Through its first 100 years, Marine aviation has remained committed to its founding principle: supporting Marines in combat. In doing so it has led in the development of close air support (CAS), vertical envelopment, vertical and short takeoff aircraft, electronic warfare, expeditionary airfield operations, air command and control, and tiltrotor aircraft. More importantly, it has been a major factor in producing the modern Marine Corps. The ongoing pursuit of air-ground integration has resulted in the Marine Corps’ uniquely potent combined arms doctrine. This has given the modern MAGTF an enviable level of flexibility, responsiveness, and combat power.
The attraction toward flying, joined with the dedication to the mission of the U.S. Marine Corps, inspired the first pilots in founding the only Marine Corps in the world with an air arm. Through the years, belief in the value of Marine air and ground tactical coordination staved off repeated attempts to eliminate the Marine’s unique combined arms approach to combat. Equally important, demonstrations over the decades of the operational worthiness of the Marine air-ground team earned accolades and emulation.
In the earliest years of military aviation, pioneering Marine leaders, such as Alfred A. Cunningham and Roy S. Geiger, were pivotal in the creation and direction of Marine Corps aviation. The inventors who advanced aeronautical technology enabled the aspirations of early proponents for military applications of aircraft. Marine aviation made its combat appearance in the final stages of World War I, but it was in the interwar years that aviation became solidly ensconced in the Marine Corps.
In deployments to the Caribbean, Latin America, China, and Guam in the 1920s and 1930s, Marines, air and ground, worked as a team to utilize the special capabilities aircraft offered, one of the most important being to kill the enemy that threatened Marine troops. This capability was highlighted in 1927 in Nicaragua when Sandino rebels surrounded and isolated a small force of Marines and native troops in the town of Ocotal. Outnumbered five to one, an airstrike, delivered timely and accurately, revealed the potential of CAS. More than 40 Sandinistas were killed by the airstrike, causing the ground commander to credit the airstrike as the “deciding factor” in routing the rebel force. Marines also pioneered air-ground communications, medical evacuation, logistics resupply, and aerial photo reconnaissance in the course of supporting Marines. The Banana War experience convinced a number of Marine ground officers, some of whom were destined to lead the Corps later, of the value of aviation. Pioneer aviator Maj‑Gen Ford O. “Tex” Rogers succinctly summarized the significance of these interwar operations: “We were there and they used us, and they used us to their advantage, and consequently we became a useful and integral part of the Marine Corps.” Aviation was written into Marine doctrine. Both the Tentative Manual for Landing Operations (1934) and the Small Wars Manual (1935) detailed the role of aviation.
When World War II began, Marine aviation provided a ready force for the first American offensive campaign in the Pacific, Operation SHOESTRING on Guadalcanal. Here Marines, infantry and aviators, lived and fought together in common and desperate battle. Marine fighter pilots fought off Japanese aerial attacks, dive bomber pilots decimated enemy shipping, and both provided air support to embattled Marines. During the Solomons campaign, the Marine Corps received the F4U Corsair, the most iconic of all Marine aircraft. In this Navy castoff fighter, Marine aviators played a key role in winning air superiority, which spelled the doom of the big Japanese base at Rabaul. Later Marines converted this topnotch fighter into one of the best fighter/bombers of the era. As the World War II Pacific campaign expanded beyond the Solomons, landbased Marine squadrons were not able to support ongoing amphibious operations. Toward the end of the war, dedicated Navy escort carriers, carrying Marine squadrons, sailed, but not soon enough to allow Marine squadrons to support any amphibious assault. This was a major cause of the ironic situation in World War II when Marine air and ground forces often operated separately.
At bloody Peleliu in late 1944, landbased Marines flying F4Us did, however, support Marines in combat. Squadrons began flying from an airstrip on Peleliu within 2 days of the initial assault. The airfield was close enough to the frontlines that Marine mechanics engaged in firefights with Japanese soldiers. Pilots did not even need to raise their landing gear as they bombed, strafed, and burned Japanese positions just off the end of the runway. In the last big World War II battle, Okinawa, the Tactical Air Force, a joint Marine and Army Air Forces organization, was commanded by a Marine. During that campaign, Okinawa-based Marine squadrons provided fellow Marines and soldiers with CAS. Once kamikazes began to savage the U.S. fleet, however, the Navy directed the Marines’ fast and powerful Corsairs to fly fleet defense missions while carrier-based Navy fighters flew inland to give Marines and soldiers air support.
Beyond making the Corsair a fighter/bomber and dedicating aircraft carriers to air support duties, there were other World War II innovations. Marines deployed night fighter squadrons and pioneered night fighting tactics. Improvements were made in air-ground radio communications resulting in better procedures for CAS command and control. This was especially evidenced in the 1st MAW’s operations supporting the U.S. Army in the recapture of the Philippines in 1944–45. Better ordnance also appeared. Although not developed by the Marines, they made good use of air-ground rockets, 20mm cannons, and napalm for CAS.
