It’s time to stop the Marines from buying aircraft.

I’ll grant, strictly for the sake of argument, that the Marine Corps is a fine fighting organization.

But one thing they can’t seem to do is buy aircraft in a way that makes any kind of sense. At all. I can’t think of a single aircraft procurement program the Marines have run well since the UH-1N program. And that was mostly run well because the Twin Huey was first built for the Canadians. The Marines just bought what someone else designed.

The legacy aircraft of the Marines, the UH-1N, the CH-46E/F, the CH-53E, the AH-1W, and the AV-8B are all pretty much overdue for replacement.  But with the exception of the replacement for the CH-53E, the replacement programs have been a series of disappointingly expensive products that either offer less capability than other aircraft available off the shelf,  or “revolutionary” aircraft that are so expensive that they can’t be risked in combat, and don’t fit in with other aspects of the Marines.

The Marines currently plan to replace the UH-1N/AH-1W with the UH-1Y/AH-1Z.  What started in the mid-1990s as a relatively modest program to upgrade both aircraft has grown into a monstrosity that has all the expense of a brand new aircraft program, but no great leap in capability. Instead of upgrading the UH-1s, the modifications are so extreme, the contractor came back and got permission to build new airframes.

The CH-46 has provided well over 40 years of faithful service, and is assuredly due for retirement. But its replacement, the MV-22B Osprey is a fantastically expensive aircraft that has virtually no self defense capability, can only lift 24 Marines at a time, is very expensive to operate, and has such hot exhaust that the decks of the ships it is to operate from require extensive modification. During development, the MV-22 had a series of high-profile accidents that led many people to worry that it was a death-trap. I’m not too concerned about that. It is very normal for new aircraft to have a high accident rate as people learn to operate it. And it is almost certain to be safer than the tired old CH-46s it replaces. But that doesn’t mean the program makes sense.  And it appears that the Marines may be up to some shennanigans in trying to hide its true safety record. Any time you have to compromise your integrity for a procurement program, things are not good.

The replacement for the AV-8B is slated to be the F-35B, a short take-off/vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the Joint Strike Fighter program.  The problem with this program is that whereas if the Air Force and Navy had simply tried to come up with  a common airframe for the carrier based and land based variants, the tradeoffs would have been rather small. There’s a very long history of Navy aircraft working very well for the Air Force. See the F-4, A-7, and even the A-1 Skyraider.  But when you put the Air Force in charge of developing a Navy aircraft, you get programs like the F-111. Sure, the Air Force gets a nice plane, but the Navy gets screwed.  In the case of the F-35, you end up with something even weirder. The smallest partner of the program, the USMC, ends up driving so many of the requirements of the basic airframe that you just have to wonder what compromises were forced onto the other variants.  The entire F-35 program has been wrapped around the STOVL variant. It’s a lot easier to take a
STOVL design and design a conventional variant than it is to take a conventional plane and make it STOVL.  So what compromises had to be made for this? And aside from having a half dozen on each big-deck amphibious ship, when do the Marines operate their Harriers in a STOVL mode? They don’t.  They operate them from conventional airfields, just like any other plane, including their F-18s.  So we end up having to pretty  much double the development cost of the F-35 program, just so they can own a variant that doesn’t do as much as they other services, at greater cost? That’s stupid.

Now, I’m not saying the Marines should get out of the aviation business. At the tactical and operational level, they do a fine job.  And the Marine Corps has been organized and trained since before WWII to integrate ground, air, and logistics forces to produce the optimum balance of firepower and strategic mobility.

But they can’t figure out how to buy aircraft to save their asses. So what should be done? Well, all is not gloom. Despite very poor choices, there are readily available platforms that the Marines could adopt or adapt that would go a long way to recapitalizing their aircraft inventory, while spending as little as possible, freeing funds up for full procurement, training, operations, and maintenance. Let’s take a look at a notional replacement program for the Marine air fleet.

Legacy platform: UH-1N. Current replacement: UH-1Y. What should replace it: H-60 platform.

It isn’t like the H-60 hasn’t been operated at sea for the last quarter century. Blackhawk/Seahawk helos are currently in production, fully capable of being operated from all the amphibious platforms the Marines operate from, and would benefit from commonality of training, spares, and production.  Instead, the Marines have gone with a new production aircraft, with new construction prices, and all the associated development costs, and the lost decade of development time, to build a Huey that has characteristics similar to an early H-60. This is such a no-brainer, I’m amazed the Navy didn’t put its foot down and insist on the Marines buying H-60s.

Legacy platform: AH-1W. Current replacement: AH-1Z. What should replace it: AH-64.

