As the Navy and the Marine Corps prepare to merge their tactical aviation units,
a debate is unfolding about the implications that the consolidation will have
on the operational force. Top service officials tout the tac-air integration
as a wise move that will enhance joint war fighting. But critics question whether
the plan was conceived simply as a downsizing drill.
Maj. Gen. Michael Hough, the Marine Corps deputy commandant for aviation, praised
the decision to integrate both services’ forces, claiming that it will
eliminate redundancies and help the United States project power from the sea
more effectively. He also noted that Marines have operated from carriers for
many years and that the integration concept is not new.
Currently, four Marine Corps F/A-18 squadrons operate from Navy carriers. In
the next four to five years, four more squadrons are slated to shift from ground
bases to carriers, according to Hough. Last summer, the Navy and the Corps signed
an agreement to increase the total number of integrated squadrons to 10—one
for each carrier wing. However, the concrete details are still being worked
out behind closed doors, officials said.
The process of completing the integration, Hough said, will take at least five
to six years.
The Navy and the Marine Corps also will share land bases. In fact, two Navy
squadrons have already moved to the Marine Corps aviation station (MCAS) in
Beaufort, S.C. and two other are getting ready to be stationed at the Cherry
Point MCAS in North Carolina. Hough explained that the Navy will not lose ownership
of the planes, but that the facilities will change their names into NAS (Naval
Air Station)/MCAS. “We are going to have to love each other,” he
In the future, he said, there should no longer be two separate Marine and Navy
concepts, but a unified naval aviation force. However, he said, “While
the vision is there, the execution is difficult.”
In the current environment—where the United States does not have guaranteed
access to land air bases—at least 75 percent of all air attacks come from
the sea, according to Hough.
Budget considerations also are driving the process of tac-air consolidation.
The reality is that the Navy and the Marine Corps collectively have $30 billion
in long-term unfunded aviation requirements—$19 billion for strike aircraft
and $11 billion for non-strike aircraft, according to Rear Adm. Mike McCabe,
the director of naval aviation requirements.
Such a large budget shortfall will become more of a problem as the current
fleet ages, so the best option is to go ahead with the integration and help
reduce the unfunded requirements, officials said.
Among the programs likely to be downsized as a result of the merger is the
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Marine Corps is slated to replace all F-4, RF-4,
F/A-18, A-6E, OA-4, A-4M and AV-8B aircraft with the F-35 in 2008, said Hough.
The Navy will replace its F/A-18s and F-14s.
“As the Navy continues to buy the F/A-18E/F and as the Navy and Marine
Corps start buying the JSF ... it seems that the Navy will not have the money
to continue to round out carrier battle groups with the right number of squadrons
and airplanes,” said Marine Corps Capt. Sean B. Garick, the assistant
operations officer for VFMA-224 at Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, S.C.
He told National Defense that the integration plans are helping transfer some
of the unfunded requirements to the Navy. That decision may affect what number
and version of the JSF—the vertical-takeoff (STOVL) or carrier-based aircraft—the
Marine Corps will purchase once the services start procuring the JSF.
The Marine Corps’ original plan was to buy 709 STOVL aircraft. “The
Navy is going to buy about 400 of the carrier versions of the JSF, and the Air
Force will have over 2,000,” said Garick. “It will be really interesting
to see whether we stick to buying the STOVL version or actually [whether] we
are going to buy the Navy carrier version of JSF, because of this integration
That decision will determine the future of Marine tac-air, said Garick. “The
Marine Corps has held true that we will buy all STOVL, but it hinted that we
may decide on a mix of STOVL and carrier versions.”
The leadership from both services has been rather tight-lipped and vague about
the choices they are going to make. The tac-air integration, additionally, has
contractors concerned, because the number of JSF F-35 purchased by the two services
may be cut significantly. Some of the questions may be answered when the Defense
Department unveils its fiscal 2004 budget next month.
The rising cost of operating bases and logistics support also is a good reason
to consolidate tac-air squadrons, said Hough. “We can’t afford the
stuff we have got,” he said. The biggest factor in ownership of equipment
is manpower. “The footprint is killing us.”
