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U.S. Marine Corps Aviation Today

Navy and Marine Corps aviation have been closely linked since Lt. Alfred Cunningham was designated Naval Aviator No. 5 in the summer of 1912. His arrival at Annapolis, Md., for pilot training in May of that year is considered the official birth of Marine Corps aviation.

Marine Corps pilots were part of the first deployment of naval aviators for a training exercise at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 1913 and flew alongside their Navy cousins in World War I, the first conflict to see aerial combat.

RIMPAC 2010 F/A-18 Hornet Marine

Two U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornet aircraft from Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 323 out of Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif., fly a mission over the Pacific Ocean July 12, 2010, in support of Rim of the Pacific 2010. The legacy Hornet will serve on until replaced by the F-35B and F-35C. DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey, U.S. Air Force

“In common with every new weapon introduced to the military service, Marine Corps aviation has traveled a rocky and uphill road,” Cunningham, by then a major, wrote in The Marine Corps Gazette in September 1920. “Its small size has tended to make the jolts more frequent and severe. Nothing short of the firm conviction that it would ultimately become of great service to the Corps sustained the enthusiasm of the small number of officers who have worked to make it a success.”

Despite their efforts in World War I, which saw more than 1,200 Marine aviators and flight support personnel go to the front in France, the Corps had no permanent facilities back in the United States – and no specifically authorized aviation force – until 1920. At that time, Congress authorized funding for 1,020 Marines for aviation duty, in addition to the 26,380 funded for the Corps as a whole (set as one-fifth the size of the Navy). The next victory was with the Navy Department, which approved construction of flying fields at Quantico, Va., Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego, Calif.

“With this much accomplished and our men and pilots well-trained, we feel that the time has about arrived when we can demonstrate our usefulness to the Corps, which I am confident will be great,” Cunningham continued.

Neither the Navy nor the Marine Corps – not to mention Congress and the War Department – were fully convinced naval aviation was worth the trouble and expense, even after the role pilots from both services played in World War I. Marine aviators, in particular, faced doubt and opposition, not only from the Navy, Congress, and the War Department, but from their fellow Marines.

It was to firmly establish that all Marines, regardless of specialty, are Marines – first, foremost, and always – that the phrase “every Marine a rifleman” was born. It was a motto the flying leathernecks took to heart; unlike other pilots, if weather conditions or other factors made flying impossible, Marine pilots were prepared to grab their rifles and hit the trenches.

The Corps adopted a simple formula: No Marine was sent to aviation training until he had served long enough with the infantry to be thoroughly indoctrinated with Marine Corps discipline and spirit: in short, until he had become a rifleman. The reasoning went far beyond intra-service perspectives, however; it also was intended to ensure Marine aviators knew exactly what their actions in the air meant to their fellow Marines on the ground.

“It is fully realized that the only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground to successfully carry out their operations,” Cunningham wrote in 1920.

More than 90 years later, his words were echoed by Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling: “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.”

AV-8B Harrier jet USS Essex

An AV-8B Harrier jet aircraft assigned to Marine Attack Squadron 542 lands on the flight deck of the forward-deployed amphibious assault ship USS Essex Jan. 26, 2011. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Casey H. Kyhl

The shared conviction of the Corps’ first and current top aviators that “there is no other reason to have a Marine aviation force” not only has been a constant in Marine Corps aviation for nearly a century, but has set it apart from other air forces. The missions of each service air branch differ, of course – Navy aviators also support Marines and sailors on the ground, but their primary duty is to protect the fleet and serve as an extension of sea-based force and power. Carrier-based Marine pilots share that mission, but see it from a slightly different perspective.

“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,” Robling said, with that protective goal covering Marines and sailors still aboard ships as well as those already ashore.

As Marine Corps aviation evolved along with advances in aircraft, weapons, and ships, it played a pivotal role in defining or creating a number of missions and capabilities largely taken for granted today, including:

  • Battlefield use of ship-based or delivered helicopters for close air support, medevac, resupply, surveillance, and reconnaissance, etc.;
  • Creating expeditionary airfields from scratch, in hours or, at most, days, giving fixed-wing and rotary aircraft land bases from which to operate;
  • Close air support, from airborne cover fire to dropping food, munitions, and other supplies to Marines in forward combat positions that are difficult, if not impossible, to reach by ground convoy;
  • Development and standardization of tactics, techniques, and procedures for both fixed-wing and rotary aircraft; and
  • Introduction and use of cutting-edge aviation technologies, such as the AV-8B Harrier II jump-jet and the MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor, both of which were nearly canceled multiple times but eventually proved to be critical short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) assets in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
 UH-1Y Huey fast ropes Camp Margarita

U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Peter L. Nealon, from 3rd Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, fast ropes from a UH-1Y Huey helicopter at Camp Margarita, Calif., March 11, 2009. The Marines were training with this new variant of the Huey and learning faster extraction methods. DoD photo by Lance Cpl. Grant T. Walker, USMC

Today, although the Corps as a whole receives only 6.5 percent of the Department of Defense (DoD) budget, Marine aviation provides 12 percent of the nation’s fixed-wing tactical aircraft and 19 percent of its attack helicopters.

