Maneuver Warfare and Marine Aviation

by William S. Lind

The maneuver-dominated battlefield makes special demands on air as well as ground. Marine aviation must be able to operate effectively in such an environment. It must make its own contribution to achieving a decision. Like its ground brethren, air must have a focus of efforts, be able to operate at all levels with mission orders, and know implicitly how to find, identify and select targets on its own. And it must do all of these things while maintaining air superiority.

The Marine Corps has adopted maneuver warfare as doctrine for the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF). The MAGTF is the only combat organization in the world intended to integrate ground, air, and logistics into a cohesive fighting unit at the lowest possible level. For this integration to occur, maneuver warfare doctrine must be thoroughly institutionalized in each of the MAGTF components.

The MAGTF command element must understand the nature of maneuver warfare on both the tactical and operational levels be prepared to issue mission orders clearly articulating commander’s intent to all three element of the MAGTF, and be able to unify the efforts of all three components in a single focus. The ground combat element must be able to put maneuver principles into practice-which is very different from simply talking about them.

As essential components of the MAGTF both the air and the logistics element must also be able to operate consistently with maneuver doctrine. Unfortunately both have been slighted in the discussions on maneuver warfare. The purpose of this article is to open an intensive discussion on maneuver warfare and Marine aviation in the context of MAGTF warfare.

Where can we start in assession what maneuver warfare means for aviation? The best place may be a picture of the maneuver-dominated battlefield. On that battlefield, there is no forward edge of the battle area; forces are intermixed, friendly and enemy, often to considerable depth. Units, both friendly and enemy, are on the move, often moving rapidly. As commanders at all levels take advantage of opportunities, units move in unanticipated directions, following only general lines of thrust Enemy counterthrusts create emergency situations quickly and unpredictably. Major enemy units, including armor units, get into our rear area, just as we get into theirs. Communications are often interrupted, and command is exercised through mission orders, not through constant directives. Shifts of reserves are of critical importance to both sides. Fire support from higher echelons is difficult, sometimes impossible. Key commanders are sometimes out of touch because they are up front, not in headquarters.-Planning at all levels must be improvised. In everything, time is the most critical quantity, as we seek to drive the tempo faster than the opponent can accommodate.

This is a battlefield dominated by the uncertainty, rapid change, disorder, and fog that make up friction. Following maneuver concepts, Marines attempt to magnify the fog and friction for the opponent, knowing they can operate in that medium better than he can. Guided by the commander’s intent, their mission, and by knowing the focus of efforts, they move fast and take audacious actions. They focus all their combat power on achieving a decision quickly.

Marine aviation must be able to operate effectively in this environment. It must make a major contribution to achieving a decision. Marginal contributions-causing some general attrition among the enemy, helping a platoon there and a company here by knocking out an occasional strong point, even winning the air battle (which alone usually hasn’t much effect on the outcome on the ground)are not enough.

Demands of Maneuver Warfare on Marine Aviation

How can we translate the nature and requirements of the maneuver warfare battlefield into aviation terms? A useful way to start is by looking at some of the specific demands maneuver warfare makes on its practitioners-air and ground.

Focus of Efforts

It demands all efforts be focused on achieving a decision. This is the concept of the Schwerpunkt or focus of efforts. In the focus of efforts, the commander decides what he will do in the specific situation to achieve a decision, always seeking to pit strength against weakness. Then he translates his concept into a unit, the unit that will lead the effort That unit becomes the focus and the commander supports it with all his combat power.*

If air is to operate on maneuver warfare principles, it must also have a focus of efforts. Generally, air’s focus will be the unit that is leading the ground effort. But that does not mean all air will simply act as close air support (although that may sometimes be the case). Rather, the air focus of efforts is the answer to the question, “What can air do in this situation that no other arm can do that will have a decisive effect on the outcome of the ground battle?” That “decisive effect” directs air in support of the ground focus of efforts because it represents the commander’s attempt to attain a decision on the ground. But the phrase “that no other arm can do” opens the door to many considerations.

Why should air focus its efforts on doing something that no other arm can do? The answer is simply because it is wasteful to have something-aviation-that can handle a wide variety of tasks doing something artillery or mortars or good infantry tactics can do just as well. It violates the principle of economy of force.

Some examples may help clarify the situation. Let us say that 2d Battalion, 8th Marines (2/8) is the focus of efforts in an attack. It has had good initial success and has outrun its artillery. In maneuver warfare, you do not want to stop at that point to let the artillery catch up; to do so would sacrifice tempo and let the enemy recover. However, 2/8 is now encountering heavy resistance it cannot bypass and needs fire support In this situation, close air support-using aircraft to replace the unavailable artillery support-is something decisive that only air can do. The mission order goes out from the MAGTF commander to the aviation combat element (ACE), “Support 2/8’s attack to keep it moving forward.” To accomplish this mission, air must be able to mass immediately in support of 2/8 and give it the fire support it needs.

