A Counter to ‘Air Cooperation’

By Maj Jeff Dean

The recent first place MajGen Harold W. Chase Prize Essay Contest winner, titled “Air Cooperation and the Marine Corps: An alternative vision for the employment of Marine fixed-wing aircraft,” was printed in the September 2013 issue of the Marine Corps Gazette. The article’s two authors, Majs Gregory Thiele and Mitchell Rubenstein, argue that Marine aviation fails to adequately support the ground combat element, and that the Marine Corps’ current and future aircraft are ill-suited for not only counterinsurgency, but for the entire spectrum of conflict. The article also states that Marine air “has slowly degraded its ability to support ground Marines” and faces “a fight for its existence [. . .] that might not yet be apparent.” With such scathing claims, one would hope that factual evidence would be presented to back them up, yet the article is littered with weak anecdotes and inaccurate examples.

Called “Air Cooperation,” Majs Thiele and Rubinstein also proposed this vaguely fashioned concept as their solution to the problems of Marine aviation; however, the article offers very few details as to what Air Cooperation is, what its principles are, or how it is to be executed.

The majors’ article spans many somewhat disorganized topics. In an attempt to better organize a counterargument to each of the critiques and proposals offered, this article is divided into three separate topics: aircraft and equipment, people and training, and employment and doctrine.

Aircraft and Equipment

The biggest target in the Air Cooperation article is the F–35 Lightning II, followed closely by two of our current fixed-wing aircraft, the F/A–18 Hornet and AV–8B Harrier. Majs Thiele and Rubinstein complain that F/A–18s and AV–8Bs are “less than optimal” when providing close air support (CAS), and that the F–35 “will do nothing to ameliorate” the alleged degraded support to the ground commander. Their proposed solution is the Brazilian-designed Embraer Super Tucano. While bashing the F/A–18, AV–8B, and F–35, the authors also laud the OV–10 Bronco and A–10 Thunderbolt as the best aircraft for integrating with ground forces.

What is wrong with these arguments? First, the authors fail to identify specific deficiencies that exist in our current fixed-wing inventory. The only performance parameter that is explicitly mentioned is the fast airspeed and relatively short endurance associated with jet aircraft. No other supporting evidence is presented explaining why the capabilities of Marine aviation have supposedly been degraded.

It is important to acknowledge that shorter endurance is simply a byproduct of the faster airspeeds of jet aircraft (compared to turboprop or piston engine aircraft). But faster aircraft are not a limitation—they are an advantage. Faster airspeeds are required for the majority of aerial employment across the entire spectrum of conflict, where fighters face increasingly modern enemy aircraft and integrated air defense systems. But even in low-intensity conflicts, airspeed gives fixed-wing platforms much greater flexibility across the entire battlespace.

For example, compare the F/A–18 and the A–10. If both aircraft tried to fly from one end of Al Anbar Province, Iraq, to the other (approximately 300 miles), it would take the A–10 almost 25 minutes longer than the F/A–18. That excess 25 minutes directly results in a delayed response time for the ground forces. When you add the increased transit time for an A–10 to travel to and from the tanker or to and from its operating base, those delays are compounded.

This does not mean that our current aircraft are required to go fast all the time, which would increase their fuel consumption unnecessarily. F/A–18s in Iraq and Afghanistan typically hold in the exact same altitude block as the A–10s, and both aircraft average 1 1/2 hours between trips to the tanker to refuel. The F/A–18, AV–8B, and A–10 all execute attack profiles between 350 and 450 knots (approximately 400 to 500 miles per hour), and all three aircraft carry the LITENING infrared/electro-optical targeting pod, some combination of laser/GPS-guided weapons, and a cannon as a direct fire weapon; so there really is no convincing evidence that the A–10 is “a better close-support aircraft,” as Majs Thiele and Rubinstein claim. Perhaps what they are suggesting is that A–10 pilots provide better support than Marine aviators, but such a notion is preposterous (this will be explained more in the next section.

Majs Thiele and Rubinstein also argue that Marine fixed-wing aircraft should fly “lower and slower,” but if that were the case, then would not a helicopter be the best platform? After all, helicopters fly lower and slower than fixed-wing aircraft ever will, but it does not make sense to argue that fixed-wing aircraft should be more like helicopters. The Marine Corps already has many more helicopters than fixed-wing aircraft. Instead of mirroring each other’s capabilities, helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft should complement each other on the battlefield.

It is also important to address the complaints against the F–35 Lightning II, or Joint Strike Fighter. The Marine Corps is acquiring both the F–35B vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) variant and the F–35C carrier variant. Because the F–35 is still conducting both developmental and operational test and evaluation, we do not yet know all of its characteristics. Given its advanced technology, it is sure to encounter technological challenges, and its ultimate success will be determined in time. However, the arguments that Majs Thiele and Rubinstein make against the F–35 are not valid. With regard to range and on-station time, for example, the F–35 outperforms both the F/A–18 and the AV–8B. The F–35C even carries more internal fuel than the F/A–18 and AV–8B combined! But there is much more to this aircraft.

