The Role of Marine Aviation in Maneuver Warfare

by Maj John B. Saxman, USAF

Cowinner 1989 Bevan G. Cass Award

The survival of the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) is in jeopardy. Military reformers, such as William S. Lind, are advocating, in the guise of promoting maneuver warfare, that the Marine Corps should eliminate its helicopter, reconnaissance, air superiority, and all-weather interdiction aircraft and replace them with the modern day equivalent of the Stuka divebomber. These reformers believe the only role for the air combat element (ACE) in maneuver warfare is to supplement the lack of organic firepower in the ground combat element (GCE). If Marine aviation is relegated to this role, then the Marine Corps is no longer fighting as a MAGTF but merely as a ground combat unit with very expensive airborne artillery. A Marine Corps without its own multipurpose ACE would not be significantly different than any other light, mobile ground force. The MAGTF is unique because it is the only single-Service task force that can combine a GCE and ACE into a highly mobile, rapidly deployable combined arms team. However, some military reformers, along with some Marines, fail to see the advantages of using the ACE as an independent maneuver unit. In order to truly employ the tenets of maneuver warfare, the ACE must operate as an independent maneuver unit synchronized with, not subjugated to, the operations of the GCE.

The Marine Corps’ decision on how it will employ its aviation has widespread implications for the other Services. If the Marine Corps elects to restructure its ACE to emphasize only close air support (CAS), then the Air Force and Navy will have to provide the Marine GCE with all the other ground support missions (reconnaissance, antiair warfare, deep air support, and electronic warfare).

When the Army Air Force first struggled with the difficult question of how to best employ its airpower, it was fortunate to have an influential and visionary leader to give it guidance. As the Marine Corps now ponders a similar question, it unfortunately is receiving its advice from a “Billy” Lind, not a Billy Mitchell. William S. Lind needs no introduction to members of the Marine Corps. He is a controversial figure who Marines seem to either like or despise. He has significant influence with the Marine Corps and access to some of its senior leadership. While a few might regard his effort to promote maneuver warfare as little more than expanding the Marine Corps’ vocabulary of German phrases, many would grant him considerable credit for influencing the Marine Corps to adopt maneuver warfare as its official doctrine. In his book Maneuver Warfare Handbook, he describes how the ground combat element should fight using maneuver doctrine. While this book was relatively well received by the members of the GCE, aviators are finding the ideas expressed in his recent article “Maneuver Warfare and Marine Aviation” (MCG, May89) questionable at best. Although numerous people have expressed their opinion on the role of the ACE in maneuver warfare, none are as influential, have developed their ideas as extensively, or have put as much effort into reforming the Marine Corps as Mr. Lind. Therefore, his article could be considered as the “center of gravity” of the reform movement’s position on aviation. Exposing the fallacies of his maneuver warfare concepts concerning Marine aviation doctrine, command and control, education, missions, and equipment is the Schwerpunkt (main effort) of this paper.


Doctrine is the glue that holds everything together. It determines the command and control, education, missions, and equipment a Service needs. Therefore, doctrine must be sufficiently encompassing to cover all situations under which the Service may be called to fight. The main problem with Mr. Lind’s doctrinal concept of maneuver warfare is that he tends to focus on the tactical level of war and emphasize winning battles, rather than focus on the operational and strategic levels and emphasize winning wars. Not only does he focus on battle, but he discounts the impact that air and naval forces can have on a conflict:

. . . 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.

While history might show that air alone has often failed to achieve decisions in battle, it also shows that ground combat alone has not won many wars. The war in the Pacific during World War II provides an excellent strategic example. Did the United States win the war in the Pacific because of the island-hopping battles fought by the Army and Marines, the Navy’s control of the sea lines of communication, or the Air Force’s bombardment of the Japanese mainland? What was the Schwerpunkt or focus of efforts in this example? Was it land, sea, or air forces? Obviously, the point of effort changed from one force to another throughout the campaign. None of the forces individually won the war. All made unique and essential contributions to the overall effort.

