Thursday, December 30, 2010

F-35B: Second Guessing the Marines

...Is this the latest fad?
Well, there seems to be no end of people who are second guessing the Marine Corps over their desire for the F-35B and how they plan to use it.

At Defense Tech
(here) I'm having an exchange in the comments with an earnest young man (I’m guessing age mid-20s, probably a ‘gamer’) who is a prime example of what I’m talking about. He seems to really want his questions answered, so I thought I’d oblige him. His ‘questions’ were:

[1] “What scenario do you envision that requires a $100+ million-dollar V/STOL aircraft for air superiority?”
[2] “How do you expect eight of said aircraft to be able to secure that airspace and still deliver meaningful CAS?”
[3] “Why have a CAS aircraft that can't actually operate in a stealth configuration with a real weapons load?
My ‘short’ answer, after asking if he REALLY wanted answer was:

Sorry for the delay (been away having a life).The short answer is: your questions are flawed, irrelevant, simplistic or some combination thereof. The first question hinges on what is, according to data in evidence, a falsifiable assumption (F-35B variant unit cost) that is presented as fact and contains an implication that some previous claim was made for an F-35B in the ‘air superiority’ role . I’ll set aside the inflated cost claim, and the ‘air superiority’ aspect poses no problem. The ‘meaningful’ qualifier is ambiguous and problematic by itself. [RE: “V/STOL”- I assume you made a simple transposition error as there are very obvious differences between a V/STOL and STOVL (F-35B) system]. The second question presumes a scenario whereby eight F-35B’s are the total number of aircraft available. Again, not a problem, but more probable force structures should be discussed. The third question can be construed as containing an attempt to ‘poison the well’ in asserting the F-35B can’t operate in a CAS role in a Day One (stealth) configuration, while using another ambiguous modifier (‘real’) attached to ‘weapons load’ in an attempt to write off the internal capability as inadequate, without also providing quantifiable justification. My answers will be provided as part of a coherent narrative, with specific points tied to the ‘questions’ through the use of brackets “[ ]” with the relevant question number(s) within. When necessary, explicit observations relative to the questions will be provided. Given space limitations here at DT, the response may be posted elsewhere and a link provided here.
Since the ‘short’ answer required two posts, I’m providing a more full response as follows. (I’ll place a link at the thread.)

The Long Answer

The USMC’s philosophical basis for Warfighting is the overarching operational concept ‘Operational Maneuver From the Sea’ (OMFTS), which builds upon the Navy’s littoral warfare concepts. It integrates the USMC’s ideas on future amphibious operations and maneuver warfare. Within OMFTS, the basic building block for all expeditionary operations is the Marine Air to Ground Task Force (MAGTF). MAGTFs are always ‘task organized’: that is to say their composition and scale are dictated by the operational objectives. Since their composition and scale are determined by mission, the only time a MAGT would deploy with a small number of F-35Bs would be if the mission only required a small number of F-35Bs [2] . If a small number of F-35Bs were deployed (ex: 6-8), this would suggest a limited, probably single-facet mission (ex: Air-to-Air OR Air-to- Ground) or sequential allocations of single-facet missions (ex: Air-to-Air THEN Air-to- Ground) as part of an operation that is far below the level of effort that is required to conduct a major assault, perhaps as part of providing security for an humanitarian aid, disaster relief or evacuation operation [1,2] . For large scale military operations, such as that similar to a Desert Storm, a relatively large number of F-35s (20+ per LHA/D as modern versions of “Harrier Carriers) could be provided.
It is important to keep in mind that in whatever role/mission the USMC F-35Bs will perform; they are performing their mission as part of the Air Combat Element (ACE) in an integrated Combined Arms combat action. As such, F-35 operations are intrinsically tied to the MAGTF effort, and will conduct their missions in support of the MAGTF effort as a maneuver element of the MAGTF. The scale of the F-35B operational responsibilities is thus scaled to the MAGTF effort in such a way that all missions and sorties flown (SEAD/DEAD, Interdiction, ISR, Air Superiority and Close Air Support) are conducted on a scale no larger than that needed to perform their mission as part of the overall MAGTF mission. For example, when the Marines talk ‘Air Superiority’ they are talking LOCAL Air Superiority: protecting a three dimensional airspace sufficient to provide protection to the Ground Combat Element (GCE) from air attack (and in concert with MAGTF Air Defense units). This is a distinctly different concept of ‘Air Superiority’ than the Air Force’s concept.
The Air Force plans and executes the mission of providing Air Dominance (Air Superiority to the ‘nth degree’) in any theater it is tasked, and manages its assets to meet that mission best on a theater-wide scale. If needed, the F-35 provides the Marines the capability to move from an Air-Air engagement to Air-Ground mode or vice versa without any reconfiguration: a capability that in itself allows for using fewer aircraft to do the same mission than in the past [1,2,3] . The Marine MAGTF concept of operating from austere fields reduces dependencies on large runways and increases operational flexibility. The Marines have determined that ‘operational flexibility’ is an overarching requirement for their expeditionary forces and have shown a willingness to give up other force attributes for the sake of gaining that flexibility. Note: An excellent example of how the Marines have operated in austere conditions while leveraging the operational flexibility of the far less capable and more logistics intensive AV-8B (than F-35) can be found here . The Marines created and have sustained their Expeditionary Logistics capability as a unique effective asset for supporting such operations. They use the forward positioning and logistics to leverage more sorties out of their aircraft by reducing transit times to the fight. As a result, fewer aircraft can provide more support than larger numbers operating from distant locations [1,2] .
The ability to cycle aircraft on and off station quickly means that smaller payloads have less of an effect on the availability of munitions/firepower in position at any one time for any mission, but for missions such as CAS and Interdiction the reduced size of munitions (like SDB) that provide 500 lb class effects, means that in most circumstances, even in a ‘Day One’(Full Low Observables) configuration, there is still the potential to have same number of aimpoints held at risk per airframe in any one time period as before [3] . As it has been noted that the 95% of aimpoints the MAGTF will encounter are suitable for ‘1000 lb class’ attention or less, the Marines do not find the 1000lb bomb upper size limit an unacceptable limitation.
It should also be mentioned that the F-35 is the first aircraft in history that is not only designed to fight as an individual weapon platform by the pilot, but also as a networked component of a larger virtual weapon system by the ACE commander. Survivability, Proximity, reliability, payload, configurability, network-centricity: all these features will give the F-35B system in the hands of the Marines the ability to project force well out of proportion to an equivalent number of legacy CTOL and STOVL multi-role aircraft.

End Note: I completed the two-year USMC Marine Command and Staff College (Non-Resident) program in 1992. At the time it was the only program of its type available to Air Force Senior NCOs. I am also told that at the time I was one of only a handful of AF SNCOs to complete the program. Since then, I understand more opportunities to attend such schools, even in residence, have been made available of SNCOs. I would heartily recommend any Senior NCO with the inclination and ability to attend such schools if at all possible to add to the breadth and depth of their military knowledge. My coursework in MCSC helped me understand the changes (and how much things haven’t changed) in Marine operational doctrine as they have occurred since that time.

Further reading:

MAGTF Aviation and Operational Maneuver From the Sea

The MAGTF in Sustained Operations Ashore

Marine Aviation and Operational Maneuver From the Sea

Operational Maneuver from the Sea: A Concept for the Projection of Naval Power Ashore

Operational Maneuver from the Sea (Krulak)

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