Air Cooperation and the Marine Corps
An alternative vision for the employment of Marine fixed-wing aircraftAuthor: Maj Gregory A. Thiele
Maj Mitchell “Ruby” Rubinstein
2013 MajGen Harold W. Chase Prize Essay Contest: First PlaceWith the recent delivery of the first F–35, it is time to reconsider how the Marine Corps employs fixed-wing aircraft. Fixed-wing Marine aircraft were limited in their ability to provide effective, long-duration, fully integrated support to ground commanders in the counterinsurgency fight in Iraq and Afghanistan,
a shortcoming the F–35 will do nothing to ameliorate. In fact, in order to remain effective and relevant across the spectrum of conflict, the Marine Corps needs to change its aviation doctrine by adopting Air Cooperation as its guiding philosophy
Over a period of decades, Marine air has slowly degraded its ability to support ground Marines. The Marine Corps used to have a variety of fixed-wing aircraft, at least one of which, the OV–10, was optimized for integration with the ground force. The last OV–10 was retired around the time of the Gulf War. With its loss, the only fixed-wing aircraft the Marine Corps had to conduct ground support were fast, short-endurance jet aircraft optimized for air interdiction missions. These aircraft (primarily the F/A–18 and the AV–8B) were less than optimal when it came to providing many of the close-support functions previously provided by the OV–10.
The increasing similarity between Marine air, naval air, and the Air Force led to increasing interchangeability and loss of Marine air’s uniqueness. By the mid-1990s, Marine air had become more suited to conducting strike missions previously carried out primarily by the Navy and Air Force. Shrinking budgets, declining numbers of aircraft, and the Marine Corps’ desire to be involved where there were conflicts led the joint forces air component commanders (JFACCs) to request greater participation of fixed-wing Marine aviation in strike missions than in the past.
Increasing interchangeability of Marine, Navy, and Air Force aircraft also led the Navy and Air Force to become more involved in the ground support arena. Both the Navy and Air Force must be able to support ground forces, but it is not the primary role of either. For Marine air, supporting the Marine on the ground is its raison d’étre. It is therefore ironic that in the A–10 the Air Force possesses a better close-support aircraft than any in the Marine Corps Fixed-wing Marine air faces a fight for its existence, although that may not yet be apparent. Commonality of aircraft (the F–35), technology, and “jointness” are leading Marine air ever further into JFACC (read: Air Force) orbit. Unless arrested, this trend will continue until ultimately the only difference between Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force aircraft and pilots will be the word “Marines” stenciled on the bird. At that point, budget pressures are likely to lead to the end of Marine fixed-wing aviation.
By adopting a doctrine of Air Cooperation, Marine air can regain its uniqueness. Air Cooperation is a philosophy in which the employment of airpower moves from the second generation (attrition) to the third generation (maneuver warfare). Air Cooperation seeks to use aviation as not just a supporting arm, but as an integral part of a combined-arms team with ground forces. Air Cooperation relies on a greater measure of initiative by the aerial force in accordance with the ground unit commander’s intent. This is the essence of mission-type orders (Auftragstaktik).1 Air Cooperation supports maneuver warfare in a way that the current centralized aviation command and control philosophy cannot.
Current joint aviation command and control philosophy demands that virtually every sortie be strictly scheduled and controlled via the air tasking order (ATO). War’s chaos and unpredictability, however, do not lend themselves easily to our attempts to create detailed flight schedules. Command and control agencies and methods are certainly necessary, but they must be better adapted to the requirements of war than is the ATO. Breaking the stranglehold that the ATO possesses over Marine air will allow commanders the flexibility to more effectively employ airpower than is currently the case. Marine forces must maintain the integrity of the MAGTF with requisite control over our own air. We must not forget that centralized control cedes the initiative to the enemy.
Air Cooperation differs from the current aviation command and control model in several fundamental ways. First, aviation is fully integrated into the ground scheme of maneuver from the earliest possible moment and at the lowest levels. Aviation units work directly with a partner ground unit and develop a habitual support relationship with that unit. This relationship facilitates a more comprehensive understanding of the ground commander’s intent so that aviators can do more than act as “flying artillery.”
Given this increased awareness of the ground scheme of maneuver and commander’s intent, aviators are free to act upon their understanding with minimal delay required for coordination outside of the unit they are supporting. The current centralized command and control system is necessary to allow a pilot with little or no previous knowledge of the ground situation to safely drop bombs in support of units in contact. Air Cooperation will unshackle Marine air and allow it to act in concert with ground forces to a greater degree than ever. For example, once in the air, if the pilot sees an enemy force moving to counterattack, he will inform his supported ground commander and immediately attack the enemy, perhaps slowing the enemy’s progress and allowing friendly ground forces to establish a hasty ambush.
