Home » Aviation » Davis: Marine Corps Aviation Must Adapt To Become More ‘Value-Added’ to Naval Force

Davis: Marine Corps Aviation Must Adapt To Become More ‘Value-Added’ to Naval Force

AV-8B Harriers and an MV-22 Osprey sit on the flight deck at night aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) on Oct. 8, 2014. US Navy photo.

AV-8B Harriers and an MV-22 Osprey sit on the flight deck at night aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) on Oct. 8, 2014. US Navy photo.

PENTAGON — The Navy and Marine Corps should explore ways to make Marine aircraft a more useful part of the naval battle force – using alternate mixes of aircraft types on amphibious ship flight decks, finding additional missions for those aircraft, and pursuing increased connectivity to the rest of the naval fleet, the deputy commandant for aviation told USNI News.

In recent memory, the aviation combat element (ACE) in the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) has served to support the MEU’s ground combat element. The ACE brought Marines and their weapons ashore in combat situations and helped bring materiel ashore in humanitarian assistance missions.

But Lt. Gen. Jon Davis argues the MEU, and particularly the ACE – which already includes the game-changing MV-22 Osprey and will soon include the equally transformative F-35B Joint Strike Fighter – can and should do more.

“We have the finest aircraft carriers in the world, we have the finest submarines in the world, we have the finest amphibious ships – we might need those amphibious ships to be doing something a little bit different than we’ve asked of them in the past to be value-added to the subs and the cruisers and the carriers, to be more value-added episodically before we reconfigure to the traditional mission and force contribution you expect an amphibious ship to be able to do,” Davis said in a Nov. 16 sit-down interview in his office.
“At the end of the day, we need them to power project Marine ground forces, a MAGTF (Marine Air-Ground Task Force), ashore, and they need to be able to do that. But is there more that we can get out of those ships, and what do we have to do to those ships to get more out of them?”

First, Davis argued, the Marines need to rethink what should constitute the ACE onboard amphibious ships.

“You in your brain, and all of us in our brains, have, this is a MEU: six Harriers or six F-35s, 12 V-22s, three or four CH-53s, seven skids [light attack helicopters], some VMU [Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadrons],” Davis said.

But what if that combination, which includes a little bit of everything, means that the ACE is not optimized for anything?

“There are many scenarios where we would want to have the L-class carrier loaded with F-35Bs – the full squadron, 16 airplanes or more, plus four to six V-22s with a tanker package,” Davis said.
“And that could maybe be the way our ships sail for a contingency, or sail as a matter of principle in the future as we are part of a naval formation to go do Phase 0, Phase 1 strike operations. Augment the carrier strike group’s ability to project power with fifth-generation capabilities until that time when we don’t need the augment from the L-class carriers, and then you would flow ashore – because now we have long-range assault support assets, V-22s, 53s, that can air-refuel. You fly them from their bases to that L-class ship, and now it turns into its normal MEU.”

“And then maybe you have something like a [Operation] Sea Angel, some kind of humanitarian disaster that doesn’t need jet aircraft – you can fly all the jet aircraft off and load up that amphibious carrier with heavy-lift helicopters and V-22s,” Davis continued.
“So to me, the gator, the amphibious ship, the amphibious carrier, can be what you need that ship to be. And I think we as a naval force need to embrace that and understand that, experiment with that, test that and employ all the capabilities we have in a much more innovative way than we have in the past.”

Sailors and Marines prepare to launch MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) in the South China Sea on March 19, 2015. US Navy photo.

Sailors and Marines prepare to launch MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) in the South China Sea on March 19, 2015. US Navy photo.

Davis said he would not be surprised if combatant commanders started asking for these kinds of tailored aviation packages, and the Navy and Marine Corps need to be ready to respond. He said thinkers at Marine Corps Base Quantico and at the war colleges should begin writing papers and discussing new doctrine, which could lead to simulations and eventually to exercises showing how a more flexible ACE could respond to everything from the “humanitarian fight” to the “90th percentile fight.”

Key in enabling the Marines to rearrange the ACE while the MEU is out at sea would be embracing the fact that Marines and their aircraft can operate from the sea base or from an expeditionary base ashore, and that platforms shouldn’t be tethered to one or the other.

Today, some aircraft belong to MEUs at sea, some belong to land-based Special Purpose MAGTFs located in Europe and the Middle East, and some are forwarded stationed ashore in places like Japan. But back in World War II, Davis said, planes seamlessly went from being carrier-based to expeditionary airstrip-based as needed.

“That we have platforms that we can project power from a sea base and an expeditionary base ashore is an amazing source of strength for the naval forces, and I think we need to understand that more fully, like our predecessors did in World War II and Korea,” he said.
“So instead of pushing back on that or fearing that, I think we need to understand how we execute and deliver combat power from sea bases and expeditionary bases ashore as part of a naval campaign.”

Davis also argues that Marine Corps aircraft should be considered when planning missions that typically would not involve amphibious forces. Particularly in the next couple years, using Marine Corps F-35Bs to supplement high-end naval fights could be important because, whereas the Marines have already declared initial operational capability (IOC) on their fifth-generation fighter, the Navy will not declare IOC on its carrier-based F-35C until 2018 or later. Davis said the Navy should consider including the F-35B in more types of missions that typically would not include the Marine Corps.

