Exercise Talon Reach 2014 demonstrated the Marines Corps’ capability to lift a reinforced company from Miami, Florida, and insert it a few hours later at a landing zone as far away as Panama. This ability to conduct an embassy reinforcement and a noncombatant evacuation mission at night over a distance of 1,000 miles—although not within the Corps’ traditional scope—highlights the capabilities of new aviation platforms.1 At the same time, our potential adversaries are employing tactics including standoff weapons that can deny freedom of movement to our aircraft carriers and amphibious warfare ships, increasing required standoff distances from the shore.2 Although it would deviate from tradition, the Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) Air Combat Element (ACE) should be restructured into separate “fixed-wing heavy” and “rotary-wing heavy” elements to fully exploit the capabilities of new airframes and flexibly meet emerging challenges.
Nearly every airframe in the Marine Corps aviation fleet is undergoing a transition. Improved over the CH-46 helicopter it replaces, the MV-22 has the ability to fly at speeds up to 240 knots out to 325 nautical miles, carrying Marines ashore beyond the littoral regions and at speeds comparable to those of fixed-wing aircraft.3 The F-35B has the same short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) capability as the AV-8B Harrier it replaces, but with a greater weapons capacity and longer range.4 The F-35B brings new low-observable stealth and fifth-generation sensor technology, which allow access into otherwise nonpermissive threat airspace.5 It is also the only fifth-generation fighter that is currently operational, and soon it will be in high demand in every theater. These new aircraft are substantially larger than the airframes they replaced, which threatens available space aboard amphibious ships and compels the Marine Corps to rethink its employment practices.
Also driving this need to restructure the MEU ACE is the Marine Corps’ Expeditionary Force 21 vision to overcome the rising global threat of antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities.6 A2/AD threats will force us to employ our current force—which heavily relies on traditional ship-to-shore landing craft—differently. A MEU currently deploys with a mixed ACE based around an MV-22B squadron, and is made up of 10–12 MV-22Bs, 6 AV-8Bs, 4 CH-53s, 4 AH-1Zs, 3 UH-1Ys, and a detachment of 2 Navy H-60 helicopters.7 The current Marine Corps’ plan for the MEU ACE is to replace the AV-8B one for one with the F-35B, which does not take into account the larger size and heavier weight of the F-35B. Although current and planned aircraft complements of the ACE provide flexibility to the MEU commander, neither capitalizes on any single airframe’s capabilities because of limited numbers.
Fixed-Wing and Rotary-Wing Heavy Elements
To take advantage of the expanded capabilities of the MV-22 and F-35B against the emerging A2/AD threat, the Marine Corps must deploy a MEU ACE that is specifically weighted for long-range forcible entry and has the flexibility to operate offshore beyond the effective range of Marine escort helicopters. A “fixed-wing heavy” ACE could include 12 MV-22s and 16 F-35Bs, with the option of four CH-53s embarked on board the amphibious transport dock (LPD) or “small-deck” amphibious ship.
The fixed-wing heavy ACE offers immediate forward-deployed fifth-generation fighters. Since the Navy and Marine Corps’ F-35C carrier-based fighters are not projected to deploy before 2022, Marine F-35Bs will be the only fifth-generation naval aircraft available to combatant commanders. The high demand for this new capability will require more than the traditional AV-8B detachment of six aircraft.
Instead, the F-35B should deploy as an entire squadron in order to provide a greater number of sorties. Since an F-35B is employed in sections (two aircraft flying together), a 12-jet squadron operating conservatively at 50 percent readiness would be able to fly three sections of aircraft per day. One section could fly a strike mission while another section escorted the first. A third section could escort rotary-wing assets, provide additional strike capability, conduct air defense, or remain in reserve. This becomes significant in a nonpermissive environment because gaps in escort coverage could prohibit the entry of follow-on forces. A fixed-wing heavy ACE could deploy a full F-35B squadron with the MEU to help to fill the gap in forward-deployed fifth-generation strike and fighter capability.
