Marine Air

by Maj James P. Etter

A 1988 Chase Contest Entry

During the Falklands conflict in May 1982, the successful Argentine bombing attacks against British shipping were carried out at altitudes below 200 feet Debriefs with Argentine pilots found that before the war, daily training was conducted at 50 feet. Argentine pilots believed it was easier to learn to fly at these altitudes in peacetime than on the first day of war.

It is well known that military units “fight like they train.” For this reason, we must step back and reflect on the focus of our training and ensure that it will meet the demands of the battle-field-that it will provide the experience and create the skills needed to win. If we do well in properly focused training, we should do well on the battlefield. This article will address the focus of Marine air training in target identification, tactical flying, and maneuver warfare-three areas that are of vital on today’s battlefield.

Target Identification

Ask any aviator what is the most difficult task on the battlefield, and he will tell you target identification. Historically, the battlefield has required specific target identification when attacking either ground or air targets. For example, recent air strikes in Grenada, Lebanon, and Libya required that aircrews positively identify their targets before engaging them. If targets were not identified, pilots were restricted from releasing their ordnance.

The fundamental problem with target identification is that the main equipment used to identify and distinguish targets has not changed with the advance of technology. The human eye remains the same. Although many nations have spent millions of dollars attempting to extend the eye’s capabil-ity, the battlefield limits this process. The human eye is still the dominant identifier in airto-ground and airtoair combat.

Historical data gathered in a 1983 Pentagon study shows that between 1954 and 1982 only four airtoair kills were achieved beyond visual range (BVR). All other airtoair kills involved visual target identification by the pilot. Although aircraft missiles give us the capability to shoot beyond visual range, BVR kills are few due to rules of engagement and battlefield dynamics.

When aircraft were first armed with offensive weapons, the ranges of these weapons were less than the range of the human eye. A target would be found and then the aircraft would be flown to the target to employ its weapons system. Today, however, the reverse is true. The range of an aircraft’s weapons system far exceeds the identification range of the human eye. This allows the target to be in range of the weapons system before the pilot can detect it visually.

Our training, however, seems to have focused on the extended capabilities of the weapons system but ignored the actual limitations that exist on the battlefield. In the Marine Corps fighter community, some F/A-18 training uses BVR target elimination even though BVR kills will be the exception in combat. Fleet missile shoot exercises, which are the pilots only chance at firing a missile, are also structured to allow for the firing of AIM-7 missiles under BVR conditions. In addition, these missile exercises are built around benign, nonmaneuvering, and straight and level scenarios.

Combat airtoair missile engagement results from Vietnam and the Falklands’ air war illustrate how unrealistic such training is. Prior to Vietnam, missile statistics from training showed an 80 percent kill capability for both Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles. However, “during the period from February 1965 to March 1968, U.S. Air Force Phantoms fired 224 AIM-7 and 175 AIM-9 missiles achieving only an 8.9 and 16.0 percentage of kills, respectively.” During the Falk-lands conflict British pilots continually tried in vain to shoot Argentine air-craft from the head-on position. Technologically, the new AIM-9L missile had this capability, but out of “18 airtoair kills, there were zero head-on kills.” My point is that both the American and British pilots had much greater technological capability than the battlefield would allow.

In the ground attack community, airto-ground target identification training is a critical problem. Little realisitc training is being conducted where pilots have full responsibility for properly identifying a target. In all cases a forward air controller on the ground or in the air-a FAC or FAC(A)-or a range controller confirm identification for the pilot or the pilot merely tries to hit what is in close proximity to the marking round.

Where is the training that requires a pilot to hit a moving or camouflaged target? Where is the training that requires a pilot to practice popping up on a target, telling the difference between an M-60 and a T-72 tank, and then delivering effective fire on the tank? The F/A-18, the AV-8B, and the A-6 all tout their accuracy, but shooting at what-a stationary bullseye on a raked range, a stack of rubber tires that is supposed to be a ZSU or an AAA site, or a stationary armor hulk that is placed in an open field for ease of identification?

