If you can remember back to the Super Bowl halftime show, it was spectacular, but not because of Lady Gaga’s vocal dexterity or choreography. The constellation of LED drones that appeared to hover over NRG stadium stole the show. However, this impressive technological display also served as a dire warning to an unlikely audience: the U.S. Marine Corps.
The mass production of inexpensive commercial drones has revolutionized the entertainment industry, but the true innovators of this field are found within the ranks of the Islamic State. Weaponized quadcopters, fixed-wing drones that drop explosives, and unmanned systems that serve as aerial scouts or spotters are a real and present threat to U.S. forces. This is acknowledged by a range of military leaders, from the U.S. Special Operations Command commander to a perceptive Marine infantry squad leader.
But a crucial group of people don’t seem to get it: Marine Corps Aviation. Sadly, millions of viewers watched a concert with more drone capability and ingenuity than Marine Aviation currently has or is even exploring. This matters because a young grunt on the ground depends on his flying brothers and sisters in Marine Aviation to protect him from above — to be his “Grunt-Angel.”
The Strength of the MAGTF is…the MAGTF
Any consideration of Marine Corps Aviation should begin with an understanding of an operational paradigm known as the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF). The MAGTF is a philosophy of task organization that dictates that Marine fighting formations always have organic aviation, logistics, and command assets to support the ground combat element — primarily the Marine infantryman.
This icon of Marine Corps heritage is the one who does the close fighting and killing with rifle and grenades amidst the fear, sweat, and din of battle. Infantry forces are delivered to the battlefield in aircraft, amphibious tractors, and trucks. Once there, they have what they can carry on their backs. By the time these young marines meet the enemy in close combat, they are often exhausted, hungry, and weak from fatigue and dehydration. They are anxious but confident in their training, their weapon, the marines beside them, and that — come what may — they are part of a Marine Corps that will bring death and destruction in support of them as they attack. They are confident in the mortars, artillery, and attack aircraft supporting them.
This relentless support has long been the pride of the Marine air-ground team, but it is no longer. Anyone who still believes this philosophy to be true is accepting a lie.
The Missing “A” in MAGTF
Technological advances in unmanned systems, like the swarming capability displayed at the Super Bowl, reveal a horrendous gap between what is currently possible and what Marine Aviation is actually using, developing, or even forecasting. The U.S. Marine Corps’ 2017 Aviation Plan (AVPLAN) shows how dangerously out of touch the service is with current and trending technology in this field. Marine Aviation has no adequate plan to support or protect the infantry they are designed to support against adversaries, such as the Islamic State, which is already wielding these weapons. This is not simply a matter of well-intentioned leaders playing catch-up, but a deliberate decision to ignore current threats and existing capabilities based solely on an outdated belief about how aviation assets should be employed.
As of 2017, the Marine Corps is the only U.S. military service that does not have its own long-range unmanned systems such as the Predator, Reaper, or Gray Eagle. The Marine Corps’ exploration of small drones like quadcopters and ways to counter them began officially only two years ago. Notwithstanding small cells of innovation found in the Corps’ special operations contingent, the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, and the Infantry Officer Course, the service’s exploration and implementation of these capabilities has been inadequate.
Instead, the AVPLAN schedule shows the Marine Corps does not intend to field an unmanned aerial system anywhere close to the capability of the Reaper, Predator, or Gray Eagle for nearly a decade. Further, its solution calls for “rapidly” developing a service-specific, vertical take-off-and-landing-capable, long-range, armed, and ship-based platform — a quixotically complex task that guarantees that competing design constraints will compromise the platform’s ultimate effectiveness. Sadly both reason and history suggest the AVPLAN’s aspirational approach isn’t possible until at least the 2030s. The defense acquisition process isn’t known for its speed, especially with new and experimental programs that on average take more than a decade from conception to delivery. Looking specifically at the Marine’s tilt rotor past, the MV-22 Osprey’s first flight was in 1989 and it did not enter service until nearly 20 years later, in 2007.