Consider another case that illustrates a more subtle air focus of efforts. As a result of the close air support it received in the previous case, 2/8 breaks through into the enemy’s open depth. The ground commander commits his reserve to exploit the break-through and begins moving his whole force through the gap. At the same time, he knows the enemy has a powerful mechanized force in reserve. He tells the MAGTF commander, “I’ve opened a major gap to my northeast and I’m going through it” The MAGTF commander’s mission order to the ACE is, “Prevent enemy reserves from blocking the ground element’s advance to the northeast.” The ACE commander knows about the enemy’s reserve, because he is always fully read in on the ground situation (whenever possible, he should be collocated with the MAGTF commander). His order to the air units is, “Block movement of enemy mechanized reserves.” Again, the air must respond immediately with mass to perform its mission. It does so, and the enemy is caught in a combined arms dilemma: if he moves his reserves on the roads in columns, Marine air decimates them. If he does not, they will get there too late. He begins to come apart psychologically as well as physically.

These examples draw some key points about the air focus of efforts. First, to have a decisive effort, air must be able to mass. A few aircraft here, a couple more there, each flight doing something different, will seldom have a decisive effect. Such “penny-packeting” is the opposite of focusing efforts. This does not mean all aircraft always come in on one huge strike, though that may sometimes happen. As in the Luftwaffe’s support for Guderian’s Panzers at the crossing of the Meuse in 1940, the air support may be spread out over the time the ground force believes critical. But it will always be focused on accomplishing the decisive task, decisive in the ground battle, not the air battle.

Second, air must be able to mass on very short notice to accomplish something that was not planned. Tempo is vital in maneuver warfare, and air that can form or shift its focus quickly can accelerate the tempo. But if air takes hours or days of prior notice to mass, it is likely to slow the tempo, undermining rather than supporting the efforts of the ground force.

Third, air has a special quality other supporting arms do not share: the ability to shift its focus quickly over wide distances. As a battle or campaign progresses, the focus of efforts will often shift in response to changing threats and opportunities. Air can refocus its efforts much more quickly than other supporting arms. This is particularly true at the operational level, where the shift may involve distances of hundreds of kilometers.

Last, when we speak of an air focus of efforts, we are not saying that air is the focus for the MAGTF. There has been some misunderstanding on this point. Because in almost all situations it is the ground battle that is decisive, all efforts of the MAGTF are focused on the ground battle. As noted above, the air focus of efforts is the answer to the question, “What can air do that no other arm can do that will have a decisive effect on the ground battle?” In other words, the air supports the ground, at least the majority of the time. There may be some situations where an action by aviation would be the focus of the MAGTFs efforts, i.e., where air would be looked to for a decision. One case where this may occur is in the phase of an amphibious landing before the troops come ashore. But once ground combat is joined, history suggests air will seldom, if ever, be the MAGTFs focus of effort. The history of attempts to achieve decisions by air alone is one of repeated failures.

Mission Orders

Another demand maneuver warfare makes on its practitioners, ground and air, is that they be able to operate in fluid, rapidly changing situations. In air-to-ground battle, it means that aviation must be able to operate at all levels-from wing down through the individual aircraft-with mission orders complementary to ground mission orders. Air cannot expect to be told precisely where to go and what to do; rather, it must be able itself to translate-again, at all levels-the intent and mission and needs of ground commanders into appropriate actions by aircraft.

This means aviators must have a good understanding of ground warfare-as good an understanding as ground officers. They must understand it generally and also specifically in terms of the situation. The ground side must ensure that aviation is kept fully up to date on the ground picture. In turn, all aircraft, regardless of their specific mission, must always undertake reconnaissance of the ground battle. The information they gather must quickly be passed to the ground commander.

Air and ground must be a complete, integrated team, not through some organizational diagram or complicated command and control system, but through each having a shared picture of the other’s environment. The ground officer must strive to learn all he can about aviation and how it can assist him, just as he does with crew-served weapons and artillery. Aviators, for their part, cannot simply be technicians who fly airplanes and expect someone else to tell them what to do. Mission orders do not work that way. A system designed to provide specific direction cannot work on a fluid, rapidly changing battlefield; the situation will change faster than the detailed orders can be written and transmitted.

