Going Boldly

By lex, on December 31st, 2009

Weapons system acquisitions are fraught with danger generally, both from a programmatic perspective and professionally. I successfully dodged Pentagon duty for three decades, but when I was growing up, I often heard from grizzled veterans wearing Navy blue “inside the building,” that the Air Force had a tendency to beat the pants off the Navy in Congress by putting up slick marketeers to pitch their programs – professional acquisition corps folks who really knew how to deliver a pitch.

The Navy, on the other hand, had a tendency to advance bespectacled flag officers with engineering backgrounds who couldn’t quite come up with the same flash and dazzle as their brothers in bus driver blue, and who never quite seemed to understand why they would have to explain the intricacies of the nuclear steam cycle (just for one example) to the wet-behind-the-ears staffers who were the real power behind the congressional throne.

But everyone I spoke to with Pentagon experience said that the US Marine Corps took second place to no one in Congress. They had their very own lobby, with lots of supporters who loved their short tooth-to-tail ratio and warfighting esprit.  The Marines were like the proverbial “third rail”, mess with them on the Hill and you’d get burned.

So it is with some degree of glee mixed with trepidation that I read this missive from a former Army Bradley driver of your acquaintance as he goes boldly where flags fear to tread:

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…

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.

XBradTC makes a good technical argument for adaptation of other service’s platforms to the Marine role, but I think he misses the essential element of the Marine Corps culture: Every Marine a rifleman, and all DOTMPLF elements aligned to supporting that tactical corporal. They don’t want their fate or the fate of their acquisition tied to any other program or service, and accept the Department of the Navy’s oversight only grudgingly – there is in fact a recurring sentiment in Congress to rename DoN as the “Department of the Navy and Marine Corps.”

The Marines, much to Navy’s dismay, even opted out of the Super Hornet program while waiting for the STOVL variant of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, saying that the FA-18E/F didn’t scratch any of their MAGTF itches any better than the “legacy” Hornet did. This not only upped the Super Hornet’s unit cost, it has put us in an awkward place as we try to fit the super-hot exhaust gasses of the F-35B variant on Navy amphibious class flight decks that were not built for those kinds of thermal stresses.

Another twist that comes with the F-35B is that those airframes will replace those of FA-18C squadrons currently deploying aboard Navy aircraft carriers under the “Tactical Air Integration” plan. Under the terms of the TAI, Marine Hornet squadrons graciously help to ameliorate Navy shortfalls in strike fighter procurement by integrating into and deploying with Navy carrier air wings: We just don’t have sufficient strike fighters all our own to justify the number of carrier decks we need to maintain routine deployments and surges.

Flight deck issues aside, no one has yet figured out how to work STOVL operations into conventional aircraft carrier cyclic operations (I watched with real horror the first time I saw Harriers and rotary wing aircraft operate together off an LHA), and the issue remains unsettled – or at least it did until recently – with senior uniformed officers of the Blue/Green Team, “agreeing to disagree”, leaving the whole mess up to the Secretary of the Navy (and by extension, Congress) to figure out.

Seeing things through the Marine Corps lens, they want to get those strike fighters and rotary wing off the Navy amphibs to operating bases ashore as soon as entry is forced so that they can directly support the engaged riflemen without having to beg permission from the Joint Forces Air Component Commander, far less have to negotiate supported/supporting roles with a Navy amphibious squadron commander. There are a number of greater and lesser tasks a fully trained MAGTF can execute, but supporting grunt infantry as they engage in real estate acquisition and population control is fundamentally the raison d’etre for all supporting arms branches in the combined arms team construct. Being forced to adapt USAF fixed wing aircraft or Army helicopters (and becoming dependent upon the acquisition communities of those services to protect Marine Corps equities) is deeply counter-cultural.

The Marine Corps doesn’t have anything the USAF wants, but what it does have the Army has often lusted after. Don’t think for a second that the Marines don’t know that. If the Marines have issues with aircraft acquisition, you can bet that they’ll want to solve them within their own lifelines.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Neptunus Lex

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