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U.S. Marine Corps Fixed-Wing Aviation 2011-2012

In Hollywood, the Marine Corps is a combination of ground warriors carried into battle by ships and helicopters. In the real world, while every Marine, regardless of job, is a trained rifleman, some also rank among the world’s finest fighter pilots. Modern Marine Corps fixed-wing aviation moved into the elite ranks, in terms of platforms, when they acquired the F/A-18 Hornet in 1983. And, in keeping with long Marine tradition of pushing the aviation envelope, two years later they acquired another McDonnell Douglas aircraft – the AV-8B Harrier jump jet – after a long fight to keep the controversial program alive.

That tradition continued with the equally controversial MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor, which finally entered full operational service in 2007. For the purposes of this publication, the Osprey has been placed in the same chapter as helicopters, although it could be described as half helicopter, half fixed-wing.

And now the Corps is preparing to replace its Hornets and Harriers with a new class of fifth-generation fighter – the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). But while Commandant Gen. James F. Amos in early 2011 announced the Corps also would be buying 80 carrier-variant F-35Cs, the Marines are still committed to the most controversial version of the JSF – the STOVL (short takeoff/vertical landing) F-35B.

“The JSF gives us three new 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,” USMC Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant deputy commandant-aviation, explained.

Unlike its sister services, which bought upgraded versions of the Hornet (Navy F/A-18F Super Hornet) and Air Force Eagle (F-15E Strike Eagle), plus the Navy EA-18G Growler to replace the EA-6B Prowler electronic warfare (EW) aircraft, the Marine Corps held onto its legacy fleet, with modest upgrades, staking its future on the Osprey, the F-35, and a significantly upgraded KC-130J Super Hercules.

AV-8B Harrier

An AV-8B Harrier (right) assigned to Marine Attack Squadron 214 prepares for takeoff as another lands aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Makin Island (LHD 8) under way in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 17, 2011. Makin Island was conducting Harrier operations in preparation for an upcoming deployment. DoD photo by Chief Petty Officer John Lill, U.S. Navy

Today’s Marine Corps fixed-wing fleet comprises:

  • 236 F/A-18A/C/D Hornets
  • 139 AV-8B Harriers
  • 22 EA-6B Prowlers
  • 28 KC-130Ts (Reserves only)
  • 44 KC-130Js
  • 15 F-5N aggressors (flown by VMFT-401, the only Marine aggressor squadron, to train U.S. pilots in the tactics of potential enemies)

Through the next two decades, those will be replaced by 420 F-35B/Cs (the Hornet, Harrier, and Prowler), plus three more KC-130J transport/tankers, along with nine bolt-on/bolt-off ISR/weapon mission kits to convert the Super Hercules into a KC-130J Harvest Hawk IRSTA (intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition) gunship. The Reserves will continue to operate their existing KC-130Ts and the aggressor squadron the F-5Ns.

While the new fixed-wing aircraft will total nearly the same as the legacy platforms, if helicopters are included, the fleet will drop from about 1,100 aircraft today to as few as 800 in the 2020s. Nonetheless, officials maintain the enhanced capabilities and reduced maintenance and logistics chains due to fewer and newer aircraft types – four fixed-wing versus seven, including the recently retired KC-130F/Rs – will result in a significant increase in Marine Corps aviation capabilities.

Changes also will be coming to Corps maritime aviation. The new USN/USMC Tactical Air (TacAir) agreement calls for five Marine Corps F-35C squadrons (10-plus aircraft each) replacing three F/A-18A/C/D carrier squadrons (12 each). It also is seen as a concession to Navy opposition to having the F-35B aboard their carriers due to potential complications in storing and moving aircraft from lower deck hangars to top deck launch areas as well as different rates for cycle operations.

“The JSF gives us three new 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,” USMC Brig. Gen. Gary Thomas, assistant deputy commandant-aviation, explained.

“Second, the STOVL requirement is basing flexibility, so we can operate at sea and also at expeditionary airfields. We can rapidly build a 3,000-foot 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 [Marine Air-Ground Task Force].”

