Thursday, April 11, 2013

End Strength 100k: Fixed-Wing Air

Airplane Graveyard, Davis-Monthan Air Force Base outside Tucson, AZ
Please keep in mind that my last article about dropping tanks and other such 'heavy' things was not a recommendation that I think the Marine Corps needs to take under serious consideration. Just as today I am not suggesting we drop all of our fixed wing aircraft tomorrow. This series is more of an intellectual exercise about a hypothetical forced necessity, a modified form of the "What now Lieutenant?" question.  If Congress provides a manpower cap of approximately 100,000, the new question becomes "what now General (and General staffs)?"  I believe this is a useful exercise, and one that could be helpful in putting into perspective the difference between absolute necessity (infantry Marines) and nice-to-haves in the Marine Corps (tanks?).
Company Grade, ground combat officers get a lot of time thinking at the Platoon to Battalion level, or at least they should.  By the time officers have an opportunity to be  Battalion Commanders, or serve on Regimental staffs,  how much time have they devoted to thinking about the bigger picture, and fighting that Battalion, or fighting that Regiment in a conventional (or even unconventional) manner?  You learn to be a Company Commander, and an Operations Officer at EWS. You learn something about operations and the bigger picture at Command & Staff College. What about the time in between?  I suggest intellectual exercises like these, thinking several levels higher, can help develop your mind into that 2,000 year old mind of TBS lore.
Malcolm Gladwell in his pop-science book Outliers, discussed the magical "10,000 hour rule" to achieve expertise. Most officers by the time they progress to the rank of senior field grade, and those few who make General, have all likely had more than 10,000 hours “pushing paper.” We all understand route sheets, the need for them, and the need of knowing Naval Letter Correspondence, all of this being important and necessary.  On the other hand, how many hours do we spend reading, discussing, and dwelling on the kinds of tactical, operational or leadership decisions necessary and critical to any operational, or headquarters command billet? These things are just as important. I’ve known not a few Marine officers with an admiration and fascination for The Last Stand of Fox Company.  All Marine officers embrace the magnificent efforts of individuals performing astounding feats of courage in battle, like John Basilone, or Brian Chontosh.  The missing piece in the Marine Corps seems at times a cultural appreciation for decisions at the strategic and operational level, the two levels of decision-making that stretch from the Battalion, sometimes the Company, up through highest levels of combatant and headquarters commands.
My suggestion here is less "this is what the Marine Corps should do," and more "this is an exercise in strategic thinking."  If you disagree on anything, please let me know, the comments are below.
In our fictional scenario, Congress has set the cap for the Marine Corps at 100k. What force structure do we keep? What do we get rid of? The incredible capability and importance of our MEUs and what they provide the Nation in terms of both power projection, and placing armed forces in close proximity to trouble spots in the world, trouble spots that are in some way involved in national security interests, is undeniably our most important contribution. How do we streamline our overall force to maintain this capability without diminishing its "capability"?  First, we would need to emphasize some operational  capabilities over others, for example maybe artillery over LAR (or the other way around), while also dropping those warfighting capabilities that might not fit with a more streamlined organizational structure and mission set, i.e. the consideration to drop tanks and/or  most fixed wing aviation.
The Marine Corps does "not" do strategic bombing.  Marine aviation exists to support the ground combat element. What does that mean in the main? Close air support.  At 100k, we should keep the transport and attack helicopters, and keep the Ospreys.  On the other hand, serious consideration should be given to the possibility of dropping the fixed wing platforms, and potentially replacing them with unmanned systems.  Phase out the fast movers, phase in the drones?  

Unmanned platforms generally have longer times on station, are certainly cheaper to purchase, have a smaller footprint, and over time the training pipeline for UAV pilots will be much cheaper. They also take up less space, and if they don't already fly off of an amphibious ship, they should. This approach would ultimately eliminate the cost of fixed wing training, fixed wing sorties, and fixed wing maintenance, while still maintaining the Marine Corps capability of “fixed-wing” CAS and very possibly improving our overall battlefield surveillance.


  1. I agree with you that conducting these intellectual exercises are important and fundamental to our future. As an aviator (AH-1W pilot), I think it is important to convey to ground commanders the requirement to have a multitude of air assets to support the ground scheme of maneuver. Our fixed wing assets weren't necessarily designed for strategic bombing but CAS. Rotary wing aircraft and fixed wing aircraft complement each other and eliminating one or the other is going to decrease the flexibility of the MAGTF. If we did eliminate fixed wing platforms then we would have to rely on the Navy or Air Force to fill that capability gap. Unmanned platforms, while capable and versatile, are still extremely susceptible to being shot down or having their systems jammed which could render them useless in a future conflict against an enemy with A2AD systems.

    Also, the weather and environment we operate in will largely effect what support can be provided. A rotary wing platform can support a unit with poor visibility and low ceilings but we do not have an all weather capability like an F/A-18 contrary to what our mission statement declares.

    Just some thoughts....I'm just glad that someone is thinking above the tactical level and throwing new ideas out for debate.

    Capt Adam Thomas

  2. If the Marines lose Infantry Battalions as the primary way to achieve cut backs then they strength their Air Wings not cut them back. They should add drones(makes the overall system stronger) but keep all the other types of Aircraft they have. What is that marine H2H(hand to hand) motto? "One Mind any weapon" need to change that to "One Marine with Every Weapon"

  3. I've long been a proponent of the Corps restructuring into MEBs that comprise of 3 MEUs that are fixed units without all of the rotation of the ACE/GCE that are the current norm. Keep but downsize our fixed-wing assets, as USMC pilots are BEST for close air support for our own. Eliminating our massive presence in the Far East & having a forward-deployed MEB on Guam would also facilitate such a downsizing without compromising mission capabilities. Place any other essential support in the USMCR with an OPTEMPO training budget & schedule different from normal USMCR units. These proposals would make the best use of our Corps in facing the real-world 21st century threats while staying within the shrinking DOD budget restraints.
    Semper Fidelis!