Marine Corps Aviation: Modernizing Before the Storm
Marine Corps aviation is getting new strike fighters, medium-lift tilt-rotors, attack and utility helicopters, and turboprop tanker-transports in advance of sequestered budget cuts or more measured economies across the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). Some of those new aircraft have already changed the way Marines fly and fight in Operation Enduring Freedom and elsewhere. In sharp contrast to the CH-46E retiring from medium helicopter squadrons, the MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor can haul Marines anywhere in Afghanistan from one main operating base. Unlike the unarmed KC-130T that still hauls cargo and refuels jets, helicopters, and tilt-rotors, the Harvest Hawk-modified KC-130J can also give precision fire support to Marines on the ground. Though yet to fly, the CH-53K Heavy Lift Replacement helicopter promises to fit the same deck footprint as today’s CH-53E yet carry nearly three times the payload to high-and-hot landing zones.
Withdrawal from Iraq, pending withdrawal from Afghanistan, and national debt pressures are driving cuts in U.S. force structure. The Marine Corps, 202,000 strong last year, will shrink to 182,000 by 2017 and has already trimmed the AH-1Z program of record from 226 to 189 attack helicopters. The MV-22 and CH-53K programs are, for the present, unchanged, and whatever the ultimate size and schedule of re-equipment plans, Marine Corps aviation will remain a highly integrated part of a uniquely expeditionary fighting force.
F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
In January this year, Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron (VMFAT) 501 at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., received the first production Lockheed Martin F-35B. The fleet replacement squadron is part of the Integrated Training Center preparing Marine, Air Force, and Navy pilots and maintainers for the new Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The Marine Corps JSF program of record now includes the F-35B and F-35C, both stealthy, multisensor strike aircraft designed to be survivable amid integrated air defenses and digitally connected in a networked battlespace. The short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) F-35B promises the Marine Corps a fighter compatible with large-deck amphibious assault ships (LHAs and LHDs). The carrier-based, catapult-launched F-35C offers identical systems with greater range and payload. Marine plans now call for a total of 420 aircraft to replace AV-8B Advanced Harriers on LHAs/LHDs and F/A-18A/C/D Hornets and EA-6B Prowlers aboard Navy carriers and at shore bases.
F-35B testing progress, including shipboard operations aboard USS Wasp last year, took the JSF jump-jet off then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ “probation” in January – one year early. The fiscal year 2013 presidential budget requested funds for six F-35Bs in continuing low rate initial production (LRIP).
JSF production blocks are defined by software releases, from Block 1 trainers to Block 3 fully capable combat aircraft. The first F-35B with Block 2A initial warfighting software flew in June 2012. The Marines have yet to set a date for their JSF to attain initial operational capability (IOC) – one squadron of 10 aircraft with Block 2B software. Marine strike fighter force structure was meanwhile reset during fiscal year 2013 budget deliberations. Plans now call for 18 active-duty and two Reserve combat squadrons. Two F-35B fleet replacement squadrons will be augmented by a Navy training squadron with additional aircraft to train Marines on the F-35C.
AV-8B Advanced Harrier
Paced by JSF plans, the current Marine Corps STOVL strike fighter is now expected to remain in service until 2030. The Marines have 140 Boeing AV-8Bs in eight squadrons and routinely deploy Harrier detachments aboard assault ships and at land bases, including Afghanistan. Harriers aboard USS Kearsarge were the closest U.S. fixed-wing combat aircraft to Libya in Operation Odyssey Dawn. They struck targets in advance of MV-22s sent to rescue a downed Air Force pilot.
AV-8B enhancements, including LITENING targeting pods able to downlink video to ROVER ground stations, have kept the versatile jump-jet relevant in the full range of contingency operations. New operational flight program software recently integrated the ALE-47 smart countermeasures dispenser into the aircraft survivability suite. Digital bomb racks increased the Harrier warload from four precision-guided weapons to 10.
The FY 2013 budget request includes funds for additional AV-8B readiness and systems improvements. A more modern digital data link, for example, is still needed to replace the Harrier Automatic Target Hand-Off System. Equally important are readiness and engine life management programs to support an aging fleet. According to the Naval Air Systems Command, the Marines have no plans to fly any of the 74 Harriers bought from the British Royal Air Force for spare parts.
Designed to suppress enemy air defenses, the Northrop Grumman EA-6B electronic attack aircraft has found added relevance denying signal access to insurgents in Operation Enduring Freedom. VMAQ-4, the first Marine squadron with Improved Capability III (ICAP III) Prowlers, last year reported flying 120 sorties a month from Bagram Air Base. The Marines now have four EA-6B squadrons, each with five aircraft assigned. As the Navy completes transition to the EA-18G Growler in 2015, all ICAP III EA-6Bs will be transferred to the Marines, who plan to retire their Prowlers in 2019.
With the Marine Corps not participating in the Growler program, the notional follow-on to the Prowler is a distributed Airborne Electronic Attack capability integrated into the F-35B and other platforms.
The Marines have already developed the ALQ-231 Intrepid Tiger II communications jammer pod for the AV-8B Harrier. Similar capabilities on manned and unmanned aircraft, potentially both fixed- and rotary-wing, aim to provide networked electronic warfare battle management for the Marine Air-Ground Task Force.