Aviation as the Key to Navy-Marine Integration

By Carl Forsling

Marine Aviation Needs to Enhance Naval Integration

The Corps has drifted away from the Navy over the last two decades, and it didn’t need the Navy in Iraq or Afghanistan. Shortages of amphibious shipping combined with a need to justify force structure gave birth to shore-based SPMAGTFs. This trend has led to less-than-seamless integration between the Marine Corps and Navy. In the future fight, this gap leaves amphibious forces more vulnerable and less deadly than they should be. 

The new Commandant of the Marine Corps, General David Berger, said in his planning guidance, “…there is a need to reestablish a more integrated approach to operations in the maritime domain.” By virtue of their range and speed, aviation assets are inherently able to bridge gaps. Amphibious forces usually take this as meaning between the sea and the land, but it also bridges gaps between forces at sea.

Amphibious ships can no longer serve merely as transportation for their embarked Marines. In the future anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) environment, they have to be part of the open-ocean kill chain. If the naval services are to enhance their survivability and lethality against the medium- and high-threat fights of the future, they have to combine their efforts and their assets. The keystone of that effort will be the aviation assets of the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) and Expeditionary Strike Group (ESG). They must be reconfigured to better exploit aviation platforms such as the V-22 and F-35B, and turn the Corps into a force for sea control.

The strength of the Navy and Marine Corps team is the use of seaborne mobility to achieve effects on land. New aviation platforms can reinvigorate this for the 21st century, making both the Navy and Marine Corps more survivable, deadly, and integrated.

Ospreys Enable Naval Distributed Operations

In Marine parlance, “distributed operations” mean small units scattered throughout a given ground commander’s area of responsibility. In Navy parlance, distributed maritime operations are those within a naval commander’s area of responsibility. Rarely are the two domains intertwined, but now they need to be.

Marines routinely practice distributed operations within the ships of an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) – performing “split-ARG” ops at widely separated locations. But this is much less common among the ships of the larger Expeditionary Strike Group, which adds attached surface combatants and often a submarine. 

It is virtually unheard of to detach Marines to other ships, such as those in a carrier strike group. The ARG typically does not integrate much with the rest of the Navy, but in the future, it will need to in order to survive. To that end, why are Ospreys tethered to ships at all, much less particular ships? Ospreys are easier to maintain on land. With the two KC-130Js normally assigned to the MEU, they can reach anywhere in most theaters within hours. 

SPMAGTF-CR-AF’s Ospreys can reach much of the 6th Fleet area of operations on one tank of gas from Moron, Spain. They could reach even further from a centrally located base like Sigonella. SPMAGTF-CR-CC can reach most of the CENTCOM AOR from its base in Kuwait. The Pacific isn’t quite as easy to traverse, but the Osprey has proven itself unique among rotorcraft in covering those distances, having already transited from Hawaii to Australia for the Marine Rotational Forces in Darwin.  

The tiltrotor squadron assigned to SPMAGTF-CR-CENTCOM and the half-squadron with SPMAGTF-CR-AFRICOM are burning out aircraft and people for little operational benefit. By making the MEU MV-22s and the tiltrotor company land-based, the SPMAGTFs are made redundant. Eliminating those would save six deployed MV-22s in the Mediterranean and 12 in CENTCOM. That would strengthen the VMM community and allow it to better support the MEUs. 

Instead of having a SPMAGTF in a given theater in addition to MEU assets, the MEU VMM, tiltrotor company, and KC-130Js would shadow the MEU from shore instead. In Europe, for example, they might primarily work out of Sigonella, but could move to Djibouti to support operations in the Horn of Africa or Romania to counter Russian moves in the Balkans. 

If the rest of the MEU is needed, the tiltrotor-borne unit could be a rapidly deployable advance element, or conversely, remain in strategic or operational reserve. The base tiltrotor squadron, KC-130J detachment, and tiltrotor infantry company would essentially be an airmobile split ARG, capable of independent action, but rejoining the MEU main body when necessary. They could immediately take spots on the air plan ferrying Marines ashore, recovering aboard ship, or to an airfield as the situation dictates. 

For many missions, there is no need to commit the entire Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) or ESG when V-22s can take Marines almost anywhere in theater. It saves these warship formations from having to steam for days. It also affords another way to split the MEU besides just between the ships in the ARG, increasing flexibility and the MEU’s ability to respond to multiple contingencies. In certain threat environments, staging Marines from ships other than amphibious platforms may be the most survivable option, offering greater distribution and putting a greater number of the enemy’s shore bases at risk of amphibious assault. The enemy will never be entirely sure which vessels present that threat, complicating their threat analysis.

