MAGTF Aviation and Maneuver Warfare

by Maj Richard M. Rayfield

Marine air-ground task forces (MAGTFs) have one purpose-to achieve success on the battlefield. Maneuver warfare provides the basis for the Marine Corps’ warfighting doctrine. FMFM 1 Warfighting codifies this philosophy and outlines the basic principles of maneuver warfare. These principles capitalize on use of the main effort; focus and speed; surprise, unpredictability, and boldness; lethality; and effectiveness. Maneuver warfare requires opportunistic maneuver in time and space to gain a positional advantage over the enemy. It concentrates on those actions that present the enemy with a hopeless situation-a dilemma.

The Marine Corps uses aviation as an integral part of our naval expeditionary air-ground team. As Gen Carl E. Mundy, Jr., former Commandant of the Marine Corps, stated:

Marine aviation units are an integral element of an air-ground combat system. They are not merely joined at the top when the time comes to fight. They are fully integrated from top to bottom, and they train that way full time.

As part of this combined arms team, aviation extends and expands the MAGTF‘s warfighting power. Combined arms, with aviation as one of the key players, has guided Marine Corps force structure decisions for most of this century. It has long been a hallmark of the Corps. Combined arms is a method of fighting; maneuver warfare employs fire support systems not as just supporting arms, but as combined arms. Combined arms strike the enemy with two or more arms simultaneously in such a way that whatever course he takes leads to devastation.

Marine aviation units, like the other elements of the MAGTF, conduct operations using this maneuver warfare and combined-arms doctrine-or do they? From 1989-1992 use of Marine air as an independent maneuver element was discussed in more than a dozen Gazette articles and letters. Officially, the Marine Corps has stated, in writing, that Marine aviation, task organized into the aviation combat element (ACE) of the MAGTF, can provide a separate maneuver force (in support of the MAGTF). These statements have appeared in such documents as the Commandant-approved Marine Corps Long Range Plan (1989) and MAGTF Master Plans (1991 and 1993); and Marine Corps doctrinal publications that include FMFM 5-50 Antiair Warfare (1994); FMFM 5-60 Control of Aircraft and Missiles (1993); FMFM 5-70 MAGTF Aviation Planning (1995); and Maline Corps Warfighting Publication 3-2 (Coordinating Draft) Aviation Operations (1996). The commanding general of the 1st Marine Division during Operation DESERT SHIELD/DESERT STORM, MajGen James M. Myatt, stated, “Sometimes Marine air can be a maneuver element on its own, with a ‘mission-type’ order . . .”

Ample evidence exists, past and present, to verify the validity of the ACE as a maneuver force, but the Marine Corps seem-ingly continues to be paying only lip service to a potentially lethal punch capability. Aviation is a key player in the MAGTF‘s ability to conduct maneuver warfare. Aviation broadens the MAGTF commander’s ability to gain a decisive advantage and create a dilemma for the enemy. The MAGTF commander uses aviation to aid and reinforce his maneuver by attacking the enemy’s ability to maneuver. If the enemy moves rapidly to counter ground actions, he becomes vulnerable to aviation. If the enemy moves to counter aviation actions, he cannot react quickly enough to thwart ground actions. Whichever course the enemy takes, disaster awaits. Task Force Cunningham during the Persian Gulf War serves as a prime example of present day use of aviation as a maneuver force. Initially, this all-helicopter force was given a mission-type order to act as a screening force designed to fight a delaying action; subsequent evolutions developed it into a fixed and rotary-wing force with a mission to attrite and force Iraqi forces into fire sacks established by the Marine division, where fixed-wing aircraft would attack along the long axis and rotary-wing along the flanks of the Iraqis.

