The U.S. Marine Corps is the nation’s second-oldest combat aviation component, celebrating its 100th year of flight in 2012, one year after the U.S. Navy’s centennial of flight. And while the Corps relies heavily on the other services – especially the Army and Navy – to develop and produce much of the equipment it then adopts and adapts to meet its own special requirements, the Marine history of pushing the aviation envelope is nearly as old as Marine Corps aviation itself.
The Corps was at the forefront of developing carrier-based fixed- and rotary-winged flight, of creating tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) for helicopter use in combat and the concept of operations (CONOPs) for nearly all applications the military has found for vertical flight. It took the innovative British Harrier jump jet, the first true military short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft, and pioneered STOVL fighter jet operations on land and sea, later working with American developer McDonnell Douglas (later Boeing) to overcome considerable technical and political opposition to develop a second-generation Harrier and turn it into a major success.
It was largely the same story a couple of decades later with the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, and continues today with the F-35B STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and developing cargo unmanned aerial vehicles (C-UAVs) to deliver supplies to far forward warfighters.
Second in command of Marine Corps aviation, as the Corps begins a two-decade-long full replacement of every aircraft in its inventory, is Brig. Gen. Gary L. Thomas, assistant deputy commandant for aviation. The former F/A-18 Hornet fighter pilot recently discussed the status and future of Marine Corps aviation with Defense senior writer J.R. Wilson.
J.R. Wilson: How important is an organic aviation capability – including top-of-the-line fighters – to the Marine Corps’ ability to complete the missions assigned to it?
Brig. Gen. Gary L. Thomas: Much of the firepower we have in the MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] comes from our tactical fixed-wing aircraft. That is the underlying premise for having our own organic air.
As a part of joint doctrine, we also support the joint force commander, providing extra sorties and, in addition, interdiction and reconnaissance sorties. So because of the nature of our force, we require the organic capability, but also are an integral part of the joint force.
Why did the Corps decide to hold off on any new aircraft purchases for so long, then essentially replace the entire fleet – rotary- and fixed-wing – within the same 20-year time frame?
The primary driver in terms of replacing legacy systems is the service life of the aircraft. Sometimes you have a drop-dead date, at which [time] the aircraft literally cannot be flown any further.
In terms of replacing all assets within a 10- to 20-year period, while we are in the middle of our transition to the Osprey and Zulu [AH-1Z Viper] and soon the new TACAIR [tactical air agreement with the Navy] – and those do butt up against one another – we’re really not replacing everything at the same time, but across a decade or more. And that’s common across all the services.
What requirements – both current and future – are driving the choice of replacement aircraft?
On fixed-wing first, the JSF gives us three major capabilities.
First is stealth, which gives you access and is going to become more and more a requirement as more SAMs [surface-to-air missiles] have extensive ranges and make it much more difficult for some of our legacy platforms.
Second is STOVL, which gives you basing flexibility, so we can operate at sea and also at expeditionary airfields. We can rapidly build a 3,000-foot [-long] runway, but getting bigger than that takes a lot more time and infrastructure. Basing flexibility is a requirement to be in close proximity to combat operations.
Third is the sensor suite and fusion and the ability to push that out to the MAGTF.
For the MV-22, we needed a replacement for our 40-plus-year-old CH-46s [Sea Knights]. The Osprey gives us additional range and speed and a maneuver advantage on the battlefield. Between the Marine Corps and Air Force, we have completed 14 successful deployments with the MV-22.
In Helmand province, Afghanistan, which is about the size of Tennessee, the MV-22 shrunk that down, operationally, to about the size of Rhode Island. It also performed off the coast of Libya, picking up an F-15 pilot who went down, far exceeding anything we could have done with helicopters due to the distance of the ship from shore. And medium lift is a core MAGTF capability.
For rotor, the required advantages are speed and range as threat systems gain range. That allows us to maintain the relative advantage we enjoy today.