The average circular error of probability (CEP) for the attack community is approximately 15-20 feet. This score reflects a pilot’s ability to bomb a single, stationary, noncamouflaged target on a known range with little or no consideration to approaching the target tactically. The CEP for the average German Stuka pilot prior to World War II was 10 meters. BGen PaulWemer Hozzel, a retired Stuka pilot reflects:

The accuracy depended on the training of which I have spoken on before . . . . What we aimed at was to achieve hits in a circle with a radius of 10 meters from the center. . . . But you can imagine the difference diving with accuracy and hitting the target without anyone shooting at you from the ground. When you get fire in your face it is quite another situation.

In the attack helicopter community pilots spend little to no time on target identification. Cobra pilots rarely train with multiple targets or in a scenario where they must identify the one or two enemy tanks that are engaged with friendly tanks. Identifying targets at night under illumination or with night vision goggles is a realistic battlefield possibility, but it is rarely practiced.

No matter what the range of the weapon, the target must be identified before it can be engaged. All successful tactics must be based on this fact. If one fails to understand this and bases doctrine and training on the theoretical full capability of the weapons system and absent from the target identification problem, he will find activity on the battlefield quite different from the activity in training. He will find himself poorly prepared for the realities of war.

Tactical Flying

Whether we like it or not, the battle-field will demand certain tactical skills. During the Falklands conflict, Argentine pilots were required to fly at altitudes well below 100 feet in order to survive. World War II Stuka pilot Hans Rudel recounts: “we fly in low over the water from the south; it is dark and murky; I cannot distinguish anything more than 2,000 to 2,500 feet ahead . . . . I am flying at 90 feet . . . . ” Studies from the several Arab-Israeli conflicts indicate that fixed-wing aircraft must be able to routinely operate at altitudes below 200 feet and at speeds in excess of 450-500 knots. As noted by aviation author Jeffrey Ethell, “In South Africa, pilots of helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft are flying as close to the ground as possible in order to survive against a modern Soviet threat.”

If all battlefield indications point to demanding low altitude flying, 200 feet and below, then why aren’t we doing it in training? Low pilot proficiency in low altitude flying as well as other related pilot skills are reflected in both fixed-wing and helicopter communities. This low pilot proficiency in low altitude flying is for a variety of reasons.

First, the fixed-wing community is restricted from flying below 200 feet in its training-a peacetime safety consideration that prevents pilots from acquiring one of the skills that will be absolutely essential in war.

Second, flying next to the ground at high speeds is exceptionally dangerous and requires a large amount of training time to gain proficiency. Pilots don’t have the time to do this training. Pilots can’t deploy on an average of 2 to 3 months per year, properly execute their nonflying duties-S-1, S-2, S-3, etc.-stay proficient in flying, and still fly tactically. As an example, an F/A-18 pilot cannot be tactically proficient when his mission includes both fighter and attack, and will soon include the missions of the RF-4B, and TA-4F/J, the OA-4M, and eventually the A-6E. Technology can aid in mission accomplishment, but it is still the man that is the linchpin in aviation. One man can only do so much.

Another example comes from the helicopter community, where a pilot is required to have 25 hours of night vision goggle (NVG) time prior to flying a terrain following (TERF) mission with troops. The problem is not the 25hour requirement. It is the approximate 12-month period it takes to accumulate those 25 hours of NVG time in order to qualify for TERF NVG flying. The major reason given for this delay is that other commitments prevent the squadrons from flying the required amount of night flying. Although other commitments may seem important, you go to war the way you are trained, as Marine helicopter pilots did on 25 October 1983 when:

. . . at 0305 the first helicopters took off from the Guam, in total darkness. [Grenada: Operation URGENT FURY] . . . . All aircraft carried night vision goggles, but some of the pilots had not yet qualified in their use.

A second reason for reduced tactical flying proficiency is the inability to demand and monitor a high level of tactical excellence. The Marine Corps Combat Readiness Evaluation System (MCCRES) can be a very adequate and reflective tool for measuring tactical flying proficiency and combat readiness, but the aviation community is largely paying lip service to it.