Marine aviation, task organized into the ACE, operates in support of ground maneuver forces or provides a separate maneuver force within the MAGTF. These employment options for Marine aviation give the MAGTF commander added combat power and flexibility to shatter the enemy’s will to fight. The MAGTF commander has two combat arms to employ-the ACE and the ground combat element (GCE)-to help him achieve a decision. The MAGTF commander can rapidly shift his main effort between them, focusing against critical enemy vulnerabilities that lead to the collapse of his center of gravity. Aviation can pin down the enemy while ground forces attack; it can decimate an enemy that ground forces have cornered; it can strike when the enemy is unprepared.

Virtually every training exercise continues to revolve solely around the GCE first developing a scheme of maneuver or concept of operations, with the ACE subsequently developing a plan to support the GCE. Consideration of the ACE’s employment as either the main effort or a maneuver force never surfaces. Perhaps the reason for this is three-fold: the misguided notion that maneuver warfare means you must occupy or maneuver on terrain, that aircraft or aviation cannot be designated the main effort, or the fear of the ACE becoming a “separate Service” within the MAGTF or the Marine Corps.

The idea of maneuver warfare being restricted solely to ground forces maneuvering to gain positional advantage in respect to the enemy places an unnecessary limitation on the MAGTF commander’s options. To maximize the usefulness of maneuver, maneuver in time must also be considered. More accurately, FMFM 1 defines maneuver warfare as:

The employment forces within the battlespace through movement in combination with fire, or fire potential, to achieve a position of advantage in time or space in respect to the enemy in order to accomplish the mission.

Aviation clearly allows us to generate a faster operational tempo, thus gaining the upper hand on the enemy. The use of mission-type orders, vision, intent, desired end state, and ability to focus on the enemy play a major role in the conduct of maneuver warfare. These concepts can be equally applied to Marine aviation, organized as the ACE. Unity of effort and designation of a unit or force as the main effort by the commander integrates these concepts towards the common goal-success in war.

The MAGTF commander may designate any element of the MAGTF, including the ACE, as the main effort. The main effort may be associated with battlespace dominance, power projection, or force sustainment. The main effort is focused where it will affect the enemy the most and where the best opportunity for success exists. The commander stakes the success of each phase of the operation on the main effort’s performance; the main effort can be shifted, as required, to reinforce success or exploit an opportunity. The action of the main effort seeks to achieve a decision; everything else remains secondary. The main effort focuses on a critical enemy vulnerability, enemy capabilities that prove both susceptible to attack and crucial to the enemy’s success. These vulnerabilities lead to the enemy’s center of gravity, the destruction of which achieves the objective of defeating the enemy forces or shattering their will to fight.

The ACE can be designated the main effort through mission-type orders and the air apportionment process. The ACE assumes a supporting role when another unit or element of the MAGTF is designated the main effort in the same manner. If the GCE is the main effort, the air apportionment (approved by the MAGTF commander) of ACE assets will reflect a priority (normally by percentage, converted to sorties) of aircraft tasked to support the GCE. Specific units can also be assigned a mission of direct support to the GCE. Direct support is defined as “a mission requiring a force to support another specific force and authorizing it to answer directly the supported force’s request for assistance.” The goal remains to exploit success, not reinforce failure. Those units not designated as the main effort assume a supporting role. It is not always necessary to weight the ACE as the main effort in the traditional manner that the GCE is weighted when it is the main effort; supporting attacks, priority of fires, or priority of force sustainment may suffice. Organization of task forces, with aviation assets providing the predominance of forces, can occur. Supporting units weight the main effort by ensuring their actions either directly assist the main effort, or provide the main effort as much freedom as possible.

