Sunday, October 23, 2011

How Much Can the Marine Corps Continue to Spend?

Apparently when some Marine Hornet pilots had the opporunity to fly the Navy's newer Super Hornets, they ended up in a pickle when they gave their honest (favorable) impressions of the aircraft. link Apparently since then, new direction from Marine Generals prohibit these Marine Hornet instructor pilots from even flying these Super Hornets.

It's actions like these by the elder Marine Generals that baffle me - they're trying to balance old school Marine Corps (stubborn) grit with this chimerical spending spree like a teenager with their (not really) wealthy Uncle (named Sam.)

But these elder Generals can't have it both ways.

USMC M-60A1 in Desert Storm in 1991
The Marines have always been good about selecting and keeping proven, tried-and-true equipment from their rifles, to their tanks, to their aircraft. In the early days of Vietnam when the US Army began fielding the new smaller caliber M-16 rifle, the Marines were reluctant at first to give up their trusty but heavier M-14t. When the Navy began to replace their F-4 Phantom jets with F-14 Tomcats in the early 70's, the Corps was reluctant because they envisioned a less expensive alternative, in what they later found in the F/A-18 Hornet in 1984. In 1991 during Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, Marines were still using M-60 Patton tanks while the Army began using the uber-modern M-1 tanks in 1980. And when the Army decided to give up their Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters for much advanced AH-64 Apache gunships, the Marines stubbornly decided to carry on with the Cobra's, even choosing to further upgrade them to the AH-1W standard in 1984 about the time the Army started to activate the Apache.    
Unfortunately I believe the Marines deviated from this tried and true formula when they, under a new (Clinton) administration (remember SECDEF Dick Cheney under George H. Bush originally tried to cancel the program four times in four years citing it was too expensive and the technology was just not there,) continued to find the funding for the V-22 Osprey in the mid 1990's. Instead of paying all the money that they ended up spending just to get it to a point as to where they could begin to replace the CH-46's, the Corps could have replaced the entire Marine Medium Helicopter community multiple times over with readily available alternatives such as the Sikorsky H-60 Hawk series helicopters (that every other service branch had transitioned to,) or even went back to the UK like they did the Harrier and bought their AW-101 medium lift helicopter, which is still the best medium lift helicopter in the world.

And then there is the unit cost of each Osprey, something like 2 to 3 times more than those same alternatives depending upon how you tally it. You can't replace the bulk of the entire Marine Air Wing with something that even relative speaking, is two to three times more expensive than what you are trying to replace without asking the logical question, "how can the Corps afford this?" link Think of it this way - Boeing will sell you an F/A-18 Super Hornet for less money than they will a V-22 Osprey!

The first thing the Marines will tell you about the V-22 when defending it is the wonderful increase in speed it enjoys over traditional rotary-winged aircraft. Sure, speed is great and it's difficult - but not impossible to defend. You see, when the Marines later choose (for the second time mind you) to go in an alternate direction that of the Army, and upgrade these Bell H-1 helicopters one final time, they all but readily admitted that nothing else in the Marine Air Wing shy of the fixed wing communities, were going to be able to keep up with the Osprey's anyways. So if you fly everybody in together at the same time, you're Osprey's are going to be flying at the same slow speeds that far less expensive traditional rotary-winged helicopters operate. If they fly in first or last and utilize their speed, well then their on their own and give a whole new meaning to the unofficial Marine Corps motto of "hurry up and wait."

 link,) and "we're just upgrading existing airframes," which as we now know, turned out to only be a small very small number of airframes because as they got into it, realized that it would be cheaper to just buy new airframes than try and re-build some of these old, old airframes. Point is the Marines could have had new and far superior aircraft (MH-60S and AH-64D) 5 years earlier and even saved billions. I like Bell helicopter as well as anyone, but you tell me.
British Apache aboard HMS Illustrious
So the Marines overspent their allowance on the V-22 and then turned around and did the same thing all over again, (a second conscious time,) and instead of buying MH-60's and AH-64's, they paid Bell (economic stimulus?) money to R&D new variants of their same old aircraft. Of course when they were selling the idea to Congress they said things like "we don't know if we can use the AH-64 on the LHA/D's," (something the British have proved fully possible with recent operations in Libya.

And then there is the issue of jets.

USMC F/A-18C during OIF
The F-35B is a great platform to replace the AV-8B without question. However, even the British who originally created the V/STOL aircraft and were always it's biggest champion, inevitably saw the lack of value in STOVL and and cancelled their F-35B's and have replaced their order for F-35C's for use off of what will now be full-fledged CATOBAR (catapult and arresting wire) aircraft carriers under development. I can buy the theory that the F-35B is to replace the Marine Harriers, however I cannot buy the premise of replacing Marine legacy Hornets (remember - the loser of the USAF Lightweight (read: cheap) Fighter (LWF) program in the late 70's) with F-35B's by any means. 

In March 2011 the Marines and the Navy signed a Memorandum of Understanding link stating that the Marines would buy navalized F-35C's for use off of Navy full-sized nuclear powered aircraft carrier's, as the Navy didn't want STOVL F-35B's operating on their decks when they were not optimized for their CATOBAR environment like the F-35C's are. But how can the Marines possibly justify this expenditure when for 2/3's to 3/4's of the price they can buy F/A-18 Super Hornets? Especially after the Marines went premium price with the V-22 and the H-1 upgrades, how can they with a straight face ask for the extra money to buy F-35C's to operate off full sized Navy carrier decks?
Marine F/A-18D at Al Asad airbase in Iraq

The Marines operate a handful of (AW) or All Weather fighter/attack squadrons using the F/A-18D, which has a second crew member in tandem for the better provision of carrying out the aerial forward air controller (FAC(A)) task that has become so important to the grunts and special forces on the ground in Afghanistan, for example. However, because the Delta model has such little range with a second crew member, the Navy does not even invite these squadrons onto their full sized carriers because they are more of a burden then they are an asset because they have such a paltry range. But if the Marines replaced even these squadrons alone with F/-18F's, this all-important mission can carry on (FAC(A) in a single piloted JSF is not it's primary intended mission) and even expound upon current capabilities by being able to finally operate off Navy carriers. This is such an obvious and logical reasoning, it really makes the lawmakers approving the funds for this look like they haven't a clue. 

Unfortunately the top leadership in the Corps appear to still think they have yet reach their credit limit on their Uncle's credit card, and that they can continue to swipe it on unnecessary (over)expenditures. 

EA-6B at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan
The Navy for yet another example, are retiring their Electronic Attack Warfare (EAW) EA-6B Prowlers with EAW versions of the Super Hornet dubbed EA-18G's. But guess what - the Marines say they want no part of these new Growlers and that they will carry on with their EA-6B's exclusively until their new JSF's can find (or rather fund) an EAW of that platform. EA-6B's presently carry four crew members, while the EA-18G's carry just two - and yet the Marines think they are going to be able to get the F-35 (B model at that,) to do EAW with just one crew member? This means the Marines will pay through the nose to continue to operate a very important asset (these aircraft are operated by Navy, Marine, and Air Force crew in Afghanistan link to help trip IED's for convoys on the ground,) because these aircraft will be very old and thereby maintenance and operating costs will be exorbitant compared to the Navy's new EA-18G's.
LHA-6 America - an entire new class of aircraft carrier?

When will this foolish if not irresponsible (LHA-6 - an amphibious assault ship minus the amphibious well deck for the amphibious assault vehicles?) procurement end with today's Marine Corps? How much further of a hole will our Congress continue to let the Marines dig for themselves?

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