The recent agreement between the Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Chief of Naval Operations to integrate Marine and Navy tactical aircraft (TacAir) raises some important questions with respect to Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) acquisition. The memorandum of agreement will integrate fully Navy and Marine Corps strike-fighter squadrons into a more unified and "seamless" Naval TacAir force by fiscal year (FY) 2012. The number of Marine squadrons attached to carrier air wings will increase from four to ten, and the Navy will decrease its active squadrons from 36 to 33. Three Navy squadrons will be integrated into the Korean Contingency Unit Deployment Program (UDP), and both services each will decommission one reserve squadron.1
Furthermore, future doctrine guiding employment of naval TacAir will be different in response to the emerging strategic environment. Strike-fighter aircraft will be part of both carrier strike groups (CSGs) and expeditionary strike groups (ESGs) in support of the Department of the Navy's (DoN) 21st-century strategic vision, "Sea Power 21." Before the TacAir integration agreement, DoN planned to purchase 1,089 JSFs in a one-for-one replacement of Marine AV-8B Harriers and Navy and Marine F/A-18C Hornets. An important factor in the integration decision was long-term cost savings. The memorandum of agreement reduces carrier-based F/A-18C squadrons from 12 to 10 aircraft, and DoD expects further savings as a result of the integration. In light of these expectations, three significant questions must be addressed:
* How many JSF squadrons will DoN need to support future joint warfighting objectives?
* What is the optimum number of aircraft per squadron, and thus the total number of JSFs needed by DoN?
* What is the correct combination of aircraft carrier (CV) and short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variants?
Future Requirements Dictate Squadron Makeup
Maintaining adequate global presence to support the nation's future national security goals will require that three CSGs and three ESGs be continuously forward deployed to cover the Mediterranean, Arabian Sea/Gulf, and West Pacific areas of responsibility (AORs). An aircraft carrier will be the centerpiece of a CSG. Carrier air wings (CVWs) will include 44 strike-fighter aircraft from four squadrons, comprised of 10 Navy JSFs (CV variant), 10 Marine Corps JSFs (variant to be determined), 12 Navy F/A-18Es, and 12 Navy F/A-18Fs.2 The centerpiece of an ESG will be a Marine expeditionary unit (special operations capable). ESGs will be comprised of amphibious ships similar to current amphibious ready group configurations, plus additional escort and/or strike vessels.3
For the foreseeable future, 12 aircraft carriers will remain in service to support CSG deployment rotations. Nimitz (CVN-68)-class carrier infrastructure will exist through 2058.4 Catapult launch specifications for the CV variant of the JSF have been matched to Nimitz-class carriers. The Navy's Nimitz-class replacement is CVN-78, a similar large-deck catapult carrier scheduled to begin construction in 2009. Because the CVN-78 class is projected to remain in service until at least 2079, CVN catapult-assisted aircraft launch capability will exist well beyond JSF's expected service life.5
Similarly, amphibious assault ship (LHD/LHA) design will affect JSF operations. Twelve large-deck amphibious assault ships will remain in service to support ESG deployment cycles. Currently, 7 of those 12 ships are LHDs scheduled for decommissioning between 2029 and 2041. The remaining five large-deck amphibious ships are Tarawa LHAs scheduled to be decommissioned at a rate of one per year beginning in 2011.6
Based on a combination of capability and affordability, the most likely LHA replacement option is a modified LHD similar to the existing version. The modification adds two plugs to the LHD hull to increase the length by 56 feet and the beam by 10 feet, resulting in an expanded vehicle storage capacity equivalent to an LHA. The "LHD-Plug" also has an expanded flight deck large enough to integrate two additional fixed-wing aircraft into normal flight operations, with 12 MV-22 Ospreys included in the Marine expeditionary unit (MEU) aviation combat element (ACE).7
A key factor affecting DoN's ability to meet future warfighting requirements will be the number of JSF aircraft assigned to each operational squadron. Based on anticipated increases in capability and reliability, approximately ten JSFs will be assigned to an operational squadron.8 Average full mission-capable rates for the JSF are projected to exceed 85%.9 Increased precision and lethality will serve as additional force multipliers that will allow a 10-plane JSF squadron to achieve effectiveness equal to or greater than a traditional 12-plane strike-fighter squadron.