EA-6B Prowler

An EA-6B Prowler prepares for takeoff, while two UH-1 Hueys fly by in the background, after Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadron 4 ordnance Marines armed the high-speed, anti-radiation missiles on the jet Oct. 8, 2010, at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Josue Aguirre

Col. Todd G. Kemper, branch head for Aviation Plans & Policy, acknowledges the decision to skip a generation despite 10 years of constant combat operations in Southwest Asia, (the F/A-18E and F-15E typically are referred to as generation 4.5 aircraft) has pushed the legacy fleet to the maximum – and sometimes beyond.

“The impact on the service life of those aircraft fully deployed into combat has been [that] they are flying beyond their service life equivalency,” he said. “For most of our tactical aircraft, we looked at a 30-year life cycle when we first acquired them; the Navy looks at 20 because of the environment in which they fly. And because we fly our F/A-18s off big deck carriers and amphibs, they also get that wear and tear. Even without the war, we still would be in the same place in planning for follow-on aircraft because the Marine Corps has not bought a new fixed-wing since we got our last F-18s at the end of the 1990s.”

But the war has not been the only problem in terms of keeping legacy aircraft fully operational to Marine standards. With almost their entire fixed-wing replacement plan resting on the F-35, continued delays in that program – including a two-year probation and threat to cancel the Corps centerpiece F-35B – have pushed the Marines’ aging fleet even harder.

“There have been a number of delays in that program from when it was going to be fielded, so we now have an issue where the aircraft we were going to transition into is not ready for transition even as we have increased our legacy utilization due to combat ops,” Kemper added. “Right now, given the number of airplanes we have and current operations we are flying, we have sufficient inventory to meet our demand. There are a number of things we are doing from a sustainment point for those aircraft not in a hot production line, working to keep those viable.

“The one drawing the most attention is the legacy Hornet. That airplane block has a 6,000-hour airframe and about a decade ago a decision was made to extend that life to 8,000 hours. NAVAIR [U.S. Navy Naval Air Systems Command] engineers did the analysis and decided they could do that through extensions. More recently, they worked through a service-life assessment program to see if they can get it beyond 8,000 hours, then went into a three-phase analysis that is still in progress. As of now, with the Hornet, we will use a high flight-hour inspection to get to 8,600 hours, then a service-life extension to get the airframe only from 8,600 to 10,000 hours.”

The Navy, Air Force, and Army are doing much the same – especially the first two, as they also must deal with the F-35 delays. However, they also have newer aircraft, some representing major generational advances beyond where the Marine Corps stopped, so their situation is not nearly as problematic as that facing the Corps. And some of what they did on aircraft also operated by the Corps, along with some upgrades Corps combat commanders (COCOMS) demanded to meet evolving operating requirements in Southwest Asia, also have helped.

KC-130J Super Hercules

Lance Cpl. Jamaal Smith, a freight clerk for Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron, Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, directs a KC-130J Super Hercules cargo aircraft to the runway March 18, 2011. III MEF Marines and sailors were supporting government of Japan-led humanitarian assistance/disaster relief operations in mainland Japan following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck northern Japan March 11, 2011. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Gunnery Sgt. J.L. Wright Jr.

“With the Harrier, because of its upgrades from day attack to night attack and the radar configuration it is in now, there is enough service life in that airframe that it will not require a service life extension program,” Kemper said. “The Prowler has a 12,500-hour airframe and, based upon our utilization and planned sundown, we believe we can take it to the end of its original service life.

“The planned sundowns for all three platforms [Hornet, Harrier, Prowler] end with a transition into the F-35. The entire legacy Hornet fleet of 12 squadrons, plus seven AV-8B and four Prowler squadrons, means the 420 F-35s will be broken down into 21 active and three Reserve component squadrons. That will leave us with fewer airplanes and squadrons once completed, going from 28 TacAir squadrons down to 24.”

The end result will be more than just a generational jump from predominantly 1970s, pre-stealth designs to an aircraft still in an active design phase, with an open architecture allowing for far easier new technology insertion as computers and other technologies continue to evolve at an exponential rate. It will be both a reaffirmation of a Marine aviation mantra repeated by every Corps leader since the first Marine pilot a century ago, Lt. Alfred Cunningham – “the only excuse for aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground to successfully carry out their missions” – and a confident commitment to the future role of Marine aviation.

That was recognized by Congress in acknowledging the Corps’ 2012 aviation centennial: “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.’”

“With the Harrier, because of its upgrades from day attack to night attack and the radar configuration it is in now, there is enough service life in that airframe that it will not require a service life extension program,” Kemper said. “The Prowler has a 12,500-hour airframe and, based upon our utilization and planned sundown, we believe we can take it to the end of its original service life.