Intermixed Battlefield

In a maneuver ground battle, enemy and friendly forces are intermixed, there is no forward edge of the battle area, and forces change position rapidly and often in unexpected directions. No centralized, top-down system can tell aircraft where friendly forces are or whether forces in a given location are enemy or friendly.

This means that for aviation, the principal problem in air-to-ground work is not hitting targets but finding and identifying them. Finding them is alone very difficult; amid vegetation, fires, smoke, and a wide variety of vehicles, targets such as tanks, even tank units, can be very hard to find. Technology can be of some help here. But it is of little or no help in the second half of the problem: identifying friend from foe on the ground. There is no technology that can do this; the eyeball remains the best means. Historical experience suggests that maximum range at which targets can be correctly identified is a few hundred yards. Fastmoving aircraft cannot do it, at least not without repeated passes. And if aviation cannot do it, it is restricted to hitting little other than fixed targets.

A battlefield where forces are intermixed also poses a major challenge to helicopters. The attack helicopter, because of its ability to hover, may be significantly better able to find and identify targets than can a fixed-wing aircraft. But all helicopters face a new and serious survivability problem. Helicopters attempt to survive by flying very low. But on a battlefield where forces are intermixed, helicopters will continuously be flying low over enemy units. Modern ground forces have a large number of automatic weapons, and they can be counted on to point them in the direction of helicopters and shoot. Directly over enemy forces, at low level, helicopters will be relatively easy targets.

During Lam Son 719 in February and March of 1971, when the Army of the Republic of Vietnam invaded Laos in an attempt to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail, just such a situation occurred. North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese units were mixed over approximately 500 square miles of battle area. U.S. Army helicopters, which were used to move troops and artillery about the Lam Son battlefield, were subjected to intense ground fire. The Army officially reported that 108 helicopters were shot down and 618 others damaged. Many believe these figures were actually much higher.

The maneuver battlefield raises the question, can helicopters survive over such a battlefield by flying low? Will losses to automatic weapons be prohibitive? If losses will be prohibitive with current tactics, what new tactics are called for? More fundamentally, is there an answer to this problem, or will the helicopters simply not be viable on a battlefield where friendly and enemy forces are intermixed? Clearly, a force that follows maneuver doctrine needs to answer these questions before it continues further investment in helicopters.

Selection of Targets

Air must be directed against targets that matter. Maneuver warfare is not merely a tallying up of “kills.” In that kind of warfare, attrition warfare, destruction of any enemy assets may count as a success.

In maneuver warfare, the object is to destroy the enemy’s ability to fight as a cohesive, organized force. History suggests that, for aviation, some targets matter a great deal more than others. In general, attacking fixed targets-lines of communication, rail yards, supply dumps, etc.-does not have much effect on the enemy’s ability to fight effectively. The targets that matter are, in general, enemy combat units and, more specifically, units that are doing something critical in the ongoing ground battle.

Attacking fixed targets-interdiction bombing-has a long history of failure: Operation STRANGLE in Italy during World War II, Operation STRANGLE in Korea, ROLLING THUNDER and COMMANDO HUNT in Vietnam. In none of these operations was air integrated into the ground battle. It simply battered the enemy, and the battering had no decisive effect. The redundancy, repair, and rerouting capabilities of the enemy’s supply system were able to overcome the effects of the bombing.

Other historical examples suggest that attacking some kinds of fixed targets can be effective when integrated with the ground situation. In Italy, following the failure of Operation STRANGLE, air was concentrated on the Germans’ logistical system, including both fixed and moving targets, at the same time that Allied ground forces undertook a major offensive. The air attack on their supply lines, when combined with the demands for supply generated by the Allied ground action, left the Germans with insufficient supplies, especially of fuel, to maneuver in the defense. This in turn convinced them to withdraw.

In general, attacks on enemy units are what count. For aviation to be effective on a maneuver battlefield, it must be able to find, identify, and attack enemy combat units. Examples of cases where air has had a decisive effect by doing this include the German blitzkrieg and the use of Allied airpower at Normandy.

There is an interesting symbiosis developed by air and ground working together in a maneuver environment. The nature of the ground battle makes moving enemy units especially important. Often, the moving units are reserves coming up to block a breakthrough or exploit a success, or major units that have gotten into our rear. In order to do what the enemy needs done to achieve a decision, they must move. Often, they must move fast, which usually means in column on roads.