The TacAir integration memorandum of agreement already implies ten JSFs per CVW squadron. But will a squadron of ten JSFs fit aboard the ESG amphibious warfare-class ships that likely will be in service for the foreseeable future, particularly with a full complement of 12 MV-22s in the ACE? The answer is yes-depending on how the Marine air-ground task force commander wishes to tailor the ACE. The LHD-Plug initially will be capable of integrating two additional JSFs (for a total of eight) into normal flight operations. LPD-17 will begin replacing the LPD-4-class fleet when the lead of 12 ships in the LPD-17 class (USS San Antonio) is commissioned in November 2004. LPD-17 will provide 33% more flight deck space and a hangar nearly twice as large.10 This will make it possible to stage all of the ACE's AH-1s (Cobra helicopters) and UH-1s (Huey helicopters) on the LPD, creating room for at least two more JSFs on the large-deck amphibious assault ship in the ESG. This configuration would result in a capacity for eight JSFs on a legacy LHA or LHD, and ten on an LHD-Plug.11
When operating from a legacy LHA or LHD, the Marine air-ground task force commander could elect to reassign the ACE with a full squadron of ten JSFs in lieu of a CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopter detachment, depending on the operational environment and anticipated mission requirements. ACE rotary-wing lift capability will increase significantly when the MV-22 Osprey replaces the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter, as the Osprey will provide double the passenger lift capacity and four times the external lift capability, with the ability to deliver those loads more than twice as fast as traditional rotary-wing platforms.12
Place Enough JSFs in ESG Rotations
In the future, carrier strike group deployments will be supported by ten CVWs. Nine of these will share responsibility for consecutive six-month deployments to the Mediterranean and Arabian Sea/Gulf AORs using an approximate four-to-one rotation cycle, meaning there will be at least four CVWs assigned to fill each AOR rotation. This results in a 15- to 18-month squadron interdeployment training cycle, depending on transit time from the continental United States to the assigned AOR. The tenth CVW will remain permanently forward based in Atsugi, Japan, to service the West Pacific AOR.
Similar six-month ESG deployments will be supported by seven MEU command elements. One will be on continuous alert in Okinawa, Japan, for West Pacific contingency operations. Three East Coast MEU command elements will rotate to fill the Mediterranean AOR, and three West Coast MEU command elements will rotate to fill the Arabian Sea/Gulf AOR.
The ground combat element (GCE) for each MEU is supported with a four-to-one rotation among continental United States-based battalions. Similarly, the rotary-wing portion of the ACE, presently a reinforced CH-46 squadron and eventually a reinforced MV-22 squadron, will support MEU deployments originating from the continental United States with at least a four-to-one rotation schedule, commensurate with current practice. Like the CVW rotation schedules, each of these cycles affords at least 15 to 18 months for an interdeployment training cycle.
Fixed-wing support for deployed MEUs, however, is more complicated. There are seven operational AV-8B squadrons. Given the fact that three MEUs are deployed at any time, these seven Harrier squadrons support nine MEU deployments during an 18-month period. However, current fixed-wing MEU support is provided with six-plane Harrier detachments rather than the entire squadron. AV-8B squadrons presently are assigned 16 aircraft each, which affords the capability to generate two internally separate detachments from each squadron. Consequently, there are 14 Harrier detachments available to support nine MEU deployments over an 18-month period, translating to a rotation cycle of slightly greater than four to one.
A potential operational tempo crisis will develop when these 16-plane AV-8B squadrons transition to 10-plane JSF squadrons unless more JSF squadrons are placed into the rotation cycle. If seven ten-plane squadrons are forced to support nine MEU deployments every 18 months, these squadrons will be deployed nearly six months of every year. When deployment work-up requirements are factored in, these squadrons will be deployed nearly continuously.
To prevent this, DoN needs a JSF force structure that provides a four-to-one rotation cycle among squadrons scheduled for sea-based deployments. This not only will establish the foundation for a sustainable operational tempo throughout the force, but also will provide the opportunity for fully synchronized expeditionary strike force training. With all air and ground units in the expeditionary strike force operating on the same rotation cycle, ACE TacAir and GCE training can be synchronized, as can CSG and ESG predeployment training. The potential result is an integrated air-ground naval expeditionary strike force team that has trained together on a consistent basis before deploying together to a combat theater of operations.