In Afghanistan’s Sangin Valley in 2011, an Air Cooperation mentality allowed Marine air and ground units with a familiar relationship to speed up reaction to improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. Seeing the IED attack, supporting helicopters would immediately execute the “game plan.” The ground unit only needed a few preplanned flashes from a signal mirror to coordinate with air without tying up radio communications being used for other critical purposes.
The greatest benefit of Air Cooperation is that it will make the Marine Corps more effective across the spectrum of conflict. Fixed-wing Marine air has showed limited utility in Iraq and Afghanistan, able to remain on-station for only a short time before requiring a break in situational awareness to refuel. This has contributed to a “use-it-or-lose-it” mentality, sometimes resulting in rushed decisions on the employment of ordnance and aircraft. Fratricide has occurred when the situation changed while the pilot was away, such as in instances of friendly aircraft attacking a friendly force that has captured former enemy positions.2 The requirement to serve all elements to equal degrees limits Marine air’s ability to closely integrate with the local ground commander’s scheme of maneuver. Air Cooperation will facilitate this integration by allowing the pilots to work directly for the ground commander, not just for the time allowed to prosecute a close air support (CAS) mission, but from planning throughout the ground action.
Air Cooperation has already proven its effectiveness in limited employment in the low-intensity conflicts (LICs)/counterinsurgencies (COINs) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Often, the most effective employment of air assets in LIC is by having them perform intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The most important attribute for such missions is on-station time, as demonstrated by the success of remotely piloted vehicles that have performed superbly while remaining unarmed.The effectiveness of the aircraft is further enhanced by having a pilot (or better, a ground observer) in the aircraft who understands the ground scheme of maneuver. The pilot can make decisions and advise the ground commander in a fluid, rapidly changing, and unforeseen environment. Traditional CAS is often of lesser importance.
In a mid- or high-intensity conflict, Air Cooperation will make ground forces more effective by helping them identify or create gaps and avoid surfaces.
Ideally Air Cooperation would utilize aircraft that are less complex and therefore more numerous and easier to replace than the F–35. These aircraft would be rugged and survivable so that they could succeed while flying low and slow enough to provide valuable information and assistance to the ground commander.
Air Cooperation will reemphasize the unique capabilities of Marine Corps aviation. The Marine Corps is ideally structured for Air Cooperation. The virtue of having a MAGTF with one commander in charge of both air and ground forces at a level lower than the combatant commander is of critical importance, as it creates a climate of cooperation and accountability that is lacking when each element is independent of the other.
Air Cooperation will allow the Marine Corps to capitalize on the unique capabilities of its pilots. Every Marine officer attends The Basic School and is imbued with the ethos that “every Marine officer is a provisional rifle platoon commander.” This shared experience between future aviators and ground officers builds trust. The Marine Corps must continue to build upon this foundation through more education for pilots and ground officers as Air Cooperation begins to take root.
The Marine Corps has invaluable historical and cultural advantages in implementing Air Cooperation. It was the Marine Corps that pioneered CAS in the period between World Wars I and II in an effort to provide better support to aviators’ brothers-in-arms on the ground. This institutional focus on the Marine on the ground has become a deeply held part of the Marine ethos. Seen in this light, Air Cooperation simply builds upon the bedrock of Marine values.
The Marine Corps can also build upon its existing exchanges between Marine air and ground elements. Aviators often have tours as air officers or forward air controllers with ground units. This program is excellent and will be invaluable in educating both ground and air officers regarding Air Cooperation. More ground officers should be posted to aviation staff billets, and, likewise, more aviators should be permitted to serve on ground staffs. Expanding these opportunities will further enhance the understanding of the other elements of the MAGTF.
Air Cooperation has the added virtue of keeping pilots in the cockpit. No unmanned aircraft system, no matter how good the sensors on board, can provide a pilot remotely located from the action with the same understanding as that possessed by a pilot in an aircraft circling over the battlefield at the point of friction. Flying a “drone” requires a skilled technician; Air Cooperation requires pilots with a comprehensive understanding of the ground commander’s intent. To be effective, Air Cooperation requires human beings on scene who can think and make decisions that will influence the outcome on the ground in a chaotic environment.
The current centralized command and control philosophy, which views aircraft largely as platforms to provide aerial fire support, will soon have little use for fixed-wing pilots. The trend in the U.S. military is toward the use of ever greater numbers of drones. And why not? Drones can provide for a nine-line CAS brief as well as a manned aircraft. If you want little more from fixed-wing aviation than air-delivered fires, a drone will suit your needs perfectly.
