Airpower on the Maneuver Battlefield

by Capt Richard A. Menton

2d Place, 1989 MCG Professional Writing Award

Since the inception of maneuver warfare, the aviation community has been accused of having little interest in the art of war and little understanding of how to employ airpower on the maneuver battlefield. Having long been regarded as a supporting arm, Marine aviation seems content to accept this subordinate role. Its focus supposedly has been on sorties flown and tonnage dropped, on ensuring that support is provided at the time and place requested. Operational employment of aviation, striking directly at an enemy’s strategic center of gravity, has never been a significant concern.

The proponents of maneuver warfare maintain that this focus must change, that aviation must be prepared to play an expanded role as a separate maneuver element The basic principles of maneuver warfare-the use of mission type orders, focus of effort, and throwing strength against weakness-are as important to aviation as to the ground. Unless aviation elements can fulfill this broader role, our Marine air-ground task forces will never realize their full potential.

But this concept is not as new and Marine aviation is not as backward as the maneuverists allege. One of the best examples of use of the airpower as a maneuver force occurred in the Philippines during World War II. On 30 January 1945, the 1st Cavalry Division under MajGen Nerme D. Mudge, USA, was ordered by the 6th Army to race to Manila. MajGen Mudge received his orders directly from Gen MacArthur:

. . . go to Manila. Go around the Nips, bounce off the Nips, but go to Manila. Free the internees at Santo Tomas. Take Malacanan Palace and the Legislative Buildings.

Marine Air Groups Dagupan (MAGs Dagupan), consisting of MAGs 24 and 32, was ordered to “provide an air alert of nine planes from dawn to dusk over the 1st Cavalry Division.” Implied in this order was the requirement to guard the division’s open left flank.

From the start of the operation at Guimba to its conclusion at the outskirts of Manila, the nine planes continuously patrolled up and down the valley, searching every road and trail for the enemy. Because of the commander’s intended speedy execution and avoidance of decisive engagements, the MAGsDagupan aircraft would search for and recommend alternate routes when points of friction were encountered. This successful use of Marine air was described by the 1st Cavalry Division’s official historian:

Much of the success of the entire movement is credited to the superb air cover, flank protection and reconnaissance provided by Marine Aircraft Groups 24 and 32. The 1st Cavalry’s audacious drive down through Central Luzon was the longest such operation ever made in the Southwestern Pacific area using only air cover for flank protection.

There are many lessons that can be learned from study of this operation; however, the techniques for employing an aviation unit as a separate maneuver element can be understood best by applying a modern force to the situation that occurred in 1945:

Assume that an opposing army consisting of light infantry and light armored divisions has been defending along a line running from Tarlac to Cabanatuan in Central Luzon. The United States Commander Western Command (CdrWestCom) has determined that the enemy’s strategic center of gravity is the city of Manila. He has ordered a two-pronged assault to seize the accesses to this city. The main effort will be the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade (1st MEB) along the Cabanatuan-Baliuag axis of advance with the 25th Light Infantry Division supporting the right flank with an attack along the Tarlac-San Fernando axis.

The commanding general of 1st MEB intends to advance rapidly through his zone, bypassing the enemy whenever possible. His weakest area is his open left flank. He plans to overcome this weakness by using aviation combat element assets to cover this open flank.

MAG-24 has been tasked to provide the 3d Marines with close air support and has been assigned the eastern (left) half of 1st MEB’s zone. This sector has been further assigned to Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 232 (VMEA-232), which is equipped with F/A-18s. VMFA-232 has been ordered to seek out and locate enemy units within its zone of action in order to protect the 3d Marines’ left flank by delaying, disrupting, and destroying enemy reinforcements.

VMFA-232 has been reinforced with four A-6Es, four AH-1Ws, and two OV-10Ds. In addition, they have been provided with artillery and naval gunfire liaison teams and access to force reconnaissance teams in their zone. These teams will provide additional intelligence gathering and fire support coordination capabilities to the squadron.

The squadron’s first task is to develop the situation by conducting an intelligence estimate and analysis of the assigned zone of action to determine possible enemy avenues of approach into and out of the zone. From this information the reconnaissance plan, covering employment of ground and air surveillance assets, is developed.

