Aviation is killing the Marine Corps


Don’t just take my word for it.

At its heart, the MAGTF’s importance within our defense framework rests on its ability to contribute to a range of potential military operations such as engagement and shaping, crisis response, access creation, extended combat, and high-end warfighting and its credible deterrent effects. This versatility is a product of a number of factors, but is particularly due to the dynamic balance within the MAGTF’s organization along with the ability to operate from the sea and exploit naval capabilities. However, the extremely high cost of the ACE threatens to undermine this organizational balance.

It’s a long read, but very good. Take the five or ten minutes needed.

The costs of acquiring the F-35 is roughly $66 billion dollars over the planned span of acquisition. Toss in the roughly $40 billion dollars for the MV-22 Osprey, and that’s more than the acquisition cost of ALL programmed amphibious shipping for the Navy. And the personnel costs of manning the Marine aviation side is higher than manning the ‘gator navy.

There’s a very good reason the Marines have always placed emphasis on aviation. Control of the air is critical to success in force on force warfare. Further, constraints on amphibious shipping will always mean any Marine landing force will be primarily an infantry force, albeit fairly motorized, with some, but not much, armor capability. The lack of amphibious shipping will also always constrain the amount of artillery any Marine force will have. Unlike an Army division that can count on entire brigades of artillery from higher echelons to supplement its own organic tubes, the Marines will have to turn to other sources for firepower, to wit, Close Air Support.   And because of the vulnerabilities of amphibious operations, the mobility of vertical lift is essential for the Marines.

But the costs associated with the F-35 and the MV-22 are simply far greater than previous programs, and threaten to suck dry the acquisition, manpower, and O&M budgets of the Corps. Given the choice between continuing with the troubled F-35 program, and the equally troubled (if less costly) Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) program, the EFV was killed.

To be sure, there are reasons why the Marine Corps feels the need for the capabilities of both the F-35 and the MV-22, above and beyond simply wanting the latest and greatest. The increase in lethal threats in the littoral means the big amphibious ships are more vulnerable close inshore while unloading. Ideally, they could offload their cargoes from over the horizon (roughly 25nm is the rule of thumb). But the slow speed of current amphibious assault vehicles, and the poor range and speed of the CH-46 make that impractical. So the range, speed, and capacity of the MV-22 are seen as critical. Similarly, the proliferation of advanced small surface to air missile systems mean the older AV-8B Harrier is seen as increasingly vulnerable, and a more stealthy Close Air Support platform was imperative.

But the stupendous costs associated with both programs have come to be the cart before the horse. Programs designed to solve problems faced by the landing team are increasingly crowding out the very heart of the Marines, the landing team itself, and the very soul of the entire endeavor, the Marine infantry battalions and regiments. And there’s the rub. You can have virtually unlimited variations of combined arms, but the first building block of any combined arms organization is, was, and always shall be the infantry.

The Marines remain vehemently committed to both the F-35B program, and the MV-22. And both will continue to consume an outsized portion of the dollars available. What solutions to this we may find, I simply do not know.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Aviation is killing the Marine Corps

  1. It’s always fun to joke that the Marines write their manuscripts in crayon, and whatnot, but the MCA Gazette is far and away better than its counterparts in the Army and Air Force, both of which seem to be little more than industry adverts or semi-official pronouncements from senior leaders.

    Actual discussions of issues facing the force take place there, and it is a more open and honest debate than most other places.

  2. anon

    Very interesting but little unexpected here at this place. I was just pointing some of this out last week to an obtuse guy who has trouble following the ball. Fiscal reality is not one of the ones he’s prepared to tolerate.

  3. ultimaratioregis

    The V-22 we can and should procure, that cost is well worth the effort. The capability for rapid buildup ashore is a more-than-generational leap. The F-35 is going to bleed the Corps dry unless we find a way to reduce cost.

    There are some things in the works to reduce cost, with LockMart saying in July they could potentially bring prices below $100m per airframe, not counting engines. But this and similar cost reduction will have to be achieved, or the Marine Corps will NOT get F-35Bs in the numbers they had planned, whether they say they will or not.

    A good article in the Gazette. However, the numbers we speak of are somewhat of a tempest in a teapot. Even if the USMC procured all of the F-35Bs planned, at or near current unit cost, the ENTIRE budget of the Marine Corps will remain under $30 billion. Which, by 2017, may be close to the cost of one Ford-class CVN.

  4. Bill Brandt

    I was reading that one of the main things that really screwed up the F35 program was the Marines very effective lobbying to make it VTOL for them. To make it VTOL hugely inflated the costs for all of the versions.

    Couldn’t they have used an improved version of the Harrier?