The campaign in Italy during World War II illustrates this idea at the operational level of war. Allied ground forces were stagnated at the Gustav line. Even though enough dedicated fighter and bomber CAS was provided to reduce the town of Cassino to rubble, the ground combat units could not win the tactical battle and advance. Allied airpower’s independent interdiction campaign, code-named OPERATION STRANGLE, was equally ineffective. Only after the Allies viewed the problem from the operational level did they finally realize how to overcome the Germans. The solution, an operation code-named DIADEM, called for a synchronized combined air and ground offensive. While the Allied ground units waged a renewed attack and increased the German’s need for resupply and mobility, Allied air forces interdicted the railroads and highways needed to get the supplies and reserves to the front. The Germans now faced an unsolvable dilemma. Allied destruction of the rail system forced them to devote much of their motor transportation to moving supplies. This drawdown of their motor transport assets, combined with an increased battlefield air interdiction (BAI) effort, degraded their tactical mobility at the time they needed it most. Unable to wage an effective, flexible defense, the Germans were forced to withdraw from their long-held positions.*

This example provides several excellent points. In this situation, no amount of Allied CAS was enough to help ground combat forces win the tactical battle. Likewise, an independent air interdiction operation was also unsuccessful. It took a synchronized air and ground effort at the operational, not tactical, level to eventually achieve a decision. The final point worth pondering in this example is “What was the focus of efforts?” Was it the ground maneuver unit that increased the enemy’s need for supply and mobility or was it the air maneuver unit that destroyed the enemy’s supplies and reserves?

The preceding two examples demonstrated how air, land, and sea forces can work together at the strategic and operational levels to achieve a decision. The 1973 Arab-Israeli War provides a tactical example of a ground maneuver unit conducting operations solely to support the air maneuver unit. The operation was code-named GAZELLE. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) could not adequately operate as a combined arms team with the ground combat unit because the Egyptian air defense belt was, for all practical purposes, impenetrable by air. To overcome this dilemma, the Israeli ground forces attacked the surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites, destroyed 10 of them, and eventually established a safe corridor through the air defenses for the IAF. This gave the IAF the maneuver room it needed to destroy 53 of the remaining 61 SAM sites. With the SAM threat reduced, the Israeli combined arms team went on to completely surround the Egyptian Third Army and cut it off from its source of supply.

These three examples demonstrate the need for doctrine to be applicable at the strategic and operational levels as well as the tactical level. Mr. Lind’s emphasis on maneuver warfare at the tactical level overlooks the fact that a nation must be decisive at the operational and strategic levels in order to win a war. His belief that the ground combat unit is almost always the focus of effort can lead to command and control, education, mission, and equipment decisions that fail to take advantage of the unique air and sea capabilities of our forces.

Command and Control

As all the examples point out, synchronization of forces is the key to winning at any level of war. An effective command and control system is the key to synchronization. In “Maneuver Warfare and Marine Aviation,” Mr. Lind’s discussion of command and control focuses on how to make CAS more responsive. Once again, his emphasis on the tactical level of war causes him to overlook the most important points. The real issue for maneuver warfare command and control is synchronizing the available air, land, and sea forces to best help the MAGTF, joint task force (JTF), or theater commander achieve his objective. In an ideal situation, maneuver warfare emphasis would begin at the top. The overall commander would devise a campaign plan for his theater of operations that would identify the enemy’s center of gravity. He would then designate his main effort. The air, land, and sea forces within his command would all develop proposed courses of action that would support the effort The commander would consider these courses of action and formulate his concept of operations. His concept would take advantage of the unique contributions of each force and synchronize their efforts into an effective campaign. Traditionally, the Marine Corps has not operated this way, nor supported this type operation when serving as a subordinate unit to a JTF or theater commander.