According to Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling, the deputy commandant for aviation, Marine aviators have met every demand placed on them “from the ground force commanders’ perspective, but it has been a challenge.”

“Right now [Corps aviation] 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,” he said.


An F/A-18 from VMFA-225, Marine Corps Attack Squadron Miramar, Calif. patrols the air near a KC-135 at combat training exercise Red Flag July 20, 2010. The Corps’ F/A-18 fleet will be the most difficult to sustain during the wait for the F-35B and F-35C. U.S. Air Force photo by A1C Daniel Phelps

“As the COCOMs require more MEU [Marine expeditionary unit] presence in their AORs [areas of responsibility], it is important we provide them with Marines and sailors trained, organized, and equipped to do those missions. The MEU is the centerpiece, going out on amphibious ships in the global commons and littorals, forward deployed, that a COCOM can call on when he needs them. Demand for that concept has increased 86 percent since 2007, which is telling. Putting that concept into MAGTF, some punch we can take from an amphib, has really changed the way COCOMs do forward presence, how they operate.”

In a joint statement before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) on May 24, 2011, Robling and Rear Adm. David L. “Deke” Philman, the Navy’s director-warfare integration, vowed to closely and personally supervise continued development of the F-35B/C during the two-year probation then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates imposed on the STOVL variant at the start of the year.

“All three variants of this aircraft are in testing now and this testing is going extremely well. The -B model has completed more than 200 short takeoffs and more than 100 vertical landings and 150 slow landings and we are moving steadily toward preparation for shipboard trials of that aircraft in the fall of this year. The -C model Joint Strike Fighter is also proceeding smoothly towards shipboard integration and this summer the F-35C team will begin carrier suitability testing at Lakehurst, N.J.,” they told lawmakers.

“As we plan for the arrival of the extraordinary new warfighting capability of the Joint Strike Fighter, we are taking careful and systematic steps to manage our current TacAir assets. This includes a process of assessment, inspection, and investment in those legacy aircraft we have today. Our use of the inventory forecasting tool, high flight-hour inspections, and the F-18 service life management program will keep those aircraft flying safely.

“By managing our program of investment in current assets – and with the help of Congress – our predictions for a strike fighter shortfall have fallen by half from last year’s estimate of around 100 aircraft to a current estimate of 52. The Department of the Navy assesses – and CAPE [Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation Office] agrees – that this is a manageable number as we work to extend the service life of up to 150 of our -A through -D legacy Hornets out to 10,000 hours in anticipation of the arrival of the Joint Strike Fighter.”

In one case, the newest legacy aircraft will be undergoing a significant upgrade that will keep it in the active fleet well past the first decommissions of older platforms. The first of four active-duty Marine Tactical Electronic Warfare Squadrons (VMAQ) began the transition to the Improved Capabilities (ICAP) III version of the Prowler in April 2010.

KC-130T Hercules

Displaying aerial finesse for a crowd of spectators, Ranger 29 and Ranger 28, two KC-130T Hercules aircraft flown by the Air Combat Element of Black Sea Rotational Force 11, perform a section overhead break at the “Thunder Over Constanta” air show, June 8, 2011. Reserve Marine squadrons will retain their KC-130Ts. U.S. Marine Corps photo

That will enable EA-6B ICAP III operational capability to continue through 2019, when the last squadron will be decommissioned (at a rate of one squadron per year, beginning in 2016). They will be replaced by F-35Bs equipped with next-generation jammer (NGJ) technology and UAS (unmanned aerial system) electronic warfare (EW) payloads. On a historic note, the Marine Corps’ first EA-6B Prowler made its last flight out of Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Cherry Point, N.C., on June 10, preparatory to its retirement at the end of June, completing 34 years of service.

The Prowler – the Corps having skipped an available upgrade to the more advanced EA-18G Growler pending arrival of the JSF – has been a linchpin component of electronic warfare for the  MAGTF.

“We refer to MAGTF-EW as a system of systems,” Thomas said, noting some of its component systems are running out of life. “The Prowler has an unmatched capability, especially with the ICAP III, but the age of the airframe eventually will require us to sundown that aircraft.

