The U.S. Marine Corps has been perhaps the fastest and most enthusiastic adopter of all forms of aviation in the past century, from rotary- and fixed-wing to carrier-based, from short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) jets and tilt-rotors to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). More often than not, the Corps has championed cutting-edge technologies with little outside support – until the Marines proved them in combat.
In its Aviation Plan for the next decade or two, the Marines will be replacing every aircraft in the fleet – a process that is almost completed with the KC-130J Super Hercules and will conclude with the as-yet-unnamed CH-53K, replacing the CH-53E Super Stallion from 2015-16 until the last -53E retires around 2030.
The Corps also plans to expand the type and mission capabilities of its UAVs, including a weaponized aircraft, and is working on whether and how to create a UAS career track.
Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant deputy commandant-aviation, recently discussed how Marine Corps Aviation is evolving with Defense Media Network 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 Thomas: The Marine Corps is a light, general-purpose force. One of the real advantages of that is the ability to move quickly – and much of the firepower we have in the MAGTF [Marine Air-Ground Task Force] comes from our tactical fixed-wing aircraft.
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 timeframe?
We did take a procurement holiday in TacAir [Tactical Aircraft] – which we didn’t have to – but there were sufficient advantages to doing that. For example, we skipped the [F/A-18E] Super Hornet to wait for the F-35 [Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter].
The current capabilities we have with the F/A-18 [A/C/D Hornets] and AV-8B [Harrier jump-jet] are sufficient to get us out to the 2020 point, so as we begin to transition to the JSF in about 2015, it was the right choice.
Overall, what is the status of the Corps’ legacy aircraft, fixed-wing and rotor, after a decade of combat and multiple humanitarian missions?
It’s the same for all types of aircraft. We’ve been flying all those at three times the planned rate, which does have an impact.
But it’s hard to say any airplane is good for 40 years or whatever. That is based on a particular planned fly rate, so at any given time you have so many years remaining on an aircraft – so long as you fly according to the weapons planning document.
When we see a gap developing, we can do a service life extension program [SLEP] to give each airframe additional life. So I think we’re OK, but flying these aircraft aggressively in the past 10 years certainly has had an impact.
What will the replacement rotor platforms bring to the fight compared to the legacy helicopters they replace, such as the UH-1Y Venom for the UH-1N Huey medium utility C2/Assault (delivered 1971-1979) and AH-1Z Viper for the AH-1W Super Cobra (1986-1998) attack helicopter?
What we’re most excited about is the ability to use the -Y in the assault support role, where we can move six Marines around the battlefield. That requirement has always been there, but we’ve had a capability gap in recent years.
Because of the additional capacity the Yankee brings, we’re changing the mix of our HMLA [light attack helicopter] squadrons, which have had 18 Cobras and 9 Hueys; we’re changing that mix to 15 Vipers and 12 Venoms.
Another controversial program for the Marine Corps has been getting approval for a VXX to replace the VH-3D (1974-1976) and VH-60N (1989-2010) presidential helicopters; what’s the status of that?
Three billion dollars was spent on a previous project before it was cancelled. We have to ensure we get the taxpayer the best return on investment, so we are in the process of refining requirements to ensure the presidential mission is met, while at the same time staying within the reasonable bounds of investment into an aircraft such as this. We have completed an analysis of alternatives, but it has not yet been released.
Where does the MV-22 Osprey, which entered service in 2007, fit into Corps missions and capabilities in the next two decades?
In training, we measured how long it would take to build up combat power. And with the MV-22, there is absolutely no comparison. When you are moving Marines around the battlefield, you aren’t talking about one airplane. And when using legacy platforms, it takes a long time.
With the delay in delivery of the F-35 to the Corps, what is planned to keep legacy platforms fully operational in the interim – and does that include any new buys?
No. There are things we have to do to manage our way through this transition, but the airplanes are coming off the assembly line and will continue to do so.
We have been encouraged by the performance of the F-35B in tests, meeting its milestones and whatever standards were set for additional scrutiny. So instead of saying there has been a slide in the schedule, it’s more accurate to call it a reduction in ramp-up.
The biggest concern for the JSF program right now is the sustainment cost, which is something the services, the JPO and industry must manage better to ensure the aircraft is affordable throughout its lifecycle. I do believe there is some work to be done there yet, but I view that as being across the entire program.
What will the F-35B STOVL and F-35C carrier variants bring to the fight compared to the aircraft they will replace – the AV-8B Harrier jump jet (1985-2003), F/A-18C/D Hornet fighter/attack aircraft (1987-2000) and EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare aircraft (1977-1991)?
Additional basing flexibility with the -B, more range with the -C, stealth, incredible sensors and providing EW capability where legacy platforms can’t.
How does the recent addition of the -C variant – replacing 80 F-35Bs in the original Marine Corps buy – change Corps missions and capabilities through the next few decades?
In terms of overall capability, the performance of the variants is pretty much the same. The real difference is in basing flexibility.
Specifically, how is the Corps restructuring its Aviation Plan from an all-STOVL force to a continued mixed fleet?
It really isn’t. The airplanes themselves are common in many respects. Second, in terms of our Aviation Plan, we train with the Navy now. We have Marines at the Navy Fleet Replacement Squadron, which trains aviators to fly the F/A-18, and sailors at the Marine FRS, so it is something we’re comfortable with and have done for a number of years.
Do you see any peer carrier capability through mid-century?
There are some countries trying to build that capability, but I would phrase it a bit differently than carrier versus carrier. It’s really about forward presence. There is a benefit to being able to stand off in international waters and keeping that number of carriers – even though they are not all deployed at the same time – is the real benefit for the nation.
As an F/A-18 pilot, what is your reaction to recent F-35 test flight reports that the JSF has flight characteristics more similar to the Hornet than may have been expected?
It’s not a surprise. You lay out the requirements, then go into design and test. And the F-35 is performing exactly as designed – a design [that] included that level of maneuverability. The real thing the fifth-gen fighter gives you is access, the ability to penetrate a protected area.
The Corps also is replacing its KC-130F/R transport aircraft with the KC-130J Super Hercules; what requirements are driving that and what does the new platform offer over the legacy aircraft it is replacing?
We’re replacing the legacy aircraft because they are getting old. The -J is just a much-improved KC-130, as you would expect after all these years.
Turning to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles/Systems (UAV/UAS), where do they fit in current and future Corps missions?
We see UAS as giving us persistent ISR and a fires capability. If you have persistence, it makes sense to have a weapons capability, as well.
How important are UAVs to the Corps, both for ISR and hunter/killer missions?
In the recent Force Structure Review, the commandant agreed to reduce the number of Marines by about 15,000, with a commensurate reduction in aviation. However, we also added a fifth VMU [UAV] squadron, which is a statement of the relative importance of UAS to the Corps.
Do you see any Corps requirement in the next 20 years for a large-scale Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), such as the Navy’s current UCAS-D demonstrator or proposed future Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) platform?
I think there is great potential for UCAVs. Presumably, there also would be significant savings. But it’s still early to try to determine what the limit of that capability might be.
Is the Marine Corps developing a UAS career track?
We’re probably somewhere between the Army and Air Force in terms of who flies them [the USAF requires UAV pilots to be seasoned fixed-wing pilots and officers; the Army does not]. It’s one thing to operate an ISR payload, but when you are carrying weapons, you have much greater requirements. So how we set qualifications for our UAS community is still evolving.