Employing a combination of MV-22Bs and F-35Cs offers distinct advantages. The F-35B can use its sensors to provide situational awareness to Marines on the ground and even conduct electronic warfare, a capability that previous MEUs with the AV-8B did not have.8 A fixed-wing heavy ACE would have the capacity to conduct forward arming and refueling points (FARPs) to use the F-35B STOVL capabilities and extend range. Distributed STOVL operations complicate the targeting cycle for the enemy and allow extended reach. By 2018, the MV-22 should have the added flexibility to refuel F-35s airborne, extending their range even farther.9 The MEU then will have self-sufficient refueling capability, eliminating its dependence on shore-based KC-130 assets. Additional benefits include the ease of maintenance and parts supply with only two type aircraft embarked and the simplified deck cycle for launch and recovery. Deploying the full squadron of F-35Bs also allows more pilots to maintain proficiency in landing on board the ship. Ultimately, the MEU has a much greater reach with the fixed-wing heavy ACE embarked.
The upcoming availability of both ships and aircraft could support fixed-wing heavy ACE deployments. Based on an assessment of flight deck space available on the current complement of Wasp-class amphibious warfare ships, a fixed-wing heavy ACE would be limited to about 12 MV-22s and 12 F-35s.10 The USS Wasp (LHD-1), an older amphibious ship, was only recently modified to be ready to deploy the first F-35Bs in 2018.11 The USS America (LHA-6), recently built, has a greater capacity and would be able to accept all 12 MV-22s and all 16 F-35s.12 The USS Tripoli (LHA-7), built to the same specifications, will be available by 2018. The America will be stationed in San Diego, supporting West Coast MEU deployments.
Conveniently, the AV-8B squadrons on the West Coast are the first to transition to the F-35B.13 This suggests that West Coast MEUs could feasibly deploy the fixed-wing heavy MEU ACE within the next couple of years. These MEUs normally deploy to the Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf, and Southeast Asia, areas in which the A2/AD threat is prevalent.14 An additional factor for the fixed-wing heavy ACE is that the America-class ships do not have a well-deck to allow for traditional ship-to-shore connectors, so it is logical to deploy them with a fixed-wing heavy complement capable of operating further from shore.
This fixed-wing heavy version of the ACE then would enable a complementary “rotary-wing heavy” ACE, with an expanded heavy-lift capability. The rotary-wing heavy MEU ACE would be optimized for rapid build-up of combat power at shorter ranges, because it would include additional UH-1, AH-1, and CH-53 aircraft without the speed and range to operate effectively beyond 200 miles. Due to deck space limitations with additional helicopters embarked, the MEU could notionally bring only half a squadron of 6 MV-22s along with 6 CH-53s, 8 AH-1Zs, 6 UH-1Ys, and 2 Navy H-60s.15 These complementary arrangements should cover the transitional years between the first F-35B MEU deployment, scheduled for 2018, and the sundown of the AV-8B Harrier projected for 2025.16
Mutually Supporting MEUs
When deployed, each weighted ACE would lack some capability, but the Marine Corps would retain its overall flexibility to respond to crises. In the event of armed conflict, the two MEUs would support one another. The new MEU ACE structure would place a fixed-wing heavy MEU deploying from the west coast while a traditional or rotary-wing heavy MEU would deploy around the same time, alternating so as to overlap. The fixed-wing heavy MEU would respond to crises with the ability to project long-range strikes inland while maintaining standoff. The F-35B would be used to gain long range access and conduct early shaping operations. MV-22s could fly in mobile FARPs to extend the reach of the F-35B and also leverage its unique STOVL capability.17
While the fixed-wing heavy ACE would conduct shaping operations, the rotary-wing heavy MEU would come on station only after conditions had been set. The second MEU then would be able to push closer to shore to offload vehicles and cargo and leverage rotary-wing close air support. The two MEUs working together would provide the structure for the scalable force envisioned by Expeditionary Force 21. Follow-on forces could then be flown in to plus-up the ACE and sustain the overall effort. Despite the weighting of the two ACE models, each MEU still would have the fundamental ability to respond to crises around the world on short notice.