The F–35’s potential goes beyond anything in our current inventory and encompasses many functions of Marine aviation. It is a fifth-generation fighter designed for amphibious forcible entry and first-day strike capability. Many of its true capabilities remain classified. But just because the F–35 was not designed specifically for fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan does not automatically make it less capable in a low-intensity conflict. Its strengths can still be used to exploit the enemy’s weaknesses. In addition to the kinetic fire support capability, imagine a single aircraft being able to collect, exploit, and even directly attack the enemy using the electromagnetic spectrum. Every electron that the enemy transmits becomes vulnerable, the information is distributed across the network, and the kill chain is shortened significantly.

As the F–35 continues to improve, its capabilities will also increase. Think of what the F/A–18 was like back in DESERT STORM, where it carried little more than AIM–7 Sparrows and unguided bombs. Twenty years later, it is almost an entirely different aircraft with sensors and smart weapons galore. Expect the same to be true of the F–35 in 20 years, where it will inevitably remain a requirement for forcible entry against enemy air defenses and across the entire spectrum of conflict.

Last, Majs Thiele and Rubinstein suggest that “interchangeability” and “commonality of aircraft technology [. . .] will continue, until the only difference between Marine Corps, Navy, and Air Force aircraft and pilots will be the word ‘Marines’ stenciled on the bird.” This is where the authors need the biggest correction, because so many aircraft in U.S. history have been shared between the Services without this prediction ever coming true.

Table 1 shows several well-known aircraft that have been flown by at least three different Services. Though the actual amounts are too numerous to list, it is evident that through more than 100 years of Marine aviation, commonality and interoperability have existed in our aircraft. Majs Thiele and Rubinstein should note that even their beloved OV–10 Bronco was flown by 3 different Services. In fact it was our first “common” aircraft, the De Havilland DH.4, that Marine aviators broke the mold and created the first tactics, techniques, and procedures for CAS at the Battle of Ocotal, paving the way for decades to come. Why then would anyone suggest that the F–35 will somehow diminish the unique niche of Marine aviation, or that the future of Marine aviation is in jeopardy? It is also important to note that each of the aircraft listed in Table 1 performed admirably in several different functions of aviation in addition to offensive air support and CAS, disproving the notion that they are “jacks of all trades and masters of none.”

The final point concerns the recommendation for a light attack aircraft for the Marine Corps, such as the Embraer Super Tucano. While the Super Tucano does have some unique advantages, particularly its low operating costs, it is not suited for flight operations on aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships. This is a big problem, because the Marine Corps and its aircraft are indelibly tied to the sea. Throughout the history of Marine aviation, the majority of aircraft have been operated from naval vessels (F4U Corsair, SBD Dauntless, OV–10 Bronco, A–1 Skyraider, F–4 Phantom II, AV–8B Harrier, F/A–18 Hornet, etc.). The only exception has been certain support aircraft like the KC–130. For its frontline CAS platforms, the Marine Corps needs to continue to acquire aircraft that can be operated from carriers and amphibious assault ships.

People and Training

Majs Thiele and Rubinstein also make scathing claims that Marine aviators providing CAS are “of little use,” having been merely “reduced to following a nine-line brief.” As insulting as that is, the knocks against Marine aviators do not end there. The authors also reference a separate, stand-alone document titled Air Cooperation, available at www.dnipogo.org, that labels Marine aviators as arrogant “knights on white horses” who are so apathetic that they would not even read a “book on warfare [. . .] without outside influence.”

Such comments are insulting to the core and do not accurately represent the thousands of man-hours that Marine aviators put toward training, studying, and preparing for supporting the Marines on the ground. They do not recognize the multitude of briefings, chalk talks, hip-pocket classes, and conversations that abound in squadron ready rooms regarding air-to-ground tactics. To suggest that Marine aviators are not ruthlessly ground-oriented pilots only shows the ignorance of those who would claim such a falsehood. But this counterpoint cannot be left as just an anecdotal response. Below are some examples of our rich history of supporting the ground combat element.

Led by Maj Ross Rowell, Marine aviators in Nicaragua developed the first tactics, techniques, and procedures for CAS. While fighting the Sandinistas, the Marine aviators of Marine Observation Squadron 1 also modified their own aircraft in order to perform route reconnaissance, communications relay, and casualty evacuation missions for ground forces. In World War II, Marine aviators were challenged with simultaneously defeating the Japanese both in the air and on the ground and exemplified air-to-ground employment at the Battle of Okinawa. Marine aviators were also supporting the ground combat element through Korea, Vietnam, and DESERT STORM while still achieving air-to-air kills in each conflict and performing a variety of other missions.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the level of commitment and devotion shown by Marine aviators has been far greater than the majority of pilots in other Services. For example, Marine aviators have daily conversations with joint terminal attack controllers, forward air controllers, and ground commanders, while the Air Force A–10 squadrons do not even see the details of their missions until moments before their flight briefs. (In Iraq, some A–10 pilots would not even prepare their own mission products and kneeboard cards. Just prior to the flights, the cards were created by Air Force personnel located 600 miles away in Qatar and e-mailed to the squadrons.) On aircraft carriers, the Navy fighter squadrons spend their downtime watching movies in the ready room while Marine aviators are studying rules of engagement, friendly force laydowns, collateral damage concerns, and weapons employment considerations. During flight operations, Marine squadron duty officers maintain situational awareness of the battlespace and relay real-time information to the pilots who are flying. While airborne, Marine aviators help direct the real-time movement of tankers in order to keep the refueling platform directly overhead the supported ground unit, thus reducing or eliminating any interruption of support for those who needed it most. Marine aviators are pushing every envelope of weapons employment, airspace management, and fuel availability to squeeze every ounce of support for Marines on the ground.