After World War II, Marine leaders determined to not allow another air-ground separation to occur. Urgency for this effort came from the extreme cuts in military spending, combined with a Department of Defense “unification” initiative that threatened to downsize the Marine Corps to the point of irrelevancy. It also proposed to fold Marine aviation into the fledgling U.S. Air Force. Marines recognized that if they were to keep their combined arms force intact, Marine aviation had to become integral to ground operations. Applying lessons learned from World War II, the Marines undertook key initiatives. These included improving and fielding a better command and control system and conducting systematic and realistic CAS training. Aviation officers attended Marine professional schools, many for the first time as World War II did not allow time for this. They gained a foundation in Marine Corps doctrine and land operations and otherwise bonded with their ground brethren. Additionally, aviators were assigned to infantry battalions as air liaison officers and forward air controllers (FACs). All of this significantly enhanced the quality of CAS. At the same time, at HMX–1, the first Marine helicopter squadron, Marines tested and developed tactics, techniques, and procedures for the employment of helicopters that would fundamentally alter land combat.
When the Korean War broke out, the dedicated carriers on which Marine squadrons were based provided for the rapid deployment of Marine attack aircraft and served as operational seabases that put strike aircraft close to the battlefield at a time when no land bases in South Korea were available. As the war progressed, squadrons, which included the first Marine jets, operated from both carriers and forward landbases. Directed by fellow pilots serving as FACs, Marines gave precise and critical CAS to Marine and coalition ground troops. Marines deployed helicopters to combat for the first time. They flew the spectrum of missions for which helicopters became known—casualty evacuation, transport, command and control, and assault support. Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron 161 conducted the first in-combat vertical envelopments. All of this convinced Marines that the helicopter was the way of the future. Marines also deployed an airborne direct air support center and employed their first groundbased radar bombing system (MPQ–14), which provided an all-weather and night bombing capability. Overall, Marine aviation in Korea performed as envisioned and validated Marine air-ground doctrine and, in effect, contributed to saving the Marine Corps from those who believed that it had become passé. It also had the effect of solidly bonding Marine air and ground. After the Chosin Reservoir, MajGen O.P. Smith, commander of the 1st MarDiv asserted, “Never in its history has Marine aviation given more convincing proof of its indispensable value to the ground Marine. A bond of understanding has been established that will never be broken.”
After Korea, the Marines refined their air-ground team. The workhorse Corsair and Douglas AD–1 Skyraiders were replaced by a steady stream of evolving and constantly improving tactical jet aircraft and more capable helicopters. The next test of Marine aviation came in the jungles of Southeast Asia, principally the Republic of Vietnam. During Vietnam rotary-wing aircraft became integral to Marine combat operations, and the bell weather aircraft that would become the mainstay of Marine aviation in the following decades made their combat debuts. These included the Boeing CH–46, Sea Knight; Sikorsky CH–53, Sea Stallion; Bell UH–1 Hueys; and one of the most important aircraft for enhancing air-ground integration and the lethality of CAS, the Bell AH–1 Cobra, the first dedicated helicopter gunship.
The Vietnam experience, where the enemy was an elusive and shadowy foe, convinced Marine leaders, especially the visionary LtGen Keith B. McCutcheon, that air support must be more responsive. Supporting aircraft must be ready to deliver ordnance within 30 minutes upon request by troops in combat. This requirement forced a search for a solution beyond having aircraft stacked over every infantry unit in the field. Expeditionary airfields closer to the front had been developed and were employed in Vietnam, most noteworthy was the short airfield for tactical support strip at Chu Lai. Of a more revolutionary nature, however, was the Marine commitment to a vertical and short takeoff and landing capability embodied in the AV–8 Harrier developed by the British Hawker-Siddley Company in the 1960s. The first Harriers entered the Marine Corps inventory in 1971. Although too late for action in Vietnam, in the years after, they became central to the Marines’ air-ground team. Marine EF–10Bs and EA–6As, however, did see lots of Vietnam action. Marine advances in airborne electronic warfare made them critical components of U.S. raids bound for North Vietnam. Other innovations included an advanced radar bombing system, the TPQ–10, and a computerized and joint-capable command and control system called the tactical data link system.
After Vietnam, improved combat readiness and air-ground integration became a Marine Corps priority. As a result, in 1978, Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron 1 (MAWTS–1) stood up. Over the years MAWTS–1 has standardized tactics, enhanced air-ground integration, and filled squadrons with tactically proficient aviators ready to execute a gamut of missions.