The Corps has not bought a new fixed-wing tactical aircraft since before 9/11, placing its future with the still-in-development F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). The JSF – primarily the Corps-specific F-35B STOVL variant – ultimately will replace three legacy aircraft: the Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet, and the EA-6B Prowler.

While the original plan was to do that with 420 F-35Bs, Commandant Gen. James F. Amos recently told Congress the Corps had reached a new tactical aircraft integration agreement with the Navy that would replace 80 of the STOVL aircraft with the F-35C carrier-capable variant. The F-35C will form five Marine squadrons deployed on Navy carriers, alongside the Navy’s own F-35C fleet, while the remaining 340 F-35Bs will operate from Marine Corps amphibious ships.

“We’ve always been fans of TacAir [tactical aircraft] integration. It’s good for both our services and the naval force. When we set the requirement in for STOVL aircraft, our hope was that we would be able to someday fly those versions off of naval aircraft carriers. In the meantime, it would seem prudent that we would buy some number of -C variants – even early on – so that we can begin to transition our force,” Amos said in signing the agreement.

“Today, with 11 carriers and 11 large-deck amphibious ships, our nation has 22 capital ships flying tactical fixed-wing aircraft off of them. A couple years from now, with F-35Cs on board 11 aircraft carriers and F-35Bs flying off of 11 large-deck amphibious ships, our nation would have, for the very first time, 22 capital ships with fifth-generation aircraft flying off of them.”

Despite problems that led Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates to put the F-35B on a two-year probation – and threaten to cancel it if he was not satisfied with future progress – Amos and Robling remain confident the STOVL variant will recover and make its new initial operating capability (IOC) target of 2014. Noting a major increase in test flights and other milestones since Gates’ announcement in January 2011, Amos also has predicted the -B will come off probation in less than the two years Gates gave it.

“If we lose the F-35B, there is no Plan B for fixed-wing airplanes on the large-deck amphibs. Our nation’s capability to project power and influence situations will be cut … immeasurably,” he told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. “It would be significant.”

In a February interview with The San Diego Union-Tribune, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus added his support for the TacAir agreement and the future of the F-35B.

“The problems that the [STOVL] version has had, the Marines believe are fixable. The Marines need that capability. The Marine Corps and the Navy and I are committed to that aircraft and to seeing in the next two years to making every effort to make sure we can do that,” he told the newspaper, which covers Camp Pendleton, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, and Naval Base San Diego, homeport to the Pacific Fleet. “The aircraft carrier version of the JSF is on track. Marines are going to fly those, too.”

EA-6B Prowler VAQ-129

VAQ-129 is the EA-6B Prowler Fleet Replacement Squadron and trains pilots and electronic countermeasure officers to fly the Prowler. USMC photo by 1st Lt. J.J. Paynter

The Executive Summary to the 2010 Marine Corps Posture Statement reinforced the historic role and value of, as well as the future need for, the Navy/Marine Corps team, including sea-based aviation:  “The current transnational struggle against violent extremism will not end anytime soon. Other threats – conventional and irregular – will continue to emerge and the complexity of the future operating environment will only increase. We believe that as the security environment grows more complex, so does the value of amphibious forces and the Navy/Marine Corps Team.

“As a naval expeditionary force in the form of an elite air-ground team, the Marine Corps is ready and willing to go into harm’s way on short notice and do what is necessary to make our country safe. America expects this of her Marines. In the complex and dangerous security environment of the future, the Marine Corps stands ready for the challenges ahead.”

In preparing its “Roadmap” for the 2011 Centennial of Naval Aviation and 2012 Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation, the Marine Corps University History Department reflected on the unique relationship of the two services and what the Corps has contributed to naval aviation overall:

“Marine Aviation is more than pilots and airframes. Successful innovations intertwine air, ground and logistical operations. The Marine Air Control Group [MACG] and Marine Wing Support Group [MWSG], which are unique to the Marine Corps, [are] the means by which we integrate the MAGTF’s [Marine Air-Ground Task Force’s]  aviation, ground and logistic combat elements.”

The Corps currently maintains medium (CH-46E Sea Knight), heavy (CH-53E Super Stallion), and light attack (UH-1N Huey, UH-1Y Venom, AH-1W Super Cobra, AH-1Z Viper) helicopter and medium tilt-rotor (MV-22 Osprey) squadrons, with development and evaluation under way for a CH-53K heavy squadron detachment in 2018.

