Air Wings Built for Two

Dec. 1, 2002

The Navy and the Marine Corps have embarked on an unprecedented integration of their fighter squadrons, a move that will affect the size and the operations of the tactical aviation forces of both services.

It also will force dramatic changes in the cultures of the two services’ air units. Marines face the greatest impact since, historically, they have considered their air arm an integral part of their ground combat forces. Half of the Marine Corps’ fighter-attack aircraft will be under direct Navy control as part of carrier air wings, instead of under Marine command in the traditional air-ground team.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard,” said Norman Polmar, a military scholar and author of a history of carrier aviation. “If you integrate, what’s the need for Marine air?”

“The reason for Marine air is to support the grunts [infantry],” Polmar said. “If you start to put them together [with the Navy], you lose the uniqueness of the Marine air.”

“It really will change the culture of the Corps,” said Col. Scott Doyle, a veteran Marine pilot.

But Doyle conceded, “To be able to afford the air forces we need, we have to do it.”

Senior Navy and Marine leaders acknowledge that integration is driven mainly by money, particularly the approaching massive budget “bow wave” for tactical aircraft.

Adm. Vern E. Clark, the Chief of Naval Operations, told a recent Naval Institute symposium that integrating Navy and Marine Corps tactical air will produce substantial savings.

Cannot Survive Independently

Marine Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hough, the new deputy commandant for aviation, told the same gathering that with the looming procurement bow wave “there is no way for the Navy and the Marine Corps to survive independently.”

Although Marine tactical air pilots qualify in carrier landings during initial flight training and have flown off carriers regularly since 1931, most of their fighter and attack squadrons fly from land bases. And when they did operate from the sea during World War II and the Korean War, it was mainly as Marine air groups on separate carriers.

But that will change under integration.

Budget constraints and force reductions already had forced a partial tacair integration in 1997, when four Marine F/A-18 Hornet squadrons started making regular deployments with four of the Navy’s 10 carrier air wings.

That trend will accelerate under a memorandum of understanding signed Aug. 14 by Navy Secretary Gordon R. England, Clark, and Gen. James L. Jones, Marine Corps Commandant, directing near total integration of their tactical aviation.

Many of the details of that integration emerged in an agreement signed shortly thereafter by Vice Adm. Dennis V. McGinn, deputy chief of naval operations for warfare requirements and programs, and Marine Gen. William L. Nyland, then deputy commandant for aviation.

That agreement said integration was a response to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s mandate in the 2001 Defense Planning Guidance to seek reductions in future procurement and operating costs.

Encouraged by the findings of a subsequent consultant’s study, the agreement said: “The Navy and the Marine Corps will integrate tactical aircraft (tacair) forces … into a seamless naval aviation force at sea and ashore.”

“We are pledged to change both Navy and Marine Corps ‘culture’ in order to derive the maximum benefit possible from integration,” England and the two service leaders said in their August memo.

While Marines feel their culture will be affected the most, the Navy also will have to make some adjustments. For example, Navy aviators are used to the creature comforts of a carrier or a formal air base. But Marine expeditionary air units frequently live in tents, work on their aircraft in the open, and eat packaged combat rations.

The Shake Out

Under the agreement, four more Marine F/A-18 squadrons will join Navy carrier air wings within five years.

In that same period, the Navy will put three Hornet squadrons into Marine aircraft wings to support the unit deployment program. That program normally sends squadrons to Japan for six months but also can handle contingency deployments.

And the Navy will decommission one of its 26 operational F/A-18 squadrons.

The Navy also has 10 F-14 Tomcat squadrons, most of which are being transitioned into the new Super Hornet models of the F/A-18.

Meanwhile, starting in 2004, the Navy and Marine Hornet squadrons in the carrier air wings will cut their authorized aircraft from 12 to 10. With four fighter-attack squadrons per carrier air wing, that would mean a reduction of eight strike aircraft on the carriers.

The squadrons from both services in the land-based unit deployment cycle will keep 12 aircraft. And the seven Marine AV-8B Harrier squadrons will retain 16 of the Vertical/Short Takeoff and Landing Harriers, pending a future budget review.

In the next step, two more Marine Hornet squadrons will become part of the final two carrier air wings. They will replace two Navy F/A-18 squadrons that will be disbanded.

With three Navy squadrons and no Marine units being decommissioned, Rear Adm. Mark P. Fitzgerald, deputy director of air warfare on the Navy staff, said, “We will give up some capability to the Marines.”

