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Lawmaker Worries Marine Corps Investing Too Heavily In Aviation Over Ground Vehicles

U.S. Marine Corps pilots maneuver a CH-53K King Stallion as it delivers a 12,000 pound external load after completing a 110 nautical mile mission during the two-week initial operational test (OT-B1) conducted at Sikorsky. Sikorsky photo.

The Marine Corps’ top financial officer told lawmakers that the service considers its modernization programs properly balanced between aviation and ground needs, while acknowledging that there hasn’t been enough money in recent years to buy the ground assets at a proper pace.

The Marine Corps has faced the challenge in recent years of having to replace all its aircraft types, while simultaneously having to replace ground vehicles and amphibious vehicles and connectors. None are cheap, and having nearly a dozen modernization programs at once – plus across-the-board sequester cuts and then annual spending caps – has further complicated the service’s modernization outlook.

House Armed Services tactical air and land forces subcommittee ranking member Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) asked during a Marine Corps modernization hearing today whether too much priority had gone to aviation in recent years instead of ground vehicles and equipment.

“While the Marine Corps certainly has a need for aircraft of many types, the ratio of spending on aircraft compared to ground equipment is striking. The Fiscal Year 2017 budget request was no exception to this trend: in it the Marine Corps requested approximately $1.5 billion for procurement of ground equipment and ammunition, however in the same president’s budget it requested $5.3 billion for just five aircraft programs: the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, the CH-53K King Stallion helicopter, the V-22 Osprey, the AH-1 attack helicopter and the KC-130 refueler,” she said during the hearing.
“While the individual aircraft programs in question are likely very important when taken individually, the scale of the imbalance – more than three to one in just this fiscal year – suggests that upgrading aircraft is currently valued higher than upgrading ground equipment. I have some concerns about this ratio of spending on aircraft versus ground equipment, given the Marine Corps’ mission to be the premiere force in readiness and the historical reliance that the nation has placed on the Marine Corps’ role in ground combat.”

Lt. Gen. Gary Thomas, deputy commandant for programs and resources, said the Marines had not invested as much money into modernization overall as the service would have liked, due to spending caps and near-term readiness challenges, but he said in terms of the aviation versus ground force spending “we do feel like we are balanced.”

“We are a light general purpose force. One of the things that gives the Marine Corps an advantage on the battlefield is its mobility and its fires. Much of that comes from aviation,” he said.
“The ground side, in terms of fires, mobility – those are equally as important, but if we were just to look relatively how we’re investing across aviation and ground, without looking at the cost – although there are significant differences there – but in terms of capability and capacity, we think we’re balanced.”

U.S. Marines prepare to depart the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5) in amphibious assault vehicles (AAV) in April 2016. US Navy photo.

Overall, he said, “we have programs in place to address all of those (legacy programs that need to be replaced). We haven’t been able to modernize as quickly as we could to get out of the old metal, but in terms of balance, we feel that we’ve got it about right.”

On the aviation side, the Marines have been replacing nine legacy aircraft types with six new ones — all in varying stages of completion. The CH-46E and CH-53D helicopters have been replaced by the MV-22 Osprey, which the service is still buying. Same with the transition from the AH-1W and UH-1N attack helicopters to the AH-1Z and UH-1Y, respectively, and from the KC-130T to the KC-130J tanker. Farther out, though, three planes – the AV-8B Harrier, the EA-6B Prowler and the F-18 Hornet – are being replaced by the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, which reached initial operational capability in 2015 but won’t hit full operational capability until 2031, according to a Marine Corps modernization timeline. And the CH-53E heavy lift helicopter is being replaced by the CH-53K, which is still in development and test.

Thomas noted the importance of replacing these aircraft, with the Hornets and heavy-lift helicopters more than 30 years old and struggling to stay ready for operations.

He added, though, that the ground vehicles are as old or older. The Amphibious Assault Vehicles are more than 40 years told, and the Light Armored Vehicles are at least 30 years old.

To Tsongas’ concerns about the ground vehicles suffering due to so much attention being paid to aviation modernization programs, Thomas said “we intend to address all the concerns on the ground side. … We have good programs in place that we believe meet the capability requirements at a reasonable cost to the taxpayer, but we found both on the ground side and the aviation side is, we simply don’t have the resources to do either one at the rate we desire.”