The next requirement is to gain and maintain contact by using armed reconnaissance flights. Two aircraft, one A-6 and one F/A-18, are assigned to patrol each avenue of approach. The A-6 uses active or passive measures to locate the enemy. Once the enemy force is located, the A-6 launches precision guided ordnance to mark the forward edge of the enemy column or position. The F/A-18 follows the flight of this ordnance to locate the target, attacking it visually with conventional area ordnance, such as Rockeye or iron bombs. While this attack occurs, the location, composition, and direction of travel of the enemy force are reported to the squadron commander. After this initial attack, the flight would shadow and disrupt the enemy until relieved by an airborne tactical air controller (TAC(A)) in an OV-10. If the first unit to locate the enemy is a ground reconnaissance team, this unit directs the armed reconnaissance flight assigned to that particular avenue of approach onto the enemy, using artillery or naval gunfire to delay and harass the targeted force.

The final task is to concentrate superior combat power at the decisive time and place. When the squadron commander decides to concentrate his combat power, he will employ a strike force of four or more aircraft Directed by the TAC(A), this strike force is assigned the mission of halting the advance of the enemy. The exact size of this force depends on the number of avenues of approach to be covered and the size of the reserve desired. In this situation, there are 12 F/A-18s and 4 A-6s available to cover 2 avenues of approach. The squadron commander uses two sections (two F/A-18s and two A-6s) to cover the possible approach corridors, one section for each corridor. In order to maintain continuous coverage of these corridors, two additional sections are needed. As one section is relieved, the other refuels and rearms. This leaves a maximum of eight planes for the strike force. Assuming all planes are operable, the remaining aircraft could be divided into one eight-plane or two fourplane strike forces. If additional aircraft are needed, the armed reconnaissance flights are diverted from their assigned areas to attack the located enemy unit The result desired is continuous pressure on the enemy forces until they are unable to affect the mission of the main effort being carried out by the 3d Marines. Between strikes, the TAC(A) directs artillery or naval gunfire to slow the enemy’s movement.

Some other factors to consider when employing this aviation maneuver element are antiair warfare, use of attack helicopters, and command and control:

* The F/A-18 is used in a dual air-to-air, air-to-ground role. In the armed reconnaissance flights the A-6 would be responsible for locating the enemy, and the F/A-18 would be responsible for air-to-air protection until transitioning to ground attack (a better mix would be F/A-18 and F/A-18D aircraft when they become available). If a high surface-to-air threat exists, additional electronic warfare and suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) assets would be required from MAG-24.

* Attack helicopters are assigned one of two possible missions: to block and observe chokepoints or to set up ambushes along one or more of the avenues of approach.

* Command and control is performed at the lowest level possible. The commander maintains situational awareness by using a single tactical net and situation maps or the more complicated Marine air control squadron’s radar system. The squadron commander has direct command of his assigned zone of action reporting developments directly to the commanding general of the 1st MEB. When the TAC(A) is dispatched, he assumes control of the local situation.

This example illustrates only one way to use airpower on the maneuver battlefield. This concept, however, meets all the fundamentals of employment of air in maneuver warfare: that airpower supports the ground commander’s scheme of maneuver; that it directly or indirectly supports the focus of main effort; that it shifts when the main effort shifts; and that it is able to give support beyond the range of the ground commander’s vision.

Anyone familiar with the employment of the air combat element of the Marine air-ground task force should realize that this method is not new. They would probably also conclude that this technique has already been applied during past training operations. What I suggest, however, is that Marines must consciously look at the use of airpower from a different perspective. Rather than think of aviation as just another supporting arm, they must consider the aviation combat element as a separate maneuver unit, and describe its employment in infantry, not aviation, terminology. I have not mentioned air tasking orders, mission planning, or target analysis; instead, I have discussed mission, commander’s intent, and zones of action. The answer to the question of employing aviation on the maneuver battlefield is not to develop new tactics or procedures, but is to treat the air element as a highly fluid, quickly massed maneuver arm. Although Marine aviation cannot hold the key terrain, it can locate, close with, and destroy the enemy.