Through the 1990s and 2000s, we continued to codify and standardize what we do. Now, people don’t just
go out and fly hours every month: every hour in the
aircraft is accounted for and productive, and it makes
us all better aviators. Our captains and majors now are
vastly better than they used to be because we have professionalized our aviation training. We ask more of
them now than we did in my early days, but these aviators are smarter than was my generation. They are the
digital generation, and they are mastering today’s better equipment and technology quickly.
Aircraft and Systems
Our weapons systems are now vastly better than those of
the 1970s. In those days, jets maneuvered to shoot within
visual range. Now, fire-and-forget missiles allow us to
engage from greater distances with greater accuracy.
We trained then to plan and fly Alpha strikes:
dozens of aircraft going up against a threat. We don’t
need those as much now. We can destroy more targets
with far fewer planes due to our superior weapons and
systems. Rather than numbers of planes prosecuting a
target, planners can think about numbers of targets
one plane can prosecute. This is a shift in planning and
thinking about war, and it has come about because of
breakthroughs in technology.
The F- 4 Phantom entered duty in 1960, and took the
Marine Corps through Vietnam and even into Desert
Storm. In 1991, the F/A- 18 Hornet and the F- 4 actually
overlapped in theater, with the Hornet used for the first
time in a shooting war and the 30-year-old F- 4, in its
Wild Weasel variant, preparing to exit the scene. Like
the F/A- 18, the F- 4 served multiple roles and performed
multiple missions in support of Marines on the ground
and from land bases and aircraft carriers.
The F/A- 18, like its Phantom forebear, is a rugged, saltwater airplane, built to go where the fight is, fly from ship
or land bases, and bring along a lot of bombs and missiles.
The naval services brought the two-seat version online in
the late 1980s and it, too, is closing in on the 30-year
mark. By adding Forward Air Controller (Airborne) and
night attack missions to the two-seat variant, the Marine
Corps maximized this airplane’s value. It is the multipurpose aircraft its builders had envisioned, and the aircraft
that replaces it, the F- 35 Lightning II, has a wider range
of more lethal capabilities.
We now look forward to the next step in strike evolution: the F-35B, which also will replace the Harrier
and the EA-6B Prowler. In replacing these three aircraft, the F- 35 will take over their missions, giving us
cutting-edge electronic attack and situational awareness capabilities to go along with its capabilities as a
close-air support platform. This is the next step in the
evolution of power-projection strike assets.
Our beloved CH- 46 Sea Knight helicopter is finally
heading to pasture, and is being replaced at a rate of
more than two aircraft a month and two squadrons a
year by the MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor. The Osprey,
immediately after introduction, went straight to war,
even sooner than we had planned for it to do so. The
Osprey is finishing up its ninth deployment, including
six to combat and three aboard ship. Its recent success
in rescuing a downed American in Libya shows the
speed and range of this airframe, and like the F- 35 it is
a game-changing asset for both aviators who fly it and
planners who employ it.
Like the Osprey, unmanned aircraft are a quantum
leap in aviation technology and capability. What started in the 1980s and really hit its stride in the 1990s
is paying off today, as the Marine Corps prepares for
a force with unmanned air systems of multiple sizes
and ranges in the inventory at once, flying from ship
The CH-53K Super Stallion helicopter will be the
heavy-lift asset for our middleweight force, replacing
the two workhorse CH- 53 airframes in heavy use today.
Our H- 1 helicopters are being replaced: the Huey for
the “Yankee” model UH-1Y, and the Cobra for the
“Zulu,” or AH-1Z. We are sending out an MEU deployment this fall with only these new-model H-1s aboard.
Our KC-130J tanker is now integrated across the fleet,
and when we finish fitting out our Reserve squadrons,
we will have improved dramatically our tactical aerial
refueling and assault support to the fleet.
The Next Fight
With all these changes in aviation technology, the most
important thing, though, has not changed — who we
are as Marines. We are an air-ground team, and my
piece of that effort is in supporting the ground commander’s scheme of maneuver. Our Marine Corps’
roots as a naval expeditionary force — our naval character — are also critical to who we are.
Power projection from the sea is fundamental to our
identity, and the aircraft we fly today in support of our
ground forces are naval aircraft first. We cannot predict
the time or place for the next war, but we can prepare
and train for it. Our aircraft and systems will always be
prepared for war, and our people will be trained. ■
Lt. Gen. Terry G. Robling is the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for aviation.
“A Point of View” is a Seapower forum wherein experts and analysts express their views on a variety of thought-provoking topics. It
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