This in turn makes them vulnerable to air attack. It also greatly reduces the quality of their air defenses. Generally, attacking fixed targets or stationary enemy units with emplaced air defenses has resulted in high aircraft losses and little important damage to the enemy. But when enemy units can be found and attacked while on the move, aircraft losses have been light and results good. Results encompass more than destruction; if the enemy units are significantly delayed by air attack, the delay itself may be decisive in maneuver warfare. In fact, the more maneuver oriented our ground forces are, the more delay will be disastrous to the enemy. So we have a symbiosis: the more our ground forces compel the enemy to move, the more vulnerable he is to air attack. And the more he can be delayed or destroyed from the air, the easier it becomes for our ground forces to carry on a battle of rapid maneuver. Here, air and ground really become a mutually reinforcing team.

It should be noted that this use of aviation does not translate simply into close support. Often, the most critical enemy units will not yet be engaged with our ground forces. Nor does it imply interdiction, which usually means hitting fixed targets. Perhaps the best term for much of what air should be doing is “armed reconnaissance.” Guided by the ground forces’ intent, aviation concentrates armed reconnaissance in the sector where we are seeking a decision. Aircraft crews know the ground situation, know what kinds of targets matter, and go out looking for them. When they spot them, they attack. Again, this places major demands on the air crews; they cannot simply be technicians who know how to fly airplanes and put bombs on targets designated by others. They must be able to operate in the ground combat environment as the ground forces themselves.

Air Superiority

One element remains to be discussed in the context of our maneuver battle on the ground: air-to-air action. The above discussion contains two major, if somewhat subtle, implications for the air-to-air battle. Usually, we are told that we must win air superiority before we can do much ground support. The air-to-air battle is given priority in time: it comes first.

Maneuver warfare challenges this dictum on two counts. First, the purpose of aviation is to help achieve a decision on the ground. Therefore, the ground situation, not some abstract rule, determines the priority of air-to-air compared to air-to-ground missions. If the ground battle is such that air must concentrate on air-to-ground action at the outset in order to have a decisive effect, then this is what it must do. If, for example, the enemy catches us by surprise at the outset and breaks through into our rear with major armor forces, aviation must concentrate on helping destroy those forces. It must do so at once; it cannot wait while it first fights the enemy air force. On the other hand, if the ground situation is not urgent at the outset, it may well be desirable to destroy the enemy air force first. This may be the case in amphibious operations before the MAGTF comes ashore.

Second, enemy air may not be a significant threat to our ground forces, depending on how well it can meet the above challenges. Is it focused on doing something decisive? Can it mass quickly in the face of the unexpected? Can it operate in a fluid, rapidly changing situation, i.e., with mission orders? Can it distinguish friend from foe on the ground where forces are intermixed? Can it effectively hit targets that matter, such as our reserves while they are moving to do something of critical importance? If the enemy can meet these criteria, his aviation is a major threat. Destroying it becomes a high priority.

On the other hand, if he cannot meet these criteria, his aviation may not matter much. It will cause us some random attrition, but it is not likely to have a decisive effect. This is true even if the enemy has a lot of modern aircraft. In this situation, the air-to-air battle takes on less importance. Certainly, it is desirable to destroy the enemy’s attack aviation because it will cause us some damage. But the priority is lower. Know which situation is the case-Can he operate effectively in a maneuver environment or can he not?-is the critical question for our intelligence.

At the same time, air-to-air action may be highly important to our own attack aviation. If the enemy has a capable fighter force, it is important that his fighters be kept off our attack aircraft. The ground attack pilot needs to concentrate fully on his task, with minimal distraction from enemy fighters. Air-to-air action that is needed to support our own ground attack aircraft also supports the ground commander.

This discussion gives us a conceptual frame of reference for examining aviation in maneuver warfare. Others will certainly be able to draw out additional implications. But it gives us an initial picture from which to work.

Where Does Marine Aviation Stand?

If we look at today’s Marine aviation, two different pictures emerge. One is of a number of aviation units that are working effectively toward maneuver warfare. They are wrestling with the requirements of the maneuver battlefield: use of mission orders, rapid massing, seeking to have a decisive effect, etc. An example of such work comes from a recent wing-level exercise. The opposing force (OpFor), comprising about an air group of mixed aircraft types, operated maneuver style. The results were most encouraging.

