Focus on the Marines

By Captain Travis Grell, U.S. Marine Corps

The high operational tempo of the war on terrorism, as well as delays in procurement of new aircraft, have combined to create a shortage of ready basic aircraft noted above. 5 These are defined as mission-capable aircraft with systems required by aircraft operating procedures and the Federal Aviation Administration. 6 As the DCA states in his 2016 Marine Aviation Plan , “deploying units achieve readiness just in time,” but next-to-deploy or non-deploying squadrons are not ready to “fight tonight” should the need arise. 7 Because Marine aviation does not have the aircraft numbers necessary to achieve flight hour goals, budgeted flight hours are scheduled to decrease an average of 3 percent from FY 15 to FY 19. 8 Less time in the cockpit for each pilot will exacerbate readiness shortfalls over the next five years.

Alarming Mishap Rate

There is a connection between training and mishaps. Of the 33 Marine aircraft class “A” mishaps in Afghanistan between 2010 and 2012, 85 percent of the accident investigations cited human error as a causal factor. 9 According to the Naval Safety Center, the majority of these mishaps were caused by “judgment and decision making” or “skill-based” errors. 10 Despite the permissive aviation operating environment in Afghanistan, too many mishaps occurred that could have been prevented with better training. Unfortunately, this negative trend continues; the FY 15 class “A” Marine aviation mishap rate was the highest in five years. 11 The rate will likely continue to increase as Marine aviation introduces systems that increase aircrew workload without a corresponding increase in training. It seems obvious that our focus should be on correcting deficiencies in training-aircraft numbers and flight hours before adding any new missions.

Further complicating Marine aviation’s training readiness problems are the delays in the fleet-wide transition to new aircraft. Marine aviation intends to complete this transition in FY 32 when the F-35 replaces the F/A-18 in the operating forces, but unanticipated problems will likely extend this time line. Delays in building AH-1Zs have pushed the transition completion from fourth-quarter FY 19 to third-quarter FY 20. At the same time, CH-53K development has been delayed 44 months since 2005, and the F-35 acquisition time line has more than doubled since 2001. 12 If the past is any indication, delivery delays will persist, and it is likely that Marine aviation’s readiness shortfalls will persist as these transitions are prolonged. Unless we improve training, our ability to conduct combat operations will continue to suffer. 13

To counter the readiness deficits brought on by low aircraft availability, new missions, and limited flight hours, the Marine Corps must increase the amount of time pilots spend in operational flying billets. Currently, pilots spend less than half of their first ten years of service in operational squadrons. After training for six months at the Basic School, two years in flight school, and six to 12 months at a fleet replacement squadron, the average pilot spends only four years in an operational squadron before moving to a three-year B-billet (i.e., non-operational billet), taking him to the end of his service obligation. Time spent in a fleet squadron is further reduced if the pilot serves 12 to 18 months as a forward air controller. Until recently, Aviation Continuation Pay provided an incentive for Marine aviators to remain on active duty beyond their initial service contract. The incentive was available from FY 01 to FY 13 and offered up to $20,000 per year for aviators in some communities to extend their contract to 16 years of service. While this incentive was successful in retaining aviators on active duty, it did not specifically require additional fleet time or take into account the qualifications of the retained pilots. 14

Squadron Continuity, Army-Style?

It is time to borrow a manning concept from U.S. Army aviation, where Army aircraft are flown predominantly by aviation warrant officers who remain in flying billets throughout their careers. The Marine Corps has rejected this approach in the past, but the service needs to make some bold changes. The Army defines such officers as the “technical and tactical experts providing long-term continuity of service” in their units; they serve as squadron instructor pilots, standardization officers, aviation safety officers, maintenance test pilots, master gunners, and flight leaders. 15 To gain similar benefits, the Marine Corps should develop an aviation limited duty officer (LDO) program to retain highly trained squadron weapons and tactics instructors (WTIs) in the operating forces for longer periods. These officers are subject-matter experts for mission planning, briefing and debriefing, threat systems, weapon-system employment, and integrating the unit’s mission in support of Marine Corps and joint missions. 16 Currently, aviators who qualify as WTIs incur a two-year service obligation and remain in the operating forces for 12–18 months after graduating from the semiannual course held by Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona. 17 As it typically takes a pilot between two and four years to attain the prerequisite qualifications to attend the course at Yuma, squadrons invest much more time getting pilots ready for the course than they get in return. 18

Allowing some aviators to become LDOs—“technical officer specialist[s] who perform[s] duties that require extensive knowledge, training, and experience with the employment of particular capabilities which are beyond the duties and responsibilities of a warrant officer and which cannot be met by an unrestricted officer—offers a solution. 19 Adopting this alternative and extending tour lengths by several years would afford squadrons the continuity now enjoyed by the Army, thus avoiding the existing cycle of expending training resources to create WTIs only to have them move on 12–18 months later.