The Cobra has been a fine attack helicopter. Earlier versions were the very first designed for purpose attack helos. But what benefit do the Marines get from the Zulu that they wouldn’t get from a navalized Apache? Again, you lose out on the cost efficiencies of scale with a standardized airframe. For what the Marines are paying for Zulus, they could buy just as many Apaches.

Legacy platform: CH-46. Current replacement: MV-22B. What should replace it: Either the S-92, the CH-47 Chinook, or nothing.

The Marines medium lift, indeed, the core of the Corps aviation, the CH-46, needs to go. Not because the Phrog is bad, just that it is worn out. It is slow, has a small payload, and a short range.  The current replacement, the MV-22, is fast, has a good range and a decent payload. But, depending how you count it, it costs about $44 million for just one. And it is  a maintenance hog.  Can we really afford to spend half a billion dollars for one squadron of helos?  And that speed comes with some real problems. For instance, there is no helicopter escort capable of keeping up with it. So there’s no fire support.  And because of its unique configuration, the Osprey can’t really mount much in the way of self defense.  So we are buying an incredibly expensive aircraft, that costs a lot more than others to operate, that can’t go into any areas that might be defended.  Where is the advantage there?

As for replacement aircraft, there’s several options. One is the Sikorsky S-92, which is something like an H-60 on steroids. This would give the Marines a medium lift helicopter with similar capabilities in terms of payload, while sacrificing speed for lowered cost. It would also benefit from commonality with the H-60 series.

Another option is to just not operate medium helicopters at all. The Army model for air mobility uses light transports such as the H-60 and heavy transports such as the CH-47. The Marines could well opt to remove the CH-46s from their air wings, replace them with a combination of H-60s and a few more heavy lift helos such as the CH-53.  One problem here  is that the Marines already face something of a shortage of CH-53s, with the next generation not slated to join the fleet until 2015. My solution? Buy the Chinook. The CH-47 is technically a medium lift helicopter, coming in somewhat under the size of the CH-53. And while it is somewhat larger than the -46, a decent number could still  fit on the deck of an LHD or LHA(R), and still provide greater lift capability than the dozen or so CH-46s a Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron would provide.  And while the Chinook is slower than the Osprey, it isn’t all that much slower. Plus, it can carry more than twice as much payload.  So for a given period of time, say three hours, at a given distance from the ship, say 75 miles, you’d actually end up moving more Marines ashore with 10 Chinooks than you would with 10 Ospreys.  And don’t forget, the Chinook costs less upfront to buy, and less to operate.

Legacy platform: AV-8B. Current replacement: F-35B. What should replace it: F-35C, F/A-18E/F, Nothing.

The Marines have a long, long history of providing their own fixed-wing close air support for their ground troops. They were among the very first folks to figure out that CAS was a tough mission, and find ways of doing it well. They were certainly among the first to demonstrate that CAS was a great combat power multiplier, engaging targets that they didn’t have the artillery to engage.  But much of Marine fixed-wing air has been subsumed into the greater maw of Navy Air, with Marines routinely providing F-18 squadrons to Navy carrier air wings, not to provide CAS, but because the Navy faces a severe shortage of fighters.  Practically the only Marine jets still fulfilling their historical role of dedicated support to ground troops are the Harriers. But even they find themselves not just supporting Marines on the ground. Harriers are routinely tasked to support Army and foreign coalition troops. And they rarely operate from anything other than fixed airbases that are fully capable of supporting regular fixed wing aircraft. And likely as not, if the Marine on the ground in Afghanistan today calls for air support, he’ll get it from the Navy or the Air Force.

So do we sink several billion dollars into the STOVL variant of the F-35 (which can’t, BTW, operate from the Navy’s regular carriers) just so 8-10 can go to sea with each Marine battalion? Or do we equip the Marines with the carrier capable F-35C to provide the fixed wing air support for the Marines? Do we equip them with the currently in-production F/A-18E/F Superhornet that the Navy is buying?  Or do we do away with Marine fixed-wing air and allow them to concentrate on rotary-winged air mobility?

The Marines have consistently displayed an inability to wisely spend the acquisition dollars granted to them for their aircraft. When will we stop this?

Load HEAT

It was something of a guilty pleasure, but we enjoyed watching Friends. My favorite chick on the show would vary, week to week. But when Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion came out, Lisa Kudrow moved solidly into the lead, at least for a while.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wPTUpn9ait8]

Yes, that is Academy Award Winner Mira Sorvino in the clip with her. She’s been the subject of Load HEAT as well.

Gators go to war.

