Phantoms, Intruders, and Marines

by LtCol L.G. Karch

There is no shortage of supposed experts who stand ready to question the Marine Corps need for tactical aircraft. In part this attitude may stem from the fact that Marine A-6s and F-4s were used sparingly in Vietnam for their primary missions. In the case of the F-4, the air threat in South Vietnam simply wasn’t there; the A-6 was proscribed from striking the most lucrative and militarily significant targets in North Vietnam by political decision. Both aircraft performed well in the CAS role, not because the aircraft were particularly suited for the mission, but because their aircrews were determined to provide the best possible support to ground forces. But the case for these aircraft rests on a more substantial foundation than these CAS missions and the experiences of Vietnam.

The primary reason why the Marine Corps needs these aircraft in such numbers is to fight a full-scale conflict against the Soviet Union/ Warsaw Pact in multiple combat theaters where even the adjoining seas boil from the heat of battle. In such a conflict it will take every fighter sortie that can be mustered to knock down a significant portion of the massive air attacks that will be launched against Marine forces around the clock. A-6s will have to fly day and night in all weather conditions to destroy and disrupt enemy concentrations beyond artillery range. The attrition in aircraft and aircrews will be high, but should these aircraft fail in their missions, there may well be no other alternative than to resort to the use of nuclear weapons to prevent defeat.

Don’t be deceived. Without these particular aviation assets in the Marine Corps, a few more light attack vehicles running around on the ground playing maneuver warfare will make no difference. They would simply be hunted down and quickly destroyed by the large number of enemy ground-attack aircraft operating overhead with impunity. Historically, modern maneuver warfare has worked best when strong offensive air capabilities were combined with rapidly moving ground forces which were able to maintain offensive momentum. The German blitzkrieg into Poland, France, and the Low Countries, and Russia are excellent examples of this air/ground synergism. Maneuver warfare does not work when the enemy has wrestled control of the air. Recall the fate of the Egyptian armored columns in the Sinai desert in 1967 with their air force lying in smoldering heaps. Recall the success of Israeli mechanized forces in the same area in 1973 with their air force reigning supreme.

Have you ever wondered why the Germans couldn’t move their vaunted Panzer divisions into the Normandy beachhead in World War II? It was not because they had not planned for a mobile defense with mechanized forces. The Allies prevailed because they achieved virtual air supremacy over northern France for a sufficient length of time to allow ground-attack and bomber aircraft to maul the German forces as they attempted to move toward Normandy. Ironically, these Panzers were the very same forces who taught the world the meaning of modern maneuver warfare less than five years earlier. Only on this occasion they were effectively stripped of their air arm.

To expect the Navy to supply these particular aviation assets in sufficient quantity and on a continuous and timely basis to a Marine force in a world-wide conflict is a poor assumption. An aircraft carrier is a weapon system that is awesomely effective when used in surprise, but vulnerable otherwise. A strike out of the blue on Vladivostok (or Pearl Harbor), for instance, is ideal. But, trolling off the coast of northern Norway during the initial days of a conflict is vulnerability personified. Included in the massive enemy air attacks would be heavy attacks on the carrier task forces by Backfire bombers armed with ASM-4/6 standoff cruise missiles Life for the carriers would be further complicated by Soviet attack submarines launching salvos of surfaceto-surface cruise missiles.

Navy fighter aircraft would be used primarily to defend the carrier task forces. Any Navy fighter support provided to the Marines under these circumstances would be fleeting and shallow in depth. Navy A-6 and A-7 aircraft might appear overhead the ground forces if the carriers are in range. But, without fighter cover over land, their effectiveness and survivability would be questionable. Navy A-6s and A-7s would also be in demand for operations against surface combatants trying to launch surfaceto-surface cruise missiles. Suffice it to say that the first mission of Navy carriers in a worldwide conflict with the Soviet Union will be to survive. Once the seas have been cleared effectively of the threat, carrier air can operate close enough to support Marines ashore and thereby influence the land battle.

As for the Air Force supplying these particular aviation assets, it is simply not in the cards. Air Force F-111s (the A-6 and the F-111 are comparable weapon systems) are too few in number and would likely be based too far away from Marine forces to be of much help. They also would not likely be used to support ground forces, but would instead be used for interdiction missions. Air Force fighter cover would be problematical unless the Air Force units were collocated with, or close to, the Marine force, and if this is the case, Marines can do the job just as well themselves. There also are no indications that sufficient Air Force fighter assets are even available to support Marines operating on the periphery of combat theaters assuming the required aerial refueling assets were made available. Overall, the Air Force fighter force is range-restricted for Marine purposes and few in numbers relative to commitments. In short, the Air Force plate is full.


* Offensive Air Support

* Assault Support

* Photo Reconnaissance

* Electronic Warfare

* Command and Control (Aircraft & Missiles)

* Antiair Warfare

The Marine Corps needs a powerful air arm possessing the full spectrum of tactical aviation capabilities. Yes, this aviation arm is expensive in terms of both money and skilled manpower. And yes, this aviation arm comprises a significant portion of the Nation’s tactical aviation assets. But no, the Marine Corps would not be better off with less aviation capability. Success in modern warfare absolutely requires immediately available, effective air support. The synergism of coordinated and balanced air and ground forces has been demonstrated too often to be abandoned in favor of unproven force mixes. In its most stressful scenarios, Marine Corps aviation is the real equalizer. Like the TV commercial says: “Don’t leave home without it!”