Unfortunately, not enough of this type of thinking and training is being done. Most Marine aviation units are not operating in ways consistent with a battle of maneuver on the ground. In exercises, they seldom have a focus of efforts; the very concept of seeking to do something decisive is usually missing (as it too often is on the ground side as well). Air units have little or no picture of what is happening on the ground, the scheme of maneuver, or the ground commanders intent (again, this is at least as much the fault of the ground commander as of the aviators). Mission orders are seldom employed; instead, everyone is tightly controlled through a centralized, directive, fragile, and very slow command and control system. Aviators are reduced to acting with no understanding of why they are doing something or what result is needed in terms of the ground battle. Such reduction of aviators to technicians has in turn undermined the true air-ground team to the point where many aviators now have little knowledge of, or interest in, ground warfare. Training seldom includes the most difficult task, finding and identifying targets from the air. Nor does Marine Corps aircraft procurement take this task into account; it is questionable whether it can be done from “fast movers.” The central problem maneuver warfare presents to the helicopter community, that of operating over an intermixed battlefield, goes unaddressed.

Again, it must be stressed that many individual aviators and some aviation units are exceptions to this gloomy picture. As one Marine aviator noted:

Most all fixed-wing pilots would like nothing better than to have a decisive impact on the ground battle but are not given the chance to fly an armed recce or fluid interdiction mission. . . . I don’t think it is the pilots’ fault. The system needs changing.

Unfortunately, the ground side has done little to draw aviation into maneuver warfare and into ground warfare. Ground commanders and units seldom make much effort to keep aviation apprised of what is happening on the ground in exercises or to build strong relationships with air units through regular exchanges of personnel, through inviting aviators to join them in the field and sending ground officers to spend some time with aviation units. Both ground and air seem to accept the growing air-ground split

What Must Be Done?

Clearly, this situation cannot be allowed to continue. Marine air must be able to operate according to Marine Corps doctrine-maneuver doctrine. What are some of the specific changes that are required?

Command and Control

One of the principal reasons for Marine aviation‘s inability to operate on a fluid, high-tempo battlefield is its elaborate, centralized, bureaucratic command and control system. A quick look at command and control for close air support illustrates the cumbersome and indeed unworkable nature of the system.

Let us look at Company A, 1st Battalion, 9th Marines (1/9). The battalion is the focus of efforts of a Marine expeditionary brigade and has plenty of close air support sorties assigned to it. The leader of 2d Platoon, which is leading one of several thrusts in an attempted breakthrough, finds he is being held up by a strong enemy company-sized position. He knows 1/9 has outrun its artillery support, so he calls for air to suppress the enemy position.

What happens? Our platoon leader has to go through an elaborate process that includes:

* Establishing communication with the nearest forward air controller (FAC) (there is just one with the company) and requesting air.

* The FAC passes the request to the direct air support center (DASC), usually by radio Communications may be down, in which case the platoon leader gets no air support. If communications are up, the DASC responds positively if it has aircraft available. The DASC usually has little or no knowledge of the ground situation and cannot decide which requests are vital to the focus of efforts.

* The FAC’s request to the DASC is monitored by the battalion, regimental, division, and ultimately MAGTF fire support coordination centers (FSCCs). All have the authority to deny the request. In doctrine, silence is consent. Some units follow doctrine in this respect, but in others, each level must give positive approval.

* If the mission is approved, the DASC initially coordinates it. The aircraft are under close (or positive) control by the DASC and/or the tactical air coordinator (airborne) (Tac(A)). If events in the battle-enemy jamming, disruption or destruction of the DASC, or shooting down the TAC(A)-break the aircraft-to-DASC/TAC(A) loop, the mission cannot go.

* As he nears what he has been told is the target, the pilot comes under close control of the FAC or FAC(A). If this loop cannot be completed, the mission is aborted. If it can be completed, the FAC or FAC(A) directs the aircraft to the marked target. If events in combat have prevented marking the target, the aircraft will probably have a difficult time finding it, and the mission will fail. If it is marked, the pilot usually will still have no idea what the platoon commander needs done, i.e., suppress the target long enough for him to go around it. Through all of this, the two key players-the platoon commander and the pilot of the aircraft-have never talked directly with each other.

Such a complex, fragile, and communications-dependent system as this cannot hope to work on a maneuver battlefield. Indeed, it will have trouble working on a set-piece, slow-paced battlefield. Generally, for scheduled and on-call air, it requires a day to arrange a mission-a very long time in combat. “Immediate” air support exists in theory, but is seldom if ever practiced. Where does the current system leave our leaders of 2d Platoon, Company A, 1/9? Waiting, waiting, waiting . . .

How would a maneuver warfare air command and control system work? The details will have to be worked out in field exercises, but in general, for close air support it would work as follows:

Because 1/9 is the focus of efforts, it has ample close air support assigned to it as direct support. This translates into actual airplanes loitering in the vicinity or on nearby ground alert (within direct communicating distance) if they are vertical/short take-off and landing aircraft. The pilots know the ground situation, the ground commander’s intent (break through into the enemy’s depth, then envelop him from the right), and that 1/9 is the brigade Schwerpunkt.