Deploying the MEU without rotary-wing escorts would reduce the flexibility of the ACE. The lack of AH-1 and UH-1 rotary wing escorts would reduce some of the options for the MEU commander, but with the ships operating greater distances from shore, these assets already would be inherently less effective. At the required standoff distances these aircraft may not be able to range the objective area during shaping operations. If required, the MEU commander would have the option of embarking a detachment of AH-1s and UH-1s on board the LPD. Even without a Marine helicopter detachment on board amphibious ships, the fixed-wing heavy MEU could employ Navy H-60s for missions such as inserting special operations forces or conducting maritime visit, board, search, and seizure, a mission for which the MV-22B is not optimal.18
The fixed-wing heavy MEU also would lose the capacity for heavy lift, but it is unlikely that the offload of large equipment would occur in the early stages of a forcible-entry operation. The rotary-wing heavy MEU ACE could embark all of the helicopters that would have gone on the complementary MEU, so the deployment cycle of Marine squadrons would not be affected. The rotary-wing heavy MEU would gain nearly double the capacity of a standard MEU to lift heavy cargo and equipment.
Deploying complementary and mutually supportive fixed-wing heavy and rotary-wing heavy MEU Air Combat Elements is a smart solution for optimizing the capabilities of individual aviation assets. Both MEU constructs retain the ability to put forces ashore using their smaller ships to offload people and equipment, but the aviation capabilities are more focused and defined. Tailored MEUs could go where they are most needed to answer the future A2/AD theat or conduct operations closer to shore if the environment permits. The rotary-wing heavy MEU ACE would have the ability to generate greater tempo through heavy-lift capacity, while the fixed-wing heavy ACE would capitalize on its speed, range, and stealth to out-cycle a thinking enemy. In the near future, when a combatant commander calls for forcible entry in depth from the sea, the Marine Corps must be ready to answer by employing the fixed-wing heavy MEU ACE.
2. Commandant of the Marine Corps, Expeditionary Force 21 Capstone Concept, 4 March 2014, 8.
3. Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, Amphibious Ready Group and Marine Expeditionary Unit, 5 February 2016, 12.
4. Michael R Smith, “F-35B on the MEU: Innovation or Just New Technology?” research paper U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College, April 2010, 14.
5. Jon M Davis, 2015, “Forward to the Fight,” Marine Corps Gazette vol. 99, no. 5, 30.
6. Expeditionary Force 21 Capstone Concept, 4.
7. Ryan P. Wellborn, “MEU ACE,” Marine Corps Gazette vol. 99, no. 4, (2015), 49.
8. Jon M Davis, “Forward to the Fight,” Marine Corps Gazette vol. 99, no. 5 (2015), 24, 32.
9. Lara Seligman, “Marine Corps: MV-22 Osprey Aerial Refueling Capability Delayed to 2018,” Inside Defense, 10 July 2015, http://insidedefense.com/inside-navy/marine-corps-mv-22-osprey-aerial-refueling-capability-delayed-2018.
10. Smith, “F-35B on the MEU,” 23.
11. Jean Grace, “USN to Forward Deploy F-35B on Board Modified LHD in 2017,” Jane’s Defense, 13 October 2013, www.janes.com/article/29810/usn-to-forward-deploy-f-35b-on-board-modified-lhd-in-2017.
12. John Pike, “LHA-6 America,” Global Security, 2014, www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/lha-6.htm
14. Christopher J. McCarthy, “Anti-Access/Area Denial: The Evolution of Modern Warfare,” Naval War College Paper, April 2014.
15. Wellborn, “MEU ACE,” 51.
16. Grace, “USN to Forward Deploy F-35B.”
17. Expeditionary Force 21 Capstone Concept, 42.
18. Scott A. Cuomo, “A Different ACE is Required,” Marine Corps Gazette vol. 96, no. 2 (2012), 91.