The Marine Corps has bet their future on becoming an expeditionary air force. It’s a foolish path but that’s not the point of this post. Instead, for the purpose of this discussion, let’s assume that the Marines will use their aviation assets primarily in an assault aviation support or close air support role, if you wish to use that phrase. Thus, the Marines have fixed wing F-35s and some helos to provide support to their ground troops during an assault. The Navy has gone along with that concept by building large deck amphibious ships including a couple of
class, aviation-only vessels. America
It’s a good thing the Marines have their aviation capability and the Navy has built aviation-centric amphibious ships because we don’t have any shipboard gun bombardment capability to speak of, right? Still, I wonder how useful air power will be in future assaults?
Let’s set aside the fact that an assault against a peer will see most of the air assets devoted to protecting the fleet and struggling to establish even an aerial no-man’s land rather than conducting ground support. Instead, let’s assume that we have helos and fixed wing aircraft available for ground support. The question, then, is how useful will they be? Everyone assumes that they will be vitally important – perhaps the key to the success of an assault. Is that true, though?
Historically, air power used to support assaults has been used to provide suppressive effects and precision attacks against identified enemy targets. However, over the last few decades, we’ve seen a movement away from area explosive effects (which is what suppressive effects are) in favor of precision attacks. This movement is due to our obsession with minimizing collateral damage even at the risk of failing to achieve our objectives and failing to protect our own troops. I’m not going to debate the wisdom of that in this post – it is what it is. What does it mean, though?
It means that air power is going to be artificially constrained and, therefore, far less effective than it might be. Let’s look at history to see if that statement is true.
The best example is probably the recent Israeli-Hamas conflict.
essentially conducted an assault with total aerial supremacy and yet failed utterly to eliminate or even slightly suppress the Hamas rocket attacks. Their air force was limited to occasional strikes against the odd target that could be identified. For all practical purposes, the Israeli air force was ineffective, bordering on useless (setting aside the valuable surveillance capabilities). Why? Like us, the Israelis had an obsession with avoidance of collateral damage to the point of accepting daily, heavy rocket attacks on their country and assaults against their ground troops. Israel
efforts in US and Iraq . Air power was certainly useful when specific targets could be identified but, as a general statement, did not make any substantial difference in terms of ground support for the various assaults that were conducted. Afghanistan
Consider the effectiveness of air power in
when used in support of offensive operations. It was nice to have. It was occasionally helpful. However, it was not, generally, the reason for success or failure of an assault operation. Viet Nam
Given our emphasis on avoidance of collateral damage, we have to recognize that aircraft can only attack targets which can be seen and positively identified. History strongly suggests that only a very small fraction of an enemy’s forces can be so targeted. That means that air power can only be employed sporadically which means that air power will not, indeed cannot, be a decisive factor in an assault. Thus, we’re pursuing a fixed wing (F-35B) aircraft that will only be sporadically useful (at least, as a strike platform). When we consider the aircraft, the carrier (LHA), and all the personnel and materiel required to operate and support them, it becomes obvious that a lot of resources and expense are being devoted to an asset with a fairly minimal benefit.
Finally, even if I’m completely wrong, can the half dozen or dozen F-35Bs that might be part of a MEU (or MEB or whatever) really make a significant difference? The numbers are just too small. Many people (and the Navy!) will casually state that Hornets or F-35C’s from the accompanying carrier will assist in the ground support, thereby vastly increasing the aircraft numbers. Again, that’s just fantasy and wishful thinking. In an assault against a peer, those aircraft will be completely occupied with fleet defense.
Can this situation change? Can air power be a decisive factor in an assault? The answer is, guardedly, yes but only if we alter our approach to combat and become willing to accept a significant degree of collateral damage and area effect explosives. As I’ve said many times, our insistence on precision targeting and avoidance of collateral damage stems from a steady diet of police actions. We’ve forgotten the reality of war. We think we can conduct a non-destructive, non-lethal war. The reality is that war against a peer will involve massive, widespread, and indiscriminate damage and destruction. We need to relearn, now, how that applies to an amphibious assault or we will pay a steep price in blood to relearn it later.
The next, obvious, lesson from this is that we need a source of area explosives that is available round the clock, is available regardless of weather, is immune to enemy air defenses, is available whether we control the skies or not, and is available in sustained amounts. Of course, what we’re describing is naval bombardment. But, that’s another, though closely related, topic.
So, is ComNavOps arguing against air power in an assault? Of course not! Air power will be vitally important but not as a surrogate for naval gunfire and not as a decisive ground support element. Instead, air power’s role should be protection of the assault fleet, establishment of local aerial control to allow relatively unhindered movement of helos, and surveillance.
Air power should function to protect and enable naval gunfire on a massive scale. Unfortunately, naval gunfire is non-existent. Hence, aircraft are being pressed into a role for which they are ill-suited. Even if aircraft were effective as substitutes for naval gunfire, every aircraft so tasked is an aircraft that is unavailable for fleet defense which, against a peer defender, will be a task that requires every aircraft we can muster and then some.
The Navy/Marine assault force needs to re-examine their own doctrine, recognize the gaps, and begin filling those gaps with the proper equipment.