When operating as an independent task force, the MAGTF frequently fails to treat its ACE as a separate maneuver unit and relegates it to a support role. Although the titles and the organizational chart lead you to believe the MAGTF consists of two combat elements and a support element (Figure 1), practice dictates otherwise. During a recent debrief of a MAGTF exercise at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, a student who had served on the ACE staff put up a slide (Figure 2) showing “how it really worked in the exercise and how it often works in the real world”:

The major problem in the relationship between the ACE and GCE in the MAGTF is that the GCE tends to drive the whole MAGTF. Although the official organizational chart depicts the ACE and GCE to be coequal combat elements, other Marine Corps publications better explain the true relationship. FMFM 0-1, Marine AirGround Task Force Doctrine states that only the GCE is responsible for developing courses of action for the MAGTF commander’s approval. The primary role of the ACE and the combat service support element (CSSE) during the formulation of courses of action is to determine if they can support them. Although the ACE commander is responsible for formulating the antiair warfare concept of operations, it is the GCE commander who proposes to the MAGTF commander how the remaining aviation sorties should be apportioned and allocated. The GCE commander is responsible for selecting the interdiction targets and determining when, where, and how much CAS will be used. If the Marine Corps truly considers aviation to be a “combat element,” then the ACE should be responsible for proposing courses of action and recommending the interdiction and CAS, as well as the antiair warfare, concepts of operation to the MAGTF commander.

The Marine Corps’ view of aviation as only a supporting arm, not an independent combat element, becomes very obvious when the MAGTF is employed subordinate to a JTF or theater commander. Marines traditionally have viewed any attempt by the JTF or theater air component commander to use Marine air for missions other than direct support of the Marine GCE as bordering on treason. Even though the Commandant of the Marine Corps has issued a White Letter to the contrary, most Marines still consider the air-ground team to be indivisible. The Korean and Vietnam Wars provided examples of this problem. While there are many excellent reasons to keep the MAGTF fighting as a team, there will be times when supporting the main effort will dictate the Marine Corps’ ACE performing independent missions. While Marine leadership now seems to understand this problem, many Marine Corps officers remain unconvinced. The solution to changing this prevailing attitude is to better educate the officers responsible for making command and control decisions.


Mr. Lind’s concept to improve maneuver warfare education in the Marine Corps focuses on making aviators more knowledgeable of ground combat. If the curriculum at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College is representative of the amount of aviation related instruction given at the other Marine Corps schools, then the problem is not the aviator’s lack of knowledge of ground combat operations but rather the ground officer’s lack of exposure to aviation. During the 1988-89 school year, the Command and Staff College had only one, three-day exercise that emphasized the employment of airpower. This limited exposure to aviation presents problems from the top to the bottom of the command and control system. The majority of MAGTF commanders are ground, not aviation, officers. Some have little concept of what aviation can and cannot do or how it should be employed. In the absence of a strong ACE commander, they are likely to squander their aviation resources. Even if the MAGTF commander is an aviator, it is the GCE commander who makes the preponderance of critical aviation decisions. He is responsible for formulating the concept of operations for interdiction and CAS.

Even the officers at the very bottom of the chain of command must understand the capabilities of Marine aviation. The platoon leader requesting CAS needs to know what targets are appropriate for air and which are better served by artillery or direct fire weapons. He must also understand aviation weapon effects and capabilities.

In all these cases, it is the ground officer who has the ultimate decision of when, where, and how air is used, not the aviator. Therefore, it is more essential for the ground officer to understand the employment of air than for the aviator to understand ground combat.

The Marine Corps education system should also make the GCE and ACE more aware of the fact that they both view the battlefield from a different perspective. The GCE is constrained by the realities of geography that limit its speed and mobility. Even though maneuver warfare doctrine emphasizes a larger area of influence and interest than previous doctrine, Marines on the ground tend to be interested only in their immediate tactical situation. The ACE, on the other hand, operates on a battlefield basically unrestricted by geography. The ACE can more readily see the battle on the operational, as well as the tactical, level. The ACE has the mobility to influence the battlefield from well behind friendly lines to hundreds of miles into the enemy’s rear area. Because of these different views and areas of influence, the ACE and the GCE may quite often disagree on how to fight the battle. While this disparity is useful in generating a variety of courses of action (and an excellent reason to include the ACE in the process), it will also create considerable conflict in the MAGTF. A MAGTF that is aware of the problem and made up of officers well educated in the capabilities and limitations of all the elements of the MAGTF will be better prepared to make the right decisions on how to fight the war. They will also be better prepared to decide what aviation missions will best contribute to the main effort.


