 1,657 combat hours flown by Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack


Squadron-121 (F/A-18D) -- the highest number of combat hours for any Navy or Marine


Squadron. Missions included air-to-air dominance, CAS, battle-space interdiction, austere


all-weather strike, battle-space reconnaissance, Fast Forward Air Controllers (FASTFAC) and


Tactical Air Command and Control Airborne (TACCA) over the Kuwait Theater of Operations


(KTO). The F/A-18 provided the MAGTF commander operational flexibility and depth


throughout the battle-space unequaled by any other tactical aircraft employed in theater. (9:7)




During the conflict four Marine F/A-18s were struck by Iraqi Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs),


and although all received substantial damage, all four were flown in excess of 200 miles for


uneventful landings at Shaikh Isa, Bahrain. Additionally, the battle damaged Hornets were


repaired and returned to service within 48 hours demonstrating the high combat survivability and


the maintenance flexibility of the combat proven F/A-18.




The Marine Corps' commitment to the AV-8 Harrier began in 1968. General L. F. Chapman,


Jr., Commandant of the Marine Corps, was convinced that the AV-8 Harrier was the Corps'


ultimate answer for CAS in replacing the A-4 Skyhawk. The Harrier's great attraction was the


concept that it could "ground loiter" a short distance behind the front line, takeoff vertically


(VTOL) upon receipt of a call for air support and be over the target in literally minutes. The idea


of an on-call ordnance payload of 3,000 pounds and a combat radius of 50 nautical miles with five


minutes over the target area was a great concept.




However, since its conception, the Harrier has been plagued with technological inadequacies


that have degraded mission performance. The original VTOL concept of employment proved


beyond the capabilities of the Harrier and was quickly abandoned. The current concept of


employment for the Harrier is to use a short takeoff and a vertical landing (STOVL) which


accommodates the under-powered Pegasus engine and provides a limited increase in mission


capability. During Desert Shield/Storm the extreme heat severely reduced the Pegasus' engine


thrust, increasing fuel consumption and takeoff distance while reducing the amount of ordnance


carried. These limitations necessitated the forward deployment of land-based Harriers to an


adequately prepared surface in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, sea-based Harrier ordnance loads were


further reduced by the short length of the flight deck for takeoff.




Over the battlefield the Harrier is extremely vulnerable against heat-seeking missiles. This


reduced survivability is caused by the infrared (IR) signature produced by poor engine design and


the location of the engine's exhaust nozzles. During Desert Storm, five Harriers were lost to


direct enemy fire. Of those five aircraft, four were believed hit by hand-held SAMs. Of


particular note is the availability of hand-held SAMs at the lowest level of conflict rendering the


AV-8 extremely susceptible during the simplest of operations.




The AV-8's weapons delivery systems have been improved by the Angle Rate Bombing System


(ARBS) proving four times more accurate than its original system. However, when compared to


other U.S. systems it proves to be substandard and less accurate. Also, with the exception of 20


Night-Attack configured AV-8B's, 90 Harriers are day, clear-weather attack only. To


eliminate the deficiencies of the ARBS, the APG-65 Radar (same as the F/A-18's) is currently


planned for installation in the Harrier II Plus and retrofit into the Harrier II increasing unit cost


in excess of $40 million. (10:16)




In the air combat arena the Harrier is extremely vulnerable to fourth generation aircraft


(found in many third-world countries) and should be considered as a defensive weapon. The 40-


year-old aeronautical design cannot compete with the superior agility and weapons systems of


current day fourth generation fighters. The incorporation of the APG-65 will give the AV-8 a


stand-off capability in the air-to-air arena. However, this incorporation still will not make the


Harrier a true multi-role platform. Due to inherent weight limitations already experienced by


the AV-8, it would not be able to carry a lethal mixed load of both air-to-air stand-off weapons


and air-to-ground ordnance.


The Harrier has displayed severe shortcomings during the day-to-day MAGTF operations afloat


as part of a composite squadron with the MEU/MEB. Incompatible with helicopter operations


aboard LPHs and unable to support the Marine rifleman 24 hours a day, the MAGTF has


continually changed its scheme of maneuver to accommodate the limited capabilities of the Harrier.


