war on the rocks

Marine Corps Aviation: Let the “Guardian Angel” Be Your Moneyball and the VMUs Your Oakland A’s

July 31, 2017

Heresy was good: heresy meant opportunity.
–Michael Lewis, Moneyball

It is appropriate, and a tad ironic, that Moneyball is on the 2017 “Commandant’s Choice Reading List.” The suggestion is consistent with the commandant’s calls, in FRAGO 01/2016, challenging marines to be “doing what we do better and “doing what we do differently.” Doing better and doing different requires adaptation. It requires a reorientation to new methods, a critical assessment of previous paradigms, and the moral courage to facilitate such thinking and execute when the evidence is overwhelming. For Marine unmanned aviation that time is now and it’s going to take a bit of Billy Beane to implement.

“What’s the problem?”

The purpose of the Marine Corps’ unmanned aerial vehicle squadrons (called VMUs, with “V” meaning fixed-wing, “M” meaning Marines, and “U” meaning unmanned) is to provide an organic “unblinking eye” for both marines on the ground and in the air. Specifically, VMUs are designed to:

Support the Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) Commander by conducting electromagnetic spectrum warfare, multi-sensor reconnaissance and surveillance, supporting arms coordination and control, and facilitating the destruction of targets day or night under all-weather conditions, during expeditionary, joint, and combined operations.

But if you ask the grunts if they are getting the “constant, reliable, ubiquitous, and overwhelmingly dominant sphere of information” and the fire-support that they deserve, the answer is fervently and overwhelmingly no. And what is more, the infantry battalions and VMUs know this and have repeatedly voiced these concerns.

Most recently, in the 2016 MAGTF Integrated Experiment, a testing bed to integrate new technologies making a superior infantry with an asymmetrical advantage, 3rd Battalion 5th Marine Regiment (3/5) praised unmanned systems, but not the VMU’s. In fact, their critique is as damning as it is perceptive and accurate: “Due to the unacceptable deficiencies in the current platforms…over the past six months, 3/5 Marines have not received support from a single VMU UAS sortie.” And it’s not because VMU marines aren’t working their hearts out — they are — but because the VMUs are put in an impossible situation filling a gap they aren’t structurally designed or equipped to support.

Neither the VMU’s RQ-7Bv2 Shadow, nor the RQ-21A Blackjack provide anything near the level of persistence, speed, altitude, range, reliability, efficiency, fires, payload configurations, or communication infrastructure required by 3/5. Nor do their characteristics match those desired by Capt. Ben Brewster, Maj. Scott Cuomo, and countless other marines who have shared similar thoughts for years now or those called for in the Marine Corps Operating Concept.

The discrepancies between what marines want and what the VMUs can provide is only growing. In fact, my military occupational specialty – 7315, unmanned aircraft commander – has now changed to “MAGTF electronic warfare officer.” Nothing about my job has changed, especially since I’ve received no formal electronic warfare training, but the semantic change is indicative of just how much the Marine Corps does not understand the capabilities and limitations of VMUs. What’s more is how the last Marine EA-6B Prowler squadron suns down in FY19 and our Corps has failed to retain the best and brightest aviation electronic warfare experts from these squadrons. Electronic countermeasure officers are not offered a viable option to move into another job, particularly one that leverages their specific skills and many are speaking with their feet. They will likely be joined by the F/A-18 community’s weapon systems officers who don’t have a seat in the single-seat F-35. Once that experience is gone, and with no integration with the VMUs, the Marine Corps will have an even longer road ahead to redefine, build, train to, and fight with electronic warfare.

However, what is more indicative of the current tragedy occurring in the VMU community is how Capt. Cory Radcliffe, author of “Embrace UAS “Guardian Angels” Immediately,” winner of the Marine Corps Gazette 2016 MajGen Harold W. Chase Essay contest, transitioned from VMU-1 to serve in a U.S. Air Force MQ-9 “Reaper” attack squadron. He joined specifically to conduct the very mission that the VMUs are meant to execute and which the Marine ground combat element is continuously requesting. Clearly, there is a mismatch. The potential found in Marine unmanned aviation is currently being squandered, crippled by our platforms and bounded by manned aviation culture. Instead, the VMUs should fulfill the mission set responsible for the current readiness crisis of Marine Aviation and the Marine Corps should save the remaining aircraft for their primary missions. But we must be provided the platform to succeed. The VMUs can change – just like the Oakland A’s and just as quickly. With the right platform, the VMUs can provide all MAGTFs the “Guardian Angel” support they deserve, ensuring that the Marine Corps remains the nation’s “expeditionary force-in-readiness.”

