August 1, 2010  

Hovering at a precipice

The Marine Corps has embarked upon a comprehensive overhaul of its aviation force that is scheduled to culminate in 15 years with the replacement of every airframe currently in service.

To reduce the compounding costs associated with operating multiple varieties of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, the Marine Corps will transition from 13 to six types or models of manned aircraft over the next 10 years. In doing so, Marine Corps aviation will attain a goal 40 years in the making: the fielding of an entire light attack force capable of short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) operations.

To make an all-STOVL force attainable and affordable, the Corps intends to transition all four of its tactical fixed-wing platforms into one new airframe: the STOVL variant of the Joint Strike Fighter, also known as the F-35B Lightning II. The F-35B is four years behind schedule, and the per-unit acquisition cost has exceeded $120 million — almost triple the amount envisioned by the Joint Initial Requirements Document for the Joint Strike Fighter.

In proclaiming the F-35B a critical capability for the future of Marine Corps aviation and pursuing no viable alternatives to its full-scale procurement, the service’s leadership has accepted an untenable amount of risk. The Marine Corps must, at least privately, explore options to the wholesale procurement of the F-35B or prepare to weather the turbulence — as it did with the MV-22 Osprey — of a complex STOVL program entering flight testing and the inevitable setbacks that will cause pundits to question the viability of Marine Corps fixed-wing tactical aviation. The Corps needs the F-35B, but it cannot afford — doctrinally or fiscally — to have only the F-35B.


STOVL aircraft pay a penalty for their ability to land vertically. A conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) aircraft of the same construction and dimensions as a STOVL aircraft can fly farther and deliver more ordnance to the target. The extra space and weight required by the STOVL-specific propulsion and mechanical controls equate to a reduction in the lifting capability of the aircraft (“useful load” in aviation speak).

The F-35 program offers a remarkable “apples-to-apples” comparison of the exact penalties STOVL aircraft pay for their unique capability when compared with CTOL aircraft. Historically there was room for debate, but with the F-35 program, there has never been a more impartial comparison. The F-35B and F-35C (the aircraft carrier variant) have similar dimensions and the same engine; however, the F-35B has 75 percent the combat radius of the F-35C and carries less than half as much ordnance for short takeoff.

After 30 years of STOVL aircraft operations with the AV-8B Harrier, the logistical challenge of supplying fuel and ordnance remains the critical constraint to the sustainability of operating STOVL aircraft near the forward edge of the battle area. In Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Iraqi Freedom since 2003, there has been no demand for sustained STOVL operations from forward bases or austere locations. Although battlefield conditions did not necessitate dispersed operations, the Harrier’s limited range and payload required forward basing so that higher sortie rates could compensate for inferior performance.

In Desert Storm, Harriers operated out of conventional bases alongside CTOL aircraft. There were instances of forward arming and refueling points (FARPs) established in soccer stadiums along the Saudi border, but only for contingency operations in the early hours of the offensive.

In the opening days of Iraqi Freedom, only one Harrier squadron was operating ashore, and that shore base was a conventional field with long runways. The remaining five Harrier squadrons operated from amphibious ships in the northern Arabian Gulf. Fuel tanker availability constricted the use of FARPs because it was difficult to keep fuel moving forward with the rapidly advancing coalition forces. On the one occasion that Marine Corps Harriers were able to operate on the side of a highway outside Baghdad, the FARP was rocketed minutes after the aircraft departed. After that incident, STOVL forward operations were limited to captured enemy airfields.

Forward basing is more than a logistical quagmire. As the price continues to climb and the number scheduled for purchase continues to descend, these aircraft will become national assets that are closely guarded, and the U.S. does not typically stage national assets within range of the enemy’s indirect fires.

In 2005, a rocket attack destroyed one British Harrier and damaged another while they sat on the ramp in Kandahar, Afghanistan. It seems unrealistic to expect $120-million, fifth-generation STOVL fighters like the F-35B to operate out of forward bases or austere locations. They may retain the capability to do so, but at the expense of range, useful load and a higher purchase price.


The doctrinal concept of Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS) recognizes the challenges faced by Marine logisticians as they phase combat power ashore. Gen. Charles C. Krulak envisioned that “with sea-based logistics, fire support, medical facilities, and command and control assets, [the] force maximizes its protection by limiting its footprint — and hence its vulnerability — ashore.” For the low-intensity littoral conflicts of the future, OMFTS will be the touchstone doctrine. Ship to Objective Maneuver (STOM) is the tactical application of OMFTS. With the publication of the STOM concept of operations, the Marine Corps paid recognition to the sometimes unnecessary and untenable requirements of amphibious lodgment and the inherent attrition-based strategy that accompanies securing an actively contested beachhead. With OMFTS and STOM, aviation units are not phased ashore. Therefore, STOVL attack aircraft capable of sustained operations from sea are a critical requirement for the successful execution of OMFTS.