During a presentation to the Marine Corps Command and Staff College on 22 March 1993, Major


General H. W. Jenkins remarked that during Desert Shield it required five to six months (typical


length of normal squadron deployment) of additional training to reach an acceptable, but still


limited level of integrated Harrier/helicopter operations. (4) The segregated AV-8 operations


aboard the larger LHA/LHD ships have eliminated the Harrier/helicopter conflict but not without


substantial expense. The total cost of operating the LHA/LHD does not justify the limited


firepower that a squadron of AV-8's affords the MAGTF.




Today, almost all deployment planning and exercises incorporate movement of the Harrier


ashore following the initial amphibious assault But land-basing of Harriers may not always be


an easy or practical alternative. Materials needed to establish expeditionary air facilities ashore


add greatly to the logistic/shipping requirement. Maintaining refueling and rearming


capabilities at shore-based sites places a heavy burden on limited ship-to-shore and logistic


assets. Furthermore, such sites take time to establish and then add to rear area security


requirements. The question here becomes the focus of effort: the ground Marine engaged in a fire


fight or the ground support of the Harrier?




The end of the Cold War has Congressional and Pentagon Officials advocating that future conflicts


will range from low intensity similar to Somalia, to larger operations of Desert Storm magnitude.


In this environment is there a need for the limited capabilities of the costly Harrier? In the


Desert Storm scenario, the Harrier's performance was disappointing and survivability dismal


when compared to the multi-mission Marine F/A-18. In Somalia, the Harrier would have been


incapable of supporting the Close-In Fire (CIFS) that was superbly provided by the AH-1W Cobra


during the amphibious landing. Does the elimination of the AV-8 Harrier remove the need for an


effective CAS platform to support the MAGTF afloat? Certainly not! However, this role can be


appropriately filled by the additional purchase of the AH-1W Cobra with full Night-Attack


capability for $12 million each, or approximately one-third the cost of the AV-8.




When studying the feasibility of the AH-1 Cobra in this role, the capabilities required of an


effective CAS platform can be divided into two categories: responsiveness and firepower. The


ability of the attack helicopter to follow ground forces into the battle-space and remain in close


proximity to the operation negates its slower speed when compared to the Harrier. Fueling and


rearming points (FARPs) for the Cobra simply require a fuel bladder and additional ordnance.


When compared to the logistical support required for the AV-8, the actual requirements for the


Cobra are minimal. The short transit time from the FARP or Forward Operating Base (FOB) to


the engagement zone and the ability of the Cobra to remain on station either in a low hover or


ground idle provides the ground commander with the type of responsiveness needed in the CAS role.


Smart weapons, such as TOW and Hellfire have given the Cobra a quantum leap in firepower and


the ability to destroy CAS targets while retaining an acceptable level of survivability.


Additionally, the incorporation of night imaging devices into the AH-1/W gives it the ability to be


employed 24 hours-a-day. (2:55)




During Operation Desert Storm, 24 AH-1Ws operated from FOB Lonesome Dove in the Saudi


desert. The superb efficiency of this aircraft was demonstrated when one squadron arrived at


Lonesome Dove ready for combat supported by one transport-helicopter load of equipment. Yet,


once the ground war began, these Cobras operated in direct support of the MAGTF continuously for


the next four days. Onboard ship in the Arabian Gulf, Marine Corps Cobras led amphibious


feints, attacked and secured Iraqi-held islands, provided Enemy Prisoner of War (EPW)


containment and escorted numerous land and maritime units.


The versatility and flexibility of the AH-1W Cobra allows mission planners the luxury of


selecting from the widest array of weapons on any helicopter in the world. It is the only


helicopter to have simultaneous dual anti-armor capability, typically carrying four TOW


missiles and four Hellfire missiles on opposite wing stations. While the AV-8 is restricted in its


anti-armor missions by weather and laser-inhibiting battlefield smoke/dust, the AH-1W can


select an alternate weapon to complete the mission. This enhanced flexibility was continuously


demonstrated during the Gulf War when environmental conditions (smoke, haze, fog and rain)


required numerous anti-armor engagements at minimum range because of the difficulty the


Coalition forces had in identifying targets as friend or foe. (3:71-75)




The final tally of engaged targets in Southwest Asia for the for the AH-1W was impressive.


During the ground campaign 28 AH-1W provided CAS/CIFS in support of Marine Corps maneuver


elements and destroyed the following targets:


97 tanks


48 armored personnel carriers


17 BMP's


43 vehicles


16 bunkers


20 observation


2 antiaircraft artillery sites


2 buildings


Could the AV-8 Harriers have engaged these targets? NO! The inability to operate 24 hours-


a-day and aircraft system's limitations restricted the AV-8 from operation in this adverse


environment. Additionally, while F/A-18's interdicted priority ground targets in advance of the


Marine maneuver element, the highly vulnerable Harriers were restricted to secondary and


tertiary targets in low or no surface-to-air threat zones.


