In a AFJ article titled “Hovering at a precipice,” [July/August] Lt. Cmdr. Perry Solomon challenged the merits of the F-35B Lightning II and the Marine Corps’ commitment to building an aviation force composed entirely of short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft. Solomon introduced a healthy dialogue about the challenges the Marine Corps faces with the acquisition of the F-35B, but his argument lacked the necessary background of how the Marine Corps fights and why an all-STOVL force is such an important component of Marine Corps war-fighting doctrine.
With this background as context, it is clear that the Marine Corps’ acquisition of the F-35B will provide the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) commander with a combination of capability and flexibility that will be critically important and necessary against the adversaries of the future.
To understand why the Marine Corps desires an all-STOVL force, it is important to first have a basic understanding of how the Marine Corps structures its combat power. The MAGTF is a flexible, expeditionary, task-organized unit capable of operating across the spectrum of conflict. Through the detailed integration of combined arms under one commander, the MAGTF has the self-sustaining capability to apply power to a wide variety of scenarios — from a non-combatant evacuation operation to high-intensity combat. Seamless integration between the components of the MAGTF is essential to success. In order to successfully support the Ground Combat Element, the MAGTF’s Air Combat Element must be capable of supporting each of the six functions of Marine aviation:
Offensive air support.
Control of aircraft and missiles.
Expeditionary operations are inherently challenging in that the war fighter often operates with force structure and external support limitations. As an expeditionary force, the Marine Corps must capitalize on the strengths of maneuver warfare. One of the most important of these strengths is tempo; by generating tempo, we look to gain an advantage over our adversary by attacking at the time and place of our choosing. In the context of tactical aviation, higher sortie generation rates translate into greater support to ground forces for a given unit over a given period of time. The critical variable for sortie generation, given a constant number of aircraft, is time. Sortie rates are affected by the time required to transit to the objective and are further reduced by additional time spent behind a tanker, in a holding pattern, and diverting to alternate airfields.
There are countless battlefield examples of the increased tempo generated by forward-based aviation combat power. During World War II, Marine Corps and Army Air Forces aircraft operated from remote expeditionary airstrips during the island-hopping campaigns of the Pacific. Naval aviators, operating from the decks of aircraft carriers, moved swiftly throughout the Pacific supporting Marines as they fought for each island. In June 1965, Marine A-4 Skyhawks made the first arrested landings and catapulted takeoffs from Chu Lai, an expeditionary runway made of an interlocking grid of steel plates called AM-2 matting. From Chu Lai, Marine jets provided close-air support for ground combat operations in South Vietnam.
During Operation Desert Storm in 1991, shore-based AV-8B Harriers initially operated from a 10,000-foot runway at Sheik Isa Airbase in Bahrain. This resulted in a 45-minute transit to Kuwait with in-flight refueling, yielding a 30-minute time on station. The aircraft then moved to King Abdul Aziz Airstrip, a 4,000-foot asphalt runway 90 miles from Kuwait. With the addition of a flight line made of AM-2 matting, this forward operating base (FOB) housed 60 AV-8Bs for eight months. It was often referred to as “the soccer stadium” since the Marines set up headquarters and billeting in the adjacent stadium; from there, the transit to Kuwait was reduced to 20 minutes, yielding the same 30-minute time on station without aerial refueling. This reduced the burden on tanker aircraft, increased sortie generation rates and allowed these aircraft to be more responsive to ground forces.
During the first phases of the war in Iraq in 2003, Marine Harriers were the first aircraft to conduct sustained operations from an airfield inside Iraq and the only tactical air aircraft to conduct combat operations from a road. In the first two weeks of the conflict, Marines established an FOB on the remains of the Iraqi airstrip at An Numinayah, just 60 nautical miles south of Baghdad. Damage to the runway rendered it unusable to other tactical fixed-wing aircraft. The FOB at An Numinayah facilitated forward positioning of aircraft to stand ground alert as well as a forward arming and refueling point for Harriers supporting combat operations in and around Baghdad. Eliminating the need for Harriers to reserve fuel for a lengthy return flight to ships or bases in Kuwait, the FOB at An Numinayah allowed the AV-8Bs to extend time on station without placing a logistical burden on aerial refueling assets. With an airfield in such close proximity to the forward edge of the battle area, Harriers stood a credible ground alert and reduced response times from one to two hours to less than 15 minutes.
The war in Afghanistan is the most recent example of the effectiveness of STOVL operations. In the last year, Marine AV-8Bs have routinely operated from FOB Dwyer, a 4,300-foot expeditionary airfield built by the Marine wing support squadrons. Just a few miles from the town of Marjah, FOB Dwyer was constructed to facilitate rapid logistical support and fire support for Marines operating in the southern Helmand River valley. Launching from their main base at Kandahar, Harriers recovered to Dwyer after completing a time on station and were able to quickly rearm and refuel while talking to ground commanders. A basing option in such close proximity to the supported unit enabled longer times on station and rapid ordnance reload capability, in addition to reducing the burden on airborne refueling assets.
Basing AV-8Bs at FOB Dwyer during the fight for Marjah resulted in 65 percent of their sortie duration being spent on station. In comparison, aircraft based at Kandahar spent 55 percent of their sortie duration on station while aircraft operating from a carrier spent only 25 percent of sortie duration on station. Over the service life of an aircraft, the real benefit of STOVL aircraft is more time in support of ground forces with less time in transit to and from the fight.