But the integration would leave only four Marine Hornet squadrons outside the Navy’s carrier force.

The timing of those moves is to be determined.

The plan also calls for each service to decommission one of its reserve Hornet squadrons in 2004. One of the three remaining Marine Reserve F/A-18 squadrons will join the two surviving Navy units in the reserve carrier air wing.

In 2006, the reserve squadrons also will drop to 10 aircraft each.

Nothing in the integration plan so far affects the EA-6B electronic jammer aircraft that both the Navy and Marines fly in support of joint and combined air strike missions.

According to the agreement, the Navy “will satisfy both Navy and Marine Corps commitments with Navy or Marine Corps squadrons.” It added that there will be a change of operational control for Navy squadrons tasked to cover Marine Corps commitments (and vice versa) about six to nine months prior to a deployment.

As part of the merger, Clark said, a Marine colonel will replace a Navy captain as a carrier air wing commander in about two years. And Hough predicted that in the future a Navy captain will command a Marine expeditionary air group, instead of a Marine colonel.

Not Just Economics

Although integration was inspired primarily by economics, officials insist it will result in a more effective and lethal tactical aviation force.

“Not only are we going to save billions of dollars,” Clark said, “but because we are going to integrate across the old stovepipe lines, every measure in the [consultant’s] study–every measure evaluating warfighting capability–increased under the integration concept.”

By removing the traditional barriers between Navy and Marine air, he said, they will be able to “surge resources” into whatever mission needs help.

“That’s why the net effect of this is increased warfighting capability at a dramatic reduction in cost,” the CNO said.

Vice Adm. Michael G. Mullen, deputy CNO for resources, requirements, and assessments, said the naval services can have “a significantly more capable force” with fewer aircraft because of the great increase in combat capability of the current and next generation of tactical aircraft when armed with precision munitions.

“Ten years ago, we had to calculate how many sorties per target,” Mullen said. “In Afghanistan, it was how many targets we could hit per sortie.”

Hough contrasted the current one-bomb, one-kill strike capability with his experience flying F-4 Phantoms in Vietnam, “We had to put up 16 airplanes in the hope of hitting the planet.”

The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will provide even more precision attack capability, officials said.

The F-35 and the new Super Hornet, which the Navy has begun deploying, also are expected to be more reliable and easier to maintain, said naval officials.

“It isn’t how many strike aircraft are on a given platform,” Mullen said. “In the end, it is how many sorties a day I can generate out of that aircraft.” If an air wing can turn its aircraft around two or three a day, he said, “I don’t need as many of them.”

Cutting Fighters

Based on those efficiency expectations and the reductions called for in the integration plan, the Navy Department has decided to cut its planned procurement of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-35 by more than one-third.

The Navy plans to reduce its Super Hornet buy from 648 to 460 and complete the procurement before it starts buying large numbers of F-35s at the end of the decade.

According to one report, the Marines will cut their F-35 buy from 609 to 350, and the Navy will drop from 480 to 430. That would mean a total cut of 309. However, England told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram his department would buy a total of 400 fewer Joint Strike Fighters.

There is little concern at the Pentagon that such a large reduction would increase unit cost. In fact, Edward C. Aldridge, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, said that cuts in the JSF buy should not affect the unit price because of the large number of F-35s that other nations are expected to purchase.

Still at issue within the integration plan is just what mix of F-35s–the carrier version vs. the Short Takeoff and Vertical Landing model–the two services will buy.

The Marines had wanted to buy only the STOVL aircraft to replace both their conventional F/A-18 Hornets and their jump jet AV-8B Harriers. The F-35 STOVL version would have given them a strike aircraft that could fly either from the large-deck amphibious assault ships, austere expeditionary bases, or prepared airfields.

The Navy, however, had planned to replace its oldest Hornets by buying only the carrier-version F-35, which will have greater range than the STOVL aircraft.

Now it looks as if the Marines will have to get enough of the carrier model F-35s to equip their 10 squadrons in the Navy air wings. And the Navy may buy enough STOVL aircraft to supply its three squadrons serving with the Marine air groups.

“Right now, we are planning to have conventional Navy carrier airplanes on our [carriers],” England said. “But we will have Marines flying those airplanes.”

Hough said STOVL F-35s will replace the Marine Harriers, but what replaces the Hornets has yet to be decided.

The Culture Issue

Despite promises of increased combat effectiveness, there are concerns about both the emotional and the practical effects of integration on the Marines.

