Don't Cherry Pick the MAGTF

By Colonel Robert D. Loynd, U.S. Marine Corps

Proponents need to beware of the potential pitfalls of the TACAIR argument, however. Advocating too ardently or specifically for the future of Marine TACAIR alone is the wrong argument to make. Rest assured that Marine requirements officers are fully engaged in ensuring our legacy fixed-wing programs—the F/A-18A-D, AV-8B, KC-130, and EA-6B—are properly resourced and equipped and that successful bridging plans are in place that will take the Corps to the more advanced, transformational capabilities inherent in the F-35B, KC-130J, and unmanned aerial systems. We might also begin including the MV-22 Osprey in this discussion as its innovative tilt-rotor technology essentially crosses the divide into the fixed-wing realm.

Rather, the more valuable, institutional argument needs to be about the importance these systems play as components of the larger Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) and the lethal and flexible capabilities that our combined-arms organization provides to the joint force commander. Marine TACAIR is just one element, albeit an inextricable and critical one, that cannot and should not be viewed as a programmatic or budgetary bargaining chip inside the Beltway. Marines at all levels need to understand this fundamental principle and apply their intellectual energies to educating others, both in and out of the Corps.

Relevancy or Necessity?

In preparation for the next Quadrennial Defense Review ( QDR ), the Department of Defense has been conducting roles and missions assessments of how best to structure our forces to support the objectives of our National Defense Strategy. A debate has emerged within the department over the nature of future warfare and how our services should best implement their planning, programming, budgeting, and execution cycles in this environment of strategic uncertainty. On one level, this debate involves interpretations of the strategy and the fiscal constraints that will bind our procurement efforts. On another, it is a debate between those who view training and equipping for the challenges of irregular warfare, counterinsurgency, stability and support, security cooperation, and phase zero operations as the most necessary efforts for the ensuing decades, versus those who advocate for a fast return to traditional core competencies and capabilities that can be applied to all types of conflict.

Clearly, after six years of extended combat operations in the war on terrorism, there exists an obvious migration in opinion toward low-intensity "hybrid" warfare as our most likely strategic threat in the years to come. But the fact remains that the joint force must be equipped and capable of addressing the range of military options and threats. As services develop their respective "story lines" throughout the QDR and roles and missions assessment process, the debate must not rely so much on the oft-termed concept of relevancy (organizational justification), but rather, on the mandate of necessity—that is to say, what unique service capabilities are essential to the security of our nation today as well as 20 years from now.

An obvious by-product of the roles and missions discussion is the attempt to gain efficiencies in our force structure through consolidations. More threatening are those who endeavor to marginalize a particular service's capabilities to support their own agenda. The Marine Corps has faced this challenge repeatedly throughout its history, with detractors arguing that the Corps amounts to nothing more than a second Army. Marine Corps proponents have always been successful in fending off the divestiture activists by pointing to the Corps' legends and legacies of past conflicts, evoking emotional memories and passionate responses that rallied supporters and influenced advocates in Congress. Consider the effect of the 18th Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Alexander Vandegrift's "bended knee speech" to the U.S. Senate on 6 May 1946, artfully shaping the opinion of many in Congress who were considering the future necessity of the Marine Corps by stating:

[s]entiment is not a valid consideration in determining questions of national security. We have pride in ourselves and in our past, but we do not rest our case on any presumed ground of gratitude owing us from the Nation. The bended knee is not a tradition of our Corps. If the Marine as a fighting man has not made a case for himself after 170 years of service, he must go. But I think you will agree with me that he has earned the right to depart with dignity and honor, not by subjugation to the status of uselessness and servility planned for him by the War Department. 2