Another concern voiced by Garick is the potential consequences of a major integration
for the commanders on the ground. Ground commanders, he said, may no longer
receive the same level of tactical air support from the Marine air squadrons,
if the aviation units fall under a Navy chain of command.
Garick also raised the issue in an August 2002 article he wrote for the U.S.
Naval Institute Proceedings magazine.
Garick repeatedly stressed to National Defense that he expresses his concerns
purely as an operator, not as someone who has any power in the decision making
process. He said it is important for Marines like him to discuss the issues
and engage in healthy debate.
Many of the top leaders at the Pentagon do not understand the role of Marine
Corps tac-air, he said. The primary focus, he said, is “tactical mission
success, and that is all about the Marine Corps commander.”
In contrast, he explained, the Navy aviation squadrons fall under the task
force commander, and a lot of the missions are air-interdiction sorties, such
as long-range strikes, air-to-air defensives or patrols.
“All those are actually required for the joint forces to maintain their
superiority,” he admitted, “but they are not the primary reason
for having Marine tac-air.”
Garick noted that Marine tac-air is composed of 21 squadrons—14 active
F/A-18 squadrons and seven active AV-8B Harrier squadrons. The Navy has a total
of 30 active F/A-18 squadrons and nine F-14 squadrons.
According to a study published in 2001, Marine requirements to carry out concurrent
peacetime and small-scale contingencies will demand 32 JSF squadrons by 2015,
Garick wrote in his commentary. In addition, with greater Marine Corps forward
presence, he cautioned, requirements and responsibilities for air-ground task
forces are increasing.
Integration onto naval carriers will also suck up Marine Corps manpower, he
said, because an integrated squadron has 36 Marines, more than a non-integrated
He said in the interview that the Marines need a guarantee that the ground
commander would get the support he needs when he needs it. The current memorandum
of agreement provides a framework, but lacks detail.
“The precept states clearly that if Marine tac-air is unavailable, then
Navy tac-air will provide support to a Marine ground task force in need,”
he wrote in Proceedings. “It is questionable, however, whether the Navy
will be able to fulfill commitments to the Marine Corps, because of differences
in priorities, training equipment and mind-set.”
Garick said he believes that there are cultural differences between Navy and
Marine tactical aviation units. The Marines have “that air-to-ground focus,
supporting the ground commander, and that is engrained in the Marine from day
one, and the other services do not have that,” he said. “That is
not to say that they do not do their jobs really well.”
Such concerns, however, are not viewed as deal breakers by the top leadership.
Hough said that he does not see any kind of “culture” clash, because
the two services have been working together for decades. “You are not
going to lose your culture,” he said. “We flew off the boat in World
War II. We flew off the boat in Korea, in Vietnam... We use common systems.”
For his part, Garick made it clear that he does not oppose aviation integration,
but that he is wary of an all-out, aggressive consolidation. In his opinion,
integration should stay at the minimum level needed to be beneficial for both
the Marine Corps and the Navy. “I do not think going to zero is the right
answer, and I do not think going to 10 is the right answer either.”
Also, he said, the Marines may reap many benefits from integration. “We
get to go to joint training with large force exercises, work with the Navy brethren
on the F/A-18E/F, S-3 and the E-2. We get a lot of good training.”
“I would like to have total faith in the Marine Corps leadership—and
obviously they understand the MAGTF [Marine Air Ground Task Force]—that
they will maintain integrity at all cost,” he said. “But as this
thing progresses 20 years from now, and we see no difference between the Marine
Corps and Navy tac-air, we would have sacrificed Marine tac-air for the sake
The debate on the Navy and Marine Corps integration of tactical aviation is
resounding as far as the U.S. Air Force.
If the Marine Corps F/A-18s are not operating as part of the fleet’s
carrier wing, they require secure bases ashore, noted Air Force Col. John D.
Jogerst, the special operations chair at Air University, who stated his views
in a letter to the editor of Proceedings, following Garick’s commentary.