From a sea-basing perspective, the dispersion of carrier-based STOVL aircraft creates a dilemma for the enemy while providing additional combat capability to the supported commander. During Desert Storm, 20 Harriers aboard the amphibious assault ship Nassau operated from a 750-foot flight deck, which resulted in a 15-minute transit time and 40 minutes of on-station time with no in-flight refueling. As the war progressed north, AV-8Bs would launch from ships in the Persian Gulf, fly a mission and then proceed to an FOB in Kuwait to rearm and refuel. After flying a second mission, these aircraft would return to the ship. These combined sea and shore operations doubled the sortie-generation rate for ship-based aircraft, halved shipboard workload and ordnance expenditure, and minimized shipboard resupply concerns. Also, because the aircraft returned to the ship, the force protection requirement ashore was significantly reduced.
During recent operations in Iraq, coalition airfields were at maximum capacity and the Navy was unable to source any more big-deck carriers into the Persian Gulf. Operating Harriers from amphibious assault ships put an additional 60 tactical aircraft at the disposal of the combatant commander.
Finally, it is critically important to address the most powerful and often overlooked elements of successful MAGTF air-ground interoperability: familiarity and access. Marine aviators are trained first as basic infantry officers, and this foundational baseline leads to their intuitive understanding of infantry tactics and combined arms. Flexible basing provides the MAGTF commander with access to these aviators in planning roles. These planners may be co-located onboard a ship, at an FOB or at a main base where they can be transported by rotary-wing or tilt-rotor aircraft. In recent operations, fixed-wing planners traveled from Al Asad to Fallujah or from Kandahar to Marjah. The force multiplier of having Marine pilots conducting face-to-face coordination creates synergy that increases lethality when operations commence. The flexible basing options provided by STOVL aircraft facilitate this process.
F-35B AND THE MAGTF
The F-35B will provide the next generation of tactical air support to the MAGTF. In one aircraft, the MAGTF commander will now have the capability to support an extraordinary range of potential operations and cover five of the six functions of Marine aviation. The Marine Corps will possess an aircraft that combines the ability to generate tempo through STOVL operations with the performance and survivability required against advanced threats.
Critics often point to the smaller unrefueled combat radius of the F-35B when compared with the F-35A and C models. In comparisons to current Navy and Marine fourth-generation strike/fighter aircraft, however, the F-35B meets or exceeds legacy combat radius while retaining fifth-generation capabilities that enable mission performance unattainable by legacy aircraft (see chart). The smaller F-35B combat radius is a calculated and acceptable trade-off for the Marine Corps, given the increased basing flexibility that a STOVL aircraft provides.
Another criticism often levied against the F-35B is that it has a smaller internal payload than the other variants. The F-35A and C can each carry two 2,000-pound-class munitions internally, along with two AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles. The F-35B’s internal weapons carriage allows for two 1,000-pound-class munitions plus two AIM-120s. This smaller STOVL internal loadout reflects a Marine Corps decision to prioritize basing options and operational flexibility over internal ordnance. This is an acceptable trade-off considering that 1,000-pound-class weapons can kill 95 percent of campaign target sets. Finally, it is critical to point out the discussion of internal weapons carriage applies only during the early stages of a campaign when the enemy retains an operational integrated air defense system, against which the low-observable capability of the F-35 is so important. Once low-observable capability is no longer required, the F-35B will be able to carry more than 15,000 pounds of internal and external weapons. This includes 5,000-pound-class munitions on each of the inboard external pylons and 1,500-pound-class munitions on each of the middle external pylons. This combination of internal and external stores provides ample close-air support firepower for Marines engaged with the enemy.
The F-35 program is still in the systems development and demonstration phase and much of its capability is classified; thus there is a good deal of information about the airplane that remains in development or is inappropriate for this forum. What we know based on the testing we have seen to date, however, indicates that sensor performance/fusion, aerodynamic performance and survivability are all on track and the F-35B continues to meet or exceed all of its design key performance parameters. Bottom line: It is clear the F-35B offers a lethal combination of aircraft, system and weapons performance that will surpass the fourth-generation aircraft it is replacing.
Basing flexibility is the driving factor behind some of the calculated trade-offs in the F-35B’s performance. No longer does the Marine Corps need two different aircraft to operate throughout the spectrum of potential bases. Instead, the F-35B will provide Marine aviation with the capability to conduct launch and recovery operations aboard amphibious assault ships, aircraft carriers, forward operating bases or conventional land bases. The tangible benefits of flexibility are the fact that there are eight times as many 4,000-foot runways as 10,000-foot runways in the Central Command, Africa Command and Pacific Command regions and twice as many flight decks available to the F-35B compared with conventional carrier-based aircraft. One aircraft will now be able to do an afterburner takeoff at maximum takeoff weight of 60,000 pounds (including 15,000 pounds of ordnance) from a fixed base, execute the mission and then do a vertical landing on the confined deck of an amphibious ship. Expeditionary and flexibility go hand in hand.
Flexibility is also tied to a reduced logistical footprint. The Marine Corps currently possesses three legacy tactical airframes: F/A-18A-D, AV-8B and EA-6B. These airframes require sustainment of four types of engines, two types of airborne radars, four electronic warfare systems and literally thousands of additional uncommon parts. The strain on the logistics train to support these three airframes is immense, especially to a small expeditionary force. Adding a fourth legacy airframe (F/A-18E/F) and the associated logistics trail, as some have advocated, would only exacerbate supportability concerns without providing the fifth-generation capabilities of the F-35B. Simplifying the logistics support requirement of the tactical aircraft community to one aircraft will reduce many of these inefficiencies.
In 1957, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Randolph Pate wrote a letter to the chief of naval operations advocating the procurement of an all-STOVL force that meets operational mission capabilities as soon as technically feasible. To date, Marine jet aircraft have had either STOVL capability with some limited mission capabilities or a more robust mission capability with no STOVL capability. The F-35B has the potential to fulfill Pate’s vision and merge STOVL operations and full mission capabilities. The payoff in performance and flexibility of a fully developed F-35B in support of the MAGTF and the country is the right choice for the Marine Corps. AFJ