The MAGTF commander normally designates the ACE as the main effort to gain air superiority. The GCE and combat service support element (CSSE) can provide critical support to weight the ACE as the main effort in this role. When the ACE establishes forward operating bases (FOBs) ashore to extend their reach and increase sortie generation rate, the GCE can provide security for the FOBs against ground attack. This allows the ACE to conduct offensive antiair warfare to gain the air superiority necessary for the MAGTF to conduct operations without prohibitive interference. The CSSE can support the ACE as the main effort by aiding in the force sustainment of the ACE, i.e., construction of aviation facilities and buildup of supplies required by the ACE. The ACE can also be designated the main effort to shape, prepare, and isolate the battlespace for follow-on decisive operations. The MAGTF commander can designate the ACE as the main effort to quickly exploit an opportunity or pursue a fleeing enemy. The GCE can support, or weight the ACE as the main effort in this instance, by establishing a blocking position to channel the enemy into an “aviation fire sack.” Like the commander’s intent, the main effort harmonizes the various actions of the force, allowing all parts to act as a whole. The MAGTF commander uses aviation at the tactical and operational level to achieve a decision that realizes strategic results. Marine aviation capitalizes on its inherent speed, surprise, and unpredictability, focusing its lethality and effectiveness on a critical enemy vulnerability to achieve a decision.

The fear of the ACE becoming an entity unto itself is unfounded. Marine aviation makes the Marine Corps unique. To understand Marine aviation, we must understand maneuver warfare, combined amis, and the MAGTF. The fundamental difference between Marine aviation and other aviation forces is that Marine aviation is part of a combined arms organization-the MAGTF. MAGTF aviation never operates independently-it remains an integral part of the MAGTF. Aviation cannot win alone, but its inherent capabilities as a combat anil of the MAGTF must be maximized-whether in a supporting role or as the main effort. As T.R. Fehrenbach stated:

You may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life-but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.

Historical failures of aviation operating alone abound, just as successes of aviation integrated with ground forces and combined arms are numerous. Aviation can be crucial to victory, as it was against Iraq in 1991, but as noted in the Department of Defense’s Final Report to Congress on the Persian Gulf War, “Air power alone could not have brought the war to so sharp and decisive a conclusion.” Marine aviation, as the ACE, is a complementary part of the larger whole-the MAGTF. It must remain integrated with all other forms of combat power, part of the MAGTF combined arms team, focused on one goal-to achieve success. Marine aviation functions as an inseparable element of the MAGTF; employment of each element requires cooperation of the others. Only when the MAGTF is employed as a whole can it fight and win. This basic concept outlines the very purpose of Marine aviation and subsequently provides the framework that guides its employment. As MajGen Myatt stated, “The MAGTF is more powerful than the sum of the parts, where a Marine’s most sought after privilege is to be able to fight for another Marine.”

The adoption of maneuver warfare as the Marine Corps’ warfighting philosophy signals a need for a reevaluation of Marine aviation. The emergence of the Marine expeditionary force as the warfighting MAGTF, focused on the operational level of war, contributes to this reexamination of the ACE. The MAGTF commander retains the option of weighing the ACE’s effort in support of any one aspect of his total effort, yet seeks to employ aviation to create conditions for decisive results. The MAGTF commander may use the ACE in support of ground maneuver forces or employ the ACE (or any elements thereof) as a supported force. MAGTF aviation contributes significantly to all forms of maneuver-in support of, or as part of-a frontal assault, flanking attack, envelopment, or turning movement. If not designated the main effort, the ACE functions in a supporting role to the offense, defense, reserve, or security operations. For example, the MAGTF commander may task the ACE to conduct deep shaping operations that isolate the battlespace for future operations, using aviation to discover the enemy’s operational intentions; delay reinforcements; degrade critical enemy command, control, and logistics capabilities; screen his intentions; and manipulate the enemy’s perceptions. The MAGTF commander can also direct the ACE to support the CSSE’s force sustainment operations.

The ACE provides a newly realized dimension of flexibility, firepower, and mobility to add to the MAGTF commander’s tools for victory. The traditional concept of the ACE as solely a supporting arm of the GCE expands to that of a combat arm in support of the entire MAGTF. If we do not train to use the ACE as a maneuver force or employ it as the main effort as part of an integrated combined arms MAGTF, we will be unable to effectively maximize its inherent capabilities in combat. The ACE packs a lethal punch; let’s not just pay it lip service.