A platoon leader says, “Wolf Pack (aircraft in direct support) this is Storm Cloud” on his radio.

The flight leader of AV-8s holding recognizes the call sign Storm Cloud as that of 2d Platoon, Company A, 1/9 and responds, “Go Storm Cloud.”

PLT: “Need suppression of strong enemy unit located at 897345 for next 15 minutes while we bypass. Friendlies located 500 meters south. Will ID our position by smoke. Call inbound and one minute out.”

The aircraft immediately take off. The flight leader knows the platoon’s intent and what it needs from aviation: 15 minutes of suppression on an enemy position. Knowing he has only enough ordnance to make two passes, he calls additional aircraft to help cover the 15-minute period.

AV-8s: “Wolf Pack lead inbound. Dash-2 20 seconds in trail.”

PLT: “Copy.” The lieutenant readies his smoke. “Roger, identify smoke?”

AV-8 lead: “One minute out.”

PLT: The lieutenant pops his smoke. “Roger, identify smoke?”

AV-8 lead: “Tally, I’ve got green smoke.”

PLT: “Roger, Friendlies at green. Target 500 meters north.”

After the first aircraft goes in, the second finds the target by the burst of the lead’s bombs and a correction from the lieutenant, who is personally observing the fire. Additional passes are pinpointed on the target. Covered by the fire from the aircraft, 2d Platoon bypasses, detailing a machinegun detachment to keep the strongpoint suppressed from its rear as follow-on units come up while the rest of the platoon continues the advance. Close air support has had a decisive effect by allowing the advance of the Schwerpunkt to continue.

In his comments on a draft of this paper, one Marine aviator with Vietnam combat experience wrote, “I have flown a number of CAS missions in direct support of units that were a main effort, and I flew them with the stated mission to support the unit’s mission. We just didn’t use the current terms of Schwerpunkt and missiontype orders. But the control by the ground commander being supported was exactly like you state control should be. There was no complicated TACP communication loop that our manuals speak about . . . We, and I mean a number of airplanes, simply loitered in a secure area with direct communications to the ground commander. When he called we were there in a matter of minutes . . . We do not exercise these types of missions in peace time exercises . . . I have only been involved in one exercise that used CAS realistically and unfortunately that was with the Army in the Philippines. I personally could not get a Marine MEB commander to exercise in the same location. Very few of our Marine ground commanders and aviators have seen Marine CAS work the way it is supposed to.”

This is a radically simpler system than the present one. It has only one critical communication link: the man on the ground at the critical point and the pilot. It is driven from the bottom up, not the top down. It can react to fast-changing events as pilots use initiative rather than waiting to be told what to do.

How does the armed reconnaissance mission work under this new system? We can find an example in Hans Ulrich Rudel’s book Stuka Pilot. At one point, during the long German retreat back through Russia, Rudel observed a German tank unit that was falling back. Separated by some masking terrain but on a collision course he saw a strong Soviet tank force. He realized that by the time the Germans saw the Soviets, they would be in trouble. Worse, Rudel and the rest of his flight were out of ammunition. What did he do?

I fire red Verey flares, wave and drop a message in a container . . . . By dipping my aircraft towards the spot where the T-34s are travelling at the moment, I tip [the Germans] off to the nearness of the enemy.

Thanks to his warning, the Germans ambush the Russians and destroy their whole force with no loss to themselves.

This classic case of effective armed reconnaissance raises some questions:

* Could an F-18 or AV-8 going fast at low level, have found the tank force and, if it found it, recognized it as Soviet? Maybe.

* Would the Marine aviator immediately have appreciated the threat this force posed to the rear guard, i.e., would he have understood the ground situation from what he saw? Not if he were one of the many aviators who always ignored “the ground stuff.”

* Does current Marine air-ground doctrine allow an aviator to immediately attack a hostile enemy ground force within close proximity of friendly units, even without any communications? No.

Under the new approach advocated here, Marine aviators would act just as Rudel did. They would understand what they were seeing on the ground because they would be thoroughly educated in ground warfare and they would be well briefed on the ground situation. They would be able to make sense of what they were seeing. They would always have permission to act on their own initiative, according to the situation-whether or not they had communications with the ground.


The debate over how to adapt Marine aviation to maneuver warfare should focus for the most part on using the equipment it already has. The defense budget situation suggests that major new procurements are unlikely for the foreseeable future.