However, from an Air Cooperation standpoint, there are significant shortcomings to using drones. Drones support a limited number of mission profiles. Drones require radio communications links, which have range and line-of-sight limitations and are susceptible to jamming. The nonmaneuverability of drones make them uniquely susceptible to anti-air defenses. Their required lack of radio emission control makes them susceptible to “home-on-jam” weapons. Drones can follow a nine-line, but they cannot react well to a changing ground situation. The pilot can be thousands of miles away, often with little understanding of the ground scheme of maneuver, looking at a monitor displaying a narrow field of view.
There will certainly be those who believe that Air Cooperation is a step back for the Marine Corps. They may see jointness as inherently good. This is understandable, given the conscious Department of Defense effort to become more joint, and the incentives put in place to make that happen since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Perhaps it is heresy, but jointness is not inherently good by itself. Jointness is only good if the end result is a more combat-effective joint force. In those areas where jointness will actually degrade combat effectiveness, it should not be pursued. It is unlikely that Congress would demand changes in the name of jointness if the end result degraded combat effectiveness. This is the reason Joint Publication 1, Doctrine for the Armed Forces of the United States (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Washington, DC, 25 March 2013), gives special dispensation to maintaining the integrity of the MAGTF.
It is also ironic that a Nation built on free enterprise and the belief that competition produces better products should ignore the value of these ideas in the military sphere. Jointness may actually damage military effectiveness by eliminating beneficial competition between the innovative thinkers within the Services. When all the Services fly the same aircraft, with virtually identical capabilities, it is natural to create similar standards for pilots in each.
Jointness has resulted in a “homogenization” of the U.S. military’s air arm. CAS has been reduced to following a nine-line brief. Every pilot, whether Marine, Navy, or Air Force, can prosecute a nine-line request for CAS. In itself, this is a positive development, but CAS should be more than just dropping bombs. The quest for jointness has obscured this fact in the search for some common standard that all pilots, regardless of Service, can meet.
Some may argue that Air Cooperation is impractical due to the highly complex requirements of modern aviation support, and given the aircraft that the Marine Corps currently possesses and is purchasing, this may be true. Air Cooperation is best conducted by pilots who live and work in close proximity to the ground units they are supporting, and their aircraft must be with them. To this end, the Marine Corps needs cheaper, simpler, more rugged aircraft that can be based flexibly and in greater numbers. With such aircraft, Air Cooperation will be possible, and the Marine Corps’ air-ground team will reach a new level of integration and effectiveness.
In World War II, the Soviet Union produced 40,000 IL–2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft. These aircraft were reported to be impervious to 20mm fire and had great effect supporting the Red Army’s advance on Germany. The modern-day actualization of this concept is easier than one might think. For the price of 8 F–35s, we could field over 100 modern A–29 Super Tucano light air support aircraft. Each up-armored and already combat-proven A–29 is capable of providing longer-endurance armed overwatch in greater numbers from more austere airfields than current or future fixed-wing Marine aircraft.
Some may also argue that the Marine Corps already does many of the things that air cooperators are advocating. After all, pilots already attend The Basic School and serve ground tours, thereby gaining some understanding of the requirements of their ground counterparts. But aviators are now held back by the current view of airpower and the current command and control philosophy. To properly train Marine pilots, they must be educated in a system that views them as more than highly skilled technicians servicing targets. If that is all they are, they will increasingly be replaced by drones.
Aviators may claim that, in an attempt to gain many of the advantages claimed for Air Cooperation, Marine air already has a technique called strike coordination and reconnaissance (SCAR). SCAR allows aviation to range in front of ground forces and attack the enemy. SCAR is an attempt within the current inflexible philosophy of air command and control to achieve some of the promise of Air Cooperation; however, SCAR is not Air Cooperation and can only ape some aspects of it. Pilots conducting SCAR missions are provided with an attack guidance matrix (AGM). This AGM simply prioritizes targets for the pilot, telling him what to kill. The aircraft is still just a fires delivery platform, and the pilot is just following a grocery list.
Air Cooperation, in order to be most effective, may require an aircraft with different characteristics than those that the F–35 currently possesses. Perhaps the Marine Corps should purchase fewer F–35s and put the savings toward aircraft better suited to Air Cooperation. F–35s are not ideally suited to the mission of ground support, as they are a “one-size-fits-all” aircraft that are not optimized for ground attack.
