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?