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.

Failure and Success in Defense Procurement. Also, Revolutionary Versus Evolutionary Development

The DoD has shown a remarkable inability to effectively manage major weapon system procurement programs over the last 20 years. Browsing the web today, I find two articles that highlight just how bad the process is.

The first is an article in DefenseTech displaying some of the most expensive failed programs of the last decade:

Future Combat Systems (FCS) $18.1B

Comanche helicopter $7.9B

nPOESS satellite $5.8B

VH-71 Presidential Helicopter $3.7B

Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) $3.3B

Transformational SATCOM (TSAT) $3.2B

Crusader $2.2B

Advanced SEAL Delivery System (ASDS) $0.6 B

Armed Reconnaissance Helicopter $0.5 B

Aerial Common Sensor $0.4 B

CG(X) next Generation Cruiser $0.2B

CSAR-X $0.2B

Most of these failed programs fall into two main categories. First, there are those programs that were simply too technologically aggressive to be produced in any economical fashion, in anywhere near the numbers of platforms required. Other programs such as the RAH-66 Comanche and the Crusader howitzer programs were simply overtaken by the pace of technology. That is, they were designed for a networked environment before the rest of the world even started to think of that level of connectivity, and the development programs were so long that by the time they were ready for production, the state of the art had actually long passed them by.

The Dew Line, by way of contrast, has a list of successful programs (in this case, limited to aircraft procurement).

1. UH-72A
2. EA-18G
3. CH-47F/G
4. MC-12W
5. H-1 Upgrades*
6. MQ-9 Predator

The first thing that leaps out when you look at the list of successful programs is that there isn’t a single “transformational” or “revolutionary” platform on the list. Each program has built either on an existing airframe, or is an evolutionary adaptation of an existing technology. Program managers were careful to not add every possible feature to the design, and locked in the basic design early on. They worked to ensure that the requirements were realistic, and that the state of the art could reasonably be expected to fulfill them in a timely and cost effective manner.

I’m greatly concerned that the DoD can’t seem to take the same approach to other major weapon system procurement programs. Problem programs such as LCS, FCS, the F-35 and EFV all seem to fail whenever “spiral development”shows up,  where basic research and development of underlying technology and the weapons design and procurement process are intertwined.

I’m not arguing that the military shouldn’t pursue new technologies or only buy revamped versions of existing designs. But it is apparent that unless critical design technologies are relatively mature, the DoD cannot be expected to incorporate them without massive cost overruns. And who thinks that’s a viable option in the face of austere defense budgets looming ahead?

*I’m not at all sure I’d personally include the H-1 Upgrades as a successful program (other than to admit that aircraft are being bought).