Marine aviation provides six tactical functions for the Marine Corps: antiair warfare, offensive air support, reconnaissance, assault support, electronic warfare, and control of aircraft and missiles. In “Maneuver Warfare and Marine Aviation,” Mr. Lind challenges many of the traditional thoughts on how, why, when, and by whom these functions should be accomplished. His ideas concerning antiair warfare and offensive air support are quite controversial and deserve individual discussion.

Mr. Lind uses the term air superiority to describe the mission the Marine Corps calls antiair warfare. Mr. Lind sees aviation‘s efforts to gain control of the air as “a private battle with the enemy air force” and questions the wisdom of current Marine doctrine that directs the antiair effort to be the priority mission for the ACE:

. . . Usually, we are told that we must win air superiority before we can do much ground support . . . . 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 . . . .

Second, enemy air may not be a significant threat to our ground forces . . .

Three points must be made here. First of all, it is surprising that Mr. Lind, who developed his concept of maneuver warfare by studying the German blitzkrieg in World War II, would come to the conclusion that achieving air superiority is not a fundamental part of maneuver warfare. Germany’s major offensives into Poland and Russia both began with an extensive air superiority campaign.

Second, giving priority to air superiority is hardly an abstract rule. History has repeatedly demonstrated the consequences of ignoring it Commanders have occasionally found themselves in such dire defensive situations that they had no choice but to fly air-to-ground missions before they gained air superiority. The results have been devastating.

The Israeli Defense Force (IDF) found itself in such a position at the outbreak of the 1973 war. The Arabs surprised the Israelis by attacking on the brink of both a Moslem and Jewish holiday. The Syrians and Egyptians waged a simultaneous attack on two fronts that left the IDF in a critical situation. On the Golan Heights, the Syrian Army massed 700 tanks and 7,000 men against an IDF consisting of less than 180 tanks. Before the IAF could conduct an offensive antiair warfare campaign, they were forced into action to save the outnumbered ground forces from being overrun. The IDF called on the massive use of CAS to turn the tide of the battle. With the support of air, the ground forces were able to eventually halt the Syrian advance, but the losses to the IAF were overwhelming. In the first day of fighting in the Golan Heights, the IAF lost 40 aircraft, 38 percent of the total number of aircraft lost in the war.

Third, although enemy air may not pose a threat to the ground force, it may still pose a threat to the ACE or CSSE and must be neutralized. Mr. Lind eventually draws the same conclusion.

In summary, the commander must determine in each situation what priority to give air superioriity. As a general rule it should come first, but the operational situation may dictate otherwise. The commander must understand the consequences of attempting to perform other ground support missions without first gaining control of the air.

Mr. Lind’s concept of air-to-ground support is the other major Marine aviation functional area that deserves discussion. The Marine Corps uses the term offensive air support to describe its air-to-ground missions. It recognizes two different types of missions, deep air support (interdiction) and close air support. Mr. Lind divides air-to-ground support missions into three different types: interdiction, armed reconnaissance, and close air support His thoughts on interdiction are summed by the following quotations:

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 . . . .

Attacking fixed targets-interdiction bombing-has a long history of failure . . . .

Other historical examples suggest that attacking some kinds of fixed targets, such as bridges, can be effective when integrated with the ground situation . . . .

In general, attacks on enemy units are what count . . . .

Eliminating air superiority and interdiction missions from the Marine Corps would destroy the concept of the MAGTF. A MAGTF that doesn’t have the capability to perform air superiority or interdiction missions can hardly be described as an “air-ground” task force.

The air-to-ground missions that Mr. Lind does champion are CAS and armed reconnaissance (AR). Both of these missions require close coordination with the GCE because they are flown in areas where troops are in contact with the enemy. The missions are similar except CAS requires someone, either on the ground or in the air, to identify the target. During an armed reconnaissance mission, the pilot is on his own to visually detect, identify, and then attack his target.

