The U.S. Marine Corps has been an integral part of naval aviation from its earliest days. The first Marine aviator, then-1st Lt. Alfred A. Cunningham, reported to the aviation camp at Annapolis, Md., “for duty in connection with aviation” on May 22, 1912 – the date now marked as the official birth of Marine aviation. Designated Naval Aviator No. 5 when he completed flight training three months later, Cunningham entered maritime history as “the Father of Marine Corps Aviation.”
In the 99 years Marine aviators have been tightly woven into a century of U.S. naval aviation, they have been both a tactical partner to the Navy and a fundamental part of the Marine Corps ability to quickly project U.S. military force anywhere on Earth. That combined arms balance of air-ground, force-from-the-sea combat operations, which has distinguished the Corps since World War I, was formalized in 1962 as the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF).
Growing in size and capability with each new call to arms, Marine Corps aviation was nearly one-third of the entire Corps during the Vietnam War and remains about 20 percent of Corps manpower today. As with the Marines and other services as a whole, the aviation component is expected to shrink again as U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan declines.
The Corps’ plan for that reduction included replacing its fixed-wing fleet of F/A-18 Hornets and AV-8B Harriers with its own short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35B. Combined with the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor and advanced helicopters, the Corps expected to have an all-STOVL aviation component by the early 2020s.
That plan has now been modified, as Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling, deputy commandant for aviation, told senior writer J.R. Wilson in an exclusive interview for Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.
Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation: What role has Marine maritime aviation played in the evolution of naval aviation during the past 100 years?
Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling: From the beginning, the Corps realized aviation would be an important part of our contribution to naval assets. Marine pilots have flown alongside the Navy since January 1913, when the Navy’s entire aviation component deployed for fleet maneuvers at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to demonstrate the operational capabilities of ship-based aircraft.
We continued to serve aboard Navy ships until 1931, when we established the Marine fleet and aviation was assigned its first amphibious warfare role.
In World War II, about half our Marine pilots were carrier qualified and worked in the island-hopping campaign.
After that, we got into helicopter operations and evolved our role with the Marine on the ground, putting helicopters on ships for the first time during the Korean War. In Vietnam, we operated from the LPHs [amphibious assault ship-helicopter] with Marine Amphibious Units, the precursor to today’s MEU [Marine Expeditionary Unit], but with almost the same type of air-ground concept.
What were some of the major milestones and achievements for Marine Corps aviation during that period?
First was our pioneering of CAS [close air support]: using aviation to provide ground support … Second would be technical: developing battlefield use of the helicopter, which changed the way ground commanders prosecuted the enemy.
Third in my mind is expeditionary airfields – not just existing dirt airfields but expeditionary fields we could put up in hours or days for fixed- or rotary-wing to land and take off.
Tactics-wise, the Corps developed the Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One [MAWTS-1] at [Marine Corps] Air Station Yuma [Ariz.], where we really standardized and developed tactics for use throughout the fleet. That standardization, rather than squads just developing their own tactics, made us a safer force.
Finally is the MV-22 Osprey, which went through a very difficult period of development, but has proven to be a technological advance that has driven the way we do tactics today and changed how the ground commander thinks about ways he can prosecute the enemy. It has proven itself in more ways than we expected in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
What innovations in military aviation in general – and maritime aviation specifically – are attributable to the Corps?
In my view, that is the MEU, going out on amphibious ships in the global commons and littorals, forward deployed, that a COCOM [combatant commander] can call on when he needs them. Demand for that concept has increased 86 percent since 2007, a growth of requests for our MEUs that is telling. That is a concept we put together, the MAGTF put into a package that has some punch and we can take from an amphibious [ship]. That has really changed the way COCOMs do forward presence and how they operate within their respective AORs [areas of responsibility].
How would you describe the current state of Marine Corps aviation?
Right now it is as strong as it has ever been. We have aviators in the fight every day and have had from the beginning of the current conflict. This long fight is different, being away from the ships. We go by ship, then go inland 1,000 miles to fight.