Target sights have also fallen with equal vigor on Marine aviation, labeling it as a redundancy that could easily be replaced by Navy or even Air Force assets. This proposition has risen from the ashes yet again, as the emphasis in the current conflict on counterinsurgency and irregular warfare operations has compelled the ill-informed to question the relevancy of Marine Corps TACAIR in these environments. This argument gains further traction from concurrent resource discussions of tactical air shortfalls and cost debates over the F-22 Raptor, F/A-18E/F Super-Hornet, and the three variants of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. In an 8 June 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service titled, Tactical Aircraft Modernization: Issues for Congress , the author writes that:

the Navy-Marine Corps Tactical Air Integration Plan of 2002 is a potential model for DOD's entire tactical aviation force . . . the most efficient, effective way to construct our air assets may be one of the biggest debates in the Quadrennial Defense Review . . . . [H]igh cost of tactical aircraft programs has renewed interest in the division of tactical aviation roles and missions among the services. The apparent redundancy in tactical aviation among the services—the Air Force plus air components of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army—has often been criticized as a duplication of efforts. 3

In response to such assertions, it is no longer sufficient in 2008 for Marine Corps supporters to rely merely on the inspirational laurels of the past to serve as our shield. While we Marines will always maintain our traditions, warfighting philosophies, and cultural ethos, the Corps' combined-arms capabilities and competencies have evolved to such an advanced level that we are now obligated to devote more reflection and discussion to the Corps of the future. This begins with strategic thought that fully comprehends how the tactical and operational capabilities of our combined-arms organization will continue to serve as a key component of the joint force in the accomplishment of our nation's greater strategic objectives. We must also seize every opportunity to forcefully articulate how the Corps—as the nation's sole, forward-deployed, expeditionary force-in-readiness—ultimately contributes to America's security. It is a clear and compelling fact that in today's uncertain strategic environment, regardless of the location, level of conflict, or potential complexity of an operation, the United States does, in fact, need the Marine Air-Ground Task Force with all of its advanced operational concepts and combined-arms capabilities.

The Expeditionary MAGTF

The seamless integration of combat capabilities across operating environments and domains, coupled with the responsiveness and readiness inherent in our expeditionary force posture, are the hallmarks of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force. Assisted by organic ground, air, logistics, and command and control capabilities, MAGTF forces are necessarily light, scalable to the particulars of a contingency, naval in character, shipboard-deployable, and capable of operating in austere, forward-deployed environments as a complete and integrated air-ground package.

The MAGTF can provide rapid response to humanitarian crises, deterrence or signaling through proximity and presence, traditional power projection, and forcible-entry operations, countering anti-access attempts by our adversaries, or sustained, large-scale combat operations. Refining concepts of sea-basing and global fleet stationing will further enhance MAGTF capabilities in the increasingly complex and asymmetrical operating environments of the future. Security cooperation, partnering, training and advising, and other confidence-building operations will become more commonplace as our national security strategies focus more attention on suppressing potential conflict at its roots.

The MAGTF's flexibility, responsiveness, lethality, and persistence lie in the cooperative action of all of its components, none more important than any other. In a crisis or contingency that requires immediate response, a forward-deployed Marine Expeditionary Unit can initiate operations from the sea and project inland with all necessary combat elements and logistics self-contained. Should a particular operation become protracted, the task force is also capable of establishing the command framework and C2 architecture for follow-on joint forces that may not possess the initial proximity or responsiveness of the MAGTF. These expeditionary and integrating capabilities are what the MAGTF brings to a contingency as soon as it arrives on scene, and it is what our nation expects of the Marine Corps.

The "A" in MAGTF

As quoted at the beginning of this article, Lieutenant General Trainor's challenge to Marine aviation planners focuses on assessing and defining Marine TACAIR requirements. It is useful, therefore, to comment on how emergent aviation capabilities that are due for introduction over the next decade will greatly improve air and ground integration, kinetic and non-kinetic force application, joint and coalition interoperability, digital-networking capacity, and command and control functionality—all of which will tremendously enhance the MAGTF's overall warfighting effectiveness.

Whether providing assault support, anti-air warfare, offensive air support, electronic warfare, control of aircraft and missiles, or aerial reconnaissance, the aviation combat element supports and facilitates each and every Marine Corps operation, regardless of complexity, in any global locale. And while the MV-22 Osprey is indeed a new kind of assault support thoroughbred, the F-35B will fundamentally alter and enhance the MAGTF's kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities in the battlespace, to include the low intensity, counterinsurgency environment. Combined with advanced expeditionary sea-basing and global fleet stationing concepts, the short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL)-capable F-35B and tilt-rotor MV-22 will be directly integrated with and organic to the forward-deployed MAGTF, capable of flexible, distributed operations—whether at sea, projected ashore from over the horizon, or deployed to expeditionary forward operating bases hundreds of miles inland.