“We’re at a point in the naval forces where we need the combat power at sea that the Marine forces are going to provide from an [expeditionary strike group] in multiple scenarios,” Davis said.
“We need to be very focused on how we can be the very best partners in a big fight. How we can look at being viewed as value-added and essential to the naval campaign – not just from an amphibious assault, that’s part of it, you’ve got the potential to do that, but it could be the first part, the shaping fight.”

One roadblock Davis sees to increasing the use of Marine aviation is command and control. Whereas the Navy’s carrier strike group can communicate amongst itself and with other assets in the fleet through Link-16, Davis said zero of the Marines’ aircraft deployed today have Link-16. Efforts are underway to put Link-16 on the Harriers and Ospreys, and the F-35B is already linked in, but Davis argued that the Marine Corps helicopters ought to be brought into the network too.

“That to me is a delta, a gap that we as a naval force need to close,” he said.
“I think we need to take a look at whatever we’re doing to the carrier and look at the gator fleet, make sure that we can plug and play and share information, you don’t have anybody that’s at a disadvantage out there in a high-end fight. Because I think the F-35s and the V-22s are going to be enablers for the naval formation. So if you want them to be enablers, you have to make sure they’re fully plugged in to the command and control and the intel networks.”

Though changing the construct of the MEU ACE, networking those aircraft and incorporating them into Navy battle doctrine will take time and effort, Davis argued that doing so is an inherent part of the Marine Corps ethos.

Today’s Marine Corps aviation should “be a different kind of capability for our nation than we’ve been in the past. More. The Marines are always looking to do whatever we need to do, and this is one of those things to do whatever we need to do to go defend our freedom.”

  • Curtis Conway

    I like this Lt. Gen. Jon Davis. He thinks strait, out of the box, and in a coherent manner. Improvise, Adapt, Overcome. And . . . it’s cost effective.

  • pvp64

    Was not the last big “push” by the Marines to get back to there “roots” after fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan ? Seems to me they wanted to re-emphasize there first in the fight doctrine of beach assault operations. Now once again they are searching for a role and want to be included in Carrier Naval Air ops. Why not reach out to the Army, perhaps they will listen.

  • TheDude

    Searching for a role? Hardly. The navy and every JTF commander is crying because they don’t have a carrier on speed dial anymore in the gulf, med, westpac. Only 10 carriers, with the the Ford years from deployment has sobered many to the value of a small runway, parked just over the horizon from your enemy. That doesn’t require a bribe to the local government for permission to fly.

    All of DOD has shrunk, and continues to shrink. We have all been forced to redefine how we will deploy and operate. It’s not just a marine thing. Every service is facing the reality that they can’t do what was easy just 10 years ago. 10 carriers and a fraction of overseas air bases means every carrier and runway will count. It’s a crummy hand we have been dealt, but if things go bad, we either adapt the MEU to the scenario, or hang our hats on outdated doctrine based on 11 carriers, 600 ships and a plethora of overseas air bases. To think blockbuster is basically out of business, who knew?

    We are rapidly approaching the same situation Great Britain was in when the Falklands war broke out. Vulcan = A-10. Less than 30 days to get anything and everything sailing south. That included the Atlantic conveyer QE2 and Reagan even offered up the Iwo Jima.

    • Curtis Conway

      Hear Hear, Sanity at last! Instead of pure carrier Blaspheming.

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  • James B.

    A light airwing of 16 F-35Bs would carry more weight than a strongly worded memo, but nothing near the firepower of a CVN, and serious softening operations require 2-3 CVNs.

    • Curtis Conway

      It would be more than just nice to see a few light carriers providing options that currently don’t exist.

  • PB

    Quick answer… Don’t mess with the MEU(SOC)!! This concept it has been in existence in the Marines for decades and provides a wide range of coverage across a multitude of (14) Special Operations Missions at last count and does this on 6 month deployments. Who is going to execute the Special Operation mission with a ship load of F–35’s. We have ships that have fighter/attack squadrons on them, they are called carriers, don’t mix the two up. If you want to task organize, do so, but don’t mess with the MEU(SOC) concept, for example: who evacuates the embassy’s, who does the troop inserts, who does the search and rescue, who does mass casually evacuation, who does ship take down, who does oil rig take down…. F-35’s I think not!!

  • rlrapp

    Except… When that embassy need evacuated in the next 24 hours, flying in helos to the ship 3 days from now is not going to do much good. Are you going to maintain maintenance departments for full groups of each of the types on the ship all the time? If the navy needs more firepower, then THEY should do something about it, like deploying these new larger carriers with more aircraft than their predecessors not less.

  • Mike Radecki

    I think it is a good idea to experiment with this. A strike gator, plus one equipped to handle the traditional mission of a MEU (SOC) working in tandem interesting. We did a Harrier carrier in 03 during Iraq War II. Or you could fly the F-35B off of the CVN, and augment for more helos if the mission need it Corbra Hueys V-22 whatever. 80% of the time the normal ACE package is the way to go for sailing around the MED to handle the 911 calls however.

    • Curtis Conway

      The problem with F-35Bs on the Bird Farm is they will not even consider operating them coming on deck forward/starboard of the superstructure transitioning laterally left onto the deck. I’m not even sure the study has been accomplished to identify deck landing spots (Thermion Spots with deck lineup markings), and obstructions in that area (on the starboard side) that prevent safely conducting said operations. The Ford will be easier with more room forward in that area. At this point it appears NAVAIR will ignore this issue until someone forces the question.

  • Ralston Cole

    In 2003 two LHA’s deployed to the Persian Gulf and each had 48 Harriers aboard. Marine Aviation is ahead of this article.

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