The Marines’ view of their air arm is unique. Although the vital role of aviation in World War II’s Pacific campaigns forced the Navy to acknowledge the aircraft carrier, instead of the battleship, as its premier warship, the Marine Corps remains an infantry-centric service.

An aviator has never been Marine Commandant, and the odds of that changing are slim.

All newly commissioned Marine officers, whether they are to become pilots, engineers, or grunts, go through The Basic School at Quantico, Va., where they are trained as infantry leaders. That training can come in handy later because Marine pilots often serve at the front with infantry units as forward air controllers and, at times, have had to fight like a grunt.

Despite their dominant role in the Marine Corps, the ground Marines have a fondness for their fliers that developed early in the evolution of military aviation.

Marine aviators in bi-wing airplanes first earned that affection during the “Banana Wars” in the 1920s and ’30s by flying supplies in and evacuating casualties from isolated infantry units in the jungles of Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. In those small but intense conflicts, Marine fliers also tested the concept of close air support at treetop levels, which they perfected during the island-hopping campaigns in World War II.

The Marines also developed a deep skepticism about counting on air support from other services. That may have started at Guadalcanal in 1942, when the Navy carriers fled the superior Japanese fleet, leaving outnumbered Marine aircraft ashore at Henderson Field to support the grunts in desperate battles for survival.

The value of the Marine close air support was proven again in Korea, when F4U Corsairs helped the grunts defend the Pusan perimeter, go on the offense at Inchon, and then survive the fighting withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir.

Dependable air support is crucial to the Marines because their amphibious or expeditionary nature means they have much less heavy artillery than a comparable Army unit. To ground commanders, Marine tacair is their “flying artillery,” and they have learned to depend on it when things get ugly.

As proof of that dependence, the Marines deploy and fight in organizations of various sizes called Marine Air-Ground Task Forces. Each MAGTF combines a ground force, an air arm–which can include transport and attack helicopters and fixed-wing tactical aircraft–and a combat support unit, almost always under command of an infantry officer.

Because of the need for the flying artillery, the Marine commander in Desert Storm, then-Lt. Gen. Walter E. Boomer, pulled most of the Marine Corps’ fighter and attack squadrons out of the Air Force-run strategic air campaign into Iraq, so they could focus on pounding the enemy divisions awaiting his ground forces in Kuwait.

Doyle noted that after integration, a MAGTF commander could not do that because most of the Marine tactical air would be under Navy control.

In Polmar’s view, “If you put the Marines under the Navy, there’ll be no one to support the grunts.”

But senior Navy and Marine officers reject the idea that integration will leave the Marine ground forces without air cover.

Gen. Michael W. Hagee, confirmed Oct. 17 to be the new Marine Commandant, told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing that after integration “naval aviation forces will surge to support Marine and joint ground forces alike.”

Hagee added, “This point cannot be emphasized enough–Marine Air-Ground Task Forces are not losing airpower.”

Retired Adm. Leighton W. “Snuffy” Smith Jr., a Navy attack pilot who flew hundreds of combat missions in Vietnam, said: “If the Marines need help, the Navy’s going to be there.”

Smith noted that he led air strikes into North Vietnam that included Marine F-4s, so “I know you can integrate Navy and Marine air on a carrier and it will work.”

Maj. Gen. James N. Mattis, who led the first Marine Corps force into Afghanistan, said: “I never doubted that the admiral would have the airplanes over my head when I needed them,” referring to Rear Adm. Thomas E. Zelibor, who commanded the carrier battle groups at the start of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“It was the first time in my career I left my artillery behind. … I was able to do it because of the trust that the naval air, Marine air, would be overhead,” Mattis said.

And Navy Capt. William Gortney, who led Carrier Air Wing 7 in Enduring Freedom missions, said his Navy fighters “just spent four-and-a-half months, 24 hours a day, providing airborne artillery for the troops in Afghanistan.”

A number of the officials noted that precision munitions, which can provide great accuracy from 15,000 feet, have changed the nature of close air support.

The old Marine idea of close air support–“some guy down there at 50 feet, shooting at some guy 1,000 feet away–those days are gone,” Hough said. “We do close air support from 30 miles.”

To Mullen, who has to balance requirements and budgets, integration means “I am going to have a more combat-capable force. And I am going to have one I can actually afford.”

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.-based military affairs reporter for Copley News Service and a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, ” Top Chief,” appeared in the October 2002 issue.