Chris Meyers writes in with this question:
Why does the USMC need fixed wing attack aviation? I understand the need for rotary wing aviation, the V-22, and cargo lift such as the C-130, but why F/A-18s and Harriers? Aren't the Air Force and Navy currently serving the CAS role competently? Couldn't we use American taxpayer dollars more wisely towards our National Security Strategy or just save the billions of dollars in order to balance our annual budget deficit (and therefore strengthen the value of the US dollar and improve our national security through that front)?
Our inimitable Bill Sweetman replies:
Or, as I have heard it expressed: The United States has an Air Force, an Army and a Navy. The Navy and the Army have their own air forces. The Navy has its own army. But why does the Navy's army need its own air force?
The formal answer is that the Marines have a unique role as a mobile, integrated force that can move into a crisis area, wait offshore if necessary and then land and engage the enemy with no support from other forces. To do this, their forces are carried on ships. They are equipped with land fighting vehicles; transport helicopters, hovercraft and amphibious vehicles to get troops and machinery ashore; and armed helicopters and fighters to provide close air support and air defense for the troops once they are on shore. Apart from the ships, all this hardware belongs to the Marines (is "organic", in Milspeak) because they fight and train together.
This makes pretty good sense up to and including the helicopters. Yes, the Army uses transport and attack helicopters, but there are unique aspects involved when helicopters are "marinized" - such as powered blade folding and corrosion protection - so an Army helicopter and a Marine helicopter are never quite the same.
But fighters? If the Marines need fixed-wing CAS, why don't they call their buddies in the Navy and have them send a carrier? After all, this is not the Cold War and the carriers are not out there trying to stop Backfires in the North Atlantic.
The answer, of course, is Guadalcanal.
In August 1942, 11,000 Marines landed on the Japanese-held island. The day after the landing, Rear-Admiral Jack Fletcher, in command of the supporting aircraft carriers, pulled his ships back to protect them from air attack, forcing the withdrawal of transports carrying reinforcements and supplies.
Forty-five years later, a Marine program manager, on one of the study programs that led to JSF, could still complain that "when the fighting starts, the carrier disappears over the horizon – we've known that since Guadalcanal ."
As a result, the Marines have always fought to maintain their own CAS force independent of the big carriers - including the AV-8A Harrier (42 out of 110 aircraft lost in accidents) and the improved but still tricky AV-8B.
The plan is to replace these with the F-35B STOVL version of the Joint Strike Fighter. It's costing a lot of money. It's hard to calculate how much of the JSF program cost is due to STOVL, but you can certainly count a major redesign to save weight, much of the flight-test program and planned engine upgrades. In fact, if you allocated the STOVL-driven development costs across the 250-some aircraft that the Marines need, you might well discover that each Marine JSF will cost as much as an F-22. But then, the Marines are Capitol Hill's Lola - "Whatever Lola wants, Lola gets."
--Posted by Sean Meade