Mr. Lind’s proposal to make CAS and AR the primary maneuver warfare aviation missions is neither historically supportable nor applicable to today’s modern battlefield. Mr. Lind frequently cites the success of Hans Ulrich Rudel, a German Stuka pilot on the Eastern Front, to demonstrate how effectively air and ground forces can work together. However, today’s modern battlefield is considerably different than the one Hans Rudel found himself fighting above in his JU-87 Stuka divebomber. Rudel’s primary threat came from antiaircraft flak guns, a threat he could generally visually locate and avoid. Today his Stuka dive-bomber, or any other aircraft that continually exposed itself to the vast array of air defense weapons possessed by a modern ground force, would have little chance to survive.

Technology has changed not only the lethality of the battlefield, but also increased the capability of today’s warriors to fight around the clock, in any weather. The two missions that Mr. Lind stakes the future of Marine aviation on, CAS and AR, are the only two ground support missions that can’t be accomplished at night or in the weather. Mr. Lind points out that it is exceedingly difficult to find and identify enemy units at night and in bad weather on an intermixed battlefield. This doesn’t prevent aviation from flying missions against units that aren’t intermixed on the battlefield.

If the ground forces have the potential for night/weather operations, so must aviation. Today’s aircraft have the technology to do the job. Our potential adversaries do not. It would be foolish not to exploit this advantage. The best solution for the Marine Corps is to retain its capability to perform all ground support missions as well as expanding its ability for night/weather operations.

The Marine Corps should also incorporate in its doctrine a mission that is targeted against the forces immediately to the rear of the main battle area. This mission, unlike Mr. Lind’s armed reconnaissance, would not be dependent on good weather or daylight. Rather than sending a pilot out to roam the battlefield and visually acquire, identify, and attack targets, the Marine Corps should structure its mission to be similar to a U.S. Air Force’s battlefield air interdiction mission.

BAI is a form of interdiction that is integrated with the GCE’s scheme of maneuver in order to synchronize its effect. It is targeted against enemy mobile concentrations that are far enough from the friendly troops in contact to not require visual friend or foe target identification. BAI is designed to destroy the enemy’s reserves, mobility, and fire support. It is accomplished close enough to the main battle area to have a near-term effect on the GCE’s tactical situation. BAI relies on procedural control to identify friend from foe. A flight of aircraft is given a designated target area in which it may attack any targets that it finds. Reconnaissance aircraft, ground recon units, or other strike flights can all be used to determine which target areas contain appropriate targets. In the future, the Air Force’s joint surveillance and target attack radar system (JSTARS) will have the capability to provide this information at night and in the weather.

There are considerable benefits to flying BAI as opposed to Mr. Lind’s armed reconnaissance. The most significant is that the pilot does not have to expose himself to the threat for an extended period of time attempting to determine if his target is friend or foe. If it is in his target area, it is a threat BAI is planned against enemy units that have not yet become intermixed with friendlies or dispersed into their attack formations. These concentrated threats are vulnerable to area munitions. The pilot can make one pass, limit his exposure, yet retain a high probability of destroying multiple threats. When threats are intermixed with friendlies, or if they are dispersed on the battlefield, pilots are forced to use precision guided or point and shoot weapons. These weapons require an individual pass for each target and greatly increase the pilot’s exposure to the threat.

BAI also has benefits over the other ground support missions. Unlike interdiction, BAI can have a near-term effect on the battle. Its procedural control measures require continual coordination with the GCE. While this sounds restrictive, it actually forces the air and ground to synchronize their efforts. From a pilot’s point of view, it is a better mission than CAS. He can prestudy his target areas and execute his own tactics. Unlike CAS, BAI requires much less command and control and no communication in the target area. Finally, the pilot can better mass his forces and create force packages that can help him penetrate the enemy’s defenses.

The biggest advantage of BAI compared to armed reconnaissance is that the Marine Corps doesn’t have to change any of its equipment to incorporate this mission into its maneuver warfare concept. Mr. Lind, however, suggests a brand new aircraft to execute his concept of aviation maneuver warfare.