Once the MEU doesn’t have to be in one place, or even two, options expand. Amphibious ships aren’t the only vessels Marines can stage from. Ospreys can land on many other naval vessels, even if they can’t support sustained flight operations. The Ospreys could embark, or they might just deliver a contingent of Marines, by alternate insertion means (FAST rope, hoist, etc.) if necessary. Then the ship’s organic air and surface assets would come into play.

With the right preparation, much of the Navy’s fleet could become staging areas for Marines. 

Aircraft carriers are certainly capable of supporting MV-22s. CVNs typically carry two squadrons of H-60s and will soon have their own CMV-22s Ospreys, so have a robust organic insertion capability. They also have sufficient billeting for any GCE Marines. If MV-22s deliver Marines to destroyers or cruisers, those also often have their own helicopters. While they typically carry the MH-60R, not optimized for troop transport, Marines could still use those ships as lilypads for certain missions. Those ships could also deploy small craft with Marines aboard. That would typically be for naval missions like interdiction and counterpiracy, but could also include going ashore for embassy reinforcement or humanitarian assistance. In permissive environments, even USNS vessels could provide staging areas for a small GCE. 

Strike – A Primary Mission

Moving the Ospreys and the tiltrotor company off the ship or distributing these assets across more ships frees up plenty of space above and below deck. This allows for other assets that are more dependent on shipboard space compared to more flexible aviation assets. Those can bring new capabilities such as increased lethality.

Given the number of active theaters today, the 11 big-deck carriers are not enough. However, with the F-35B amphibious strike capability is no longer just providing bomb trucks for low-threat sideshows new amphibious assault formations can strike targets in high-threat environments.

The F-35B is not just a replacement for the AV-8B. It is a 5th generation multirole fighter, capable of penetrating integrated air defenses. But six F-35s per MEU is not sufficient. Due to the situational awareness the F-35 provides pilots, its preferred maneuver element is a division of three or four aircraft, vice the sections of two that AV-8Bs typically employ. Given 75 percent availability, eight aircraft are required to make two light divisions, and thus support sustained combat flight operations. With eight F-35Bs, both the strike and counter-air capabilities of the MEU are dramatically improved. Having a baseline detachment of eight F-35s per MEU will enable a full spectrum of missions, especially a fairly robust offensive and defensive counter-air capability, which the AV-8B was only able to perform in relatively permissive environments. 

Having more F-35s doesn’t just mean more bombs on target. F-35s make every other combatant around them more effective. For example, F-35Bs are capable of directing SM-6 intercepts, HIMARS strikes, and providing in-flight retargeting support to other networked munitions. The SM-6 is not only a capable SAM, but can also be used to engage surface targets. The HIMARS is not limited to working ashore, but can also be fired from a ship’s deck, filling the long-neglected gap in naval gunfire support. Ship-launched HIMARS could also provide amphibious platforms with a powerful new anti-ship capability without requiring launch cells, further expanding the high-end mission set to include sea control.

The F-35 links the ships of the ESG together into something far more deadly and survivable than before. Big-deck amphibs can become formidable strike platforms, reaching out not just with the F-35Bs themselves, but also with their networking support for other shooters distributed across the battlespace.

HSC to VSC?

If LHAs and LHDs are to be legitimate strike and counter-air platforms, they are going to need greater logistics and search-and-rescue (SAR) capability. The current Navy SAR detachment aboard the LHD/LHA is only capable of relatively short-range recovery in secure areas, generally overwater “planeguard” duty. But soon the Navy will be fielding its own enhanced variant of the MV-22, the CMV-22.

A CMV-22 detachment would enhance the capability of both the Navy and the Marine Corps team. With CMV-22s aboard, the Navy could reclaim the long-range SAR mission. This is key if amphibs are going to routinely serve as strike platforms and perform a greater role in sea control. With the right equipment and personnel, this could provide a capability well up the SAR decision matrix, making a VSC detachment valuable as a joint theater personnel recovery asset.

Using more F-35Bs means using more engines, including those the CMV-22 is uniquely suited to carry, not to mention the additional bombs and missiles a “lighting carrier” would need. This is in addition to the benefits of being able to conduct longer-range resupply in general, especially at the distances involved in the Indo-Pacific. The CMV has an 1150nm range, roughly 300nm greater than an MV.

That is not a small investment on the part of the Navy. Replacing the expeditionary MH-60S with CMV-22s would require 22 aircraft, assuming that the squadron and the ship keep similar deploy-to-dwell ratios. With additional Fleet Replacement Squadron, pipeline, and attrition aircraft, the ultimate requirement would be 25 to 30 CMV-22s to sustainably outfit all the big-deck amphibs. That said, the MH-60S is starting to come up on the point when recapitalization is necessary. With the CMV-22 already being purchased for COD, expanding that community to include the gator Navy offers a huge increase in capability for a marginal increase in cost.

