The Marine Corps should purchase 94 Embraer A-29 Super Tucanos and 53 fewer F-35Bs to ensure it has a more lethal, expeditionary, economical, and scalable FW attack-aircraft community. The more diverse mix would better support EF21’s vision. Potential adversaries would most likely use guerrilla or hybrid strategies against U.S. forces, but an FW attack community that flies only F-35s would be optimized to only counter conventional ones. The A-29, winner of the U.S. Air Force’s light air-support (LAS) competition, is primed to counter guerrilla strategies. As the venerable adage about preparedness advises, “Two is one, one is none.” A complementary mix of F-35s and A-29s would increase the capabilities and versatility of the Marine FW attack aircraft community at a lower cost than the current plan to only purchase F-35s.
A Broad View of Potential Threats
Considering the modern guerrilla/hybrid success record, future adversaries will likely seek to present anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) challenges as part of a guerrilla or hybrid approach more often than as part of a conventional one.1 Examples of conventional A2/AD weapon systems include coastal-defense cruise missiles and radar-guided surface-to-air missile systems, but these are not the only types of weapons adversaries have used against U.S. forces to deny access or impede operations; they have also used small arms and improvised explosive devices to successfully achieve A2/AD goals. While modern U.S. forces have consistently done well against the conventional threats they have faced, they have been less successful against hybrid and guerrilla strategies. After U.S. and allied forces defeated the conventional Iraqi military, belligerent groups in Iraq executed a more successful guerrilla strategy against U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). The adversaries who have recently learned successful guerrilla strategies against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are proliferating these strategies among other potential belligerents.2
Hybrid and guerilla strategies can impose excessive cost if the United States uses expensive, conventional military hardware to fight a substantially more frugal enemy. Trying to get the United States to bankrupt itself by spending a lot of money to fight al Qaeda wherever its fighters appeared around the world was part of Osama bin Laden’s strategy against the United States. Trying to counter guerrilla strategies with the wrong equipment also erodes the U.S. military capacity to fight the conventional threats for which said equipment was intended, because all hardware has a finite service life.
Optimizing a significant part of the Marine Corps against only one type of threat ignores the agency of potential U.S. adversaries to pick their own strategies. U.S. Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster recently concluded, “There are two ways to fight the United States military: asymmetrically and stupid.”3 McMaster is likely not the only strategist, here or abroad, to have reached this conclusion.
F-35B vs. Conventional, A-29 vs. Guerrilla
The Marine Corps requires that FW attack aircraft be capable of conducting multi-mission, expeditionary, and survivable operations to counter conventional threats. The Marine Corps is paying a very high price for the F-35B to meet those demands. The F-35B’s training-and-readiness manual prioritizes offensive air support, antiair warfare, and electronic-warfare missions. Its short-takeoff/vertical-landing (STOVL) capability makes the aircraft highly capable of conducting expeditionary and survivable operations against modern conventional threats, particularly when conducting distributed STOVL operations (DSO). Its stealth and electronic-warfare capabilities will allow the F-35B to survive in airspace defended by conventional radar-guided air-defense systems.
The-F35B is an expensive aircraft to procure and operate. Based on the 2013 F-35 selected acquisition report (SAR), I estimate the F-35B’s program-acquisition unit cost (PAUC), excluding military construction costs, would be approximately $181 million. The Marine Corps estimates the F-35B will cost $37,000 per flight hour to operate and support (O&S). Based on the F-35 SAR’s estimate of 302 flight hours per year, the F-35B should cost $11.2 million per airframe in yearly O&S costs.4
Considering the A-29’s low cost, using it instead of the F-35B against a guerrilla threat is more cost-effective and serves to better counter such a strategy.