There were significant changes after Vietnam that impacted the Marine Corps. Maneuver warfare doctrine came to dominate Marine operations, and in 1986 the Goldwater-Nichols Act made joint operations a Defense Department priority. The Marine Corps mandated expeditionary and rapid deployment capabilities. Processes, equipment, and systems within the Marine air wings were lightened and streamlined. These encompassed command and control, logistics, and expeditionary airfield operations. Special operations became the new way of war, and Marine aviation developed capabilities to support special operations capable MAGTFs.
The Marine Corps also modernized and “necked down” or reduced the number of different type aircraft. Marines fielded new aircraft, Harriers and McDonnell-Douglas F/A–18 Hornets, while other aircraft were modernized and their capabilities enhanced. Marines also led the development and introduction of the Bell-Boeing MV–22 Osprey as a replacement for the long-serving CH–46. The Osprey represented a truly generational step in technology and capability. Likewise Marines committed to the F–35B Joint Strike Fighter, a short takeoff and vertical landing strike fighter with transformational capabilities. Marines kept pace with the revolutionary advances in aviation technology of the period by integrating precision weapons, night fighting prowess, and unmanned aircraft systems into aviation operations.
Although peace officially reigned for a good 15 years after Vietnam, it was not a time of operational stagnation, or actually even peace. The Marines’ new electronic warfare aircraft, the EA–6B made its combat debut during the Iranian hostage crisis, and its squadron companion, the long-serving RF–4B, provided photo reconnaissance. On a larger scale, both of these aircraft supported national intelligence requirements. In Grenada in 1983, Marines fought a short but sharp battle in which five aviators of the composite squadron, Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 261 (HMM–261), earned Silver Stars and one a Navy Cross, posthumously. In Lebanon in 1982–84, Marines fought for peace, and Marine composite helicopter squadrons, the only air force in town, flew multiple missions for multiple parties. The Iran-Iraq war in the early 1980s resulted in Marines protecting neutral oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. In Operation PRAYING MANTIS (1988), Marine AH–1T Cobras ripped an Iranian oil platform serving as a command and control platform for mining operations. Marine fighter attack jets flying from Navy big decks faced down Libyan fighters that challenged navigation rights in the Gulf of Sidra in the 1980s. In these operations the Marines’ venerable F–4 Phantom confronted its last enemy, and a few years later, its replacement, the F/A–18 Hornet, flew its first combat missions.
Operation DESERT STORM (1990) fully tested Marine aviation’s new capabilities in a large-scale conventional warfare scenario. The massive deployment of U.S. forces included a MEF-level MAGTF with the 3d MAW serving as its aviation combat element. In DESERT STORM, Marine aviation performed all of the functions of Marine aviation, either in direct support of Marine ground units or as part of the joint air war, often in despicable environmental conditions. Marine aviation exhibited its characteristic ability to operate from a broad spectrum of bases ashore and afloat, including “scraped from the desert” forward bases at the battlefield’s edge.
The defeat of Saddam Hussein and the fall of the Soviet Union, which coincidentally occurred nearly simultaneously, did not mean tranquility; indeed the opposite was the case. Immediately after DESERT STORM, HMM–264 (Reinforced) stretched operating limits as they flew deep into northern Iraq to provide security and humanitarian aid to oppressed Kurds in Operation PROVIDE COMFORT. Operations other than war continued with Marine MEUs supporting U.S. and United Nations (U.N.) foreign policy efforts and responding to natural and manmade disasters throughout the 1990s. These operations included noncombatant evacuations, humanitarian responses, and peacekeeping. The ability of MAGTFs to position quickly at the scene of trouble and fly in necessary support saved thousands, while the ability of CH–53s to refuel from KC–130s projected Marine power to points deep inland.
Marine fixed-wing squadrons continued to fly over Iraq in Operations SOUTHERN and NORTHERN WATCH, enforcing the U.N.-mandated no-fly zones. Marine F/A–18s based at Aviano, Italy; AV–8Bs off MEU amphibs; and EA–6Bs operating from regional bases supported NATO/U.N. operations over Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. During this time Marine aviation units played a key role in the widely publicized rescue of U.S. Air Force pilot Capt Scott O’Grady. In 1999 two F/A–18D squadrons, supported by Marine Wing Support Squadron 273, set up operations at a former MiG base in Hungary and flew strikes into Yugoslavia as part of Operation ALLIED FORCE. In follow-on operations, the 26th MEU supported by HMM–365 pushed ashore into former Yugoslav to support humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts.