Our first unit was a part of the 25th Infantry Division, back in the mid 1980s. The 25th ID was a “Light” division. Light meant that the division had fewer vehicles than a regular infantry division (to say nothing of a mechanized infantry division). The goal was to make the division as deployable as possible, preferably on as few as 500 sorties by C-141 aircraft. That meant all the people, guns, trucks, and other equipment.  So the Army made very deep cuts in the size of units. More importantly, they sacrificed tactical agility for strategic mobility.

There heart of the division were the three infantry brigades, each with three infantry battalions (each brigade also had an artillery battalion in direct support).  The infantry companies had no organic transport. That is, they didn’t have any vehicles. Everyone, from the CO down to the lowliest private, walked. That restricted the speed of the company to a maximum of about 4 miles per hour. It also imposed a very real limit on how much equipment and ammunition the company could carry.  In training, troops would routinely carry loads anywhere from 70 to 120 pounds. That’s without having to carry heavy ammo like mortar rounds, 40mm grenades, and anti-tank missiles. And it’s without having to wear the heavy body armor all troops wear today.  The fact of the matter is, with a combat load, a light infantry company would be lucky to move two miles per hour. And that’s on level terrain. In complex terrain (like, say, Afghanistan), a company would be so burdened that it would be virtually immobile. To move the companies more than  a few miles would require trucking support. But there were no trucks larger than a humvee in the battalion. A company would require support all the way from the division’s support battalion. These trucks weren’t often available, since they were busy moving all the divisional logistics, such as food, water, fuel and ammo.

And in rough terrain, there were real limits on where a truck or even a humvee could go.  Something else was needed, but until the purse strings were loosened by the immediacy of the needs on the war on terror, nothing was in the pipeline.  But once the shooting started, commanders suddenly had some discretionary funds to buy supplies “off-the-shelf” that weren’t ordinarily available.  I wasn’t terribly surprised to see that several units had bought 4-wheel ATVs to haul trailers full of the heaviest items the companies would have to take with them, specifically, ammo.

And it wasn’t long before ATVs and its slightly larger cousin, the John Deere Gator started popping up all over the place.

And John Deere, knowing a good thing when they see it, started making models tailored for the military.

The even come with gun mounts (though they aren’t really fighting vehicles).

Now, while many companies have access to a Gator or other ATV, many of the handy little trucks are found on the many FOBs and other installations for routine “administrative” logistics- the mundane, day to day movement of small stuff that seems to occupy an inordinate amount of the Army’s time.  Relatively cheap, handy, easy to operate and maintain, they are just the thing for hauling a load quickly and easily. In fact, they are such a no-brainer, I’m still surprised the Army uses them!

H/T to: The Mudville Gazette

Bushmaster 30mm Cannon

For about 20 years, the Marines have been working on a replacement for their AAV-7 amphibious assault vehicle.  On the cusp of being put into production is the EFV, or Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.

Main armament of the EFV is a 30mm Bushmaster cannon. This is a souped up version of the 25mm M242 Bushmaster on Bradleys.

Ironically, just as the Marines have solved most of the problems they have faced in developing the EFV, it is likely to be cancelled after the latest Quadrennial Defense Review as a cost saving measure.

H/T: MCPO Airdale at the H2.

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Load HEAT

This week, we have what is almost certainly the first Hottie that plays the baritone ukelele. Really.  The younger sister of Emily Deshanel (of Bones) and the daughter of successful Hollywood actors, Zooey Deschanel has a reputation as an indie film starlet.

We’ve actually only seen her on her guest appearance on Bones, but we’ve always thought she was quite pretty in a quirky way.

Home Sweet Home

Almost immediately after US forces overran Baghdad in 2003, they started building large logistical bases, called Forward Operating Bases or FOBs.  Not surprisingly, these evolved from austere supply dumps to comparatively lavish posts, with many of the comforts of home.  Relatively secure and safe, they serve as the home to maintenance units, administrative units, and pretty much everyone who isn’t going outside the wire on patrols or raids. The denizens of these bases, no longer called REMFs, became known as Fobbits.  Given the fairly urban nature of Iraq, even small outposts could quickly come to have some of the creature comforts we Americans like, such as internet access, fast food restaurants, and hot and cold running water.

Afghanistan is a little different.  It is a largely agrarian nation, with few troops stationed in the cities. Most of the troops are scattered among small villages, many perched precariously on the sides of the rugged mountains that make up so much of the nation. That tends to lead to a very austere lifestyle.

There is no hot water. The only running water in the camp comes from a 3-inch diameter hose that jets out cold water in fire hydrant fashion. Clothes are washed in buckets, when time permits and the weather cooperates, then strung between tents and dried in the sun.

