Air Cooperation Revisited

By LtCol Gregory A Thiele & Maj Mitchell “Ruby” Rubinstein

The question of how the ACE can best support the Marine on the ground is critical for the Marine Corps. The way in which this question is answered has vast implications for how the Marine Corps trains, organizes, and equips. This in turn determines what capabilities the ACE has (or does not have). In “A Response to Air Cooperation,” (MCG, February 2014), Maj Jeff Dean attempted to address the arguments we made in our “Air Cooperation” essay. As this is a subject of critical importance to all Marines, Maj Dean is to be commended for his detailed response. There are, however, several points in Maj Dean’s response that must be addressed in order to provide a fuller understanding of Air Cooperation.

Maj Dean does an excellent job of staking out the position of those who would defend the status quo. The vast majority of Marine aviators have now been integrating with, or operating under, the Air Force Theater Air-Ground System (TAGS) for so long that they have lost sight of why the MAGTF is designed as it is and how best to use aerial forces in maneuver warfare. Another issue is that the fixed-wing (FA) ACE does not conduct maneuver warfare as Maj Dean believes. The confusion this causes can be found in the fact that after making this claim, Maj Dean defends the centralized, internally focused processes that are moving the ACE closer toward attrition warfare.

The great American military theorist, Col John Boyd, USAF (Ret), was famous for preaching, “People, ideas, hardware—in that order!”1 As intellectual disciples of Col Boyd, this essay will, therefore, address people first and aircraft last.


Maj Dean attempts to paint Air Cooperation as a vote of “no confidence” in the aviation community. He claims that the Air Cooperation Manual insults aviators. Pilots of all Services are some of the most highly skilled warfighters in the world. They train extremely hard to the JCAS (joint close air support) standard.

Being “more professional” is not what makes Marine pilots different. Such an argument will hold no water when the combined forces air component commander (CFACC) asks why the F-35s with “Marines” stenciled on the sides should be treated differently. Our answer, based on Air Cooperation, is that Marine pilots should be part of the planning, rehearsals, execution, and debriefings of the ground forces. They should have a comprehensive understanding of the ground commander’s intent, constraints and restraints, and understand what is happening on the ground, so they can act on their own initiative to provide immediate, appropriate, and decisive support to the ground commander. In Air Cooperation, pilots are tacticians, air-to-ground as well as air-to-air, not just technicians. That is Air Cooperation’s big difference from the current “JCAS standard” in the realm of “people.”


In his article, Maj Dean asks, “What is maneuver warfare?” The real question is, “How can the ACE best support the GCE in maneuver warfare, and how should the ACE train, organize, and equip in order to achieve this vision?” These are the questions Air Cooperation is meant to answer.

The MAGTF is well structured to conduct Air Cooperation. As an institution, the MAGTF has air and ground forces that answer to the same commander. Although MAGTFs can be ad hoc organizations, the Marine Corps has a number of permanent MAGTF headquarters in existence. This allows MAGTF elements to work together in planning and training, which could allow air-ground integration to occur at a lower level and more effectively in the Marine Corps than in other Services.

Such an organizational advantage should facilitate a high degree of air-ground cooperation in the Marine Corps. Unfortunately, this ideal is rarely realized in practice. The difficulty does not lie entirely in the Marine Corps’ aviation command and control philosophy. If the ACE fails to support ground forces effectively, the major reason is due to requirements imposed by the joint forces air component commander (JFACC) and “jointness.”

The ACE is often forced to work under the TAGS imposed by the JFACC (i.e., U.S. Air Force). This requirement essentially negates the utility of the Marine air command and control system (MACCS) due to the TAGS’s inflexible, systematized, routinized processes and procedures. The JFACC requirement to create an air tasking order (ATO) has created, and requires, a highly centralized command and control system. The Marine Corps’ ACE, operating in a combat zone under JFACC control, cannot escape the gravitational pull of this black hole.2

Unfortunately, Marine Corps maneuver warfare doctrine of decentralized decision making is rapidly discarded under such rules. There is no slower method of command and control than going to the highest point in the chain of command for approval of every decision. The ATO effectively slows down the operational speed and tempo of the tactical units that it supports. To make matters worse, after a decade of war, most Marines know no other way of doing business. In this sense, jointness may be slowly destroying the effectiveness of the ACE.

The basis for the disposition of the aircraft on the ATO is efficiency, not effectiveness. The air support operation center’s (ASOC’s) most valued measure of success is the overall number of joint tactical airstrike request (JTAR) windows serviced. Lacking any fingerspitzengefühl (literally “fingertip feel”) whatsoever, the ASOC simply tries to weight the initial disposition of air by assigning a priority to each request. It does so without any reference to the Schwerpunkt, instead scattering air power to achieve general attrition. Request priority is the product of a formula that factors relative rankings of the number of requests already received, the assigned importance of the named operation, the assigned importance of the geographic area, and assigned risk factors such as whether the ground force is on foot or in vehicles. This formula is entirely inward focused, and the priority is often obsolete three days later when the air assets will actually be employed.