However, funding should be sufficient to permit two relatively small, but quite important, acquisitions. The first is the 30mm gun pod. Unlike the 25mm gun, the 30mm gun can effectively strafe armored vehicles. It has a tank-killing capability. Sufficient gun pods should be acquired to equip every Marine aircraft that can carry one.

For similar reasons, every suitable aircraft should be equipped to deliver air-scatterable mines. While these mines are not likely to achieve many kills, they have considerable ability to delay enemy armor columns. In maneuver warfare, delay is often as useful as destruction. The mines themselves should be acquired in large quantities so they can be used extensively in combat.

At the same time these systems are acquired, two equipment-related actions now underway should be reconsidered. The first is the acquisition of the MV-22 Osprey. Until the issue of helicopter vulnerability on a battle-field where ground forces are intermixed can be resolved, it is foolish to proceed with the procurement of an aircraft that will share the helicopter’s vulnerability. By going ahead with the Osprey without resolution of this question, the Marine Corps risks putting an immense amount of money-around $30 billion-into a system that may not be viable in combat. Indeed, even if the vulnerability question is resolved, it is doubtful whether a Service as small as the Marine Corps should attempt, virtually alone, a $30 billion program.

Second, the planned elimination of the OV-10 should be reconsidered. The OV-10 undoubtedly has weaknesses, but it also has the advantage that it flies slow enough so its crew can see things on the ground. Its main mission, reconnaissance, will be vitally important in maneuver warfare, and it is questionable whether effective tactical reconnaissance can be done from fast-moving jets. Further, it appears the OV-10 can carry the 30mm gun pod, which would turn it into a well-armed ground support aircraft. Especially in Third World “low intensity” conflicts, the OV-10 might prove substantially more effective than its faster, but largely blind brethren.

Finally, when funds for new aircraft do eventually become available, serious considerations should be given to the acquisition of what is sometimes called a “Blitzfighter” or “Mudfighter.” The closest thing to a true Mudfighter currently in the inventory is the Air Force’s A-10. Like the A-10, the Mudfighter is slow, because it is difficult to find and identify ground targets at high speed. Unlike the A-10, a true Mudfighter would be small, agile, and cheap. It is possible that a projected future version of the Harrier, the mini-close-air-support Harrier, might be a suitable Mudfighter, as might be a propeller-driven aircraft currently under development by British Aerospace.


The most important implication of maneuver warfare for Marine aviation training is that it must integrate Marine aviators with Marine ground forces in every possible way. When Hans Rudel, was asked to state the most important piece of advice he would like to pass on to his successors, he said, “Always think of yourself as a soldier, not a flier.” This maxim must guide all aviation training. From his first day at The Basic School onward, the Marine aviator must understand that “the ground stuff is just as important to him as it is to the Marine ground officer. He will live and work and fight in that environment just as much as will his ground counterpart. In fact, he bears a double burden: he must know how to fly his airplane and he must understand ground warfare. If all he knows is his airplane, he will be ineffective as a Marine aviator; he will not be able to operate on mission orders in the context of a fast-changing ground battle because he will not be able to make sense of what he is seeing.

This overriding requirement in turn mandates some more specific changes:

* We must design exercises so aviators face the challenge of finding and identifying ground targets, just as they will in combat. Marine versus Marine exercises are not very helpful here because all the equipment is the same. Marine versus Army helps to some extent. If structured correctly, exercises with other countries could be very valuable for presenting this problem.

* All exercises must use mission-type orders. The ground commanders and the overall MAGTF commander must require aviation to operate in a free-play environment, with tasking on short notice and demands for massed air focused on doing something decisive. A requirement for quick responsiveness in a free-play environment will quickly bring deficiencies like those in the command and control system to the fore, at the same time generating pressure for change.

* Nowhere-not in exercises, not in schooling, not in basing-should aviation be separated from the ground forces. In training such as that at Marine Aviation Weapons Training Squadron 1, the ground side should not simply get a ritual bow, with a slide of a “grunt” at the start of the brief, some hollow rhetoric about “we’re here to support him,” and a minimal ground scenario that is really just a fig leaf over an overall air plan.

One Marine aviator, a lieutenant colonel, wrote:

If there is one thing that has always proven to be true when supporting ground units, it is that being read into the scheme of maneuver from all angles is a must! This can only be done by living and breathing it. I found it mandatory when perfonning FAC(A)/TAC(A) to attend ground planning/training sessions, sand tables, etc. so as to perform the basic mission. . . .

