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Marine Corps Airpower

Marine aviation traces its origin to 1912, when First Lieutenant Alfred A. Cunningham reported for naval aviation training. By 1914 Marines had started using aircraft and would see Marine aviation flying its first combat missions during the ending months of World War I. Through operations in Nicaragua, Haiti, China, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Southwest Asia, Marine aviation has distinguished itself as a formidable contributor to the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) combined arms team.

Although the Marines started using aircraft as early as 1914, technology advances leading to offensive air support (OAS) did not come about until World War II. The ending months of World War I saw the Marine Corps flying combat missions from France. A shortage of Royal Air Force (RAF) pilots and surplus of RAF aircraft led to a beneficial partnership between the RAF and the Marines. The RAF and Marine squadrons operated along side each other in support of the British and Belgian ground forces that were gathering momentum against the crumbling German army. Their general mission assigned by General Pershing was to attack any rear-area targets that might hinder the Germans retreat. By the end of the war, 1st Marine Aviation Force, in its brief period of action, had lost 4-dead, shot down 12 Germans, and flown 57 bombing missions.

During the interwar years, OAS began to become integral to Marine Corps operations. In the air over Haiti, the Dominican Republic, China, and Nicaragua, Marine aviation assisted the ground operations, not only in combat, but also in reconnaissance, transportation, and supply. Close air support (CAS) became more effective due to dive bombing techniques and weaponeering. By trial and error, Marine aviation worked out basic tactics for CAS. By the end of the 1920s, the Marine air-ground team had become a reality. Major Roy Geiger and Colonel Rowell oversaw aviation operations as the Tentative Landing Operations Manual was published in 1935. In that historic document, Marine aviation's doctrine for reconnaissance, fighter escort, protection of the landing forces, artillery spotting, and CAS was formally established as the aviation units' responsibilities.

The General Board of the Navy restated the Marine air's mission in 1939 to support the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) in amphibious landing operations and to support the troops once they had passed the beachhead. Marine aviation was to provide backup squadrons for the Navy's regular carrier squadrons.

When the United States entered World War II, the aviation doctrine developed at Quantico was used during the amphibious landings throughout the Pacific. OAS was performed time and again by forward-based aircraft of the Cactus Air Force on Guadalcanal in support of Marines on the ground. Unfortunately, Marine aviation resources (aircraft, aircrews, and support) had become so heavily involved with antiair warfare (AAW) and air interdiction (AI) missions of land-based air power that their original purpose, providing CAS for the men on the ground, had been subordinated if not completely forgotten. Marine aviation involved in action against ground targets during the early stages of action, seemed to be used against selected targets, as opposed to ground liaison-directed attacks against Japanese troops or fortifications immediately impeding an advance. Marines were given their targets before leaving the ground, vice receiving airborne instructions characteristic of CAS missions.

In February 1945, Marine CAS finally arrived during the drive to the Philippine capital of Manila, where the Marine SBD Dauntlesses were directed to provide CAS 20 to 30 miles ahead and behind the Sixth Army. These patrolling aircraft were available to support immediate CAS missions requested by the advancing ground forces. Development in CAS TTPs continued during the Philippine campaign with the use of radio communications to call in napalm attacks. A single very high frequency (VHF) channel could not carry all the traffic and the Marines switched to medium-frequency channels and napalm became one of the most successful weapons in the Philippines.

By 1950, Marine aviation was experiencing two major developments that would shape its foreseeable future: the advent of the jet and the helicopter. Carriers from which the fighters operated allowed more fuel and more on-station time; however, the short-legged jets could not loiter above the battlefield as compared to the propeller driven F4U Corsairs. AI missions were beginning to be dominated by the jet aircraft because of their range and speed. CAS and armed reconnaissance (AR) missions were still primarily tasked to the Corsairs due to their capability to remain on station for longer periods of time.

Korea saw the maturation of OAS both in the Pusan perimeter and operations in the landing at Inchon. Rockets and napalm were an effective combination for CAS missions ahead of Marines and Army troops on the ground during these early operations. As the action shifted inland and met stiffer resistance, antitank strikes with napalm, bombs, and rockets inundated the North Korean T-34 tanks. During the Chosin Reservoir campaign, Marine CAS under forward air control had become an accepted tool. Forward operating bases reduced response times and allowed greater time on station for CAS and AR missions. Deep air support (DAS) missions cut off Chinese resupply routes and bridges and disrupted enemy concentrations and supply areas vital to the success of the ground forces.

Vietnam introduced the attack helicopters for use in OAS missions. AH-1 Hueycobras, the first designedfor- the-purpose gunships to be placed in production, initially flew fire-support and armed reconnaissance missions. The Cobras later operated from amphibious transport docks (LPDs) against enemy ferry and barge traffic, providing both forward air controller (airborne) (FAC[A]) and CAS sorties. The Marine tactical air direction center (TADC) established at DaNang, with subordinate organizations of the tactical air operations center (TAOC) and direct air support center (DASC), represented a quantum leap in command and control (C2) of aircraft for the Marines. "Hot pad" alert and airborne alert CAS aircraft with tanker support provided the ground commanders a continuous supply of aircraft through the Marine air command and control system (MACCS).

Other additions to OAS capabilities that came near the end of Vietnam were the introduction of the EA-6A Prowler, A6-A Intruder, and precision-guided weapons. The Prowlers became vital to OAS missions by suppressing new threat systems like the SA-2 to provide suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) for the strike packages. The Intruders provided commanders a true all-weather, day and night AI capability. The introduction of electro-optical and laser-guided bombs (LGBs) aided in economy of force. These highly accurate weapons increased mission success rates while reducing the number of aircraft required to destroy or neutralize targets.

Significant technological advances since the end of the Vietnam era have contributed to more effective and efficient capabilities in Marine aviation. The use of this new, sophisticated technology: air-to-ground radar, forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensors, precision-guided munitions, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and targeting platforms, demonstrated new OAS capabilities available to commanders for shaping the battlespace. Improved communication systems have allowed the commander to obtain real- or near-real-time information for formulating decisive actions to create an environment in which the enemies either lose their physical capability or their will to resist.

Marine aviation performed different types of OAS missions during Desert Storm. For example: AH-1W Cobras provided CAS by knocking out Iraqi tanks and armored personnel carriers; F/A-18Ds performed "Fast FAC" missions by marking targets in "kill boxes" for other OAS aircraft; and other F/A-18s, A-6Es, and AV-8Bs performed long range strikes, AR, and CAS missions.

Since the end of the Gulf War, Marine aviation continues to provide OAS to the joint force commander (JFC) and MAGTF commander in military operations. The continuing advance of smart weapons technology and tactics provides greater aircraft standoff ranges to the enemy's surface to air threat while minimizing ordnance inaccuracies to hit the target. Operations Restore Hope in Somalia in 1992, Operation Deliberate Force in Bosnia in 1995, Operation Desert Fox in Iraq in 1998, and Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999 are all military operations other than war (MOOTW) where Marine Corps OAS has been applied.

OAS missions in Operation Desert Fox saw the first employment of global positioning system (GPS) weapons such as the joint standoff weapon (JSOW) by Marine aviation. The joint direct attack munition (JDAM) was successfully employed for the first time as recently as February 2000 by Marines while operating in Operation Southern Watch over Iraq.

As one of the six functions of Marine aviation, OAS provides the JFC and MAGTF commander the flexibility to conduct operations when and where they choose to shape the battlespace. Even though more recent conflicts have supported MOOTW where ground forces are not employed, Marine aviation is still used as it was envisioned in 1914, to provide a full spectrum offensive capability.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:27:01 ZULU