Marine Corps radar technicians with the Early Warning Control Crew install the arms of the Ground/Air Task Oriental Radar during a Weapons and Tactics Instructor Course exercise Sept. 16, 2015, at Cannon Air Defense Complex (P111), Yuma, Ariz. G/ATOR is a next-generation radar that provides air surveillance/air defense, counter-fire target acquisition, and air traffic control capabilities. US Marine Corps photo.

His top three ground priorities – the Amphibious Combat Vehicle to replace the AAVs, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle to replace Humvees and the Ground/Air Task Oriented Radar (G/ATOR) – are progressing well, he said. JLTV is in procurement, ACV is set to begin testing two competitors’ vehicles this spring, and USNI News understands the Marine Corps is getting ready to accept the first G/ATOR. Still, all are farther behind than originally planned, and for the aging LAVs there is no program of record replacement yet.

Tsongas questioned why these ground programs weren’t being given more funding to stay on track and to field at a faster rate even as some aviation programs have ballooned in cost. She cited recent figures showing that the CH-53K was supposed to cost $95 million apiece in then-year dollars, but last year’s selected acquisition report showed the cost had grown to $116 million and the Marine Corps recently told her office it had increased again to about $122 million a copy.

“It seems worth pointing out that $122 million per aircraft in 2006 dollars exceeds the current cost of an F-35A aircraft for the Air Force by a significant margin,” she said, calling the heavy-lift helo a “niche” airplane with “extreme cost” compared to the ground forces’ needs.

Thomas confirmed the $122-million cost but said that the service anticipates that “the unit recurring flyaway, when the aircraft begins full rate production, will shrink below $89 million. That’s still very expensive and we’re working very hard with the program office and the vendor to keep the cost down and to drive value for the taxpayer.”

  • delta9991

    Small correction to the story is needed regarding the F-35B. Block 3F, which constitutes Full Operational Capability in the eyes of the services, is set to deliver next year. The 2031 date represents the transition timeline where all legacy AV-8’s and F/A-18’s will be replaced by the F-35.

    • Duane

      Block 3F already exists, was fully operational tested in 2016, and now the final code tweaks are being made preparatory to fleet deployment by the end of this year. They’re working now on the logistics of the Block 3F upgrade. The earliest models of the F-35 will require a new hardware card, and the aviation leaders have requested LM to prepare a field upgrade kit that will eliminate the need to send any of the older F-35s into depot to get the upgrade.

      Block 4 code writing is already well underway. The Program Office announced that from 2018 onward a new update block will come out for the F-35 about every 2 years, to allow continuous deployment of new and upgraded weapons systems. There’s never been anything like that in the history of military weapons.

      • delta9991

        I understand that. I’m just pointing out that FOC is not in 2031 as the article suggest but later this year/next year.

        • Duane

          I didn’t disagree with you … just added more detail to your correct response, to correct a lot of the misinformation that the F-35 trolling community routinely spreads online in their silly trolling (not you, of course!).

  • Curtis Conway

    New more efficient engines for the Marine Abrams? Since the US Army is not seemingly taking advantage of all the benefits of employing the LV 100-5 that is designed to be over 25% more fuel-efficient during movement and 50% more efficient at idle than the AGT 1500. Perhaps a supplement in the budget can help the Marines lead the way for the Army in showing a more efficient way to operate the M1A Abrams tank.

  • Duane

    Aside from the purely political aspect of this discussion – a very liberal Democrat from MA questioning military expenditures … why, who’d a ever thunk such a criticism would emerge? – it is pretty obvious that this is a case of 20th century thinking vs. 21st century thinking. Of slow moving tanks and troop transports slugging it out on the ground over very short ranges right where the enemy is concentrated, vs. rapidly-deployable airborne forces moving at high speeds over very long ranges in the air where we have clear air superiority and the enemy doesn’t get a vote.

    Gimme that 21st century stuff every time … results in far more decisive actions with far lower casualties. It puts our forces on favorable ground – i.e., advanced technology, rapidly advancing, with expensive high mobility platforms that overwhelm the enemy who cannot compete with like capability.