“So our goal is to take something that is high demand – the Prowler – and make that EW capability even more prevalent. One way to do that is to design systems for multiple platforms, including UAS. Obviously, when the F-35 rolls off the flight line, it can operate in environments other aircraft can’t, due to stealth, and can provide some EW capability.”

Faced less than a year ago with the bleakest of forecasts for its aviation assets and capabilities, Robling has appeared more upbeat and confident this year, while still acknowledging “the slower rate of [F-35] production slows down our rate of transition.”

Meanwhile, part of the Navy/Marine Corps NGJ effort for both legacy and next-generation aircraft is the new Intrepid Tiger (IT) II (AN/ALQ-228), a low-power reprogrammable communications jammer housed in a 300-pound external pod roughly the size and shape of a High-speed AntiRadiation Missile (HARM). Although a Marine program, the IT II has potential application to other legacy aircraft, such as the F/A-18 Hornet, as part of their life and mission extension programs.

As they look to the future, assess lessons learned from the past in Southwest Asia, and seek solutions to fill the gap created by the delayed delivery of the F-35, upgrading the MAGTF-EW has become a major priority. According to the Corps’ latest Fixed-Wing Aviation Plan, that includes completing ICAP III transition as soon as practical, locking down the IT II and beginning the production and fielding of electronic attack devices in 2011-12.

“What makes us unique is the aviation combat element in the MAGTF. The fixed-wing airplanes provide speed, range, firepower, communications that bring a unique set,” Kemper said. “One thing that makes the Marine Corps expeditionary is we have reduced the number of organic direct support and fire support systems compared to other ground combat forces and rely on aviation to provide those fires, both lethal and non-lethal.

“The Marine Corps has always had an enduring commitment to TacAir integration and a long history of airplanes on carriers, which is very beneficial to both services. Our vision for an all-STOVL force brought a lot of dialogue and when the president’s budget was submitted and the F-35 program had a number of tails pushed into the future, that created a gap in our transition plan. So the commandant made a decision to procure -Cs. That did not change our plans, other than the vision of a total STOVL force, but not the CONOPs [concept of operations] because we are following the lead of the U.S. Navy with its -Cs.”

F-5N Tiger II

Two F-5N Tiger II aircraft take off from the runway during the 49th annual Marine Corps Air Station Yuma Air Show & Open House in Arizona, March 26, 2011. VMFT-401 will also continue to operate its F-5N Tiger II aggressor aircraft. U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Leon M. Branchaud

Faced less than a year ago with the bleakest of forecasts for its aviation assets and capabilities, Robling has appeared more upbeat and confident this year, while still acknowledging “the slower rate of [F-35] production slows down our rate of transition.”

“Currently, we are successfully managing our strike fighter aircraft inventory to meet our operational commitments,” he told Defense. “We are confident we will be able to continue to manage our legacy aircraft appropriately with a variety of service life management initiatives until the F-35B is fielded.”

So despite a continued high operations tempo and demands pushing the legacy fleet to its limits, the Corps has never wavered from its original modernization plan – keep the existing fleet flying in the best possible operational shape while preparing for the long-awaited arrival of their next-generation replacements.

“We don’t anticipate any new buys as we wait for JSF. We will continue to manage the service life of our F-18s via the Service Life Extension Program. We also will calculate the remaining flight hours on each aircraft and manage our flight time so we have adequate margins,” Thomas said.

“On the JSF, it is more accurate to characterize it as a reduction in ramp-up for a couple of years, which the commandant has said is prudent to deal with the technology challenges you meet on any program. We’ve already purchased 32 of those [F-35s], with [five] now flying. The first F-35B will arrive at Eglin [AFB, Fla.] in September 2011 and the first -B in the first operational squadron will go to MCAS Yuma [Ariz.] in the fall of 2012.

“So 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. The biggest concern for the JSF program right now is the sustainment cost, which is something the services, the JPO [Joint Program Office], and industry must manage better to ensure the aircraft is affordable throughout the life cycle. And I do believe there is some work to be done there yet, but I view that as being across the entire program.”

The short- and long-term goal of the Marine Corps plan for fixed-wing aviation has not changed in the century since the first “Flying Leathernecks” took to the air in what was then a new domain to be dominated. As Robling concluded in his remarks to the Senate, that goal continues to be “providing forward presence with agile and capable forces.”

This article first appeared in Marine Corps Outlook: 2011-2012 Edition.




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