The A-29 can meet a MAGTF’s demand for an FW attack aircraft capable of conducting multi-mission, expeditionary, and survivable operations to counter guerilla threats. The A-29 is a light attack aircraft designed to conduct multi-sensor imagery reconnaissance (MIR), close air support (CAS), and armed reconnaissance. The primary mission FW attack aircraft conduct against guerrilla threats is MIR/CAS, where aircraft primarily conduct MIR missions but are armed in case they are tasked with conducting CAS missions. From 2004 to 2007, all coalition aircraft supporting Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and OIF dropped munitions an average of 7 percent of the time while allocated to fly CAS sorties. Some OIF AV-8B Harrier II pilots stated they conducted MIR missions so often the pilots feared they were losing proficiency in CAS.5
Assault support can be critical to counter guerrilla threats, so another mission the Marine Corps would likely demand its FW attack aircraft to conduct is assault-support escort. Without ordnance, the A-29 has an endurance of up to 8.4 hours and a range of up to 1,500 nautical miles. With the speed to keep up with the MV-22B and appropriate ordnance, the A-29 can likely escort the MV-22B with a radius of 325 nautical miles and provide additional time on station to conduct MIR/CAS missions in support of the assault force. A MAGTF commander could extend the range of the A-29 further by using rapid ground refueling, potentially borrowing procedures from the DSO concept.
Survivable, Stealthy, and Affordable
A MAGTF would demand that an FW attack aircraft optimized to counter any threat be capable of expeditionary operations for maximum basing flexibility. The LAS program’s critical requirements include the aircraft being able to operate from “austere, forward operating bases” and 6,000-foot runways, including runways composed of “semi-prepared surfaces (dirt, grass, gravel, etc.).”6 The F-35B cannot operate from such surfaces.
The A-29 is also well suited to meet expeditionary-operation demands, because it has a smaller logistical footprint than the F-35B. The A-29 is almost an order-of-magnitude more fuel-efficient than the F-35B, which means the Marine Corps would need to transport and store significantly less fuel to support A-29 operations. The A-29 is also a lighter and smaller aircraft, which means its components would be lighter and smaller as well.
Armed with small arms and possibly man-portable air-defense systems, a guerrilla threat poses minimal danger to FW attack aircraft. Against such threats, the A-29 has suffered zero losses in 28,000 hours of combat flight.7 Like the F-35B, the A-29 could capitalize on its expeditionary capabilities and use the DSO concept to maintain mobility and confound a guerrilla threat’s targeting problem against A-29 airfields.
The A-29 would be able to satisfy the demand for stealth against a guerrilla threat. This demand would not be for radar stealth but for audio/visual stealth. A low audio/visual signature allows FW attack aircraft to hold close to a target area when the ground commander wants to hide the use of aviation from an enemy whose primary sensors are eyes and ears. Holding close allows aircrews to better discern what they are seeing in their targeting pods or through the canopy. Holding close allows for more reliable communication between the aircrew and the ground-combat element (GCE), especially when GCE Marines use light, low-powered radios. Holding close also allows for a more reliable datalink image from the aircraft’s targeting pod to the GCE. The A-29 has similar dimensions to the F-35B, so its visual signature would likely be close to the F-35B’s. As a propeller aircraft, however, the A-29 would likely be much quieter than the F-35B.
Using the A-29 against guerrilla threats would save the F-35B’s flight hours and capabilities for a more appropriate threat environment. Combat deployments against guerrilla threats can deliver exceptionally high fatigue hours to Marine FW attack airframes. From 2005 to 2009, the average Marine fleet squadron F/A-18 Hornet airframe flew 26.5 hours per month. Six Marine F/A-18 land-based squadrons during the same years deployed in support of OIF averaged 82.6 hours per month per airframe.8
Combat deployments against guerrilla threats have underused multi-mission, advanced Marine FW attack aircraft. The six OIF F/A-18 squadrons flew such high monthly hours by conducting primarily MIR/CAS missions from land bases.9 Flying over three times the average monthly hours on a combat deployment while executing a narrow portion of an aircraft’s mission is wasteful if a cheaper alternative is available. The A-29 would be far cheaper to procure and operate than the F-35B. I estimate the A-29’s PAUC would be $21.4 million based on the $21.4 million unit cost the U.S. Air Force paid for 20 A-29Bs in 2013.10 $21.4 million is also almost triple the PAUC of a similar U.S. airframe, the Beechcraft T-6 Texan II. I estimate an A-29’s yearly O&S costs would be $2.3 million, and I calculated this cost by tripling the T-6’s yearly O&S costs.11
Optimal Against All Threats
A Marine FW attack-squadron organization plan incorporating the F-35B and A-29 could make the Marine FW attack-aircraft community more available, economical, and capable than the current F-35B plan, which organizes operational Marine F-35B squadrons into 9 active F-35B 16-aircraft squadrons, 5 active F-35B 10-aircraft squadrons, and 2 reserve F-35B 10-aircraft squadrons. One of the 16 aircraft squadrons is to be forward-deployed to Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, and the 16 aircraft squadrons contain a 10-aircraft squadron and a 6-aircraft detachment.
