The US Marines aim to renew their entire ageing fleet over 30 years. The corps' new aviation chief explains how he plans to do it

TEXT: The US Marine Corps (USMC) has a busy period ahead with the planned modernisation of its entire fixed- and rotary-wing fleet over the next 15 years. At the same time the marines are going through the biggest shake-up in tactical fighter aircraft operations in modern times while simultaneously mobilising for renewed conflict in the Arabian Gulf and nursing back to health a number of troubled development programmes.

Overall responsibility for all of this rests with Lt Gen Michael Hough, who took up the post of USMC deputy commandant for aviation last October. He comes to the job having successfully directed the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme - the single largest aerospace development of recent times - for two years through to downselection.

"Everything we own is old, but it's all that I have got," says Hough of the current aviation inventory. "That's the bad news; the good news is we're going to replace everything we own, starting with the [Lockheed Martin] C-130s, which are over 40 years old. We're going to execute a 30-year downsize plan with everything brand new. It's a lot of money, but it's an investment we'll be making over a lot of years," he adds.

Re-equipping with a fleet of new Bell Boeing MV-22B Osprey tiltrotors, Lockheed Martin F-35 JSFs, KC-130J tankers and modernised Bell AH-1Z/UH-1Y and Sikorsky CH-53X helicopters, is generating a procurement bow wave that threatens to swamp the USMC's budget. In an effort to defray costs the USMC and US Navy signed a memorandum last August to integrate their tactical aircraft units.

This is projected to shave off more than a $1 billion a year from procurement, operating and support bills over the next 30 years. Integration has not been met universal applause, with some veteran aviators fearing the marines will lose their individual identity. Critics have voiced concern that integration threatens to rob troops in the trenches of organic air support, undermining the concept of the Marine Air Ground Task Force.

"We're leveraging off what each of us can do in support of the other. No one is going to lose their identity or their ethos. Marines have been on the boat for a long time, but the navy has not participated to the extent they are going to participate on the expeditionary side of the house. To be efficient, but not effective is bad. To be operationally effective and efficient, that's the way to go," says Hough.

Joint effort

For several years the USMC has contributed four Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornet squadrons to the USN carrier air groups (CAGs). This will now increase to 10 F/A-18 squadrons, giving the USMC a presence on every operational USN aircraft carrier. The navy, in return, will allocate three of its 26 Hornet squadrons to the USMC's three Marine Air Wings (MAWs), starting with the 3rd Marine Expeditionary Force's MCAS Iwakuni, Japan-based 1st MAW. For the first time a marine colonel will be given command of a CAG from next year and a navy captain will take over a MAW.

The USMC will stand down one of its four reserve F/A-18A/B squadrons and the USN is to decommission one active and one reserve unit. This leaves the marines' four F/A-18 and seven Boeing/BAE Systems AV-8B Harrier squadrons, plus the additional navy units, to support operations ashore. The Harrier's short take-off vertical landing (STOVL) aircraft are deployed worldwide aboard Tarawa- and Wasp-class amphibious assault ships, as part of the USMC's seven Marine Expeditionary Units.

Implementing the memorandum and putting in place a timeline for integration is now being worked through, but recent operational commitments in Afghanistan and the new build up in the Gulf complicates the process. "You add all of this and it makes it a little more difficult to pull off," admits Hough.

The impact that integration will have on aircraft procurement numbers is still to be revealed, but the planned USN purchase of 548 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and 480 conventional carrier variants (CV) of the F-35 and another 609 STOVL versions for the marines will undoubtedly shrink.

Some reports say the USMC may receive as few as 350 F-35s, but Hough will not be drawn on quantities beyond stating a need for sufficient fighters to re-equip 21 squadrons with 10 aircraft each, plus training and replacements. The assumption is that the marines will be able to do more with less and that the JSF with an 8,000h airframe will prove a more robust fighter than the F/A-18s and AV-8Bs it will replace.

Hough explains: "In the past when we bought trucks we replaced every truck we had, plus a few more for attrition. JSF will have two to three times better maintenance reliability than legacy aircraft and right there I can lower the number of aircraft. The aircraft will be much safer with a prognostic health management system telling will me not when something is broken, but when it will break. This is also a stealth aircraft and will probably fly less than 5% of the time at low level, which is the harshest environment and which killed the airframe and motors on the [Lockheed Martin] F-16 at 4,000h."

One factor that will have an impact on the final number of JSFs procured will be whether the USMC sticks to its original plan to operate an all-STOVL force or switches to a mixed fleet of CV versions for use aboard the navy's carriers. The marines' preference is to stick with the shorter-range STOVL derivative, which would boost deck cycles by not having to rely on carrier catapults for arrestor wires for launch and recovery. Furthermore, it would preserve the USMC flexibility to operate the aircraft from other decks, or ashore in forward areas.

The marines point to their recent successes in Afghanistan, where the Harrier generated one of the highest sortie rates of the campaign and where four were based only 64km (40 miles) from the frontline. "When we've a STOVL squadron ready for operational use around 2012, we're going to put it aboard a boat and evaluate the usefulness, efficiency and effectiveness to such a time as we decide to continue with STOVL or buy CVs. If it performs like it did during the concept demonstration, it will be a smashing success. If the STOVL JSF operates just at the threshold we may want to rethink it," says Hough.

Another consideration is whether a proposed EF-35 version will eventually replace the USMC's 20 Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler electronic attack (EA) aircraft. For now, the USMC is content to wait and watch the outcome of US Air Force's proposed distributed EA network, while running on the EA-6B for another 10-12 years, picking the best airframes from the aircraft the US Navy plans to replace with the EA-18. "I've not seen anything that gives us a better capability. I'm looking for a 10-year leap that costs less - the air force concept may be the way to go," says Hough.

Development setbacks

A more urgent requirement is the replacement of the USMC's 18 squadrons of Boeing CH-46 Sea Knights, which has been progressively delayed by development setbacks to the MV-22. In the near term, the future of the programme hinges on proving by the end of May, to the satisfaction of defence undersecretary Pete Aldridge, that the tiltrotor is safe and operationally effective. A full-rate production go-ahead is pencilled in for 2005 at the end of a new operational evaluation, but the machine's price will determine whether the marines buy the 360 Ospreys originally envisaged.

"It's going to perform flawlessly in my opinion. However, the cost is too high. It's a $70 million machine and my aim is to get that down into the 50s," says Hough. To this end the USMC is looking to Bell Boeing to adopt the same lean production technology processes that fighter manufacturers have. "This is big wake-up call for the helicopter industry and they understand they have to do this to be competitive in the 21st century," adds Hough.

This message has been doubly reinforced by the H-1 upgrade programme, beset by extensive development delays and poor cost estimation. The AH-1W proved a reliable gunship in Afghanistan, which seems to vindicate the USMC decision to persevere with remanufacturing 180 machines into four-bladed AH-1Z Super Cobras and modernising another 100 UH-1Y utility machines with a common General Electric T700-401 turboshaft and avionics suite.

The USMC is now debating whether to similarly remanufacture some or all of its 155 Sikorsky CH-53Es or build all-new machines to sustain its heavylift capability. The helicopter can lift 14,500kg (32,000lb) compared to the MV-22's 6,810kg payload, but the machine is structurally in need of revamping, while experiences in Afghanistan of hauling loads over 3,660m (12,000ft)-high mountain passes have highlighted the need for a new engine.

"I don't to have to reinvent this machine. It's a workhorse, but I'm looking for better reliability and survivability," says Hough.

Source: Flight International