In addition, the high price of the F–35 is a barrier to the plane’s use for ground support. The F–35 is too expensive to lose; to recycle an old saying, any weapon too expensive to lose is too expensive to use. The F–35’s cost also means that the Marine Corps will not be able to afford as many of them as if cheaper aircraft were purchased, which will ultimately lead to a decrease in the amount of support Marines on the ground receive.If the F–35 is not ideal for Air Cooperation, what characteristics should the Marine Corps look for in such an aircraft? First, the ideal air cooperator aircraft should have a long on-station time, which will afford the pilot (and ideally the ground observer in the aircraft with him) a greater awareness of the ground situation than a string of aircraft checking in and out or yo-yoing back to a tanker for more fuel to make up for shorter on-station times.
Air cooperators should fly lower and slower in order to enhance their understanding of the situation on the ground. This requirement can be mitigated to some degree through the use of improved sensors, but the understanding that comes from being nearer to the point of friction and seeing with one’s own eyes is not just critical for a commander, but also for an aviator who wishes to advise the commander or influence the action on the ground. In order to get closer to the fight, Air Cooperation aircraft must be more survivable, and because of the potential for combat damage, they must also be easy to repair.
The last quality that Air Cooperation aircraft should possess is that they should be cheap. Aircraft that cost less will allow the Marine Corps to buy more. One of the reasons that the current centralized system of command and control is attractive is the relative scarcity of aircraft for the ever-increasing number of missions; more aircraft will help to alleviate this factor.
Aviators should learn from the experience of the Marine artillery community. Several decades ago, the Marine Corps had 3 artillery platforms: the 155mm towed howitzer, the 105mm howitzer, and the 155mm self-propelled howitzer. In the 1990s, for reasons that were deemed sufficient at the time, the Marine Corps eliminated all other types of artillery. The only artillery the Marine Corps possessed was the M198 155mm towed howitzer.
Unfortunately, experience in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated that one size does not fit all when it comes to artillery. Differing mission requirements, as well as different technologies, demonstrated the shortcomings of relying solely on M198s. As a result, the Marine Corps has transitioned back to 3 different indirect fire platforms: the M777 155mm light towed howitzer; the expeditionary fire support system, a 120mm mortar; and the HIMARS rocket system. Perhaps Marine air could learn from the experience of the artillery community before it puts all its eggs in one basket.
The best way to change from the current aviation command and control philosophy to Air Cooperation is to reinstitute the Jäger Air experiments.3 These experiments were conducted in the mid-1990s. Such a regime of experiments would require creating an experimental unit to conduct tests, write doctrine, and develop technical requirements regarding the qualities aircraft would require in order to be most suitable for Air Cooperation employment. In order to test the air-ground integration essential to Air Cooperation, this unit must comprise a “mini-MAGTF,” consisting of a headquarters, aviation combat element, ground combat element, and logistics combat element.
Experiments should be conducted in a variety of scenarios across the spectrum of conflict, which will stress the Air Cooperation concept, expose any shortcomings, and allow members of the test unit to determine the tactical and/or technical methods to address these shortfalls. Force-on-force free-play, the most effective way to determine the effectiveness of Air Cooperation, should be adopted. When coupled with honest evaluation, such free-play exercises should expose shortcomings in the practical application of the concept and permit them to be addressed through the development of new tactics or technological means.
The future of fixed-wing Marine aviation is uncertain. The current path—centralized command and control and jointness—leads to fixed-wing Marine aircraft being wrested from the MAGTF to work for the JFACC, and drones increasingly replacing manned aircraft. Air Cooperation offers an alternate vision in which the integration between air and ground Marines is reinvigorated. Air Cooperation will allow the MAGTF to retain its hold on its fixed-wing aircraft and be more combat effective for the change. Pilots and manned aircraft still have an important and viable role to play on the modern battlefield—a role that cannot be adequately filled by drones. Air Cooperation is worthy of experimentation and testing. Without Air Cooperation, the writing is on the wall for Marine air.
1. Fleet Marine Force Manual 3–23, Air Cooperation, Imperial and Royal Austro-Hungarian Marine Corps, 2009, p. 8. This manual can be downloaded at http://www.dnipogo.org
2. From the authors’ personal experiences: On 5 Dec 2010, UK PTE John Howard, 3 PARA, was killed in Afghanistan by cannon fire from a U.S. F/A–18. During the F/A–18’s break in situational awareness to refuel, the friendly ground force attacked from the first building, assaulted and captured the second building, and continued to engage enemy forces in the third of three formerly Taliban-occupied buildings. Upon the F/A–18’s return, a nine-line brief was executed and the pilot strafed the friendly position. More information on PTE Howard can be found at http://www.gov.uk
3. There were a number of articles written both advocating and criticizing the Jäger Air concept. Many can be found in the Marine Corps Gazette’s archive
Fuente: http://www.mca-marines.org/gazette/arti ... rine-corps