The Marine Corps could organize operational FW attack squadrons for maximum flexibility with a mix of F-35B and A-29 squadrons. The Marine Corps could plan for 12 active F-35B 12-aircraft squadrons, 1 active F-35B 18-aircraft squadron, 1 reserve F-35B 18-aircraft squadron, and 3 active A-29 18-aircraft squadrons. The active F-35B 18-aircraft squadron would be the one forward-deployed to Iwakuni, and all F-35B and A-29 squadrons would be manned and equipped to deploy as 6-aircraft detachments or as larger 12- or 18-aircraft squadrons. This organization plan could allow for 4 more active-component deployable F-35B elements and 13 more active-component deployable FW attack-aircraft elements compared to the existing plan. Overall, this organizational structure could increase the number of deployable FW attack airframes by 11 percent and deployable FW attack elements by 57 percent.
Replacing 53 F-35Bs with 94 A-29s (a number that includes 13 for a fleet replacement squadron, 6 for test and evaluation, and 21 for backup inventory and attrition reserve) would likely incur cheaper procurement and operating costs than the existing procurement strategy. I estimate 53 fewer F-35Bs would impose a 2 percent PAUC increase on all Navy F-35 airframes based on a linear extrapolation of the Navy F-35 PAUC increase between 2001 and 2002 that resulted from the service purchasing 400 fewer F-35Bs. I estimate there would be no F-35 O&S cost increases because there was no O&S cost estimate increase between 2001 and 2002.12 Overall, the F-35B/A-29 procurement plan could save the Navy approximately $5.38 billion in procurement costs, and the Marine Corps could save approximately $290 million in yearly O&S costs. These savings would amount to a 4 percent decrease in procurement costs and an 8 percent decrease in yearly O&S costs. O&S savings would likely increase should the Marine Corps deploy A-29s instead of F-35Bs in future combat environments where A-29s might fly up to three times the average number of monthly flight hours. Operating A-29s instead of F-35Bs would likely deliver additional savings to the Marine Corps due to the smaller logistical footprint of the A-29.
A-29 squadrons could complement, not replace, F-35B squadrons within the Marine FW attack-aircraft community. The F-35B is optimized to support the traditional Marine mission of amphibious operations because it can operate from amphibious ships. The A-29 is optimized to support another traditional Marine mission: fighting small wars. The F-35B can operate from places the A-29 cannot, and vice versa. The F-35B is the go-to FW attack aircraft during the initial phases of a joint operation, when U.S. forces have the highest probability of facing conventional A2/AD weapon systems. The A-29 would be the best-suited aircraft during the stabilization and civil authority–enabling phases of a joint operation, when U.S. forces would likely face guerrilla strategies and which recent history has shown might last longer than earlier phases.13
The A-29 could improve the versatility of the Marine FW attack-aircraft community by supporting MAGTF and combatant commanders in many other ways. The maximum ferry range of the A-29 could make it able to support Special Purpose MAGTF-Crisis Response (SMPAGTF-CR) operations, and, given the A-29’s capabilities, it might prove to be the best airframe to provide offensive air support and aerial reconnaissance in support of SPMAGTF-CRs. As a unique DOD asset, the A-29 could support other Marine, joint, or coalition units any time such units request low-cost counter-guerrilla FW attack-aircraft with a very low logistical footprint. The A-29 and the F-35B would have different security-cooperation audiences as well. As of 2014, 7 countries have purchased the F-35B, and 12 countries have purchased the A-29.
