Marine Corps Fighter Pilots Will Be Spending More Time Aboard Navy Aircraft Carriers
A policy known as “tac-air integration” that began nearly a decade ago reached another milestone March 14 with an agreement by the Marine Corps to provide five squadrons of F-35C Joint Strike Fighter aircraft to the Navy's carrier air wing. Previously, only three Marine squadrons were assigned to carrier deck duties. The pact also effectively shatters the Marine Corps' aspirations to field an "all STOVL" fleet of short takeoff/vertical landing F-35Bs.
Today’s agreement signals that several factors — including budget pressures and uncertainty about the future of the F-35B STOVL jet — are pushing in the direction of greater consolidation.
A “memorandum of understanding” signed March 14 by Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Gary Roughead and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos calls for marine aviators to increase the support they provide to carrier-based naval air wings. Marines' commitment to buy the Navy’s version of the JSF, the F-35C, is surprising considering that for years Corps leaders had put up stiff resistance, arguing that the service should only buy the short-takeoff vertical landing F-35B.
At a March 14 news conference, Navy and Marine Corps officials lauded the agreement as a reaffirmation of what is an already tightly integrated Navy-Marine aviation teaming arrangement.
But the MOU comes at a difficult time for Marine Corps tac-air, as the service fights to keep the F-35B alive after Defense Secretary Robert Gates put the program on a two-year probation as a result of technical difficulties. The Pentagon also faces a budget crunch, and, as has been the case during previous tough fiscal times, questions are raised on whether the Marine Corps really needs its own air force. Budget hawks and some Navy pilotsspecifically have challenged the utility of the STOVL F-35B and have called for the Corps to reconsider its posture of an all-STOVL fleet.
The Corps may be giving up on an all-STOVL fleet, but it still plans to buy 340 F-35Bs. The agreement divvies up the 680 aircraft that both services had agreed to buy years ago as follows: 260 F-35Cs for the Navy, 80 F-35Cs for the Marine Corps, plus the 340 STOVLs.
The MOU also marks a victory of sorts for the Navy, which in the past had expressed concern about including STOVL fighters as part of the 44-aircraft carrier air wing. Plans to equip five Marine squadrons with F-35Cs means less worries for the Navy about bringing a new, unfamiliar, aircraft aboard carrier decks. Critics have complained that the STOVL jets have different maintenance requirements and don’t easily blend with the rest of a wing made up of F-35Cs, F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and EA-18G Growlers.
Under the original 2002 Navy-Marine Corps Tactical Air Integration plan, the Corps agreed to provide three squadrons for duty aboard carriers. They are now upping that support to five squadrons that will supplement the Navy’s 35 active squadrons. The Corps also agreed to relieve Navy squadrons from shore-based rotations in Japan.
Marines are pleased with this agreement and in no way does the MOU call into question the Corps' commitment to STOVL, said Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant deputy commandant for aviation.
The decision to purchase the F-35C is not to be interpreted as a fallback in case F-35B is terminated, he told reporters at a Pentagon news conference. “There is no plan B” to STOVL, Thomas said. “This is an important requirement for us.”
The Navy, for its part, is not ruling out eventually integrating the F-35B into carrier air wings, said Thomas E. Laux, deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for aviation programs. Both versions of the F-35 will be viewed as part of a single naval-marine force, he said. “There will not be two pipelines. Training will be completely integrated.” Having F-35Bs as part of the air wing is an “eventual capability that we will try out,” he said.
Thomas said a yet to be determined number of Marine Corps pilots will be assigned to train on the F-35C. The 80 aircraft that the Corps will buy will equip five squadrons with 10 aircraft each, with the additional aircraft used for training and backup roles.
Laux said the new agreement is the culmination of several months of negotiations between the services that began in September. The marching orders from the top leaderships were to “make it work, make it fit,” Laux said.
In the end, marines had to give up 80 STOVL aircraft and instead buy 80 conventional fighters that they initially did not want.
“This is the way that the decision has come down,” Laux said. “I do not want to suggest that there was a substitution involved. It was more of a ‘make it all fit, and achieve all the objectives’ within the constraints.” Although the definitive price tag for the F-35 still is unknown, it is a fact that the STOVL version is the most expensive. The 80 aircraft trade-off is expected to help trim the Corps’ procurement costs.
Thomas insisted that cost or technical difficulties in F-35B had “no impact on the rationale for buying Cs. … It’s about optimizing the capability.
The commandant “said it was prudent to purchase a number of F-35Cs as part of the tac-air integration program,” Thomas said. But the F-35B “remains the centerpiece of our future tac-air force.”