Doctrine and Employment

Majs Thiele and Rubinstein allege that the overall support to ground Marines from Marine aviators has degraded in both Iraq and Afghanistan, which leads to the most important types of questions: What is our doctrine? How should Marine aviation be employed? What are we doing right? Where do we still need to improve?

First and foremost, the Marine Corps’ doctrine is maneuver warfare. There is no need to change it, rename it “Air Cooperation,” or put a new proverbial pretty box around it. Friction and uncertainty. Speed and focus. Boldness and surprise. Maneuver in time and space. Decentralized command and control. Combined arms. These are the hallmarks of our doctrine. The beauty and simplicity of maneuver warfare is that it is not limited to just the ground forces. These hallmarks apply to aviation just the same.

How does Marine aviation execute maneuver warfare? Marine aviation executes maneuver warfare by exploiting the third dimension—the vertical space above us. Aviation transforms a two-dimensional area on the ground to a three-dimensional battlespace. This involves more than just kinetic fires. In addition to dropping bombs, it also includes more capability in time and space to collect visual and electronic intelligence, attack and exploit the electromagnetic spectrum, and deny the enemy freedom of movement. When properly utilized, aviation in maneuver warfare allows the entire MAGTF to shoot, move, and communicate at a faster tempo than its enemies.

How does this concept differ from Air Cooperation? That question is difficult to answer because Majs Thiele and Rubinstein do not provide much detail on how their theory is to be executed in practice; however, the majors do offer some complaints as to how Marine aviation is currently employed, and one of the biggest is with the command and control structure.

The Air Cooperation article suggests that our current command and control is rigid, inflexible, and inefficient, implying that the air tasking order (ATO) is too antiquated to serve a useful purpose. It is important to put the ATO in context, though. The ATO cycle indeed starts 72 hours prior to the day of execution, but it is far from rigid and inflexible. The 72-hour ATO cycle is simply a planning process that can and does change all the way up to the point of execution. Some days in Afghanistan will easily have up to a dozen changes to the ATO in a 24-hour period, based on an ever-changing battlespace. Flight operations in Iraq were the same way.

One good thing about our current joint doctrine is that the preponderance of Marine aviation remains under the control of the MAGTF. This is known as the “Omnibus Agreement” in Joint Publication 1, Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States (Joint Staff, Washington, DC, 25 March 2013), stating that “the MAGTF commander will retain [operational control] of organic air assets.” Marines saw this doctrine in practice in Al Anbar Province and Helmand Province, Afghanistan, where the Marines maintained flexibility in controlling their fighters, tankers, and unmanned aircraft systems. There were only a few exceptions to this principle, such as electronic warfare sorties from EA–6B Prowlers and Marine squadrons attached to the Navy’s carrier air wings. Every other Marine fixed-wing squadron in Iraq and Afghanistan worked for the MAGTF commander.

The fact is that aviation assets have been and will always be a high-demand asset. There are not many times in history that military commanders have said, “If I only I had fewer aircraft on-station!” Instead, there is always a greater demand for aviation assets than can be supplied to the ground forces on a daily basis. Because the number of aircraft will rarely meet the demand, their use must be prioritized and allocated carefully. If aviators did not schedule and plan their sorties through some method (like an ATO), it would result in greater inefficiency.


Hopefully this article ignites some good debate, because Marine aviation requires feedback from the rest of the Corps. Are we doing things right? Are ground forces getting the support they need from Marine aviation? Where do we need the most improvement?

Any Marine Corps aviator that is worth his salt takes this role seriously, so we welcome the conversation. But whether the answer is a reinvigoration of maneuver warfare or something new like Air Cooperation, the discussion needs to be based on history and facts rather than opinions and anecdotes.


1. The U.S. Army Air Service (USAAS) existed from 1918–26 until it was renamed the U.S. Army Air Corps.

2. The U.S. Army Air Corps (USAAC) existed from 1926–41 until it was renamed the U.S. Army Air Forces.

3. The U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) existed from 1941–47 until the enactment of the National Security Act of 1947.

4. The A–24 Banshee was adapted from the SBD Dauntless and only suited for landbased operations with the USAAF.

5. USAAF, National Security Act of 1947.

6. The FJ Fury design was based on the F–86 Sabre and adapted for carrier operations.