To date, drones developed for the Marine Corps with similar design objectives have experienced significant operational limitations. For instance, the primary drone flown by the Marine Corps today — the RQ-21 Blackjack — took over a decade to field, is unarmed, and has a meager range of 50 nautical miles. While the RQ-21 is ship-based, this is largely irrelevant when it cannot keep pace or range with other Marine aircraft, nor will it be able to reach the shore if launched from ships trying to avoid shore-based, anti-ship missiles. This is a classic study in a defense acquisitions Christmas tree: The RQ-21 started as an Iraq-centric requirement for large operating base support and now everyone has tried to hang their own multi-mission ornament on it.
The Blackjack was not fielded until years after it was needed, and the Marines are now stuck with this capability for the next 20 to 30 years, unless courageous decisions are made by Marine generals and Congress. There has been a string of well-written indictments of the Blackjack by unmanned pilots, infantry officers, and squadron commanders decrying the folly of this nearly $1 billion investment. The impending national tragedy is that there are currently young grunts in various locations around the world that would, if ordered, respond to a Benghazi-like scenario tonight without Marine close air support overhead. The tale of the Blackjack should humble those who are aggressively proclaiming that an exponentially more complicated aviation concept will be ready to fly in the coming years, especially when the demonstrator has not even been built.
Marine Aviation’s near-theological certainty that the F-35 is the Corps’ long-awaited panacea, a “war-winning platform,” is perhaps the biggest obstacle impeding the widespread introduction of such aviation assets. One need look no further than recent writing and comments from senior Marine Aviation leaders, as well as budgetary requests, to appreciate this. All the while, the marine on the ground continues to wait for what’s needed most.
Marines need a Grunt-Angel. The MQ-9 Reaper is the only existing platform that can do it, yet the Marine Corps owns none and is not planning to buy any. A descendant of the first widely-employed armed drone, the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reapers have transformed close air support, strike missions, and digital interoperability between ground and air elements. The Reaper’s potential when supporting marines on the ground was showcased last year during the service’s MAGTF Integrated Experiment — a high-profile field exercise in the Mojave Desert. The infantry company commander supported by the Reaper bluntly described what it meant to his unit’s intelligence collection and targeting ability: “Having the Reaper on-station was the most important thing…. [It is] something we need right now.”
In the last 18 months, there has been a blitz of writing by Marine officers closest to direct combat roles (infantry and aviation) calling for a Grunt-Angel in the form of a Reaper. A retired U.S. Army general has effectively described the impending reality. Maj Gen. (ret.) Bob Scales’ new collection of essays, Scales On War, provides a magnificent look into the modern requirements for integrated combat teams, so much so that several marines dissected his recommendations and applied them to how the Marine Corps must man, train, and equip itself. The conclusions are that distributed infantry units should each have dedicated and near-constant overhead coverage that can meet a wide range of intelligence, communications, and fire support needs — something only the Reaper can currently accomplish.
Since 2004, Marine commanders of all ranks have specifically requested a Reaper-like capability to support the infantry nearly a dozen times through the service’s deliberate and urgent needs statements process. This guardian angel for the grunt has already proven crucial to the effectiveness of the supported ground force in other services and Special Operations Command. A long-range drone can provide the persistent reconnaissance, electronic warfare, communication relay, and precision-guided weapons support required for longer durations, and do so less expensively than manned aviation. What’s more, it can provide a bridge between headquarters and isolated ground units inserted by MV-22s. Marine Corps field experiments have also proven the Reaper can serve as a “quarterback” for inbound attack aircraft if the ground unit requires the heavier munitions load brought by manned aviation.
This Grunt Doesn’t Understand
Last year, Marine Aviation’s top general launched an all-out media campaign, including a full-length Fox News video report, decrying historic low aircraft readiness, ostensibly because of defense budget cuts. Several Marine pilots have recently shown that the real reason Marine Aviation is experiencing such disastrous readiness issues is because of the countless hours of “non-traditional” intelligence-gathering flights conducted by fixed-wing strike aircraft in Iraq and Afghanistan. Put another way, the readiness crisis is largely a direct result of flying expensive, high-performance jet aircraft — aircraft originally designed to combat enemy fighters and air defense systems — against adversaries that have no jet aircraft and who are equipped with (at most) shoulder-launched missiles not capable of hitting Marine jets. Although initially necessary, continual lack of institutional foresight and innovation has placed the service in this position.
