By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
Nov. 27, 2006 – The Marine Corps aviation component is transforming along with the total force while keeping its focus on its most important priority, supporting the Marines fighting on the ground, a senior Marine aviation officer said here last week. While aviation is not usually associated with the Marine Corps, it is actually an essential element of the force, because it enables the Marines to respond quickly to requirements around the globe with a lighter, more versatile force, Marine Col. Robert Walsh, deputy assistant commandant for aviation, said in a Pentagon Channel interview last week. Aviation makes up about one-third of the total Marine Corps, with about 1,200 aircraft, Walsh said.
The Marines often respond more quickly than the Army, because they don't bring the heavy capabilities the Army does, Walsh explained. "To be able to support that Marine on the ground, we bring a lot more of our fire from the air than the Army does," he said. "Because we're a lighter, quicker-to-the-fight force, we rely much more on aviation as an integral part of this team, this Navy-Marine air-ground team."
As the battlefield has shifted in the 21st century to more irregular warfare, Marine aviation also has shifted its role, Walsh said. To better support the Marines fighting on the ground in urban environments, aircraft have been doing more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance work to give the ground forces more awareness of the situation, he said.
While this transformation is important, Walsh noted, the commandant of the Marine Corps has given clear guidance that the entire force stay versed in conventional capabilities, to be prepared for anything that could happen in the future. For Marine aviation, this means maintaining the ability to integrate ground and air forces to best accomplish the mission, Walsh said.
"We've got to continue to look at where we want to be in the future and what the Marine Corps wants to do," he said. "That's where we go back to our roots -- conventional capabilities - so we don't get so focused in the one area that we're not able to shift gears quickly, because the enemy's not going to give us that notice to be able to spool up quickly and shift gears. So we can be that force that's most ready when the nation's least ready."
Sustaining the current force is the first priority of Marine aviation, Walsh said. This includes ensuring that aircraft sent to the theaters of operation are in good condition and ready for use, he said. The Marine Corps is also rotating its aircraft more often and putting them through a "reset" program in the U.S. before deploying them again, he explained.
The second priority of Marine aviation is modernizing the force, Walsh said. The modernization is happening service-wide, but in the aviation component it means replacing older, legacy aircraft with new technology, he said. Specifically, the KC-130J is being integrated to the force as an air and ground refueler, and the MV-22 Osprey is replacing the CH-46 Sea Knight.
Both of these aircraft bring new capabilities to the force that will change the way it operates on the battlefield, he said. The Osprey will be able to go twice as fast, have six times the range, seven times the ballistic tolerance capability, one-fourth the infared signature, and one-sixth of the acoustic signature of the CH-46, he noted, and will be able to go to altitudes above 10,000 feet. The KC-130J brings air refueling capabilities to the aviation force, he added.
Another aircraft that will modernize the force is the Joint Strike Fighter, Walsh said. The Joint Strike Fighter is being purchased by the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and about nine partner nations, and in the Marine Corps will replace two aircraft: the AV8-B Harrier and the F-18 Hornet. The fighter is being developed as a stealth aircraft with precision fire capabilities, but it will also bring other assets to the Marines, he said.
"We see using the Joint Strike Fighter as an integrator - really a battlefield integrator or an enabler between the air and the ground," Walsh said. "It's going to have intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance command and control capabilities, along with a lot of network sharing. It's going to have capabilities of ensuring our Marine on the ground - building their situational awareness as much as we can."
As Marine aviation, and the Marine Corps at large, transforms to meet the requirements of the 21st century, the force's leaders are focusing on strengthening the partnership with the Navy, Walsh said. The Marines' current role in Iraq can draw attention away from the service's affiliation with the Navy, but that affiliation is important because it often ensures access to remote parts of the world, he explained.
Marine aviation is in an exciting time right now, when new technologies are rapidly becoming available and bringing new capabilities to the force, Walsh said. Even as the force transforms, it is staying true to its roots of supporting Marines fighting on the ground, he said.
"The technology's going to enable us to do many more things, and today's young Marines understand technology better than anybody, and they're going to have the capability to experience that," he said.
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