Tradition & Teamwork
By LT. GEN. TERRY G. ROBLING
The Marine Corps is at a cross- roads in our aviation history.
Those of us left from the 1970s — a
few general officers, sergeants
major and master gunnery sergeants — did not imagine back during the Ford administration what
the world would be like today.
Threats are different today. Our airplanes and
weapons systems have evolved and their capabilities
are truly amazing. The Marine Corps is in the middle
of transitioning, rebuilding or replacing every single
aircraft in our inventory to a new, better and more reliable model. Marine Corps aviation training and culture
have improved and sharpened.
The key to our success, however, is and has always
been our people. This generation of aviators is trained
and ready for the war to which they are now called,
and for the next one.
The threat has changed since the days of the Cold War.
We were worried about the Soviets in those days,
because this was a peer competitor who truly could,
and would, challenge the U.S. military.
The Soviet Union not only had the capability to stand
and fight, they demonstrated daily their aggression. The
Soviet Navy and Air Force were confrontational: for
instance, every time we went out for Team Spirit exercises,
the Soviets scrambled aircraft out of Vladivostok to shadow and track what we were doing. Backfires and Badgers
loaded out for war came over the Arctic Circle to provoke
us. Their “fishing trawlers” shadowed our carrier battle
groups and amphibious ready groups whenever they sor-tied to sea. In September 1978, a Soviet fighter shot down
Korean Air Lines Flight 007, killing 269 people, including
U.S. Rep. Lawrence McDonald. Tensions were high.
Afghanistan then was a place where the Soviet Army
was engaged in fighting a desert war against an upstart
mujahedeen. Saddam Hussein had just moved from
being a general to ruling Iraq, and received a humanitarian award from UNICEF while being hailed as the
best of the modern Arab leaders. The Shah was still in
power in Iran. China was a poor, rural country. The
collapse of the Soviet Union led to a reshuffling of
threats and of areas of conflict.
Most of my peers went 15 years — or even an entire
career — without hearing a shot fired in anger. Now,
young aviators go straight from the Fleet Replacement
Squadron into the fight. It is nearly guaranteed that a
Marine Corps naval aviator will go to a shooting war in the
first year or two out of flight school. It is not unusual now
to see a young aviator with multiple combat decorations.
What we have seen as a force is a steady need for
expeditionary and amphibious forces. Our Marine
Expeditionary Units (MEUs) and Amphibious Ready
Groups are always deployed across the globe. Though
the threat changes, America’s forward posture does
not. This demand signal is what we see today as we
address issues across the range of military operations
in places like North Africa, places that demonstrate the
need for power projection from the sea.
My peers and I were trained by combat-hardened infantry
and aviation officers just back from Vietnam. The lessons
of that war permeated the Marine Corps, and the importance of the tight integration of the air-ground team was
crystal clear to those who fought there.
Aviators used tactics honed there to drop bombs close
to our troops, and Vietnam was the first battlefield across
which troops were moved with the speed of vertical insertion. Our ability to put ground forces directly into the
fight, and then to support them with close air support and
assault support, is a skill we have continued to hone.
Those captains and majors in the aviation community focused my generation of officers on the importance
of professional training. None of what today’s aviators
take for granted was standardized Marine Corps-wide,
let alone standardized across services. Naval aviators as
an institution established places like Top Gun, which
changed the negative air-to-air kill ratios with which we
started Vietnam, and put us on the right end of those air-to-air engagements by the end of that war.
They established Naval Air Training and Operating
Procedures Standardization manuals and training and
readiness syllabi. They stood up the Weapons and
Tactics Instructor Course in Yuma, Ariz., and qualifications like Air Combat Tactics Instructor. We adapted
our tactics, adapted our training and captured lessons
along the way. Such tough and self-critical analysis is
the hallmark of a thinking, winning force.