Most units preparing for a MCCRES evaluation are allowed to study gouge sheets or the exact test that has been leaked out so the unit will not look bad or, heaven forbid, fail. Most of the flying portion of the MCCRES evaluation is rehearsed several times by the same individuals who will also execute the mission on the examination. Since MCCRES’s inception in 1978, not a single aviation flying squadron has failed. Further, the average aviation MCCRES score is between 95-98 percent. These results are a better reflection of the high degree of prior knowledge of MCCRES testing material than they are of tactical proficiency or combat readiness.

A squadron commander and his staff can do little in the way of focusing on tactical flying if their ability to evaluate tactical proficiency or combat readiness is somewhat askew or if non-tactical activities prevent them from dedicating enough time for tactical flying.

Maneuver Warfare

The ground side of the Marine Corps has adopted the doctrinal concept of maneuver warfare. What impact does this have on the aviation community? Will the same operational techniques work for aviation no matter what the ground doctrine of battle?

Maneuver warfare is dominated by rapid change, independent action, and decentralized control. The direction of battle is controlled through implicit commands vice explicit commands. Mission, center of gravity, and commander’s intent shape the battle; the focus is on the enemy. It is on this battlefield that Marine air must develop its warfighting concepts.

The essence of maneuver warfare is high operational tempo. A central concept is to increase the dynamics on the battlefield to such a level that the opponent begins to fail, loses his cohesion, and can no longer fight as an effective, organized force. However, for the battlefield to reach such a point of high dynamics, the parts must begin to act independently. Not independently without direction but independent in relation to the whole of battle, which is directed and guided by the commander’s intent, the mission, and the constant focus on the enemy.

The question then becomes what will Marine aviation have to do on this battlefield that is different from what they are doing today? First, Marine aviation must learn to think and act differently. Aviators must look past the cockpit. Aviators must not only know how to fly their aircraft tactically to survive, but they must know what effect they want to have on the battlefield and why. They must start learning the whole of battle so that, when they are compelled by the battlefield to take action, they know what action to take and why. Currently, Marine aviation is focused too narrowly on the mechanics of getting “bombs on target.” Although target accuracy is necessary, in maneuver warfare it is the what, where, and why targets are hit in relation to other battlefield activity that is extremely important.

The Cobra pilots must be able to think like infantry commanders. They must not only understand and know their weapon system and tactics, they must also understand how to employ their weapon systems under the guidance of the commander’s intent and the mission, while continually focusing on the enemy. Fixed-wing pilots must be able to respond immediately to an ever-changing ground situation and understand the ground situation when they arrive in the target area.

For Marine aviation this means that we must break our dependency on centralized control in the execution of air power and become less reliant on preplanned missions. This means that pilots must learn new techniques on how to identify critical targets without the aid of a mark or a FAC, and learn how to employ air power by evaluating battlefield situations. This is much different than taking out a specific target when directed by higher authority. We must truly become an air-ground team in doctrine as well as in training. Marine aviation must focus its training totally on supporting the ground commander’s mission and intent, while all focus on the enemy.


“Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is very difficult.”


It is because war has so many unknowns that simple things like identifying a target become very difficult. If you have spent your training time trying only to identify targets that are easy to see, static, nonmaneuvering, and not intermixed with friendly forces or places in difficult terrain, you are going to have a tremendous amount of difficulty in war. War offers abundant difficulties; we do not need to add to them by ignoring lessons of the past Granted, we will make plenty of mistakes on our own, but we do not need to repeat the mistakes of others.

Although the battlefield is illusive and sometimes it requires a great amount of insight to ferret out the correct solution, it can and must be done. If Marines are to fly tactically then they must look to the battlefield to find out what skills are required and practice them.

The Marine Corps has adopted maneuver warfare as its doctrine. It is a doctrine that depicts a very active battlefield. New tactics are the answer, not new equipment Old practices, only done faster and with more “G” on the aircraft, will be of little help.

For Marines the final test will always be the battlefield; anything else that we might do really doesn’t matter. Marines must be able to fight and fight well. In almost all cases the difficulties that we have in training will emerge again on the battlefield. We must not ignore this implication. Marine air must continually look to the battlefield and develop the appropriate tactics, thinking, and realistic training. If it has to be done in war, then Marines must practice it in peace.