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May 12, 2016
Without rehashing the many-years delay in the Joint Strike Fighter project, we can at least acknowledge that the schedule has led to a force structure problem for the USAF. The RCAF may have a similar problem after 2025, as a succession of governments, both Tory and Liberal, have been repeatedly punting the ball on replacing Canada’s F-18As. But the story for the USMC is more dire yet. Even after choosing to retire its Harriers five years earlier (by 2025) than previously planned, the Corps has been struggling to keep its Hornets flying. As reported earlier this month, the Marines are actually running out of fighter jets. At this point, only about 87 of its 276 F-18A/B/Cs are serviceable at any time. For any flying arm, 31 percent availability is really bad; even the Luftwaffe may be managing better these days. But Marines are eventually resourceful, and their plans to backfill their fighter jet shortfall are bringing forth a really revolutionary capability, with some potential to remake the Corps.

We know how this near-debacle occurred. In the late 1990s, the USMC bet long on the F-35B, while the Navy was hedging its bet on the F-35C with the eminently doable F-18E/F/G program. A succession of navy secretaries then let the Corps maintain that bet, and indeed kept meeting the program office’s capital calls, as the costs increased. In the meantime, Marine Aviation was flying the wings off its F-18A++s, responding to all manner of overseas wars against enemies that didn’t have air forces. The replacement plan mostly employed hope as the strategy. For despite hints over the years, the Corps never opted for those Super Hornets as a stopgap. The money went into V-22 Ospreys instead, which added a great capability, just not an offensive one.

Fortunately, the Marines now have something of a plan. This week, Deputy Commandant for Aviation Lieutenant General Jon Davis said that the Corps would be buying “Harvest Hawk” kits for its entire fleet of KC-130Js and MV-22s. The Harvest Hawk modification adds an electronic jammer, a sensor ball, a laser designator, and launch rails for missiles. Six years ago, soon after the Harvest Hawk kit first debuted, David Axe described it as an “instant gunship” that “blasts Taliban [and] Pentagon bureaucracy.” That’s probably because its first airstrike was undertaken over Afghanistan just 18 months after the program was launched. The Marines figured that if those tanker-transports were overflying battlefields anyway, they might as well carry some missiles too.

The turboprops aren’t as fast as the USAF’s B-1Bs, and don’t carry nearly as much ordnance, but flying them costs about a quarter as much per hour. Besides, the KC-130s’ load-outs have featured as many as four AGM-114 Hellfire and ten AGM-176 Griffin missiles—enough to rain destruction on enemies without air defenses for some time. They’re hardly as sophisticated and capable as bespoke AC-130U, -W, or -J gunships, but Lockheed Martin’s modular kits cost about 1/20 as much ($10 million, vice $200 million). The Osprey’s weapons kit is less defined so far, but as the machinegun under the cockpit is not very effective from high altitude, the weapons will probably again be laser-guided missiles—APKWS or Viper Strike.

All told, this project will equip Marine Aviation with several hundred turboprop pocket gunships. That sort of over-the-horizon standoff is important now that outfits like Hezbollah have anti-ship missiles. Fairly, if the F-18s are broken down, and the F-35s still have maintenance challenges, the V-22s’ availability is not good either. Turboprop gunships are also clearly not a clean substitute for jet fighter-bombers. But the USAF has lots of land-based fighter-bombers, so the Marines are bringing forth a radically different capability—one with great loitering ability and either remote operability (V-22s) or low operating costs (KC-130s).

This is real out-of-the-box thinking; Marine Public Affairs has a great video in which a Hercules flyer admits that he couldn’t initially believe that his cargo plane was being turned into a missile shooter. In the 1950s, some Marine pilots were apprehensive about helicopters, as commitment to airmobile operations would pull money from fighter squadrons. Ultimately, that was a brilliant idea that remade the Corps. Out-of-the-box thinking thus often means consciously choosing a different and perhaps better box. Moving more long-range firepower to airfields ashore and helicopter carriers does signal a shift in USMC flying operations away from the Navy’s big carriers. That’s a fine strategy, in keeping with Vice Admiral Rowden’s vision of distributed lethality for naval forces, but it’s a different strategy for an evolving Marine Corps. For when attack tiltrotors can fly a few hundred miles with missile loads and troops, the missions that Marines are asked to undertake can expand considerably.

James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.