About 75 percent of the fighter and attack aircraft in the US Marine Corps—AV-8B Harriers, F-18A+/B/C Hornets, and EA-6B Prowlers—are out of service. The Marines are loving their F-35Bs so far , but the Lightning IIs are very expensive aircraft, particular when thrown against enemies who lack air forces—or even high-altitude air defense. As quotidian bomb trucks, they have far greater range than Hornets and Harriers, but that approach will put Marine Corps Aviation back into the same cycle of destruction it has experienced over the past 15 years. So what now? The alternative is to move towards a mix of attack aircraft tailored for two classes of enemy, in wars small and large. In the short term, that means buying fixed-wing gunships. In the mid-term, it means buying tilt-rotor gunships, including drones. Both aircraft types are better suited for the small wars in which the Marine Corps has been engaged for most of the post-Cold War era. For now, that might seem to destroy Marine Aviation, but to save it in the long term for the big wars.
Getting more long-range firepower is easy, as long as the Corps doesn’t mind operating from shore. In the short run—the next year or two—the Marines could more Harvest Hawk kits for their KC-130J Hercules. Actually, they already are. The Corps is already intending to buy enough to outfit all 79 of their KC-130Js with MX-20 sensor balls, Intrepid Tiger jamming pods, and launch rails for Hellfire, Griffin and Viper Strike missiles. The first engagement (with a Hellfire) was over Afghanistan in November 2010, so the Marines have some experience with this idea. The Harvest Hawk doesn’t bring gatling guns or the awesome sensor suite of the AC-130s, but it has killed a lot of Taliban. It doesn’t move nearly as fast as an F-18C, or even an AV-8B, but it loiters much longer. It isn’t well-suited for fighting enemies with robust air defenses, but not all enemies are so well equipped. As such, one could call it a Bob Gates, non-exquisite, 80-percent solution. All in all, the kits are in production, marines are trained to operate the aircraft, and the tanker-transport squadrons are flying every day. Check, check, and check.
The Marines could similarly kit up their MV-22B Ospreys like gunships. Wait—again, they’re getting ready to do so, as part of their 2017 Aviation Master Plan. While the details are yet forthcoming, the kit will include a telescopic forward-looking infrared sensor, a laser designator, and a launcher for the same repertoire of missiles as the KC-130J. As with the Harvest Hawk, this is an engineering problem, and not a fundamentally technological one. The armed Ospreys will escort the transport Ospreys (which easily outrun the AH-1Z Viper gunships) to the landing zones, just without Robert Duvall. Conveniently too, the Ospreys fly from helicopter carriers, as ideally all things Marine should. The kits are coming, marines are trained to operate the aircraft, and the tilt-rotor squadrons are flying every day, with rising availability. Call that check and check.
In the slightly longer run, as Kevin Murray argued in the October 2016 issue of Marine Corps Gazette, the Marines could buy something like the MQ-9 Reaper or the MQ-1C Grey Eagle, and fly it from bases ashore. The aircraft are in production, and the Air Force and the Army have units with crews. To keep this in-house, the Marine Corps would need to send its own people through training, and organize their own squadrons of large attack drones. Alternatively, the Corps could convert—at least temporarily—some fighter squadrons to drone duty. This could mean re-rolling F-18C and AV-8B squadrons for a time before their F-35Cs and F-35Bs arrive. This could seem duplicative of the USAF and the Army’s activities with the MQ-9 Reaper and the MQ-1C Grey Eagle, but it’s not as though the drones are undertasked today. Buying squadron-sets of bigger drones could also permit the Marine Corps to build some competency in flying a drone larger than the 545 RQ-21 Blackjacks it’s buying.
Pause a moment to consider that the Corps is buying over 500 short-range reconnaissance drones. The Marines already have more than 50 rather larger RQ-7B Shadow drones. By 2026, they want drones on helicopter carriers too. Last November, they got JROC approval for the concept, now called the Marine Unmanned Expeditionary aircraft (MUX). The MUXs could escort MV-22Bs as well, loiter above troops in contact, and form picket lines around the amphibious flotillas that the Navy doesn’t always protect well. Ideally, the Marines would like this rotorcraft MUX to be otherwise a close analog to the MQ-9 Reaper: an aircraft that can fly for 20 hours with a brace of Hellfire missiles or guided bombs. As Inside Defense , Defense News , Breaking Defense , and Flight Global have all covered, Bell Helicopter has been very obviously marketing its V-247 unmanned tilt-rotor concept against this stated need. DARPA and the Navy have a separate program with Northrop Grumman to build a tail-sitter drone called the Tern , and they’ve just ordered a second test aircraft . That could easily be a candidate for the eventual procurement program too.