    In the old days, commanders would attempt to find and occupy or advance or retreat on favorable ground. Favorable ground might be the high ground, or it might be where own forces could either maneuver readily if of overwhelming size, or it might be ground where natural constrictions exist (valleys, passes, heavy timber, etc.) that allow a small defending or retreating force to hold off or even defeat a much larger force.

    The aviation component is precisely what enables our warfighters to choose the favorable ground on which to fight.

    This is not to say that ground vehicles are obsolete – hardly. But we have little to no natural advantage when it comes to armored ground forces slugging it out toe to toe. The objective is not to win a fair fight – the objective is to decisively win every time, as unfairly as we can make it for the enemy.

  • Peter

    >>>“We are a light general purpose force. One of the things that gives the Marine Corps an advantage on the battlefield is its mobility and its fires. Much of that comes from aviation,” he said.<<<

    Don't flame me on this :-)…

    Some would think "too light," especially considering that the primary weapons of the ground vehicle force are the .50cal M2HB, 7.62mm M240, TOW ATGM launcher, and the 40mm MK-19 (not including the small arms and Javelin ATGMs of the dismounted Marines). These are essentially heavy crew-served weapons. Remove the support of the 155mm M777s, 25mm LAVs, the ITV 120mm mortars, the LAV-mortars, and 120mm M1A1s, and the USMC ground vehicle force is indeed pretty lightly armed for a MEU(SOC).

    There were concepts to uparm the USMC, but this didn't happen. There was the "Dragonfire" autoloading and autoaiming mortar that worked and somehow got shelved, the idea to mount the M777 on the back of the MTVR like the French 155mm "Caesar" (and nothing came of that idea), the RST-V "Shadow" (cancelled), the CLAWS SAMs on a HMMWV (no funding), and one could even use different turrets on the LAVs like the Delco with 25mm and twin TOW, and 120mm LAV mortar turret (never happened). Now there are plans to add a laser to JLTVs for anti-drone defense, but that doesn't contribute to the ground weapons force.

    I think that some of the ACVs should mount the 30mm remote-turret just like the plan to uparm the Army's Stryker BCTs. The USMC needs some heavier ground firepower lost with the cancellation of the 30mm turreted EFV. M2HBs and MK-19s just don't cut it anymore in modern ground combat….they're not lethal enough against enemy light to medium armored vehicles today.

    If the US Army ever puts into service their light tank concept that they've been talking about for decades, be it 105mm or 120mm cannon, the USMC should acquire some light tanks to boost its ground combat direct firepower and armored protection.

    • Curtis Conway

      “Now there are plans to add a laser to JLTVs for anti-drone defense, but that doesn’t contribute to the ground weapons force.”
      The intel and targeting that will be prevented by downing the drones will go a long way to saving the lives or our troops, and enabling them to accomplish their assigned mission.
      “…some of the ACVs should mount the 30mm remote-turret just like the plan to uparm the Army’s Stryker BCTs.”
      AMEN & AMEN!

  • Michael D. Woods

    It’s been a long time since I was wing comptroller, so I wonder — Isn’t aviation still funded in the Navy budget? I don’t disagree about the ground equipment, but what’s the Marine financial officer have to do with it?

  • David Geaslin

    No modern amphibious operation can succeed without air superiority. Being 73 years old, I had the good fortune to work with a veteran of Guadalcanal as a teenager. Some jets were flying low over us at a construction site. When one of the other workers complained about the number of airplanes, the Former Marine said, “Aren’t you glad their ours.”

    Marines landing on the beach need a clear sky to survive. The F-35 is for theater air superiority, the Cobra is for TAOR air superiority, the drone is for immediate air superiority. When those air assets work, the Marine in the bush can get beans, bullets, and bandages from the H-53s, MV-22s, and Hueys. When those pieces are in place, the grunt can defeat the enemy. Without those air superiority assets, the grunt will be forever defensive and limited in the success they can accomplish. Without air superiority in a modern war, they will be pushed off the beach and die. It is all a matter of priority. Every Marine knows that. It is the responsibility of congress to put the pieces for success in place and just because aviation assets cost more is no reason to question the importance.

    David Geaslin
    Former Captain of Marines (RVN 1969/70)