On the fixed-wing side are 12 active-duty and one Reserve Fighter/Attack (F/A-18A/B Hornet) and All-Weather Fighter/Attack (F/A-18D Hornet) squadrons, seven active Marine Attack (AV-8B Harrier II) squadrons, four active Tactical Electronic Warfare (EA-6B Prowler) squadrons, five Refueling Transport (KC-130T Hercules) squadrons, three unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons (RQ-7B Shadow, Scan Eagle), several training squadrons, an aggressor squadron flying F-5E Tiger IIs, and a transport squadron. With legacy aircraft remaining in service during the transition, all F/A-18, AV-8B, and EA-6B squadrons will be replaced with F-35s and the KC-130T with the KC-130J.

MV-22B Osprey USS Nassau VMM 162

An MV-22B Osprey assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron (VMM) 162 prepares to take off from the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau. Nassau is the command platform for the Nassau Amphibious Ready Group supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation operations in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Coleman Thompson

In addition, each active component Marine Air Wing will receive three KC-130J Harvest Hawk ISR/weapon mission kits. Those will allow rapid reconfiguration of the tanker/transport aircraft to conduct persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition, battlefield damage assessment, and delivery of precision fire using Hellfire, Griffin, and ViperStrike munitions for day/night, all-weather expeditionary, joint or combined operations.

As it prepares for these new capabilities, the Marine Corps’ amphibious assault ships (LHDs), the first vessels designed to accommodate both the AV-8B and multiple air-cushioned landing craft (LCAC), are being modified to carry the MV-22 and F-35B as well. The next-generation amphibs, which resemble small aircraft carriers, are being designed for the Corps’ future aviation combat element, with an enlarged hangar deck, enhanced aviation maintenance facilities, increased aviation-fuel capacity, and additional aviation storerooms.

According to Naval Aviation Vision 2010, the joint Navy/Marine Corps maritime strategy through 2032, the new Marine Corps ships and aviation capability “will add a warfighting dimension not previously available to the joint force.”

In his 1920 article, Cunningham outlined a number of missions for which he believed Marine aviation would provide invaluable assistance to commanders on the ground and at sea. It was virtually identical to the missions Marine aviation would undertake in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Southwest Asia, as well as peacetime operations during the Cold War and between major conflicts. But one of his expectations has proved especially prescient in the early 21st century.

AV-8B Harrier VMM 162 USS Nassau

An AV-8B Harrier assigned to Marine Medium Tiltrotor (VMM) 162 (Reinforced) participates in a hover exercise off the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA 4). Nassau is the command platform for the Nassau Amphibious Ready Group, supporting maritime security operations and theater security cooperation in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Patrick Gordon

“A large part of the work performed by the Marine Corps is to combat guerrilla and bandit warfare, usually in tropical countries where roads are few and ground communications almost nil,” he wrote. “We must not overlook the valuable assistance aviation can render in this kind of fighting or fail to realize its many helpful possibilities in the occupation of such territories, whether fighting is in progress or not.” Or, as predicted by Robling, looking to the second century of Marine Corps Aviation:  “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.”

Congressional authorization for a commemorative coin celebrating the 2012 Centennial of Marine Corps Aviation drew a similar conclusion: “Marine Corps Aviation’s value to the individual Marine and the Marine Corps as a whole has centered on a number of long-established and essential hallmark qualities, including adaptability, agility, and being of one mind, as have been seen during past campaign successes, are witnessed during today’s combat operations and are key planning factors for future aircraft and aviation capabilities. Marine Corps Aviation, as an essential element of the Marine Corps Air-Ground Task Force, is critical to the continuing success of our nation’s expeditionary ‘Force in Readiness.’”

As the Marine Corps joined the Navy in celebrating 100 years of naval aviation, Amos also was looking back to 1912 and forward to 2012 and the Corps’ own aviation centennial.

“We are a unique organization comprised of warfighting elements that, when joined together as the Marine Air-Ground Task Force, is significantly more efficient and effective than the sum of the parts. The close integration of Marine Aviation into the MAGTF is one of the ways in which the Marine Corps is unique. The combined arms operations and expeditionary capabilities pioneered by our earliest naval aviators and refined over the years have served to make the Marine Corps a lethal force that can strike from virtually anywhere in the world at any time,” he said.

“For nearly 100 years, Marine Aviation has demonstrated the adaptability, agility, and unique ethos that come with the title ‘Marine.’ Supporting our ground and logistics brothers and sisters, Marine Aviation has forged a lasting legacy of professionalism, innovation, and transformation. The centennial … provides us a unique opportunity to reflect on this legacy of success as we turn our eyes to the future.”

This article was first published in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...