To make matters worse, changes to the ATO are largely ineffective and often do not provide the desired result. The initial disposition having been set to maximize efficiency, the best a commander can hope for when submitting a change is that the priority of the change trumps an adjacent command’s, and he “steals” their air. The ultimate trump card is always to declare that there are “troops in contact” (TIC), in which case the declaring unit automatically becomes the number one priority at the cost of another unit’s air support. But at any given moment, the troops in contact may or may not be the Schwerpunkt.

By the time the ground unit is in a fight, it is too late. When a ground unit must declare a TIC, aviation forces should consider this a failure. The failure is often caused by air’s inability to react quickly to a changing ground situation (the ATO’s Boyd cycle is three days). Ideally, “TIC response time” should be zero at the Schwerpunkt because there is already air on station when the fight occurs. Indeed, it should often be air that is pushing information to the ground commander about enemy locations, enemy forces waiting in ambush, and even friendly locations when the fog of war overcomes friendly forces.

Yet in a Catch-22 in Afghanistan, the “number of declared TICs” became a metric used by International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Joint Command (IJC) to rerank which geographic area should be the priority. The thought process was that areas with more TICs required more air support. In practice, the result was that those ground forces that were the least effective at planning with and integrating air started to receive the most air support. Indeed, commands became incentivized to plan less and declare more TICs. Each TIC inevitably “stole” air from an adjacent unit and disrupted whatever plan the unit may have had.3 The concept of Schwerpunkt was completely absent.

The result of the ATO process is that ground forces do not usually include air as an integral part of their operational planning. They have little confidence in receiving reliable air support at all unless they are in a TIC. Designation as the Schwerpunkt, a concept central to maneuver warfare, means nothing. When units do get air, they have no control over the type of aircraft, pilot familiarity, or even which country (and associated national caveats) they are dealing with. Ground units operating under such conditions find it difficult to try to integrate air into the operational plan. This situation does not incentivize a pilot to attempt to become a truly integrated member of the air-ground team or to maintain a relationship with the ground forces sufficiently close to adapt to the battlefield from the bottom up. Under such conditions, aerial forces are reduced to their lowest common denominator: they become nothing more than airborne artillery in general support, fair-shared across the battlefield. So employed, they cannot be decisive; all they can do is contribute to overall attrition.

For the MAGTF, the attritionist JCAS standards are insufficient. They reduce the MAGTF to nothing more than a ground force with airborne artillery. The result is an ACE that is highly centralized and optimized for (perhaps even “biased toward”) putting steel on targets. It is ideal for attrition warfare—not maneuver warfare. Little is required other than Marines who can follow procedures. Creativity is unnecessary and perhaps even undesirable. Decisions are made at a level that inhibits the operational speed and tempo of the units closest to the point of contact. There is no Schwerpunkt in place or in time. The MAGTF must, and can, do better.

The Marine Corps should base its organization and philosophy on what has actually worked in combat and break free of the ATO. We must push decisions closer to the point of contact, to those who have situational awareness about the ground fight.

The MAGTF cannot do this through the ATO and JCAS standards. It can best do it through Air Cooperation: the use of aerial forces in maneuver warfare. This has proven successful in combat in the past. Air Cooperation is more than airborne artillery responding to 9-lines through the TAGS. Air cooperators push information around the battlefield, both ground and air. They use that information to form, and when necessary shift, a Schwerpunkt. The Marine Corps should man, train, and equip MAGTFs around this truly integrated concept of aerial forces cooperating at all levels with ground forces through training, planning, execution of operations, and feedback intended to evolve tactics. Air cooperators increase operational speed and tempo through trust, familiarity, and greater situational awareness.


Col Boyd placed hardware last in his hierarchy because equipment is less important than the doctrine that it supports. GEN H. Norman Schwarzkopf, USA, is said to have remarked that the 1991 Gulf War would have turned out exactly the same if both sides had switched equipment.4 However, when matched with the appropriate doctrine (ideas), the right equipment can make a tremendous difference.

Maj Dean does not like the A-10 or the Super Tucano. He states that there is no convincing evidence that the A-10 is a better close support aircraft than those in our current inventory. This is untrue. The A-10 was built to be a ground support aircraft; our current aircraft were all designed for air interdiction. The A-10 passes the ultimate test of merit: experience in combat. During Operation Desert Storm, the A-10’s total casualty rate was just .0023 aircraft per sortie, and it was zero for the missions the A-10 flew at night.5 In the 1999 air war against Serbia, no A-10s were shot down while two F-117 stealth fighters were shot down by the Serbians.