* Training should be used to build personnel relationships between air and ground. Each air squadron should have a ground unit as its regular partner. In combat, the need to mass air in support of the Schwerpunkt means one air unit cannot always support the same ground unit. But a habitual, institutionalized relationship in peacetime can build valuable personal relationships and a genuine interest in ground warfare on the part of aviators. As part of the relationship, aviators should do tours with the ground unit, and not only as FACs. The occasional but infrequent practice of giving an aviator a ground billet, including assignments as a platoon or company commander, should be greatly expanded. It is natural for an aviator to focus on his air-craft; training must be designed to overcome that natural tendency and focus him instead on soldiering.

* Air training itself needs substantial reform. The current overemphasis on safety-one of the many unfortunate byproducts of overpriced aircraft-must be brought under control. An air squadron commander should be rated more on the tactical proficiency of his squadron than on whether or not he loses an airplane. “Five hundred foot bubbles” and other impediments to realistic training must be eliminated. In air-to-air training, large free-play scenarios must be the norm, and flight hours must be increased. Carrying as he must the double burden of knowing how to fly his airplane and understanding ground warfare, the pilot must not be given yet another burden: massive amounts of paperwork and “collateral duties.” As on the ground side, junior officers must be allowed to make mistakes, to experiment and innovate, and to take initiative.

* Just as with ground officers, aviators must be educated in the history and theory of war. They must read military history-ground to air. They must know the history of such issues as what kinds of targets matter, what characteristics make an aircraft successful or unsuccessful, and how air can make a decisive contribution to the ground battle. They must know what has not worked in the past so they do not repeat it They must be prepared to advise MAGTF commanders on the employment of air, not simply the technical side, but tactically and operationally.

Institutional Culture

Training considerations lead naturally into the last and most important area where maneuver warfare demands changes in Marine aviation: institutional culture. Rudel’s call for aviators to be soldiers first and fliers second is a call for a change in culture. Despite rhetoric about the “air-ground team,” what we really have today is an air-ground split. As early as The Basic School, lieutenants who know they are going to aviation often disregard “the ground stuff,” much as ground officers too often ignore material on aviation. Tours as FACs are generally dreaded (in part because ground units often do not make good use of their FACs). Canned air-ground exercises increase the split by leaving aviators bored with air-to-ground action. In many exercises, the split continues as air operates according to its own rules and preferences, and the ground side, while resenting it, accepts it

Replacing the air-ground split with a culture that makes Marine aviators (especially fixed-wing, since helicopter pilots tend to work more closely with ground forces) soldiers first and pilots second is the greatest challenge facing aviation‘s leadership-at all levels. Senior aviators must come to realize that cultural issues, not budgets and equipment, are the most important in terms of winning in combat. They must drive aviation to focus on ground combat at all levels. The schools alone are not enough; it must happen in squadrons, groups, and wings as well. The Commandant is now driving a similar process on the ground side. He needs support from aviators in making it happen on the air side.

Perhaps the greatest impediment to the Rudel mentality is an attitude prevalent among aviators that as long as they are competent technicians-as long as they can fly their airplanes well, win dogfights, and get bombs on target-they have done all that should be expected of them. Technical expertise is necessary, but not sufficient. History has many examples of technically competent air Services that had little effect on the outcome of the battle or conflict; the Air Force in ROLLING THUNDER is an example. Just doing the technical job right is not enough.

More fundamentally, no officer should ever be a mere technician. He may have to be a technician among other things, but any billet that requires none but technical skills should be filled by a technical specialist. If we are to have officers as aviators, then they must be real officers: people who can think and lead as well as fly airplanes. They must understand war, not just machinery.

Again, others will certainly be able to add to what has been written here. There are undoubtedly further implications for Marine aviation in the Corps’ adoption of maneuver warfare as doctrine. The purpose of this article is to get the ball rolling, to begin to focus thought and discussion on Marine air in the context of maneuver warfare. My hope is that this paper will stimulate Marines of all ranks, air and ground, to take on the question, “What does maneuver doctrine mean for aviation?” More than 10 years ago, we began a similar discussion on the ground side. The time has come to bring aviation into the maneuver warfare MAGTF.


*The concept of focus of efforts does not translate into a single thrust Almost always, an attack involves multiple thrusts, which are critically important for generating ambiguity and confusion. Multiple thrusts are undertaken both within the unit that is the focus of efforts and also by other units. If another unit’s thrust obtains better resulls, it may be redesignated the focus of efforts. This does not alter the fact that combat power, particularly supporting arms, will be concentrated to support the unit that is the current focus.

Also note the term “focus of efforts” (plural). This was suggested by Col John Boyd as an improvement to the singular “focus of effort” It suggests the idea of multiple thrusts and actions. It is particularly apt for MAGTF warfare, which always involves the efforts of ground, air, and logistics.