Marines deploying from the deck of an amphibious assault ship and operating independently of a larger carrier strike group need fixed-wing tactical aircraft organic to the amphibious ready group that will support their movement ashore. The idea of a fifth-generation STOVL stealth fighter based near the front that will bring “unprecedented responsiveness to the fight” is a red herring that continues to propagate from the highest levels of the Marine Corps.


The Corps has been making a concerted effort to refocus on its core competencies while serving as a second land army in Iraq and Afghanistan. The culmination of those efforts has been the release of a new “Service Campaign Plan” that outlines the way the Marines will march back to the sea after Afghanistan.

In the early 1990s, the Marine Corps transitioned four models of fixed-wing attack aircraft into just two: the F/A-18 Hornet and the AV-8 Harrier. When these communities begin their transition to the F-35B in 2012 and the EA-6B is retired, the Corps will begin to realize its goal of not only an all-STOVL force, but also a fixed-wing attack force flying a single model of aircraft. The benefits of this consolidation are almost self-evident: an economy of scale that eliminates the overhead requirements (training squadrons, spare parts, maintenance depots, etc.) associated with operating multiple types of aircraft.


The Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) relies on rotary- and fixed-wing aviation assets to provide transport and close-air support. Aviation fires are crucial to OMFTS and the principles of maneuver warfare as practiced by the lightly armored Marines. Marine aviators operate as forward air controllers and provide or call in the necessary heavy ordnance that can come only from a fixed-wing asset.

The MAGTF is a self-sufficient and self-sustaining force (not for extended operations ashore) that develops synergy from integrated training and employment. Before deploying, the MAGTF trains as a team to build the professional and interpersonal relationships that make it a more efficient and deadly fighting force. Taking dedicated Marine aircraft out of the MAGTF or replacing them with nonorganic assets reduces the strength of the force back to merely the sum of its parts. Without Marine air, there is no MAGTF. Therefore, the notion that future joint operations will supplant the need for Marines to have organic and dedicated air assets is indefensible.


At $300 billion, the F-35 program is the most expensive acquisition project ever undertaken by the Defense Department. With three variants of the F-35 in concurrent production, it will be difficult to assign a per-unit cost for each aircraft. Lockheed Martin is producing the most complex variant, the F-35B, first. As the first airframe in full-scale production, the F-35B will experience the greatest fluctuation in price if quantities later in the production run are changed. The Air Force, for example, initially planned to buy enough F-35As to replace all of its A-10s, F-16s and F-15Es. With a recently announced decision to extend the life of those legacy strike platforms, the Air Force clearly signaled that it would be reducing the number of F-35s required to modernize its strike-fighter fleet. The Air Force buy of 1,763 F-35As represents more than two-thirds of the planned domestic production run. Recent estimates of Air Force requirements for the F-35A indicate the service likely will require between 800 and 1,200 aircraft. At best, this would drive the per-unit cost over $200 million.

“Commonality” is the buzzword for what was supposed to be a monumental cost-saving manufacturing procedure. All three variants of the F-35 come off the same assembly line at the Lockheed Martin plant in Fort Worth, Texas. Commonalities in the design and manufacturing process theoretically provide efficiencies in cost and production time. In an ideal engineering and production environment, concurrent production is without a doubt a cost-saving practice. The problem faced by Lockheed Martin is that the customers declared the initial operational capability (IOC) dates for all three variants before the first production aircraft ever left the ground. The IOC dates set by the services have remained steady for several years. What has continued to slide is the operational test and evaluation dates. IOC has become somewhat of a publicity stunt: The F-35B will reach IOC while it is still in operational test — a phase of production during which the Department of the Navy has historically made significant changes to its airframes. In this case, commonality may turn out to be a cost multiplier.

The cancellation of the entire F-35 program is unlikely, but the customers of the STOVL variant remain those with the most to lose. The program is certainly essential to national security, and new cost controls are in place — lead-turn actions for a Nunn-McCurdy breach. What the Defense Department has not demonstrated is the third requirement for such a breach: that there is no lesser-cost alternative.

The Air Force and the Navy have viable alternatives in place to await the maturation of the F-35. The Block 60 F-16E/F and the Block II F/A-18E/F are still in production, and their designs incorporate modern technology that makes them 4.5-generation strike fighters capable of bridging the gap between legacy aircraft and the fifth-generation F-22 and F-35. Making them even more attractive, the aircraft currently in production represent mature technology available at affordable and fixed costs. Extending multiyear procurements of the 4.5-generation aircraft will in fact drive down their per-unit cost and get newer technology out to the fleet faster than waiting for the perpetually delayed F-35 program.


Marine Corps aviation is in an unnecessarily precarious position. As the price of the F-35 continues to climb, budgetary restrictions will force the Corps to make cuts in other programs or purchase fewer STOVL stealth fighters. Without argument, the F-35B is crucial to the future of Marine Corps tactical fixed-wing aviation. Without the F-35B to replace the aging Harrier fleet, Operational Maneuver from the Sea is a hollow shell of a concept. Marine Corps leadership is making an existential gamble on an untested and unproven weapons system. To guarantee that future amphibious assaults have organic fixed-wing assets in direct support, the Marine Corps must at least acknowledge a second course of action that involves a more diversified air arm.