In contrast, the U.S. Army augmented its air support by purchasing MQ-1C Gray Eagles (the next generation of the MQ-1 Predator) and fielded them down to each of their infantry divisions. Such assets, combined with Reapers, now account for more than 40 percent of coalition strikes in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, Marine Aviation has deliberately ignored pleas for these capabilities from infantry commanders for more than a decade, and is now saying it will be many years still before it can try to support the grunts with the concept aircraft laid out in the AVPLAN.
It is even more discouraging that aviation leaders now view this argument in terms of dismissing the Reaper because of the perceived threat to other programs. It is laughable that the primary Marine aviation unmanned aircraft, the RQ-21 Blackjack, with a 40 percent readiness rate, is in any way a comparable alternative. Equally concerning are the easily rebutted half-truths being propped up to discount the combat-proven Reaper in favor of the PowerPoint concept laid out in the AVPLAN. Some of these are:
Myth #1: The Marine Corps Requires a Shipboard Drone
Until the KC-130J — a large, four prop utility cargo/tanker plane — is no longer required to support the Marine Expeditionary Unit, or the Navy does not need land-based sub-hunters and their own long-range unmanned aircraft, the U.S. military will continue to rely on land-based runways. The Reaper can out-range all Marine fixed wing assets, keep pace with the MV-22 Osprey, and fly from the same runways used by Navy and Marine support aircraft.
Myth #2: In High-End War, Reapers Will Just Be Shot Down
In the history of the Marine Corps, roughly 80 percent of its service has been in small and irregular wars. The MAGTF needs a solution for the most likely fight — not the most dangerous — yet the Marine Weapons and Tactics Squadron One has already proven that an enemy’s integrated air defense system can be effectively targeted using Reapers in advance of manned strike aircraft.
The insidious unspoken position of Reaper detractors is that they would prefer to put a pilot and aircraft (which is at least ten times more expensive) into contested airspace instead of a drone. Further, if China or Russia deny all satellite communications and radio frequency, no aircraft will be able to launch from a ship. This presupposes an enemy preeminence that is unrealistic.
For example, just because these nations have excellent artillery, the Marine Corps does not preemptively dispose of its maneuver doctrine or tactics in favor of plans just to dig with overhead cover. Further, in major combat operations, if the Navy can actually get close enough to launch the RQ-21 Blackjack, it will provide a radio frequency link directly back to the fleet once the drone is acquired by enemy signals intercepts and thus place the fleet in danger.
Myth #3: The Current Blackjack Drone Expands Marine Capabilities
Current employment of the Blackjack has supported Marine close air support to aid operations in Libya, but so has the Air Force with its Reapers. Reapers conducted manned-unmanned teaming with Marine aircraft to designate and laze targets for close air support — capabilities the Blackjack does not possess. Most tellingly, these Air Force unmanned assets independently conducted as many strikes as the Marine manned airframes, and were done with such precision that 70 percent were “danger close” to friendly forces. Lastly, the Blackjack deploys in 15 storage containers (“QUADCONS” in Marine jargon), which consumes approximately 13 percent of the ground combat element’s typical space on the navy’s Landing Platform Dock amphibious ships and obstructs the fantail, which prevents other aircraft from landing. This is not a welcome addition to already cramped ships.
Myth #4: The Marine Corps Should Not Get Its Own Reapers Because They Will Be “Stolen” by Combatant Commanders
Some speculate that the combatant commander will “steal” Reapers from the Marine Expeditionary Unit once it arrives in theater. This bumper-sticker objection is not dissuading the service from pursuing the F-35, which the Corps is advertising will be re-tasked away from supporting marines, nor is the service realizing an unspoken implication of this counter-argument: If a combatant commander wants to re-task one of its assets, that means the asset is worth having. Marine leadership has always been responsible for keeping the integrity of the MAGTF, and so it must be with Reapers. What’s more, what does it say about the Blackjack drone that no one appears to be worried that it brings so little capability to be “stolen” by a four-star general?