This is hardly the lap of luxury. Still, almost as soon as Marines or Soldiers start to improve the defenses of a cantonment, they start working on making it just a little more like home. It’s what troops do. The Marines of Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, stationed in Helmand province, figured a home cooked meal was a good place to start. So they built a kitchen.

“We want to live as comfortably as possible, and dinner is a big deal to all of us. Preparing a meal together, cooking together and eating together – it’s just like family.”

Now, my one wartime experience was something of a contrast to that, but in some ways similar. My unit was a part of the VII Corps, stationed in Germany, and it was never designed or equipped (or trained) to deploy away from Germany. So we weren’t very “expeditionary” in the current cant of the DoD.  Just getting to the theater for Desert Storm was a major endeavor. But once we got there, we lived out in the field. We didn’t set up any cantonment areas, just basic tactical bivouacs. Each company of the battalion was separated from the next by about 3 kilometers or so, dispersed to present a less appealing target for SCUDs, artillery, or other weapons. Each company position was basically a circular perimeter of the vehicles, with a couple of tents set up for the troops to sleep in. Not bad, since we were used to just sleeping on the ground when we went to the field, but hardly luxurious. Picking up and moving was not a major challenge. We rarely stayed in one location more than a couple days. And we were always miles from any civilization, or even the nearest road.

Today, units are far more adept at deploying half-way across the globe, but far more likely to operate out of one location for an extended period of time, usually near a local population center. They have the time to not only dig in a significant defense, they have the time to improve the position from a comfort point of view.

Death Delivery from Above!

Via John at Castle Arrggghhh, here’s a Youtube about air-dropping supplies to a Forward Operating Base in Afghanistan, and how GPS technology has made airdropping supplies easier and more feasible.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xm2U2rIZhnE]

Yes, that’s the RAF, and they’re resupplying the British Army (ever wonder why it’s “the Royal Navy” and the “Royal Air Force” but not the “Royal Army?”) but the basics apply to US forces as well, with a couple of caveats.

First, the RAF has a serious shortage of Chinook helicopters. They’ve recently signed contracts to buy more, but they’ll be short of helos for a while. With fewer helicopters to move heavy loads, they have to either move supplies by road, or air-drop them. For many missions that the RAF might air-drop supplies, US forces would simply use Chinooks.

The second is that even this isn’t the cutting edge on using GPS to improve drop accuracy. The comment at The Castle points to MMIST, a supplier of air-drop accessories. And while the video seems to show their Low Cost Aerial Delivery system, they also sell GPS guided para-delivery systems. In fact, almost as soon as the Army realized that GPS could be used for more than just pinpointing your location, they started development of a system to guide air-drops using modern airfoil parachutes tied to a GPS system.

Hacked Drones and ISR

So, we wake up this morning to learn via Lex that the Iraqi insurgents have figured out how to hack into the video feeds from Predator and Reaper drones overhead. So, what’s that mean? Well, let’s take a look at what the whole video feed thing is about, first.

And age old military problem has been trying to figure out what the bad guys are up to. When you are a grunt on the ground (or even a brigade commander on the ground), very often, your ability to see what is going on in the battlefield only extends as far as the next ridgeline.  In an urban environment, it is even worse- you can’t see around the next corner. As soon as airplanes became viable, the military started using them for observation. Indeed, the whole development of military aviation started as a result of this need for observation. In modern terms, this observation is called ISR or Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.

Today, in the age of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, getting the high ground is pretty much accepted as the norm in our military.  We’ve all seen gun camera video of Predators smacking insurgents with a Hellfire.  But while it is nice to have the odd Hellfire land on Jihadi heads, what the ground commander really likes is having an eye in the sky for long periods off time. There’s a couple of different schools of thought about how to use UAVs like the Predator.  The Air Force takes a more centralized approach, using the video as the first step in a long-term intelligence analysis, much of which is done stateside.  The Army tends to like to use it in a more immediate sense, appreciating the ability to peek over the bad guys shoulder.  Both approaches have merit. And there’s a good deal of overlap between them. The only real conflict is in how and where the UAVs are flown. That tension has been enough for the Air Force and the Army to both operate their own fleets of Predators.

There’s three major UAVs supporting the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There’s a small UAV called the RQ-11 Raven, designed to support companies and battalions, and it’s basically just a video camera in the sky.

Raven’s are run from a laptop computer on the ground right there with the troops. The feed from the video camera is feed to the laptop, and gives the company commander a good overview of what is happening right now.  It is unarmed, and pretty unsophisticated. It’s little more than an electric radio controlled model airplane with a digital video cam. Still, it is handy as heck. Cheap, reliable and an easy way to look over the next hill.