In exchange for that investment, the Navy and Marine Corps can make a leap from a marriage of convenience in their rotorcraft fleets to a truly synergistic and integrated partnership.

Room to Grow

Even with the addition of F-35Bs and trading MH-60Ss for CMV-22s, there is still significant room for adding capability.

One of the recurring complaints about the MV-22 is that it is too large for certain missions, such as VBSS (Visit Board Search and Seizure). While the UH-1N was not able to do significant troop lift, the UH-1Y can. That means the aviation combat element (ACE) needs at least four, not the typical three aircraft. At a readiness rate of 75 percent, that would allow a section of UH-1Ys to be devoted to assault support, especially in support of special missions and hard hits. The third would be able to perform any other tasks in the utility mission set. The Marine Corps has already purchased attrition aircraft over its T/O requirement that could be used to fill this need immediately. If this employment proves useful, additional UH-1Ys could be purchased to preserve this capability into the future.

There are normally four AH-1Zs assigned to the ACE. With a typical four aircraft to make three, the addition of that extra UH-1Y would allow an extra mixed section of skids to provide CAS and FAC(A) when shooting becomes the priority. The Yankee brings significant CAS capability, including Precision Guided Munitions – for now just APKWS rockets, but in the future, likely Hellfire missiles as well. 

Unmanned Systems 

The Marine Corps and the Navy are working past each other when it comes to UAS. The Marines field small tactical platforms and the Navy seeks to enhance sea control with larger systems. Neither of those efforts reaches the other, nor provides top cover for the critical period when Marines transition ashore.

The Marine Corps has begun the MAGTF Unmanned Expeditionary program (MUX), looking to acquire a large UAS capable of vertical takeoff. For CAS and persistent ISR, it requires a Group 5 UAS, a huge asset in normal MEU operations. Just as importantly, a VSTOL UAS with a reconfigurable payload and long endurance would make every platform around it, both Navy and Marine, more capable.

Currently the ESG does not have an Airborne Early Warning (AEW) capability. Its organic sensors are limited by line-of-sight from just above the waterline, or at best from the radars of MH-60Rs from surface combatants, which can provide coverage for only a few hours at a time, even if they are near enough. Sea-skimming threats traveling below the radar horizon would pose a considerable threat, making an organic AEW capability fundamental for awareness and survivability in a high-end threat environment.

Currently an LHD or LHA flight deck is able to support only eight to twelve hours of flight operations a day. A long-endurance UAS would extend this coverage greatly, staying in the air even when ships aren’t at flight quarters. With two, ideally three, AEW-equipped units, MUX would enable almost continuous coverage.

AEW would allow the F-35Bs to stay on the deck in an alert status appropriate for the threat, vice burning hours overhead performing the same AEW function. MUX could also detect and cue air or surface targets for other shooters. Long-range weapons like Tomahawk and the Long Range Anti-ship Missile (LRASM) work best when standoff observation and in-flight retargeting support is readily available, and where unmanned aviation platforms can be more readily risked to provide time-critical networking support.  

Marines are still Naval Infantry

In the future, we can’t assume that we will possess uncontested sea control, whether in the objective area or in transit. The ESG may have to fight its way there. Every asset aboard every ship, including manned and unmanned aircraft, whether they have “Marines” or “Navy” painted on the side, must work in concert. We need to move beyond the construct where the Navy exists only to move Marines to an objective, into one where elements of both are a cohesive fighting team from embarkation to debarkation.

With V-22s, every ship can have access to a Marine detachment when needed. We do not always need CVNs for strikes if we have F-35B-capable amphibious ships. With additional UH-1Ys, the ACE can execute more direct action missions and CAS, relieving other high-demand assets. And with the right UAS providing overwatch, the ESG should never be surprised.

Once we stop thinking of the Navy and Marine Corps as operating in distinct domains, the survivability and lethality of the ESG and the MEU, and even carrier strike groups and surface action groups will be increased. Employed correctly, emerging Marine and Navy aviation platforms, such as the F-35B, CMV-22, and MUX, combined with the assets of the MEU, ARG, and ESG, will make the integrated Navy-Marine team more capable and deadly. 

Carl Forsling is a retired Marine officer and pilot with multiple deployments flying the CH-46E and MV-22B as well as advising Afghan security forces. He currently works in the aerospace industry and is a senior columnist at Task&Purpose. He is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University. He is married with two children and lives in Arlington, Texas.

Featured Image: BAB EL-MANDEB STRAIT (Aug. 18, 2019) The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4) transits in formation through the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck/Released)

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