‘Meet All the Demands’
Two potential counterarguments are that purchasing the A-29 would detract from EF21’s focus area of naval integration, and that other platforms could meet Marine demands for a counter-guerrilla FW attack aircraft. The proposed plan would not detract from the Marine Corps’ ability to support maritime operations, it would not subtract any F-35Cs, and it would retain 162 active-component deployable F-35B airframes. Only if the Navy simultaneously deployed eight USS America (LHA-6) amphibious-assault ship equivalents and outfitted them with the maximum F-35Bs would 162 airframes not be enough to satisfy the demand for Marine FW attack aircraft to operate from amphibious ships. During the initial phases of OIF, only 48 AV-8Bs operated from two “harrier carriers.”14 The A-29 could assist naval integration by saving F-35 flight hours for naval operations instead of land-based deployments against guerrilla threats.
There are many platforms that could meet Marine demands for a counter-guerrilla FW attack aircraft, but only the A-29 can meet all the demands. Of other potential LAS candidates, such as the AT-6B and OV-10X, the A-29 is the only candidate that is an existing DOD program of record, and would be more economical to develop and procure than any other LAS option.
Two other potential candidates that are combat-proven MIR/CAS assets are armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the Harvest HAWK-equipped KC-130J. Until the sensor on an armed UAV can match the speed and precision of the human head to keep track of multiple friendly aircraft while scanning for enemy forces and hazards in a landing zone, the UAV will be significantly handicapped compared to a manned aircraft in the assault-support escort role. An escort aircraft also normally controls fires in the landing zone as a forward air controller (airborne) (FAC[A]) until the assault force’s joint terminal attack controller has landed and is ready to take control. UAV mission commanders and KC-130J aviators are unable to receive the FAC(A) qualification, which is likely due to visibility and maneuverability limitations of both aircraft. The A-29 does not share these limitations. Based on the KC-130J’s fuel efficiency and size, its logistical footprint is significantly larger than the A-29’s. The KC-130J’s visual signature is also significantly greater than the A-29’s, making the KC-130J less stealthy than the A-29 as well.
The F-35B is a very capable aircraft that would likely excel against almost any enemy, except one who counts on U.S. forces to use premium equipment to battle a discount threat. This is part of the guerrilla strategy, and in the 50-year service life of the F-35B, the Marine Corps will likely face many guerrilla threats. A mix of F-35Bs and A-29s would make the Marine Corps better able to counter the full spectrum of potential adversary strategies at a lower cost. This mix would allow the Marine Corps to do more with less.
According to the Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, General John M. Paxton Jr., the service focuses on preparing for potential adversary’s most dangerous course of action (MDCOA).15 Considering the relative U.S. success rate against conventional strategies compared to hybrid and guerrilla ones, almost any intelligent enemy’s MDCOA would likely contain at least some form of asymmetric warfare against U.S. forces that would include hybrid or guerilla strategies. This would likely still be true even if such an enemy has the resources to execute a purely conventional strategy. The Marine Corps should ensure all its material programs of record optimize the service against the full range of MDCOAs. Seeking optimization against a broad range of threats will better assist the Marine Corps in meeting EF21’s goals and produce a more adaptable Marine Corps to face an uncertain future.
1. Robert M. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the Pentagon for a New Age,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 88, no. 1 (January/February 2009), www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/63717/robert-m-gates/a-balanced-strategy. LtGen James N. Mattis, USMC, and LtCol Frank Hoffman, USMCR, “Future Warfare: The Rise of Hybrid Wars,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 131, no. 11 (November 2005), 19.
2. James Kitfield, “Flynn’s Last Interview: Iconoclast DIA With a Warning,” Breaking Defense, 7 August 2014, http://breakingdefense.com/2014/08/flynns-last-interview-intel-iconoclast-departs-dia-with-a-warning. Paul Scharre, “Trends in Hybrid and Irregular Warfare,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 138, no. 9 (September 2012), 63–5.
3. H. R. McMaster, American War Generals, National Geographic Channel, 14 September 2014.
4. Andrea Shalal-Esa, “Pentagon Cuts F-35 Operating Estimate Below $1 Trillion: Source,” Reuters, 21 August 2013, www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/22/us-lockheed-fighter-idUSBRE97L01E20130822. Department of Defense, Selected Acquisition Report (SAR): F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Aircraft (F-35), RCS: DD-A&T(Q&A)823-198 (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2013), 94–5, http://breakingdefense.com/wp-content/uploads/sites/3/2014/04/F-35-2013-SAR.pdf.