Mr. Lind advocates giving up the Marine Corps’ all-weather interdiction and air superiority aircraft. In their place he proposes a ground support aircraft with the following characteristics:

-slow speed with good agility

-inexpensive so it can be bought in quantity

-capable of only day, below-the-weather operations

-vertical or short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) capability

-highly accurate weapons delivery while “jinking”

-able to absorb a lot of hits

-small signature

-primary weapon would be a large caliber gun

This type aircraft would have some major drawbacks. It could not perform any missions other than armed reconnaissance or close air support The flexibility that comes from a multimission aircraft like the F/A-18 would not exist in the Marine Corps. Although the use of V/STOL aircraft operating from expeditionary fields and moving with the GCE is a desirable concept, the supply problems have yet to be worked out. The AV-8B’s former program manager, Col Lewis C. Watt, acknowledged the situation in an interview last fall when he said, “The problem with forward basing of the Harrier has been getting adequate logistical support to the aircraft at its remote site.” Any V/STOL aircraft that attempts to move with the advancing forces will tend to restrict the mobility of the GCE. The GCE will have a much larger supply train to move and a larger rear area to protect. The net result could be less mobility on the maneuver battlefield.

Many reformers maintain that large quantities of simple aircraft acquired at low cost yield more capability for the dollar than a smaller number of highly capable, expensive aircraft. Mr. Lind made this argument six years ago when he proposed the Air Force buy lots of simple fighter aircraft instead of a smaller number of expensive, but much more capable, F-15 aircraft Unfortunately, large numbers of inexpensive aircraft require large numbers of expensive people to fly, maintain, support, and provide all the other infrastructure needed to conduct aviation operations. The net result is a significant loss in capability for a very small unit savings in cost In addition, the aircraft Mr. Lind describes for the Marine Corps is really not a simple, low technology aircraft he wants V/STOL capability and the ability to deliver weapons accurately while “jinking,” something even our most advanced aircraft currently cannot do.

Mr. Lind believes that “jinking” about the battlefield will allow the pilot to defeat the threat, which he identifies as primarily small caliber automatic weapons, not radar-guided antiaircraft artillery and SAMs. If Mr. Lind had done more research, he would have found that although jinking decreases an aircraft’s chance of being hit by radar guided weapons, it actually increases its exposure to barrage-type fire such as from automatic weapons. Speed and minimum exposure, not jinking, are the key to survival against this type of threat Finally, a pilot that is seriously jinking will have little ability to see, let alone identify and destroy targets.

The Marine Corps doesn’t need to change its present mix of equipment to be effective on the maneuver battlefield. It just needs to employ its current equipment where it is best suited. Fixed-wing aircraft should concentrate on air superiority, interdiction, BAI, and to a lesser degree CAS. Armed reconnaissance missions and modern day Stukas have no place in today’s Marine Corps.

With these thoughts in mind, what is the role of Marine aviation in maneuver warfare? Marine aviation‘s role is to provide the task force or theater commander with a maneuver unit with capabilities that are distinct from his naval and ground forces. Marine aviation must be able to operate independently of the GCE to gain a decision or to work in synchronization with it to support the GCE’s efforts. To fulfill this role, Marine aviation must be guided by doctrine that is applicable on the strategic and operational levels as well as the tactical level of war. Its command and control system must take into account the unique capabilities of aviation. The ACE and GCE must be considered as two equal combat arms and have equal influence in the planning process. Aviation and ground officers must be better educated in order to understand each other’s tactical capabilities and constraints. The Marine Corps should include battlefield air interdiction as one of its offensive air support missions. Most important of all, the Marine Corps must consider aviation to be more than flying artillery. Only when the ACE is considered to be a separate maneuver unit will the Marine Corps have the true concept of maneuver warfare.


*Battlefield air interdiction (BAI) is a USAF term for attacks on troops and equipment immediately behind the main battle area. It differs from deep interdiction because it has a nearterm impact on the tactical battle. For a discussion of the Italian campaign, see LtCol Price T. Bingham’s article in Parameters, March 1989.