Transition to the F-35B

The F-35B will not only contribute to lethality and precision with its low-observable, penetrating strike capabilities, but more important, to the commander's overall situational awareness on the battlefields of the future. Whether providing dedicated support to the MAGTF or supporting the joint force air component commander per the Omnibus Agreement of 1986 (a joint agreement that affirmed the use and apportionment of organic Marine aviation assets between the MAGTF commander and the joint force air component commander), the Marine Corps' F-35B will also be capable of maintaining and distributing a single, integrated air-ground operational picture. This information will supply immediate, real-time intelligence and target discrimination in the MAGTF and joint battlespace, providing invaluable input to a commander's decision cycle. This information will be distributed from multi-functional command and control centers, across cockpits, and down to our distributed ground maneuver forces, providing for a level of awareness and decision-making never before achieved and facilitating MAGTF and joint force integration, coordination, and employment.

By 2014, the Marine Corps F-35B will be the only fifth-generation TACAIR platform capable of STOVL operations from either an expeditionary sea-based platform or austere forward operating base, complete with a forward-deployed aviation logistics package. Ground forces engaged in myriad operations will have organic TACAIR F-35Bs forward-deployed with them, ready to apply time-sensitive effects. The F-35B's capabilities will improve air-ground integration through enhanced situational awareness, multi-spectral intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, information distribution and exchange, digital interoperability, digital close air support, and the application of precision weapons with the low collateral damage Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) II.

The F-35B will also contribute advanced airborne electronic attack capabilities as part of a networked, system-of-systems approach. Through employment of the emergent Next-Generation Jammer system and digital interoperability with other distributed electronic warfare capabilities carried as payloads on Tier II and III unmanned aerial vehicle systems, the F-35 will be capable of providing airborne electronic attack that is proximal to the threat and on-call to the lowest echelon commander on the ground.

All of these TACAIR capabilities will foster advancements in battlefield command and situational awareness for the MAGTF and joint force. Bolstered by the aviation combat element, the MAGTF is postured to execute responsive, persistent, lethal, and adaptive full-spectrum operations in any environment or operational phase, anywhere around the world.

Our Marine combined-arms force is a vital asset that the joint force commander relies on to achieve his operational and strategic objectives for our nation. Marine TACAIR is inextricably linked to this whole, regardless of the mission, level of conflict, or area of operation, and its role is secure. The Marine Corps cannot allow itself to become fixated on any one component or a single mission. As Lieutenant General Trainor correctly exhorts us to "assess and define" our TACAIR requirements, we must ensure that we properly articulate these requirements within the context of our larger MAGTF organization. As then-Major General Trainor wrote in 1980:

The Marine Corps is unique among the armies of the world because of our total integration of combat power in the air-ground task force and an unparalleled capability to orchestrate the integrated effort. If there were ever a force multiplier on the modern battlefield it is the Marine Corps' organization for battle. 4

The MAGTF will always be the real story and where the institutional emphasis and advocacy should always remain. It's not about Marine TACAIR—it's about the power of the MAGTF.


1. LT GEN Bernard E. Trainor, USMC (Ret). "Listen Up Marines! We Belong at Sea, Ready for Trouble." U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , April 2008, p. 46.

2. Wikipedia. "Alexander Vandegrift."

3. Christopher Bolkcom, "CRS Report for Congress - Tactical Aircraft Modernization: Issues for Congress." Congressional Research Service, 8 June 2007, p. 11.

4. MAJ GEN Bernard E. Trainor, USMC, "New Thoughts on War." Marine Corps Gazette , December 1980, p. 49. 

Colonel Loynd is the Deputy Branch Head, Aviation Weapons Requirements Branch, Aviation Department, Headquarters Marine Corps.


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