Aviation and Maneuver Warfare

In April 1989, nine years after the discussion of maneuver warfare began in earnest, the Gazette published its first article about how FMFM 1 ‘s maneuver doctrine might impact the employment of the aviation combat element (ACE) of a Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF). Its author, Maj R. Scott Moore, envisioned the ACE doing more than close air support, deep air support, interdiction, or air superiority functions. He foresaw it acting as a separate maneuver element, perhaps with other elements of the air-ground team attached, seeking to “exploit breakthroughs, conduct pursuits, screen flanks, act as a MAGTF reserve, or even control terrain.”

Four other major articles explored and expanded the subject later that same year and three more followed in 1991 and 1992. Some authors perceived the new role as something akin to “armed reconnaissance.” Others stressed how aviation must focus on the whole battle not just the mechanics of getting bombs on target. The idea that the ACE’s role would change significantly, that under maneuver doctrine it must do more than provide close air support and assault support for the ground combat element, seemed to be widely acknowledged. Maj William H. Dixon, Jr., noted (Feb92) that “To fight the ACE only as a supporting element is to fight with one hand tied behind the back.” He listed nine aviation missions for possible use in MAGTF planning: gain and maintain air superiority, isolate enemy units on the battlefield, shape the batttlefield, screen GCE’s flanks, destroy bypassed strongpoints, pursue and destroy retreating enemy, delay enemy during a withdrawal, provide rear area security, and provide a reserve force. Maj Thomas X. Hammes, writing in the same issue went further. He put aviation‘s role in true maneuver terms emphasizing that “Air must contribute to the MAGTF commander’s ability to identify, locate, and attack key enemy vulnerabilities . . . and focus on disrupting [the enemy’s] command and control to a point where he cannot function.”

All eight of these articles contain well-argued, useful discussions, and they are worth careful reading today. They raised an issue of vital importance: As the Corps continues to develop and refine its maneuver warfare doctrine, what will emerge as the principal roles of Marine aviation? It is a question that has yet to be clarified. Over the past 3 1/2 years since the last of these “ACE as a maneuver element” articles appeared, the aviation community has continued to focus on its traditional support responsibilities and on the six functions of Marine aviation. What is needed now is a clear understanding of the most productive courses of action for aviation operating under maneuver warfare doctrine. Aviation‘s traditional supporting tasks will remain important, but beyond them lie the hope and possibility that aviation can contribute, as Hammes suggested, directly to the objectives sought by the maneuver warfare ground forces. Unless there is a clear picture of what Marine aviation is to do, it cannot be properly structured, equipped, and trained to realize its full potential under the Corps’ current style of warfare.

In dealing with this issue, the much debated air campaign of the Gulf War is instructive. It demonstrated at the strategic level what can be done to paralyze a complex, integrated national structure. Effective military organizations at every level, like nations, have similar structure and critical centers of gravity. Their directing authorities, command and control mechanisms, communications and logistics networks, intelligence collection means, infrastructure, etc., are crucial to their unctioning. Maneuver doctrine calls for identifying these critical nodes and disrupting the functioning of those most vulnerable. The goal is to collapse the enemy. It is reasonable to believe that in many cases Marine aviation can help directly with this task by locating critical centers of gravity at the operational and tactical level and destroying their effectiveness. Recent operations in Bosnia may provide new insight into the capabilities and techniques needed if aviation is to help locate these centers and disrupt their functioning. Planning and executing an air campaign that contributes directly to collapsing an enemy is a complex task. The ability to carry it out successfully demands extensive preparation and training.