Aviator LDOs should also be exempt from B-billets, career professional military education, and non-flying staff billets required of unrestricted officers. These LDOs would not serve as department heads or commanding officers, but would instead remain in their aircraft community for the duration of their careers to serve as senior flight instructors. An annual board would select the most qualified volunteers to become LDOs, with service obligation and fleet-tour lengths, targeted aircraft communities, and incentive pay, if required, to be determined based on the evolving manning needs of Marine aviation. The Marine Corps should at least give this a try.

Readiness Imperiled

Some maintain, however, that Marine aviation’s readiness shortfalls are a temporary effect of the transition to new aircraft, and that focusing efforts on material readiness and making up lost flight hours in simulators can mitigate the readiness deficit. 20 To address aircraft shortfalls, the DCA has initiated independent readiness reviews (IRRs) for the communities with the lowest readiness. Reviews of the AV-8B and CH-53E communities were completed in FY 15; reviews of the MV-22B and H-1 communities, scheduled for FY 16. 21 The AV-8B and CH-53E reviews identified key areas for maintenance and material improvements. These improvements are necessary, but until the struggling communities achieve their training goals, adding more missions will only hinder their readiness.

Offsetting the reduction in flight hours by relying more on flight simulator training has value for some missions because technological advances have closed the gap between the simulated environment and the reality of flying. Simulators are suitable to train aviators to perform emergency procedures, instrument flight, and weapons delivery, but they do not accurately replicate low-altitude terrain flight, carrier landings, degraded visual environment landings and takeoffs, or air-combat maneuvering. These deficiencies stem from differences in the simulator’s response to control inputs and the modeling of terrain and obstacles. 22 The bottom line: More simulator training can help correct Marine aviation’s readiness deficit, but will not fully address the problem.

Adding missions to our current platforms will increase the flexibility of Marine aviation, ensuring our relevancy to the joint force in future operations. Added capabilities, however, are beneficial only if they do not degrade the squadron’s ability to perform its primary mission. Trying to turn our aircrews into “jacks of all trades” will weaken, not strengthen, overall proficiency. Continuing to add capabilities—without increasing flight hours and managing instructor pilots more efficiently—will degrade aircrew readiness and make it virtually impossible for Marine aviation to live up to its billing.

1. LtGen Jon Davis, USMC, “Forward to the Fight,” Marine Corps Gazette , vol. 99, no. 5 (May 2015), 25.

2. Marine Aviation Plan 2016 (Washington, DC: U.S. Marine Corps Department of Aviation, 2016), 4, 185.

3. Ibid., 48, 53, 57.

4. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Universal Naval Task List , MCO 3500.26A, 10 November 2008, 16, .

5. Davis, “Forward to the Fight,” 26.

6. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Aircraft Maintenance Training and Readiness Program , NAVMC 4790.01, 29 October 2, 2009, 8, .

7. Marine Aviation Plan 2016 , 3.

8. Ibid., 185.

9. Chief of Naval Operations, Naval Aviation Safety Management System , OPNAVINST 3750.6S, 13 May 2014, 82, .

10. Marine Corps Aviation Afghanistan Mishaps , Operations Research Project 13-002 (Norfolk: Naval Safety Center, 2013), .

11. FY02-15 Marine Class A Flight Mishap Rates (Norfolk: Naval Safety Center, 2015), .

12. Marine Aviation Plan 2016 , 80. Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, 2015), 91, . 77.

13. Ibid., 182.

14. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Fiscal Year 2009 Aviation Continuation Pay , 25 September 2008, .

15. Commissioned Officer Professional Development and Career Management , Pamphlet 600-3 (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 2014), 95–100.

16. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Marine Corps Aviation Weapons and Tactics Training Program , MCO 3500.109, 17 January 2007, 7, .

17. Ibid., 2.

18. Commandant of the Marine Corps. AH-1W Training and Readiness Manual . NAVMC 3500.49A, 25 July 2014, 33, .

19. Secretary of the Navy, Marine Corps Limited Duty Officer and Warrant Officer Programs, Promotions, and Continuation Procedures , SECNAVINST 1412.9B, 7 February 2006, 2, .

20. Davis, “Forward to the Fight,” 25–28.

21. Marine Aviation Plan 2016 , 13–14.

22. Loren E. Peitso, “Visual Field Requirements for Precision Nap-of-the-Earth Helicopter Flight” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2002), 1–2.

Captain Grell is assigned to HMX-1. He is an AH-1W Weapons and Tactics Instructor and Aviation Safety Officer and has deployed with the 31st MEU in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, and on the III MEF Unit Deployment Program with HMLA-469.  He is a recent graduate of Expeditionary Warfare School.


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