For the Marine Corps to accomplish Secretary Aspin's goal of a smaller but effective force


structure, Marine leaders must make progressive cuts in Marine TACAIR defense spending or risk


loosing Marine TACAIR. Can the Marine Corps afford to eliminate the AV-8 Harrier and still


support the MAGTF? YES! In current Marine Corps doctrine, the MAGTF is dependent on the


flexibility and availability of Marine CAS for mission success. For 23 years of service in the


Marine Corps, the Harrier has not performed as envisioned and has failed to supply the MAGTF


with an effective, cost-efficient fire support platform. Moreover, with the continued


investment in each $38 million (price does not include proposed radar upgrade) AV-8 Harrier II,


Marine Corps leaders continue to support an ill-fated system at the expense of the taxpayer, and,


more importantly, deny the Marine rifleman an appropriate weapon's platform for mission


success. Incompatible with helicopter operations and unable to support the Marine rifleman 24


hours a day, the MAGTF has continually changed its scheme of maneuver to accommodate the


limited capabilities of the Harrier. Clearly, in this economically austere environment and the


Navy's policy statement "FROM THE SEA," the Harrier is an expense the Marine Corps should do






The Marine Corps currently employs two multi-role aircraft that are second-to-none, the


F/A-18 and the AH-1W. These cost efficient aircraft provide the agility and flexibility that is


required to support the MAGTF and are highly capably of covering the spectrum of operational


requirements. The evolution of the attack-helicopter to the current day AH-1W can provide the


afloat MAGTF the support that was once envisioned of the AV-8 Harrier.




The use of attack helicopters in the CAS role is not without precedent. The Israeli Air Force has


used its AH-1's with great success to support ground forces. The Iranian and Iraqi Air Forces


employed their attack helicopters with varying degrees of success against each other after their


fixed-wing forces proved equally adept at killing friendlies as they did killing the enemy while


attempting to conduct CAS during the Iraq-Iran War of 1980-1988. Finally, as demonstrated,


the Marine Corps and the U.S. Army employed attack helicopters with outstanding success against


Iraqi forces during Operation Desert Storm.




The Cobra is currently deployed in limited numbers as part of the MAGTF afloat. Fully


integrated into the FMF, the AH-1 is totally compatible with all helicopter operations afloat and


ashore. The addition of 110 Night Attack AH-1/W Helicopters would be a true force multiplier


and provide the Marine rifleman CAS flexibility the Harrier has failed to provide for 23 years.


With a one-for-one replacement, the AH-1/W would reduce the Marine Corps defense budget in


excess of $4 billion and increase its flexibility and firepower capabilities for the long-haul.


Cobra and Hornet is the unbeatable team that the Marine Corps needs for the 21st century!






1. Collins, John M. Desert Shield and Desert Storm Implications For Future U.S. Force

Requirements. Department Of The Navy 19 April 1991: 155.


2. Cronin, William R. "The Future Of Marine Close Air Support." Marine Corps Gazette

April 92: 55.


3. Gibson, Mark L "The AH-1W SuperCobra." Marine Corps Gazette December 92:



4. Jenkins, Maj.Gen. H.W. Views Of The Commander, Landing Force Briefing. USMC

Command and Staff College. 22 March 1993.


5. Krupp, Lt.Col. Dennis T. and Rash, Maj. David J. "F/A-18 Hornet: Strike Fighter

for the Future." Marine Corps Gazette July 89: 22.


6. Lawson, Chris. "Looking Ahead." Navy Times March 1993: 14.


7. Morrocoo, John D. "Defense Cuts Made In Policy Void." Aviation Week And Space

Technology February 15, 93: 20-21.


8. Morrocoo, John D. "Pentagon To Rely on Weapons Upgrades." Aviation Week And Space

Technology March 15, 93: 44.


9. Rausa, R. Editor "The Shield And The Storm." The Association Of Naval Aviation May 91:



10. Smith III, Charles R. "The Case For The AV-8B II Plus." Naval Institute Proceedings

December 91.


11. Trotti, John. "Marine Air, First To Fight." Presidio Press, Novato, California,

1986: 23-36.


12. The United States Navy in Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Department Of The Navy May

1991: 129.


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