I think Marine aviation has to get back to its naval roots, not just for the Marines, but for sailors who need to work with Marine aviators. As the COCOMs require more MEU presence in their AORs, it is important we provide them with Marines and sailors trained, organized, and equipped to do those missions.
With your existing fleet mix and funding, how well has the Corps been able to keep up with demand on its air component?
We’ve met the demand signal from the ground force commanders’ perspective, but it has been a challenge. When you bring on a new aircraft like the Osprey, you have to provide a supply chain to take it forward in combat. And not just the Osprey, but for all aircraft, to maintain readiness rates. As a result, you put more demand on Marines in the rear and more demand on the aircraft as operation rates almost double.
Have there been any significant changes to the Marine Corps rotary-wing/tilt-rotor or fixed-wing aviation plans?
We update our aviation plan every year to provide a way ahead for the next 10 years, for me and for the Corps. That document lays out how we will fulfill the aviation part of the MAGTF and support the ground force.
Sometimes, as technology advances – either in quick measures or over long periods – we change the aviation plan to reflect new aircraft, technologies, platforms. But the goal is the same one we’ve always had: Support the Marine on the ground.
What is the status of the F-35B, especially with respect to the impact of the delay on training and tactics, techniques, and procedures development?
Last January, the SECDEF [secretary of defense] outlined some broad proposals to better manage the JSF program. That included production delivery delays, flight test progress, and the rate of software development. Since the beginning of this year, we’ve seen dramatic improvements in F-35 testing, most notably STOVL testing.
We completed more than 78 vertical landings [through March 31], almost triple last year already. There have been technical issues – four or five main ones of concern – but nothing insurmountable. We need to get the fixes done and retrofitted into the early lot aircraft as soon as possible, but right now it looks to me like the F-35B is doing everything we’re asking of it.
We have 29 of these already ordered and I do not plan to slow down the start-up or training. The first will be delivered in August, with the first 15 going to Eglin AFB [Air Force Base, where Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 501, the Corps’ first F-35B Lightning II training squadron, stood up in April 2010] to begin training. The other 14 will go to Yuma [Ariz.] in late 2012. Our IOC [initial operational capability] has slipped to early or mid-2014, but I think the aircraft will meet all the requirements we want and will stand up on time.
In the wake of Commandant Gen. James F. Amos’ announcement that the Marines will buy F-35Cs as well as the STOVL variant, what mix is being considered?
The Marine Corps still will buy 420 aircraft: 340 STOVL and 80 carrier variants. We are buying five squadrons of F-35Cs, plus spares and attrition, mainly to fulfill our part of the bargain on tactical air integration with the Navy. That calls for only F-35Cs aboard Navy carriers, but I see no reason why the F-35B cannot be aboard carriers and I hope to see that tested in the future.
The Corps had been working toward an all-STOVL aviation capability; how would the addition of the F-35C into the fleet change the future of Marine Corps air operations from what had been planned?
Really not much. If you look back at TACAIR integration in the early agreements, we were looking at 10 squadrons of Marine aircraft integrating aboard carriers. We looked at what is realistic and required by the Navy for Marine aircraft and came to the conclusion five squadrons would be about right. Those will not always be aboard carriers; some will be back in training. So while the carrier variant does not allow for STOVL operations, the systems and aircraft will still be the same [due to program-mandated commonality, to the extent possible, across the three variants].
Do you foresee an increase in Marine amphibious ships to handle the F-35Bs?
I do. Shipboard testing starting this fall will prove the aircraft is capable of going on current and future amphibious ships. The STOVL aircraft gives the nation the ability to put tactical aircraft on two capital ships, not just the Navy aircraft carriers, which is a huge tactical advantage for the nation and the COCOMs.
What is the status of the V-22, including current operations and missions?
The V-22 is doing very, very well, meeting all its operational tasking, using what I perceive as game-changing technology in terms of speed, altitude, and range to do things we’ve never done before. People like to compare it to the CH-46, mostly in cost, but this aircraft allows us to carry much more – twice the number of Marines on a high, hot day – and go twice as far and twice as fast. That really means this aircraft, per man per seat per mile, is much cheaper than other aircraft we have in the inventory.
