The Marine Corps’ reorganization plan will cripple its aviation capabilities
With this degradation, it isn’t just the Marines who will suffer, but the Nation itself when it comes to both conflict and deterrence.
Editor’s Note: This is the last in a four-part series challenging a major multi-year reorganization of the Marine Corps known as Force Design 2030. In this article, retired Marine Gen. Terry Dake shares his view on how this initiative will affect the Corps’ aviation element.
The poor performance by the Russian military thus far in their full-scale invasion of Ukraine should serve as a cautionary tale of how not to fight a war. While immediate attention has been drawn to the effectiveness of man-portable weapons like the Javelin and Stinger missiles, students of the art of war know that the greatest lesson is not new at all: combat effectiveness depends on the seamless integration of all elements of combat power. This integration is known as combined arms coordination and includes unified employment of ground, aviation, logistics, cyber, and information warfare. When any single element is degraded or underemployed, the effectiveness of the whole is jeopardized, and that’s what we have with the current Marine Corps’ plans to downgrade Marine aviation. With this degradation, it isn’t just the Marines who will suffer, but the Nation itself when it comes to both conflict and deterrence.
The Marine Corps, as do the other services, provides combat-ready forces to the Combatant Commanders and the Global Force Integrator (CJCS) in support of the National Military Strategy relative to operational plans, real-world contingencies, and exercises across the globe. Congress has charged the Marine Corps specifically to be the most-ready for conflict when the Nation is the least ready. Ongoing divestitures of assets, in particular Marine aviation assets, to focus on a single specific threat, make the reality of global deployment when required by any of the Combatant Commanders highly problematic.
The Marine Corps is organized, trained and equipped as a combined arms team; aviation is an essential, integral element of that team — combat effective, tailorable and flexible. It, in turn, is organized, trained, and equipped to provide a task-organized Aviation Combat Element (ACE) readily tailored to support any size Marine task force or other Combatant Commander requirement.
Not a formal command, the ACE is simply the term that categorizes the functionality of task-organized Marine aviation forces under a single commander. Its primary mission is to support the Marine task force or joint effort — from both sea-based and shore-based facilities — during all phases of expeditionary operations as well as during sustained operations ashore.
That support materializes in six functional areas: offensive air support, anti-air warfare, assault support, air reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and control of aircraft and missiles. Depending on the task force’s assigned mission, aviation support will involve varying numbers and types of forces, Marines and weapons systems.
Human roles and responsibilities in the task force are well-defined and experience-proven; they enable flexible and fluid responses to demands in the complex activities which characterize expeditionary operations. Aircraft and weapons system relationships in this milieu are not linear. Seemingly simple changes to force structure in the absence of careful study and analysis are fraught with the opportunity for failure both in the operational world and in the important and complex programming process through which the force is built.
The ability to provide a rapid response to worldwide contingencies is dependent on force structure — well-trained, highly skilled Marines, and fully operational, effective weapons systems. From the 1980s until today, a series of Commandants have worked with the Navy, Joint Staff, Combatant Commanders, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and Congress to build Marine Aviation into a force capable of operations across a broad spectrum of combat. That force was composed of the following active duty aircraft in direct support of a Marine Task Force or Combatant Commander:
- MV22 Osprey Tiltrotor: 18 active duty VMM squadrons of 12 aircraft each (Total: 216 Ospreys).
- Attack Helicopters: 7 active duty HMLA squadrons of 27 aircraft each (Total: 189 Venom and Viper).
- CH-53K Heavy Lift Helicopters: 8 active duty HMH squadrons of 16 aircraft each (Total: 128 King Stallions).
- F-35 B/C: 18 active-duty squadrons: 9 squadrons of 16 aircraft each, and 9 squadrons of 10 aircraft each (Total: 234 Lightning II)
As noted above, the helicopter and F-35 squadrons were configured to accommodate sending detachments with expeditionary units on six-month deployments, while retaining a minimum of 10 aircraft for other contingencies. The numbers of aircraft in each squadron are based on years of experience in supporting ground forces, deploying as part of a Marine Air-Ground Task Force, and careful analysis of the number of sorties required for pilot proficiency.
In addition, formal budgeting plans provided Marine aviation with a robust expeditionary basing capability. The ability to provide the Combatant Commanders with powerful combat forces in austere places was supported by a command and control system that readily plugs into joint systems. This capability strengthens the entire joint force and is unique to Marine Aviation.
The Marine Corps’ Force Design 2030 severely degrades the aviation corpus. It contravenes established Marine Corps force planning methods designed to ensure the Service is providing America’s joint force with the optimal, affordable aviation structure to support joint operations. Rather — in opposition to internal senior staff recommendations — Force Design 2030 was presented as the way forward. Further, it was enacted without consultation with the Combatant Commanders whom it would support, and it is the Combatant Commands who will feel the consequences of weakened Marine Corps Aviation.
The effects noted below depict the impact on the Marine Corps’ historical role as the Nation’s most-ready force, and thus on the joint force. The following summary of active duty aircraft supply between 2020 and 2030 is oversimplified. It does not include the training, test, pipeline, and attrition aircraft in each aircraft Program of Record (POR); nor does it include aircraft flown by the reserve establishment — all of which have been subjected to significant cuts. However, the roughly 28% reduction of aircraft available to support the active duty Marine task force and combat commanders is striking:
- MV-22B (Tilt rotor medium lift): 26% fewer. Initially reduced from 18 to 14 squadrons of 12 aircraft; subsequently changed to 16 squadrons of 10 aircraft. This was done with little consideration for daily operations or deployment flexibility.
