How much are you willing to pay for that?

By lex, on February 10th, 2007

Sometimes there aren’t any easy answers and the actions you are forced to take can lead you to a slippery slope: You make a decision based on the environment you operate in and the best information available, and sometimes that decision leads irrevocably towards the next, and that to the next and suddenly you find yourself painted into a place you’d maybe rather not be.

There are times I feel that way about my brothers in US Marine Corps aviation.

There are few people wearing Navy blue that have more respect for the Corps than does your correspondent. I’ve seen their work close at hand, and greatly admire their valor and esprit, their traditions and storied history. The Corps gets things done and they mostly do it on a shoestring. Pound for pound, there is no more capable and willing ground combat force in the world. These are all virtues, but even the stoutest virtues, taken to an extreme, can become a kind of vice.

To give you one example, a Marine NCO or officer will, when talking about his people, inevitably say “My Marines” with a slight but unmistakable emphasis on the word “my.” That stress is designed to make the listener understand that they are not “his” in the way that word is used to describe people assigned to a manager. The possessive use indicates that this is personal for the speaker. The Marines under his command are not just “his,” they are “His.”

The only thing more important to a Marine than “his Marines” is the Corps. Country is up there somewhere too of course. This is right and good and just, but people of my acquaintance have observed that when it comes to a problem getting the mission done, a Marine may not be above throwing people – his people – at the problem if that’s what’s best for the Corps.

The Marines have a saying: “Every Marine a rifleman.” It’s a huge part of their warrior ethos, and a reason why the Corps doesn’t need any “elite” units. They do not have a need for Rangers, nor SEALs, nor ParaRescue – they only need Marines. Marines are good enough.

In application, this means that every effort is synchronized to support the rifleman. A Marine may cook or cut hair or fly an FA-18, but whatever he does, he is a component of the Marine Air/Ground Task Force and his raison d’etre is to support the efforts of the Marines on the ground. The MAGTF is one neat, tight bundle of independent capability. They might like to have a carrier air wing in support of their operations, and doctrinally they will for “forced entry” operations. But they carry their own air with them wherever they go and they don’t share it with anyone else.

This is an important distinction: On a Navy aircraft carrier, the air wing is the striking force of the battle group, the main battery. It’s the reason why the carrier exists, and why she is escorted by other ships – all of this investment is designed to get the mobile airfield in the range of enemy forces and infrastructure such that they may be precisely and persistently truck by the embarked air wing. On the other hand, the Air Combat Element attached to an amphibious ready group is not the focus of effort, they are support. The striking arm of the ARG is the Marine Expeditionary Unit, of which the ACE is only one part.

The MEU is embarked upon the amphibious ships of the ARG. They are large warships, but nothing like so huge as the Navy’s aircraft carriers. They have no arresting gear and no catapults on their flight decks. This necessarily constrains the design of the fixed wing aircraft which support the infantry component of the MEU, the Battalion Landing Team. For that reason, Marine Corps leadership were early and enthusiastic supporters of vertical take-off technologies such as those embodied in VSTOL aircraft such as the AV-8 Harrier and V-22 Osprey.

Now, I loved flying planes and never have flown a helicopter – it frankly seemed like too much work. On the topic of helicopters, this quote ** comes to mind:

The thing is, helicopters are different from planes. An airplane by its nature wants to fly, and if not interfered with too strongly by unusual events or by a deliberately incompetent pilot, it will fly. A helicopter does not want to fly. It is maintained in the air by a variety of forces and controls working in opposition to each other, and if there is any disturbance in this delicate balance the helicopter stops flying; immediately and disastrously.

But hovering, as well as a shambolic kind of forward flight once clear of ground effect, is what a helicopter is designed to do. A fixed wing aircraft that hovers like a helicopter must have all the hideous complexities of rotary wing flight without any of its salutary focus of design effort. If the rotary-wing design cast asides the form the Creator evolved for aerial flight over millions of years in favor of whirring mechanical complexity, then VSTOL fixed-wing designs have made an already hard thing that much harder.

Witness the horrible mishap record **of the initial version of the AV-8 Harrier.

Over the last three decades, it has amassed the highest rate of major accidents of any Air Force, Navy, Army or Marine plane now in service. Forty-five Marines have died in 143 non-combat accidents since the corps bought the so-called jump jet from the British in 1971. More than a third of the fleet has been lost to accidents.

And now the Corps is all set to roll out the V-22 Osprey and introduce it to the fight. Like the Harrier before it, the airframe is truly “transformational,” although the tilt rotor adds an even greater degree of complexity to VSTOL flight than did the comparatively simpler vectored thrust of the Harrier or even the lift fan/reaction jet combination of the F-35B.

Now, “transformational” means one thing in a business context – it might mean that it’s time to polish up your resume, for example. But it means something else entirely when applied to an aircraft designed to carry 24 combat loaded Marines. The program was fraught during development, but influential rural congressmen loved the “transformational” effect that such military experimentation might have upon the civilian “hub and spoke” air transport scheme and for the Marines, whose heavy lift helicopters are rapidly reaching the end of their useful service lives, there wasn’t any “plan B.”

The Marine Corps has spent 25 years, $18 billion and 30 lives * bringing forth the Osprey, a shockingly high cost in personnel for a plane even that hadn’t even completed operational test. In response to those fatal mishaps, the plane has been thoroughly re-engineered a number of times, and both the Corp and the Bell-Boeing consortium that builds it are convinced that it is not just safe, but ready for combat. The only thing that concerns me is that, unlike the single piloted, ejection seat equipped Harrier – which gained it’s own reputation as a “widow maker” – if the pilot of a V-22 goes down, he probably won’t be mourned alone.

There isn’t any wrong in here, no bad guys and no claim to greater wisdom. These are just the facts shaped by the operating environment of a superb fighting force that needs a new capability. That capability has now arrived.

I hope we do not have to pay too much for it.

* 07-26-2018 Links Gone; no replacements found – Ed.

** 07-26-2018 Original link gone; replacement found – Ed.

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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Marines, Uncategorized

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