“If you have secure bases ashore, the U.S. Air Force will be there in
force, providing significantly more capability than organic Marine air,”
he said. “If you can’t get airfields close to the action, then you
are once again reliant on the Air Force for long-range shooters and tankers.”
He said that Marine aviation either needs to take over all operations from
the carriers or become another land-based air force to ensure adequate support
to the Marine commander. “The Marines with their understanding of air
power, sea mobility, naval gunfire and land operations should be leading the
way in joint operations—not retreating into a shell,” he wrote.
“My tax dollars should provide the most effective total military capability,
not buy every combatant commander his own personal navy and air force.”
Hough noted that the Marine Corps aviation has six functions: offensive air
support, anti-air warfare, electronic warfare, assault support, control of aircraft
and missiles and reconnaissance. Aside from continuing to support the MAGTF
and retaining the culture of marine aviation, integration would make the force
smaller, more capable and affordable. It would reinforce the expeditionary ethos
of the Marine Corps by increasing forward combat capability and supporting the
Downsizing of Marine Aviation
Tac-air integration is only part of how Marine Corps aviation is going to change.
According to Hough, the aviation modernization roadmap for the Marine Corps
has 23 platforms being reduced to seven. This aircraft transition will happen
between 2003 and 2012, Hough said in an interview.
Legacy medium-and heavy-lift helicopters, such as the CH-46 D/E and the CH-53
A/D, respectively, will be replaced by the troubled MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor
aircraft, which is trying to recover from a series of mishaps. The Marines still
are very much behind the Osprey and expect that the program will enter full-rate
production in 2005.
Hough said that despite the many problems and criticism, the MV-22 is “the
technology of the future.”
The heavy-lift helicopter, CH-53E—one of the workhorses in Afghanistan
and one of the few helicopters capable of flying at high altitudes, other than
the special operations MH-53E—will be upgraded. The revamped CH-53X will
be gradually deployed between 2007 and 2009, said Hough. With the CH-53X, “we
want to get to the point where doing less is absolutely more.”
Both the Cobra AH-1Z attack helicopter and the UH-1Y utility helicopter are
being upgraded with common engines and avionics. At $15 million apiece, said
Hough, they are “a tremendous capability.”
The KC-130 tanker versions F, R and T will be upgraded to the KC-130J. The
tanker will extend the combat range and radius of the JSF, the MV-22 and the
CH-53E. The CH-53X, the MV-22 and the KC-130J will have the same engines.
The electronic warfare aircraft, at the EA-6B Prowler will stay in service
until 2015, at the latest, according to Hough. The Navy’s future electronic
warfare platform, the E/A-18 (a variant of the F/A-18F), he said, “will
build a bridge until we get to the EF-35,” which is an electronic version
of the JSF.
The reduction of the platforms is happening “only because we can,”
Hough said. “We do not need 12 aircraft when you can do everything with
10. It saves money, and it saves manpower.”
He stressed that the Marine Corps is not reducing the platforms because of
lack of money. “You have more lethality with 10 than you have with 12,
because those 12 airplanes are legacy systems that were built the old way, in
which the reliability is not nearly as efficient as we want it to be,”
There’s also a pilot problem, in a notional sense, he said, because “you
run out of pilots way before you run out of airplanes.”
The ultimate goal is operational flexibility, he said, and therefore the aircraft
have to have a multi-mission capability. “Gen. Jones [the Marine Corps
commandant] spelled it out very clearly for me—it is sustaining [once
we get there]. No more going there, search for four days and then dive and hide,”
he said. “We need to be capable to be land-based expeditionary and sea
The equipment has to survive at sea, he added, come from the sea and also be
able to operate “in the dirt ... I mean bad dirt, grimy dirt.” For
that, the aircraft need to have operational reach and much larger fuel capacity.
The platform downsizing in the Marine Corps has been planned out very carefully,
and critics should not infer that it is only budget driven. “Those programs
... are already in production, and if there were a money problem, they would
not be there,” he said. “If you put a complicated plan together,
it takes a while to execute, if you want to do a good job.”