5. Anthony H. Cordesman, US Airpower in Iraq and Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies, December 2007), 4, http://csis.org/files/media/csis/pubs/071213_oif-oef_airpower.pdf. Fixed Wing Marine Attack Squadron Operations: Lessons and Observations from VMA-211 Deployed September 2006–March 2007 OIF 05-07, CDR 3469 (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps Center for Lessons Learned [MCCLL], 15 November 2007), 26. Fixed Wing Marine Attack Squadron Operations: Lessons and Observations from VMA-231 Deployed March–September 2007 OIF 06-08.1, CDR 3767 (Quantico, VA: MCLL, 11 March 2008), 2. VMA Operations Quick Look Report: Lessons and Observations from VMA-513 Deployed February–September 2006 OIF 05-07, CDR 2175 (Quantico, VA: MCLL, 16 February 2007), 4. MIR encompasses the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions referenced in these documents.
6. U.S. Air Force, “Afghanistan Light Attack Aircraft,” FedBizzOpps.gov, 30 October 2009, www.fbo.gov/index?s=opportunity&mode=form&id=01768f9fe4885f2dbd7f7b4cc11aa4ec&tab=core&_cview=1.
7. “A-29 Report Card,” Sierra Nevada Corporation, 10 July 2014, www.builtforthemission.com/jax/bftm.nsf?Open.
8. Average derived from Marine regular F/A-18A/C/D aircraft count and annual flying hours from 2005 to 2009 from Naval VAMOSC Data on 29–30 July 2014. Naval VAMOSC, Naval Center for Cost Analysis, www.vamosc.navy.mil. VMFA OIF Command Chronologies: VMFA(AW)-224 ComdCs from January to July 2005, VMFA(AW)-332 ComdC from July to December 2005, VMFA(AW)-533 ComdC from January to June 2006, VMFA(AW)-242 ComdCs from September 2006 to January 2007, VMFA-115 ComdCs from January to Dec ember 2008, and VMFA-122 ComdC from January to June 2009 (Quantico, VA: Archives and Special Collections Branch, Library of the Marine Corps), 3.
10. “A-29 Super Tucano Wins Air Force Bid for Light Air Support Mission,” Sierra Nevada Corporation, 27 February 2013, www.sncorp.com/press_more_info.php?id=533.
11. Department of Defense, Selected Acquisition Report (SAR): JPATS, RCS: DD-A&T(Q&A)823-560, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2011), 30, 42.
12. Department of Defense, Selected Acquisition Report (SAR): F-35 (JSF), RCS: DD-A&T(Q&A)823-198, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2001), 17, 19, 21, 23, 25–6, 28, 29, 31, 41, www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/logistics_material_readiness/acq_bud_fin/09-F-1079_JSF_SARS_1996_Present.pdf. Department of Defense, Selected Acquisition Report (SAR): F-35 (JSF), RCS: DD-A&T(Q&A)823-198, (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2002), 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 28, 31, 33, 35, 45, www.dod.mil/pubs/foi/logistics_material_readiness/acq_bud_fin/09-F-1079_JSF_SARS_1996_Present.pdf.
13. Gates, “A Balanced Strategy.” Undersecretary of the Navy Robert O. Work and LtCol F. G. Hoffman, USMC (Ret.), “Hitting the Beach in the 21st Century,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 136, no. 11 (November 2010), 20.
14. Sonya Ansarov, “Bataan Breaks Harrier Embarkation Record,” U.S. Navy press release, 9 May 2003, www.navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=7336.
15. Gen John M. Paxton Jr. , USMC, interview with Maren Leed, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 October 2014, http://csis.org/event/forward-and-ready.
Major Clark is a Marine F/A-18D weapons systems officer (WSO), forward air controller, and foreign area officer. Currently assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Dakar, Senegal, he has deployed multiple times in support of the Unit Deployment Program as a WSO and supported OEF as a battalion air officer.