JSF Squadron Structure and Variants
Considering future forward presence commitments, the need to balance operational tempo demands, specific direction outlined in the TacAir integration memorandum of agreement, and overall DoD affordability, an active JSF force structure should include 380 aircraft. This proposal includes 13 active Navy and 25 active Marine Corps JSF squadrons. Three Marine Corps reserve squadrons and one Navy JSF reserve squadron with ten aircraft each bring the total to 420 JSFs. Multiplying this total by an overhead factor of 62% results in a total of 680, which is in line with long-term affordability projections.13
Advantages of this proposal include 409 JSF aircraft saved from the original DoN one-for-one purchase plan, yielding a total cost savings of $32.7 billion. It maintains the four-to-one rotation goal for squadrons requiring predeployment at-sea workups (CVW and MEU squadrons) and affords the opportunity for integrated expeditionary strike force training. It can be supported with existing hangar and billeting space at Naval Air Station Atsugi and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni. No changes to DoN's current permanent basing posture nor to the existing Japanese Status of Forces Agreement are required.
Disadvantages include Korean Contingency UDP squadrons being on a three-to-one rotation, resulting in a 12-month turnaround, the minimum prescribed by the TacAir integration memorandum of agreement. There is limited flexibility for protracted small-scale contingency response without incurring sustained operational tempo difficulties. Small-scale contingency and major theater war surge depth are limited because of existing rotational CV and MEU work-ups and deployments. A recent study conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses to determine the extent of aviation support required for Marine airground task force operations throughout the range of peace-time, wartime, and various combinations in between concluded that 31 ten-plane JSF squadrons would be required for a major theater war, and 35 squadrons would be needed for a simultaneous small-scale contingency and major theater war response.14
DoN will purchase a combination of CV and STOVL JSF variants, but the exact mix remains undetermined. The known variables are that Marine Corps squadrons deploying on board ESG amphibious warfare-class ships will be STOVL, and that Navy CVW squadrons will be CV variants. But should Marine Corps CVW JSF squadrons be STOVL or CV variants? The decision boils down to range versus operational flexibility.
With full internal fuel and the same internal ordnance and mission profile, the CV variant's combat radius is 770 nautical miles and the STOVL variant's is 500 nautical miles.15 Furthermore, the CV variant's bring-back capability of 9,000 pounds exceeds the STOVL variant's vertical bring-back limit of 5,200 pounds.16 A STOVL JSF operating from an aircraft carrier provides a 10- to 35% increase in sortie-generation capability, which equates directly to mission responsiveness. A Center for Naval Analyses capabilities study of STOVL versus CV variant air wings concluded that STOVL air wings showed considerably more potential, as measured by number of sorties, number of strikes, size of strikes, and time saved in launch, recovery, and on-deck movement.17
The STOVL JSF also provides significantly greater basing flexibility. Compared to the CV variant, the STOVL JSF affords ten times the number of worldwide basing options that support C-17 Globemaster and C-130 Hercules cargo series aircraft (requiring runways at least 3,000 feet long).18 STOVL aircraft operating from a carrier also have the option to rearm and refuel on other amphibious ships in the expeditionary strike force, thereby shortening the "kill chain" and increasing mission on-station time.
A STOVL JSF can operate with the CV variant from the same carrier deck. With standard carrier launch winds of 30 knots over the deck, STOVL JSF can take off from forward of the jet blast deflector on all four catapults with a full internal ordnance load and 96% internal fuel.19 It can launch and recover for operational or force protection purposes when wind over the deck requirements cannot be achieved for conventional catapult and arrestment operations (such as when steaming downwind for recovery, when operating in restricted waters, when transiting through choke points, during underway replenishing, or in the event of a ship casualty).
Marine squadrons in CVWs should be equipped with the STOVL JSF because of the synergistic effect of increased range and operational flexibility within the same air wing. Furthermore, it saves DoN more than $300 million based on the $2 million lower price tag associated with STOVL JSF compared to the CV variant.20 However, there will be ample opportunity for operational evaluation to determine the full extent of capabilities and limitations associated with STOVL JSF operating on a carrier. The first production JSFs will be STOVL variants scheduled for Marine squadrons. Integration of a STOVL squadron into a CVW should occur as soon as practical. Marine UDP and reserve squadrons should use STOVL JSFs to provide flexibility for rotating Marine squadrons to any operational commitment, and to streamline landing qualification and training requirements. Similarly, Navy JSF reserve and UDP squadrons should use CV variants to provide flexibility for rotating any Navy squadron to a CVW, and to streamline Navy landing qualification and training requirements.
Naval aviation stands at the doorstep of a tremendous opportunity to optimize the nation's maritime striking power and lead DoD transformation into the 21st century. The key is an affordable naval TacAir force structure wide enough to cover the globe and deep enough to surge decisively when required. If properly structured, TacAir integration can unlock the potential for a fully integrated and far more lethal naval expeditionary strike force team. The future of forward, sustainable, and decisive joint combat capability depends on it.