The next UAV system is one that is familiar to most of us from the news, the MQ-1Predator.

The Predator is currently operated by the Air Force. The Predator started out as a simple reconnaissance machine, again, a simple remote controlled airplane with a video camera.  Pretty soon after development started, someone figured out that if you go to all the trouble of putting a day/night sensor in a stabilized mount under the nose, you might as well add a laser designator to allow it to “paint” targets for missiles and bombs. And it didn’t take long for someone to figure out that if you have all that, why not cut out the middleman and strap on a couple of Hellfire missiles as well.  Now, the Predator could tap high-value or time-critical targets. Mind you, it’s primary mission is still to be a set of eyes in the sky. It’s not really an attack aircraft. The Predator can stay airborne over a target for anywhere from 14 to 18 hours, but can only carry two dinky little missiles.  If it is being used to attack targets, it would still normally call on a regular jet to bring the ordnance.

Now, once the Air Force and the Army figured out how handy it was to use these UAVs in strike role, it was a logical step to produce one that was tailored more towards it. Mostly, that meant a bigger drone that had the horses under the hood to carry more weapons.  That lead to the development of the MQ-9 Reaper.

You can see that the Reaper looks pretty much like a Predator on steroids. Which it is. No sense reinventing the wheel. Instead of the dinky little 115hp piston engine of a Predator, the Reaper has a 950hp turboprop engine. It’s  got a bigger wing, and instead of carrying 250 pounds of weapons, it can carry up to 3000 pounds. It can still provide all the same ISR capabilites, but now, instead of having to call in a fast mover jet like an F-15E, the Reaper can provide serious close air support with 500lb bombs.

One huge advantage to the Reaper is that it is relatively cheap. Now, it’s not cheap compared to the RQ-11, but it sure is compared to an F-15E.  One of the big concerns the Air Force has had (and the Navy as well) is that ever since 9/11 (indeed, ever since the end of the Gulf War) they’ve had to keep aloft patrols of expensive manned aircraft over places like Iraq and Afghanistan. That costs a lot of money to operate. Another, hidden, cost  is that those hours accumulate on the airframes. Jets can only last for so many flight hours. The services don’t really like burning those flight hours droning around in circles waiting to see if someone needs some bombs.  And all the time spend loitering over A-stan is time that could be spent training for other missions.

Now, since the services, especially the Air Force, would rather spend their time and money doing the things they are good at, they have sometimes dragged their feet on doing the tasks they need to do but don’t really like. SecDef Gates, last year, nudged the Air Force and said, basically, “You guys need to spend more time supporting ISR in Iraq and A-stan.” The Air Force leadership basically said “Sure thing” and went back to doing what they were doing. That made SecDef Gates unhappy. So he fired the Secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force Chief of Staff. Suddenly, the Air Force decided they were gonna jump on the ISR bandwagon, whole hog.  And since they couldn’t suddenly field a whole bunch of new MQ-1s and MQ-9s, they took a retro step. They took the recon systems from the Predator family, and plugged them into a manned aircraft, the trusty Beech King Air, creating the MC-12W Liberty.

As a short term solution, it’s a pretty simple and cheap way to pump some additional ISR into the theater. All four branches of the services fly some version of the King Air. It’s a very popular and easy to operate airplane.

Now, about that video. Like I said, the Air Force model is to beam the video take form the sensors all the way back to the US (or other ground stations)via satellite and have it analyzed. That’s great, but it doesn’t do much for the grunt on the ground. So in addition, they also use a souped up version of wifi to beam the video directly to the ground, so troops using a laptop can see what the sensors see. That gives them great situational awareness and also lets them refine the tasking. That is, they can talk the sensors onto those things that they really want to take a look at. (There’s a similar program that lets them see what manned aircraft like F-15s and F-18s see through their targeting pods). They can also use this to make sure that the weapons are going to be dropped where they need them.

It turns out that the video signal is unsecured, much like a home wifi that isn’t encrypted. Whether this is because of an oversight, or for technical reasons is unknown.  Not being entirely stupid, some of the insurgents have figured out a way to tap into the signal and see if they are being watched.  Understand, the insurgents haven’t figured out how to hack the controls that operate the birds, just the video feed that goes to our troops on the ground.  Still, it’s not a good thing. This means that some insurgents will be clued in to whether or not they are under surveillance, and maybe getting ready to take a Hellfire through the front door.  It isn’t the end of the world, however. It’s surprising how hard it is to tell just what an overhead video is showing if you aren’t used to it. If you look at a Google Earth pic of your hometown, you might be surprised how long it takes you to figure out if its showing your neighborhood or not.