The Department of the Navy should reduce the number of F-35Bs procured for the Marine Corps and buy only the number of aircraft required to fill Marine air wings dedicated to deploying with amphibious assets. This will cause the per-unit cost to rise even more, but the increased cost can be offset by transitioning F/A-18D squadrons to the much cheaper F/A-18F. The Marine Corps can buy three F/A-18Fs for the cost of a single F-35B.

The Corps should also pay close attention to the other services’ testing of small turboprop light attack aircraft, which are already popular in several South American nations for fighting insurgencies. The “AT-X” competition is weighing several low-cost, off-the-shelf designs that could be in operational service very rapidly and with great utility to current counterinsurgency operations. For low-intensity conflicts, these aircraft may become the close-air support asset of choice. With the ability to operate out of small unprepared fields, these new light attack aircraft would provide a low-tech, low-cost alternative to (and complement of) the F-35B. Though envisioned as shore-based assets only, turboprop light attack aircraft have a drastically smaller logistical support requirement and cost much less per hour to operate than fuel-thirsty jet aircraft. Though counter to the cost-saving principles of the homogenized force, a small cadre of light attack aircraft would provide the Corps a more versatile ground-attack capability.


The F/A-18F would revolutionize the way Marines provide close-air support. Using an active electronically scanned array radar, an advanced targeting pod, the Joint Helmet Mounted Cueing System (JHMCS) and an expanded communications suite, the dual-seat F/A-18F has the potential to be the most capable airborne forward air controller, or FAC(A), platform in the world. No matter how “sensor-fused,” single-seat aircraft are not optimum FAC(A) platforms.

Since the retirement of the A-4 and A-6, the Marine Corps has not possessed a tactical tanker. Marine Air Group (MAG) assets rely on the slower KC-130 for aerial refueling. An F/A-18F equipped with an aerial refueling store is capable of delivering more than 20,000 pounds of fuel to other jet aircraft at tactical airspeeds and altitudes. Having an organic tactical tanker would be a force multiplier for the MAG commander and would provide an internal capability to increase the range of the F-35B in a high-threat scenario.

The Navy operates the F/A-18F exclusively within its carrier air wings. Continuing to employ an aircraft capable of operating in a carrier air wing would provide the Marine Corps with basing flexibility and a stake in the future of naval aviation. Flying a common tactical-air platform ensures uncomplicated interoperability should the need arise.

Keeping a two-seat tac-air platform in the Marine Corps also retains a high-value asset that once lost will be expensive and time-consuming to replace: the weapon systems officer (WSO). As it makes its way toward an all-STOVL force, the Marine Corps is phasing out WSOs who fly in the F/A-18D and EA-6B. However, a WSO operating the advanced crew station in the back seat of an F/A-18F while wearing a JHMCS would provide a capability for close-air support that is unequaled in any current single-seat platform.

Finally, procuring the F/A-18F at the end of its production run allows the Marine Corps to get the most refined version of the aircraft with the least amount of risk at one-third the price of the F-35B. This is how the Corps has historically procured aircraft, and with good reason. As a smaller service with a smaller budget, it is necessary to leverage cost advantages when so blatantly presented with the option. Looking beyond per-unit cost to the total ownership cost of the aircraft over its projected service life, the latest study by Naval Air Systems Command suggests that the F-35B/C will cost up to 40 percent more to operate than the aircraft they replace.


Marine Corps aviation is going through exciting and monumental changes in force structure. The service needs a new STOVL aircraft to enable Operational Maneuver from the Sea as a viable doctrine and to support Marines on the ground no matter where they land. The F-35B is the only aircraft poised to fill that role in time to replace the aging Harrier fleet, but alternatives to its wholesale adoption exist. Inexorably tying the future of Marine Corps aviation to a publicly flailing program, however, is not prudent.

The highly politicized nature of an acquisition program as big as the F-35 is inescapable. There are international political and fiscal consequences that demand the seemingly mandatory success of an ambitious and complicated program. In a fiscal environment where the phrase “too big to fail” has become a metaphor for a program requiring significant input from the American taxpayer to prevent it from collapsing under its own weight, the F-35 program indeed seems too big to fail.

The organizational ethos of the Marine Corps dissuades dissenting opinions, especially from field-grade officers. Senior Marine aviators need to seek honest assessments of planned force structures instead of creating planning environments where no feasible alternatives exist. The Corps sends its brightest tacticians and operational planners to the aviation hallway in the Pentagon and ties their hands with preordained courses of action. Until all of the options are truly on the table, Marine Corps aviation is in danger of collapsing under the weight of its “inside the Beltway” leadership. AFJ

Lt. Cmdr. Perry Solomon is a department head in Strike Fighter Squadron 213 aboard Naval Air Station Oceana, Va. His operational assignments include deployments as an F/A-18 pilot in support of operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and Unified Assistance.