1 Department of the Navy, Memorandum of Agreement between Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Warfare Requirements and Programs) and Deputy Commandant for Aviation, U.S. Marine Corps, "Department of the Navy Tactical Aircraft Integration," 16 August 2002. Cited hereafter as DoN MOA.
2 DoN MOA, p. 2.
3 Christian Lowe, "A Deadlier MEU," Marine Corps Times, 18 November 2002, pp. 14-15.
4 Federation of American Scientists, "U.S. Navy Ships," Military Analysis Network, http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/cvn-68.htm, accessed 28 February 2003.
5 Federation of American Scientists, "U.S. Navy Ships," Military Analysis Network, http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/cv-list.htm, accessed 28 February 2003.
6 Federation of American Scientists, "U.S. Navy Ships," Military Analysis Network, http://fas.org/man/dod-101/sys/ship/lha-l.htm, accessed 28 February 2003.
7 Peter B. Strickland, research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, interview by the author, 24 October 2002.
8 Dr. Gary Phillips and others, "Marine Aviation Requirements Study: Summary Report," CRM D0003922.A2/Final (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, August 2001), p. 13. Supporting sources include Whitney, Bradley, and Brown, Inc., "Navy-Marine Corps Aviation Integration Final Report" (Vienna, VA, May 2002), p. 10; and DoN MOA, p. 2.
9 Paul W. Wiedenhaefer, operational requirements analyst at the Joint Strike Fighter Program Office, Arlington, VA, interview by the author, 11 September 2002.
10 Christopher B. Snyder, "Transporting America's Expeditionary Forces in the 21st Century," Marine Corps Gazette, March 2002, pp. 21-24.
11 Rich Celine, research analyst at Naval Air Systems Command, Naval Air Engineering Station Lakehurst, NJ, telephone interview by the author, 11 December 2002.
12 U.S. Marine Corps, V-22 Resource Book (2001), p. 43.
13 DoN strike-fighter acquisition funding is projected to average $3.2 billion per year (in FY 2002 dollars) over the course of the JSF acquisition window thai will begin in FY 2006. Whitney, Bradley, and Brown, Inc., "Navy-Marine Corps Aviation Integration Final Report," p. 9; Larry Cundari, Health of Naval Aviation research analyst at Naval Air Systems Command Research and Engineering Division, Patuxent River, MD, e-mail interview by the author, 25 February 2003.
14 Phillips and others, "Marine Aviation Requirements Study," pp. 4-10.
15 Joint Strike Fighter Program Office, Joint Strike Fighter Capabilities Overview, 2002, p. 27. Ordnance includes two internal 2,000-pound joint direct attack munitions plus two internal AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles. Profile assumes warm-up, climb to optimum altitude, cruise at optimum Mach, plus 20-minute loiter reserve fuel.
16 Wiedenhaefer interview. Total operational payload capacity for both variants is 18,000 pounds.
17 Michael M. McCrea and others, "A STOVL for DoN?" Final Brief, CAB 96-104 (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, April 1997), pp. 3-35.
18 Wiedenhaefer interview. There are approximately 2,000 runways worldwide al least 8,000 feel long (capable of supporting a CV or conventional takeoff and landing, combat-loaded JSF), and more than 20,000 runways at least 3,000 feel long (capable of supporting a C-17, C-130, or STOVL JSF).
19 Kevin M. McCarthy, STOVL Operations Team Lead, Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, MD, telephone interview by the author, 20 February 2003. Lockheed Martin JSF data is for JSF configuration 240-1, which allows for anticipated weight growth during the production cycle. Current tailpipe to jet blast deflector clearance restrictions allow for a 360-foot STOVL takeoff roll with two 1,000-pound joint direct allack munitions plus two advanced medium-range air-lo-air missiles and 12,900 pounds of internal fuel (500 pounds less than maximum internal fuel at start-up), resulting in a combat radius of 450 nautical miles.
20 Wiedenhaefer interview. CV JSF "flyaway" cost (aircraft only) is $48 million in FY 2002 dollars; STOVL JSF is $46 million.
Colonel Robinson wrote this article while attending the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College. He previously was assigned to the Naval Strike and Air Warfare Center as a Topgun instructor, and currently is the director of safety and standardization for Marine Aircraft Group 11 at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar. He is slated to take command of Marine Fighter Attack Training Squadron 101 in May.