- Bottom line: reduced by 56, from 216 to 160 aircraft total.
- Impact: A dramatic reduction in the primary vertical envelopment assault support aircraft. More Marine units will be foot mobile and sustained by ground vehicles, reducing tactical agility. Speed is essential both in outmaneuvering an enemy force and in sustaining our own force. These are the primary medical evacuation aircraft to meet the golden hour.
- AH-1Z/UH-1Y (Attack helicopters): 29% fewer. Reduced from 7 squadrons of 27 aircraft to 5 squadrons of 17 aircraft.
- Bottom line: reduced by 54, from 189 to 135 aircraft total.
- Impact: Attack helicopters are invaluable both against first tier and against less capable forces, and are a must for safely escorting other helicopters in vertical envelopment. A reduction of nearly one-third endangers both the force mission and individual Marines. The UH-1Y is a utility helicopter that is relied upon for medical evacuation and battlefield command and control. The consequences of the reduction can prove fatal.
- CH-53K (Heavy lift helicopter): 34% fewer. Reduced from 8 squadrons of 16 aircraft to 5.25 squadrons of 16.
- Bottom line: reduced by 44, from 128 to 84 aircraft total.
- Impact: This very deep reduction will inhibit long-range (refuellable) helicopter missions and limit the speed and weight of resupply for units in combat. For missions and contingencies of East Coast Marine units, the drawdown is particularly acute because they will have only slightly more than a single squadron to serve central and northern Europe, the Mediterranean, and Africa.
- F-35B/C (Fighter/Attack jet): 24% fewer. Maintains 18 active duty squadrons, all with 10 aircraft each (reduced by 9 squadrons with 16 aircraft).
- Bottom line: Reduced by 54, from 234 to 180 aircraft total.
- Impact: The Marine Corps loses a quarter of this fifth-generation fighter/attack aircraft that allows it to compete with any force in the world. If China is the “pacing threat,” giving up such a superior capability is counterintuitive.
- Total active force (flight line ready) reduction: 208 aircraft.
This large reduction in aircraft has an obvious negative impact on Marine Corps combat power. The ability for sustained operations is diminished. There are also unintended consequences such as raising the cost of production aircraft due to purchasing fewer of them. The once robust expeditionary basing capability and the command and control capabilities, including Joint interface, have been severely degraded.
The Marine’s new budgeting profile adds insult to injury. The Marine Corps is buying new MV-22s at the same time that it is divesting significant numbers of them. The same is true in the H-1 programs. Reductions in the CH-53K program, when realized, will no doubt generate a Nunn-McCurdy breach (a statutory provision Congress uses to hold DoD accountable for cost growth on major defense programs). And any reduced production “ramp” for the F-35 will put that program at risk. Of important note, the approximate value of the aviation equipment divested is in the neighborhood of $3 Billion (8-9B for total MC). Congress can look at that as money appropriated and wasted.
Well beyond fiscally incredulous behavior, these changes substantially reduce Marine conventional combat power. They detract both from the general readiness posture of the Joint Force and from the envisaged employment schemes. Marine Corps combined arms teams are in high demand to meet emerging crisis-response situations around the world. Specifically, the Pacific Combatant Command needs amphibious forces to create and exploit temporal and geographic uncertainty, and to conduct expeditionary operations. There appears to be a greater need for these types of operations than for small detachments to hide in plain sight on distant islands to target ships. The Force Design 2030 operational concept will reduce the Marine Corps’ ability to respond to the more likely mission of being a highly mobile, adaptable strikeforce. It also ignores the existing and growing need for U.S. forces to deploy to northern Europe in support of NATO. The recent movement of an F-18 squadron from Beaufort, South Carolina, to that area of operations adds emphasis to the need for flexibility in where Marine Forces can operate. The long-established Combatant Commander requirements to defend our allies on the Korean Peninsula are now at risk.
The reductions made in infantry and supporting arms (tanks, artillery, and aviation) — the mainstays in combined arms mission sets — and the addition of the anti-ship missile weaponry coupled with a narrow primary operational focus on one small portion of the Pacific Theater, contorts Marine Corps force structure. It adds cost, wastes money and reduces both the capability and the operational value of the most-often-used Marine Corps combined arms teams. Specifically, sacrificing the aviation ready force for long-range missiles damages readiness for emerging contingencies. Doing that weakens the carefully thought out, experience-based, joint force required to meet and defeat the ubiquitous military challenges that America faces today.
A critical part of the joint force, the Nation’s Marine Corps aviation of 2020 could have adapted to meet the needs of FD 2030, but the envisaged Marine Corps aviation of FD 2030 cannot adapt to meet the needs of the Nation. What is most needed now is an open, civil discussion and thorough review of the FD 2030 concept plan. The goal is to design the Marine Corps the Nation needs and engender the support to evolve to that end.
Terry Dake is a retired Marine 4-star general, rotary aircraft pilot and veteran of the Vietnam War. From 1998 to 2000, he served as Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps. He resides in the United States.
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