In essence, Maj Dean claims that there are no deficiencies with Marine Corps fixed-wing CAS and that we “fail to identify specific deficiencies that exist in our current fixed-wing inventory.”6 The Marine Corps itself has already done this. It was to address these deficiencies that the Marine Corps submitted and fulfilled an urgent need statement (UNS) for Harvest Hawk and armed unmanned aerial systems (UASs). The Marine Corps recognizes that there is a gap in long time-on-station CAS.7

Maj Dean also claims the authors are advocates of the OV-10 and the Super Tucano. This is true. The OV-10G+ has already proven itself operating from LHDs. The A-29 Super Tucano, meanwhile, is in production today. The Marine Corps could have either of these combat-proven aircraft today.

For the price of one F-35 (costing approximately $240 million and climbing),8 the Marine Corps could have 24 A-29s ($10 million each). Each A-29 provides three hours of time on station compared to the F-35’s one. For the price of one hour of time on station with an F-35, ground Marines could get three days of time on station. This comparison does not include the savings from not requiring tanker aircraft or the operating hour cost savings of the simpler aircraft. Some might argue that the advanced capabilities of the F-35 will make it worth the cost, but from the perspective of the ground Marine, there is no comparison. A greater number of inexpensive aircraft capable of conducting the missions critical to supporting ground forces is far preferable to just one expensive aircraft.

With three days of time on station, pilots will have the time to become air cooperators with their corresponding ground units. They will have the time to attend operations orders and spend enough time with the ground force to gain a comprehensive understanding of the ground commander’s intent. They will be able to be a part of a unit’s actions from the start of planning, cooperating through execution, and attending after-action briefs. With greater numbers of aircraft, the MAGTF will actually have the ability to surge when needed, an option that is almost entirely unavailable to current MAGTFs.

The Marine Corps has the high-quality people to conduct Air Cooperation and allow the ACE to work more closely with ground units. Those Marines that designed the MAGTF created an extremely flexible structure that can facilitate Air Cooperation. In large part, the failure comes from the wrong mindset and too many requirements imposed upon the ACE by the JFACC/TAGS. Marines may unintentionally compound this difficulty by exclusively acquiring fewer, more expensive aircraft with short on-station times. If the Marine Corps is truly focused on supporting the Marine on the ground and is serious about its maneuver warfare doctrine, then Air Cooperation is the only option.


1. Coram, Robert, Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2002), p. 354.

2. Highly centralized systems usually create extremely slow decision cycles. Decision makers removed from the point of contact often place unnecessary restrictions on subordinates. For example, in Afghanistan in 2012, II MEF, acting as Regional Command – Southwest, received a mission from IJC to destroy an enemy communications asset. Acting as a MAGTF per Joint Publication 1, II MEF could use organic assets to accomplish low collateral damage expectant missions, including this one, without specific IJC approval of the targets. Adapting to the situation at hand, II MEF used a carrier-based Marine F/A-18 (a “CFACC asset”) rather than an organic one, to conduct the strike. All “CFACC assets” required IJC’s approval of the “10-digit grid” prior to execution. The strike was, therefore, considered a violation of IJC’s orders. This applied even though the target was originally tasked to II MEF by IJC, and even though the actual aircraft used was a Marine aircraft and pilot! Although the ground forces were quite happy with the support, IJC subsequently grounded the pilot.

3. Maj Rubinstein traveled to IJC in Kabul each month to discuss air command and control matters. Regional Command – Southwest (RC-SW) never declared a TIC, yet 85 percent of fixed-wing fires throughout the entire area of operations occurred in RC-SW, even when RC-SW was not the main effort. Unlike the other RCs, RC-SW’s metrics for success were whether or not the mission was accomplished and whether the aircraft were useful to the ground commander. This was feedback from the ground forces that incentivized the improved employment of aircraft.

4. Snider, Don M., and Gayle L. Watkins, “The Future of Army Professionalism: A Need for Renewal and Redefinition,” Parameters (Autumn 2000), 5–20, accessed 26 August 2014, This quote appears in the referenced essay. The footnote for this quote leads to Stephen Biddle, “Victory Misunderstood: What the Gulf War Tells Us About the Future of Conflict,” International Security 21 (Fall 1996), 139–79. Although Biddle does not provide the Schwarzkopf quote in the essay, his detailed analysis supports the idea that technology was not decisive in the outcome of the 1991 Gulf War.

5. U.S. General Accounting Office, Operation Desert Storm: Evaluation of the Air Campaign, GAO/NSIAD-97-134, (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997).

6. Dean, MCG, 62.

7. From 2013 Marine Aviation Plan: KC-130J HARVEST HAWK: In response to an urgent universal need statement, the Marine Corps integrated a bolt-on/bolt-off ISR/weapon mission kit for use on existing KC-130J aircraft.

8. Wheeler, Winslow T., “New Data: How Much Does An F-35 Actually Cost?” accessed 11 August 2014,