MUX Ado About Nothing

Capt. Ben Brewster is spot-on that “a crucial group of people don’t seem to get it”, but that crucial group is manned Marine Corps aviators (although certainly not all of them). Why? Unmanned aviation challenges the idea of what it is to be a pilot. As an unmanned pilot, I don’t perform Immelmanns or the split-s, and neither can my aircraft. In my ground control station, I fly at a consistent 1G, while my aircraft banks less than 30º. So unlike Tom Cruise’s Maverick, “I’m not dangerous,” I don’t go inverted, and I don’t need to. My value stems from the potential to provide the armed “eye-in-the-sky” for our marines on the ground and in the air. This capability leverages situational awareness, command and control, and munitions that allow our ground commanders and manned pilots to orient on their objective or target faster, safer, and ultimately, more effectively. This can be the “5th generation” MAGTF, 21st century combined-arms founded in Marine ingenuity and manned-unmanned teaming, but only if we are provided the platform.

If you ask Marine Corps Aviation, however, they believe they have heeded the pleas of Capt. Ben Brewster and Maj. Scott Cuomo and offer them the MUX, the MAGTF UAS Expeditionary. MUX is intended to be a medium altitude long endurance drone that will have the primary capability to vertically take-off and landing (VTOL) from a ship, and thus, making it, in some people’s minds, “expeditionary.” The problem, is that the MUX doesn’t exist and it won’t for another, optimistically, 10 years, but more realistically, at least, 15 years because of the broken defense acquisitions process. The MUX contradicts the blatant advice of MCDP-1 Warfighting:

In order to minimize research and development costs and fielding time, the Marine Corps will exploit existing capabilities — “off-the-shelf” technology — to the greatest extent possible.

Perhaps Marine Corps Aviation needs to read that as a shall. This is reiterated in the Marine Operating Concept where “affordable ‘70%’ solutions now are better than outdated solutions 10 years from now.” To butcher Field of Dreams, if you built it, it will come in delayed, over budget, and deficient in terms of what you need it to do, just like the RQ-21A, a current VMU platform. Why build the MUX, when a “Guardian Angel” like the MQ-9 exists today? How many marines must the nation lose, how many more unnecessary heroes, before the Corps realizes that a “Guardian Angel” is the solution?

But first, we must acknowledge the pernicious assumptions that prohibit our innovative and disruptive solutions — likely simply stepping back to realize that what marines want and need already exists. Consider that the MV-22 Osprey, to which the MUX is so lovingly compared and is meant to be manned-unmanned teaming pals, was conceived post-Operation Eagle Claw. This 1980 disaster provided the impetus for key military reforms including the Goldwater-Nichols Act and Joint Doctrine, but it also inspired the creation of a new kind of aircraft — the tiltrotor — filling the technical niche needed during that operation. After 27 years, the MV-22 Osprey was born into the operational Marine Corps, but still today, 37 years later, maintains readiness rates around 55 percent, ultimately costing the taxpayer more than $35 billion in the process. Can we wait this long for the MUX? Perhaps equally important to ask, is the MUX affordable?

The Marine Corps is on a quixotic mission to concoct the MUX, a “service-defining” medium altitude long endurance drone. As the senior marine working on unmanned aircraft systems, Col. J.B. “Buss” Barranco recently explained, “We want expeditionary. We want VTOL.” This is both a conflation of Capt. Brewster’s myths against and Maj. Cuomo’s desiderata for “Guardian Angels.” Most telling is when Col. Barranco dismisses the limitations of the MUX — besides the fact it doesn’t exist and won’t within the year that a “Guardian Angel” can. Additionally, this is to say nothing of the inevitable logistical nightmare and ship footprint:

The MUX by being VTOL will be heavier and give up some time on station…But because it is expeditionary, able to take off virtually anywhere, we can give up that slight loss of time on station and range of current UASs.