Marine Corps efforts in building a flexible and quick response force with the capability to operate from expeditionary settings paid tremendous dividends in the war on terrorism that followed the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks. Aviation-supported ground forces were the key to victory. This was true whether in the fast-paced maneuver scenario in Iraq in 2003, distributed operations in Afghanistan, or the counterinsurgencies that developed in both places. Marine air responded within hours to the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 when fighter squadrons on both the east and west coasts flew air patrols in defense of the homeland. The first Marine Corps strikes against terrorists came from strike fighters of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 251 on 17 October 2001, flying from the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) against Taliban targets deep in Afghanistan. Within a couple of weeks Harriers with the 15th and 26th MEUs, which comprised Task Force 58 (see MCG, Aug11, p. 38), joined the anti-Taliban bombing campaign. Marine KC–130s had already been busy for weeks prior. They refueled tactical jets and hauled supplies, equipment, and fuel to staging bases in the run up to the invasion of Afghanistan by U.S. Army and Marine units.The amphibious assault on Camp Rhino, over 400 miles from amphibious ships in the Arabian Sea in November 2001, represented the longest amphibious projection of Marine combat power ever. CH–53s carried Marines into Rhino in one long night flight, refueling from Marine KC–130s along the way. Marine KC–130 squadrons were the vital link in the early part of Operation ENDURING FREEDOM (OEF). They flew hundreds of missions, day and night (without night vision goggles), transporting the necessities to sustain combat, especially fuel, to austere and primitive Camp Rhino, Kandahar, and Bagram.
In March 2002 helicopters from HMM–165 (Reinforced) flew on short notice from amphibious ships to Bagram, Afghanistan, a distance of 700 miles, to support Operation ANACONDA. From there Cobras, Harriers, and Hornets from carriers provided CAS that earned praise from embattled soldiers. Six months later Harriers of Marine Attack Squadron 513 deployed to Bagram. Except for the Air Force’s rugged A–10, the Harrier was the only tactical jet that could operate there. This squadron introduced the LITENING II targeting pod to combat for Marines. This targeting pod proved a generational advancement in the ability to survey, reconnoiter, and gather intelligence of the enemy. Other Marine air units based around the periphery of Afghanistan supported the coalition’s OEF operations. This included F/A–18Ds operating from a coalition airfield in Kyrgyzstan and Marine air command and control units, which augmented coalition command and control assets in Afghanistan and remote sites in central Asia and the Middle East.
In Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (OIF), which commenced in March 2003, I MEF and the 3d MAW set new standards for air-ground integration. Marine wing support squadrons, logistics squadrons, and command and control detachments rolled forward to establish forward bases in trace of Marine regiments rapidly closing on Baghdad. Detachments of rotary-wing aircraft were based with Marine ground units and provided continuous and responsive air support. Marine command and control proved effective in handling air support requirements for the dynamic ground campaign, to the extent that coalition pilots sought opportunities to deliver ordnance in the Marine zone. The 3d MAW served as a maneuver unit when it covered I MEF’s eastern flank keeping large Iraqi units out of the fight.
After OIF I, Iraq combat devolved into a counterinsurgency where the highest priority was minimizing collateral damage and responding to enemy “shoot and scoot” tactics. Enemy improvised explosive devices were the insurgents’ weapon of choice, and Marine EA–6Bs, ever adaptable and relevant, employed their electrons to obviate this threat and thus provided electronic warfare support for ground units. Marine Corps command and control never shined brighter than in the urban CAS performance it choreographed in Fallujah in 2004. Aircraft ready to give CAS provided sustained coverage over Fallujah for over 2 weeks where 10 infantry battalions wrested control of the city from terrorists. There were no fratricides, and collateral damage was minimized.
The backbone of Marine aviation—CH–46, CH–53, and H–1 squadrons—provided the daily essentials to sustain Marine infantry units in combat. In Iraq and Afghanistan these squadrons employed proven vertical assault tactics and wrote new ones like aeroscout to squash enemy designs. By 2007 the transformational MV–22 was in combat. Its speed shrunk the operating area as it assumed assault support duties. In flying 100,000 operational flight hours without a major mishap, the Osprey established an unprecedented record of safety for new aircraft.
In sum, Marine aviation has allowed the ability of the Marine Corps to go anywhere fast, and fight long term or short term. It makes the Marine Corps unique, unlike any fighting force in the world. As the former Commandant, Gen Charles C. Krulak, remarked, “If we took the A out of MAGTF, you don’t have a Marine air-ground team. You don’t have a Marine Corps.”
1. Rogers, MajGen Ford O., interview with Ben Frank, Oral History College, Gen Alfred M. Gray Research Center, Quantico, 1966.
2. Giusti, E.H., and K.W. Condit, “Marine Air Covers the Breakout,” Leatherneck, Quantico, August 1952, pp. 21–22.
3. Krulak, Gen Charles C., interview with David B. Crist, Oral History College, Gen Alfred M. Gray Research Center, Quantico, 2003, transcript, p. 194.