These are just a handful of counter-arguments. As it stands, currently and for the next 15 to 20 years, Marine Aviation will increasingly be unable to support marines on the ground in the way they deserve and require to win in complex and hostile future operating environments.
Innovation That Briefs Well
As early as 2013, the Infantry Officer Course began experimenting with long-range raids and the threat of commercial quadcopters. In 2016, the Marine Corps formally adopted these efforts at the Warfighting Lab’s culminating training event in 29 Palms, California. Marine Special Operations Command has innovated in the shadows and is now providing feedback to conventional forces, but the service is half a decade behind the enemy.
As early as 2011, drone tactics were employed in Iraq and Syria. By 2016, Youtube, Liveleak, and major news organizations were rife with videos demonstrating the enemy’s impressive capability with drones. Sadly, the Marine Aviation community still regards the funding and procurement of these drones as largely beneath its role, and there are only paltry efforts underway to counter this threat.
It shouldn’t take losing an F-35 or a squad of infantrymen to a weaponized drone for the Marine Corps to develop effective counters to this present threat. Islamic State fighters have already perfected the tactic of following a patrol with a quadcopter and using it as the aerial spotter for indirect fire, coordinated suicide truck bombs, and coordinating motorized reinforcements. The only realistic, near-term solution to challenge this threat is to employ our own friendly “aerial scouts” and to provide an on-call, protective electronic bubble around our forces from a Grunt-Angel.
The Corps has built an aviation strategy that simply cannot support the infantry in a distributed future operating environment. If this continues, the Marine Corps will have the requisite components, but their capabilities, lack of integration of those capabilities, and cost will negate their actual capacity to provide dedicated overhead support for any appreciable amount of time.
A simple exploration of flight hour costs demonstrates this point: Current fixed wing platforms cost roughly $10,000-20,000 per flight hour. The F-35 will increase this cost to $40,000-50,000. Yet the Reaper comes in at under $5,000. Grunts want the F-35 for the same reasons pilots do: to overmatch and overwhelm the enemy and provide the highest-caliber aircraft to the pilot in harm’s way. The young infantryman slogging it out on the ground deserves the same overmatch.
Sadly, the Marine Corps even refuses to raise this issue with Congress. It is absent from the service’s most recent unfunded priority list (UPL) submission. Even if there is no desire or funding to re-allocate budgeted money to buy Reapers, there is ample room on the wish list. A quick cost comparison is inevitable in an article like this — one F-35 training simulator is the cost equivalent of four Reapers, while one F-35B costs the same amount as 13 Reapers — and with a total requested Marine purchase of 420 F-35’s, the real issue at hand is not cost, but trust. We need our grunts to trust that they will have capable air support.
The Grunt-Angel has proven it serves as an effective airborne quarterback for ground forces and provides an umbrella of protection that manned aviation cannot match. This is undisputed by aviation and infantry leaders alike. Marines on the ground love their pilots and the support they bring, but they can only stay overhead for a short time before the realities of fuel and sleep leave the infantry vulnerable from the sky. The Reaper is the only immediately available solution, and the only realistic one for the next decade or more.
The United States endured the Lady Gaga show and was riveted by Tom Brady’s comeback in the fourth quarter, but the sad reality is that no one is watching the current tragedy unfolding in Marine Corps aviation. The young marine on the ground deserves a Grunt-Angel in overwatch. It’s long past time: Put the right quarterback in the game, now.
Capt. Ben Brewster is an infantry officer who experienced combat without the support of the MAGTF as part of Task Force 2d Battalion, 7th Marines in Afghanistan in 2008. He then spent four years at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab conducting distributed operations experiments to ensure this never happens to another battalion. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not represent those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo, by Senior Airman Christian Clausen