Maneuvering Blind

by LtCol Bruce E. Brunn

Recent Gazette articles on use of the aviation combat element (ACE) as a maneuver element (see box) have been both timely and important during this period of force reductions and budget slashing. As we face the prospect of a substantially smaller Corps, no one can argue that Marine aviation will play an increasingly critical role in the total combat power of the Marine airground task force (MAGTF). Unfortunately, Marine Corps aviation lacks the basic ability to “see the battlefield,” which is essential for maneuver warfare.

The excellent article by Maj Thomas X Hammes (MCG, Feb92) came closest to this fact by clearly identifying the need for increased intelligence capability within the ACE to enhance its ability to perform the observation-orientation-decision-action loop functions fundamental to maneuver warfare. He was mistaken, however, in regards to the MAGTF and the ACE having the necessary equipment to support this maneuver role. Since the retirement of the RF-4B in 1990, the ACE has abrogated the aerial reconnaissance mission to the U.S. Air Force, thereby slaving the MAGTF and the ACE to the air tasking order (ATO) process. While this 3-day ATO process is marginally capable of supporting static defense operations, it cannot support the tactical aerial reconnaissance required for maneuver warfare. As confirmed during Operation DESERT STORM, MAGTF and ACE commanders have become nearly totally dependent on national and theater sensors to see the battlefield, resulting in the loss of the timeliness that was previously provided by tactical sensors. Additionally, DESERT STORM also witnessed increased difficulty in the ability of the ACE to insert ground reconnaissance teams, employ unattended ground sensors, and to operate aerial observers at effective altitudes in the vicinity of the forward edge of the battle area-all of which further degrade the MAGTF commander’s view of the typical Third World battlefield. The Pioneer remotely piloted vehicle (RPV) is an outstanding target acquisition platform, but it lacks the speed, range, wide-area search sensors, and all-weather capabilities of the RF-4B and other tactical reconnaissance aircraft.

An immediate fix is urgently required if the ACE is going to be a viable maneuver element. While it is not feasible to upgrade the capabilities of all three Marine expeditionary forces, at least one set of equipment must be obtained to enhance the MAGTF and ACE commanders’ ability to acquire and rapidly target enemy forces in the deep battle area. A minimum capability must include the following:

* F/A-18 recce pods using existing RF-4B film and side-looking airborne radar sensors fitted into a standard F/A-18 fuel pod.

* Secondary imagery dissemination systems to rapidly disseminate imagery, target graphics, and products needed for the intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) to the ACE and the ground combat element.

* A joint surveillance target attack radar system ground station to receive a direct downlink from the only effective broad area search sensor in the theater.

* Intelligence work stations to rapidly exchange targeting and IPB information between the joint task force, the MAGTF, and major subordinate commands, to include a dry process reproduction capability to disseminate much of the information in easy-to-assimilate graph and IPB formats.

* Forward looking infrared and precision navigation equipment for flight leaders on penetration missions to rapidly locate and confirm enemy targets.

Eventually, mid-range and endurance unmanned aerial vehicles will be able to perform many MAGTF reconnaissance missions, but these systems have been delayed for years, and we need this capability today. A blind man cannot effectively conduct maneuver warfare, and with the notable exception of the few Pioneer remotely piloted vehicles we have, MAGTF and ACE commanders are largely blind on today’s battlefield. Tactical reconnaissance in the joint environment has been and will continue to be a Service responsibility. We must move rapidly and decisively to restore our organic target acquisition capabilities as soon as possible, not only to facilitate the use of the ACE as a maneuver element, but also to enhance MAGTF combat power as a unique and vital force on the joint battlefield of tomorrow.

For further reading:

  • Maj R. Scott Moore, “The Act of MAGTF Warfare” (Apr89)
  • William S. Lind “Maneuver Warfare and Marine Aviation” (May89)
  • Maj John B. Saxman. USAF, “The Role of Marine Aviation in Maneuver Warfare” (Aug89)
  • Maj Steven B. Donnell, “The ACE as a Maneuver Element” (Aug89)
  • Majs Gordon C. O’Neill & Daniel A. Driscoll, Jr., “Maneuver Warfare: Can the ACE Adopt This Philosophy of War?” (May91)
  • Maj William H. Dixon. Jr., “The ACE Is Not a Maneuver Element-Yet!” (Feb92)
  • Maj Thomas X. Hammes, “Air as a Maneuver Element: An Idea Whose Time Has Come?” (Feb92)