What about the Corps’ Harriers and Hornets?
The AV-8B has a very long service life, which recently was extended from 2020 to 2026. If I keep it on that timeline, which I expect, it will be a bridge to transition to the JSF.
The F/A-18 also is doing very well – one of the most relevant aircraft we have out there today – but it is getting old. Our inventory averages about 6,400 hours, with some now extended up to 8,600. That buys us an additional two to four years. We’re looking at another service-life extension that will take about 150 of these aircraft to 10,000 flight hours. That also will help us bridge to the JSF.
How large is the aviation component today compared to the pre-9/11, Vietnam, and post-Vietnam fleets?
The total numbers have gone up and down. During Vietnam, the Corps was around 314,000 Marines; by 2005, that was about 178,000. As we looked at an expected long fight in Afghanistan, the commandant asked for about 210,000 and we peaked out at around 203,000. Since then we’ve done a force service review, looked at the right-sized Corps for the future, and believe we can reduce that to 186,800 for the middleweight force the commandant would like to have to sustain a fight like we’re doing now in Afghanistan, but still punch above its weight in a high-end combat operation or in lower-end COIN [counterinsurgency] operations or disaster relief or humanitarian affairs.
Aviation right now is around 42,000 personnel; we’ll go down to about 38,000. In Vietnam, aviation was about 100,000, so we’ve cut down quite a bit, right-sizing the Marine Corps to what it needs. The commandant has made it clear we ask Congress for what we need, not what we might want.
We’ve reduced the number of aircraft as well, around 1,100 now and still going down to about 800 to 850, including aircraft on the flight line, attrition aircraft, and pipeline aircraft – those in depots and undergoing maintenance.
For nearly a century, it seems every budget and force review has seen someone ask why the Marine Corps needs an air force. What’s your answer to that?
Even the other services sometimes question the need for Marine Corps aviation, generally for self-serving purposes, because if you put money toward Marine Corps aviation, you’re not putting that money into Navy, Air Force, or even Army aviation. But through the years, even to the other services, the impact the MAGTF has had for the COCOMs and the synergy it provides have become well understood, both inside the services and DoD [Department of Defense] and more and more in Congress.
We are the only service that trains together as an integrated combat team – aviation element, logistics element, ground combat element. That synergy has a huge impact on how we prosecute major combat operations. In the contingencies we have in the Asia Pacific, we are a force multiplier for the COCOM because we have an aviation element that brings a game-changing component into the operation.
What is the primary Marine air mission, today and tomorrow – air-to-air, air-to-ground, suppression of enemy air defenses?
The mission of Marine Corps aviation hasn’t changed in 100 years – and as long as we have a Marine Corps, I don’t expect it to change for the next 500 years. The only reason to have a Marine aviation force is to support the ground commander and the Marine on the ground. There is no other reason. If naval infantry went away, then Marine Corps aviation would go away. And I don’t see that because of the power and synergy the MAGTF gives the COCOM, probably the most flexible tool in his kit.
Our culture is not about going out and dogfighting in the sky, but killing enemy aircraft in the air before they can get to our Marines, about being able to drop bombs in the right places at the right times so the enemy can’t get to our Marines, and about getting logistics support to our Marines out in the fight – everything required to support that Marine on the ground in combat.
Any final thoughts, looking back at 100 years of naval aviation and on into the future?
We get along best as a naval team when we go forward as a naval team. What I’m looking to in the next 100 years is to continue to go forward as one voice, a Department of the Navy presence, if you will – a Marine Corps/Navy team that is forward deployed, flexible, affordable, that the COCOM can use to control the global commons.
We can’t do it all ourselves or we would be doing everything through aviation. But the real fight in the next 10 years and beyond to the next 100 will be along the littorals, which really is a mission for the naval team – Marines and sailors together on amphibious ships, developing a sea base and protected by submarines and other platforms that make up that sea base.
This interview first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation 1911-2011.