U.S. Marine Corps aviation is being significantly and needlessly decimated, another unforced error of Force Design 2030. Newly procured aircraft have been tossed aside; identical blows to state-of-the-art helicopters and strike/fighter jets are on the way. The losses in aircraft are significant.
The reductions are not the result of insufficient funding or mandated cuts in personnel; the wounds have been self-inflicted.
The Marine Corps is divesting 44 advanced MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft, 30 new AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and 24 new UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters, and it will divest 48 new CH-53K King Stallion heavy-lift helicopters and 54 F-35B Lightning II fighter aircraft, all needed to fight and win today and tomorrow.
These divestments are unwise and wasteful. The jettisoning of new and advanced aircraft significantly weakens Marine Corps aviation.
The loss of new attack helicopters and fifth-generation F-35B fighter aircraft is a devastating blow to Marine infantry — and other elements of the force — which has already been robbed of all tank and 67% of cannon artillery support. The synergistic effect of these losses on combined arms operations is incalculable.
During a recent, so-called myth-busting presentation at Quantico, Virginia, a senior officer from Headquarters Marine Corps stated that Marine aviation has never been better off “programmatically.” His choice of the word “programmatically” was brilliant in its obfuscation, allowing him to avoid saying if Marine aviation was more operationally capable today than previously.
According to the speaker, the Marine Corps had already procured its total previous requirement (program of record) of 360 advanced tiltrotor aircraft, 189 new attack helicopters and 160 new utility helicopters — before wastefully jettisoning 98 of them. Worse, the Marine Corps has not changed its program of record for 200 of the currently in-production, state-of-the art heavy-lift helicopter, of which 44 will be divested.
The planned divestitures of 54 F-35B fighters pose similar concerns. The loss of these jets equates to fewer attack aircraft available to support Marines on the ground. But potential losses are even more than the 54 divested; in any joint operation, the joint force air component commander will always claim a share of the F-35B sorties to support joint force requirements, further reducing sorties available in direct support of Marine Corps forces.
The headline of a May 3, 2022, article in Seapower Magazine read: “Marine Corps Aviation Plan Reduces Number of F-35s in Some Squadrons, Keeps 420 F-35s Total.” According to the article and later confirmed by a senior officer from Headquarters Marine Corps, the program of record, or total buy, of 420 aircraft (353 F-35Bs and 67 F-35Cs) has not been reduced to reflect the significant reductions in F-35B aircraft planned for the active force.
No single weapons system better defines the Marine Air-Ground Task Force than the fighter/attack aircraft. As the Marine Corps’ only fifth-generation, capable aircraft, the F-35 affords the Marine Corps a distinct advantage against peer and near-peer competitors. We believe the significant divestiture of F-35Bs in the active force was a terrible mistake, but it is a mistake that can still be corrected. The total buy of these aircraft has not changed. The Marines can still get the jets they need.
All told, the Marine Corps has or will divest 200 new and advanced aircraft as bill payers for experimental capabilities that are years away from being fielded in sufficient quantities to make a difference in operational capabilities. A Marine capability that is supposedly fine programmatically has been operationally gutted. Marine aviation is clearly less capable today, even with the new aircraft, than it was three years ago.
The divestments of these new and advanced aircraft raise a series of questions, which Marine Corps senior leadership has been unwilling or unable to answer. We believe Congress, the Department of Defense and the American people deserve answers to the following questions:
- Where have the 54 new attack and utility helicopters (a 29% reduction of the active inventory) gone?
- Where have the 44 advanced tiltrotor aircraft (a 22% reduction of the active inventory) gone?
- Where will the 48 new state-of-the art heavy-lift helicopters go when procured?
- How does the future divestiture of 54 F-35B aircraft in the active force (a 28% reduction) make the Marine Corps more capable against China in the Western Pacific or globally against uncertainties across the spectrum of conflict?
- What do the combatant commanders think about the dramatic reductions in Marine aviation? What are the potential impacts on crisis response and contingency planning in their theaters? Were they consulted on the planned reductions?
- How does divesting 200 aircraft in the active force, but buying out the full program of record, self-fund future experimental capabilities?
The Marine Corps has also divested all Marine wing support groups in the active force. These groups provided the combat and combat service support needed for airfield operations. The loss of centralized direction, specialized equipment and trained personnel are a crippling blow to airfield operations, especially in expeditionary environments.
The capabilities and manning of the Marine air control groups have been significantly reduced. The air control groups are primarily responsible for airspace coordination and control as well as communications support to the aviation command post. These functions require resilience in specialized equipment and trained personnel, especially in expeditionary environments and combat. The loss of capabilities and manpower limits the effectiveness and joint interoperability of the air control groups and further diminishes the strength of Marine aviation.
In summary, we believe Marine Corps aviation has been needlessly and unwisely decimated by the dangerous strategy of “divest to invest.” The capabilities the Marine Corps and the nation need to fight and win today have been discarded for the allure of experimental capabilities that may or may not prove effective — or even be available in sufficient quantities for a decade or more.
The crippling of Marine aviation is a national security concern, which deserves the attention of Congress, the Department of Defense and the American people.
Retired U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James Amos last served as commandant of the armed service. Retired Gen. Terrence Dake last served as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. Retired Lt. Gen. Barry Knutson’s last assignment was leading the Marine Corps’ Combat Development Command.