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Enough Marine Air on Carriers Already

Enough Marine Air on Carriers Already

Proceedings, August 2002
Captain Sean B. Garick, U.S. Marine Corps

Marine tactical aircraft have flown hundreds of sorties in integrated carrier air wings in the war on terrorism over Afghanistan. But there is a limit to how many squadrons the Marine Corps can feed the carriers before support to ground commanders is threatened.

When the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) returned in March from her latest deployment, she did so in the tradition of many aircraft carriers of the past, with a Marine squadron on board. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron (VMFA)-251 deployed with the Theodore Roosevelt’s air wing and played a crucial role in the war on terrorism. During Operation Enduring Freedom, VMFA-251 flew more than 690 sorties, accumulated more than 3,500 hours of flight time, and dropped more than 444,900 pounds of ordnance, closing another chapter in the book of successful integration of Marine tactical aviation (TacAir) into Navy air wings.1 This integration, however, comes at a price. What happens when Marine TacAir is unable to respond to a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) commander because of Navy commitments?


A VMFA-251 F/A-18 in afterburner launching from the Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71). (U.S. Navy, Jeremy Hall) (U.S. Coast Guard, Alice Sennott).

In 1994, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Chief of Naval Operations developed a plan for integrating Marine TacAir (specifically F/A-18) squadrons into Navy carrier air wings. This memorandum of agreement placed all Department of the Navy TacAir under central management in an effort to meet forward presence and personnel tempo requirements—while operating within the limited resources of the early 1990s.2 Carrier-integrated squadrons deploy with battle groups; while doing so they essentially are Navy squadrons. The Marine Corps reaps many benefits from integration, such as better training and experience with joint operations and interoperability. The Navy and Marine Corps normally publish a new memorandum every three years, but future memoranda likely will have several major shortcomings. The first is the result of a proposed change to increase the number of carrier-integrated Marine squadrons. The second concerns TacAir-asset availability to air-ground task force commanders. The Marine Corps must ensure that future memoranda guarantee adequate TacAir support for commanders on the ground.

The current memorandum of agreement calls for four Marine squadrons to integrate into Navy air wings.3 Agencies investigating ways to improve TacAir efficiency have proposed increasing this number.4 The "outside experts" who make these proposals, however, do not understand the difference in responsibilities between Navy and Marine TacAir. One Navy proposal even recommends the Marine Corps supply one F/A-18 or Joint Strike Fighter squadron for integration into every carrier air wing, a plan that would require ten squadrons. The Marine Corps cannot afford to integrate more than four squadrons; the price simply is too high. The more squadrons the Corps commits to carriers, the fewer are available to air-ground task force commanders.5

Currently, Marine TacAir is composed of 25 squadrons, as shown in Table 1. There are no extra Marine Corps squadrons; all assets are committed.6 In fact, according to a study last year, Marine Corps requirements to carry out concurrent peacetime and small-scale contingency operations will demand 32 Joint Strike Fighter squadrons by 2015.7 In addition, with greater Marine Corps forward presence requirements, responsibilities for air-ground task forces are only increasing.

Table 1: Marine Corps TacAir Availability and Commitments
14 active F/A-18 squadrons 4 assigned to Navy air wings, 9 to unit deployment program, 1 permanently deployed to Iwakuni, Japan
7 active AV-8B squadrons All assigned to Marine expeditionary units

Manpower is another factor limiting the number of integrated squadrons. Every carrier-deployed Marine squadron must adjust its structure; an integrated squadron has 36 more Marines than a nonintegrated squadron. In addition, integrated squadrons are manned at near 100% strength and normally deploy with around 255 Marines (this extra manning still falls short of Navy requirements, so the Navy augments these squadrons with an additional 12 sailors). Noncarrier squadrons are manned at only about 93% of their already reduced table of organization and deploy with about 201 Marines. The net difference in manning is around 66 personnel.8

The most serious deficiency in the current memorandum of agreement is the failure to explain how air-ground task force TacAir requirements will be met. Today, a Marine expeditionary unit’s organic assets normally should meet TacAir requirements. There is a real possibility, however, that an air-ground task force’s future requirements will be greater than can be met by its six organic AV-8Bs or Joint Strike Fighters, and that other Marine squadrons will be unavailable because of other commitments. The current memorandum provides a framework but lacks sufficient detail to be truly functional; the Marine Corps must clarify how TacAir requirements will be met in the next memorandum. Scheduling Precept 1 of the current memorandum states:
Both Navy and Marine Corps squadrons can be scheduled to satisfy either Navy or Marine Corps commitments. To the maximum extent possible, Navy squadrons should be scheduled to satisfy Navy commitments and Marine Corps squadrons to satisfy Marine Corps commitments. The Navy agrees to fill USMC/CINC/MAGTF contingency commitments or out CHOP [change of operational control] integrated USMC squadrons to fulfill CINC/MAGTF contingency commitments.9
The precept states clearly that if Marine TacAir is unavailable, then Navy TacAir will provide support to a Marine air-ground task force in need. It is questionable, however, whether the Navy will be able to fulfill commitments to the Marine Corps, because of differences in priorities, training, equipment, and mind-set. In fact, in some situations it might be impossible. There will be times when only the flexible, expeditionary capabilities of a short take-off, vertical-landing air component will do.10 This will require Marine squadrons on board carriers to change their operational control from the Navy to the Marine Corps and either remain on board, operating within deck cycles to support air-ground task forces, or be pulled off the carrier and based forward.

This begs a significant question: Who will decide when to change the operational control of an integrated Marine Corps squadron deployed on board an aircraft carrier? Will it be the admiral in command of the carrier battle group, the joint forces commander (by way of the joint forces air component commander), or the unified commander-in-chief? As the commander with the best situational awareness, the Marine forces commander must have the authority to obtain the required support. Undoubtedly, the battle group commander will want to hold on to the Marine squadron to meet joint commitments because it represents one-fourth of a carrier’s striking power. The joint forces commander also will want to retain this asset to accomplish his air war missions. Nevertheless, Marine squadrons belong primarily to the Marine Corps and exist to facilitate Marine missions.

Once the Marine forces commander recognizes the need for TacAir, the integrated squadron should move back to Marine Corps operational control. That squadron then becomes an organic asset of an air-ground task force and, as such, falls under the policy for command and control of Marine TacAir as stated in Joint Publication 0-2. This states that the Marine air-ground task force commander should retain operational control of organic air assets. During joint operations, the task force’s air assets should support the task force’s missions.

As in all joint operations, "nothing . . . shall infringe on the authority of the [joint forces commander] in the exercise of operational control." Marine TacAir will be available for up-front sorties, "air defense, long-range interdiction, and long-range reconnaissance," as well as sorties in excess of direct support requirements.11 Marine TacAir, however, exists for one purpose: to provide support for Marine air-ground task forces.

There must be a guarantee that when a Marine commander needs air support, he will get it. The Marine Corps must ensure that all service agreements protect this one rule during any contingency. Future memoranda of agreement must not strip the "air" out of the air-ground task force by overcommitting limited assets. As former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles Krulak wrote, "Without Air there is no MAGTF."12

The Author:
While with VMFA-312 on board the Enterprise (CVN-65) and Harry S. Truman (CVN-75), Captain Garick participated in Operations Desert Fox and Southern Watch. He currently is the assistant operations officer for VMFA-224 at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina.

© 2002 U.S. Naval Institute. All rights reserved.

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