These structural concessions contradict the modus operandi of many unmanned systems, particularly medium altitude long endurance drones. These capabilities cannot be bought back, nor added later.

One cannot help but wonder if the MUX is a distraction, and no different than near-identical Marine Aviation Plans dating back more than a decade. Is it yet another diversion over which the unmanned aviation community and the ground combat element can argue while Marine Corps Aviation continues to drag their feet on addressing the real issue at the heart of the matter? Marines want what Marine Corps Aviation cannot currently provide, and more alarmingly, will not be able to provide with the continued procurement of F-35B or C or arming MV-22 Ospreys with rockets and guns. Marines don’t want the “impossible” in 15 years, but rather the possible now. As Thomas S. Kuhn explains in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “the emergence of new theories is generally preceded by a period of pronounced professional insecurity.” Marine Corps Aviation is threatened as unmanned aviation challenges its “Top Gun” pilot culture, but more grave is the failure to provide for the grunts in the way that the ground combat elements need.

What makes “Guardian Angels” guardians is persistence: maintaining sensors over the target with the capacity to deliver munitions, electronic warfare, support communications, and aerial observation for hours, or even days. This is “loiter time” and it is a defining feature of unmanned aviation. To whittle down the time on-station is evidence that Marine Corps Aviation does not understand unmanned assets or the ground combat element that it is meant to support. As was mentioned recently in a War on the Rocks article, Alfred A. Cunningham wrote in 1920 of the “Value of Aviation to the Marine Corps” and it seems that we are here, again, arguing instead for the value of unmanned aviation to the Marine Corps, where “the only excuse for [unmanned] aviation in any service is its usefulness in assisting the troops on the ground to successfully carry out their operations.” Moreover, the current readiness state of Marine Aviation is a direct result of inefficiently utilizing our platforms to serve this fundamental tenet — the marines on the ground. Billy Beane capitalized on such inefficiencies and turned one of the poorest teams in baseball into one of the most successful. Equivalently, Marine Corps Aviation can turn its poor readiness around by acquiring and utilizing the right tool for the job — a “Guardian Angel” that is meant to loiter, and not an F/18, or a three-times-more-expensive-to-operate F-35.

Eliot A. Cohen fortuitously argued in his 1996 Foreign Affairs article “A Revolution in Warfare”:

The platform has become less important, while the quality of what it carries – sensors, munitions, and electronics of all kinds – has become critical.

Currently, however, we half heed such advice; we acknowledge the quality of what our aircraft carry, but still, culturally, prioritize manned platforms. As B. A. Friedman cautions in On Tactics: A Theory of Victory in Battle, “Military catastrophes are born of military bureaucracies that fall in love with a certain set of tactics and become too beholden to their strict execution.” The sooner Marine Corps Aviation recognizes that manned and unmanned are a team, composed of different but compatible elements, and once “the last holdouts have died, the whole profession will again be practicing under a single, but now a different, paradigm” where support is platform agnostic, efficient, and delivering quality to the marines who need it.

Angels in the (Expeditionary) Outfield

So why make it harder? Why insist on the PowerPoint pretty MUX, when we can lease it and then buy what the MAGTF needs today? Not only will a “Guardian Angel” deliver the Marines what they want and need, but also the Marine Corps can deliver starting approximately a year from today, and 14 years before MUX. Here’s how it works. We train while we lease. One of the benefits of being over-trained and underutilized as an unmanned aircraft commander is that converting to a “Guardian Angel” like the MQ-9A Extended Range (or even better its short-field runway capable companion) is that officers like me only need 6 more months of training. Additionally, all the unmanned pilots can be sourced from our three active-duty unmanned squadrons, with great potential to create a new paradigm for how we employ our reserve component squadron.

Our training pipeline is the U.S. Air Force’s remotely piloted aircraft training pipeline. After around a year of training with the United States Air Force we check-in for three weeks to learn to fly the RQ-7B or our squadron to learn to fly the RQ-21A. At the same time, our Air Force brethren check-in to learn to fly the MQ-9. Simply to move to a “Guardian Angel,” all an unmanned aircraft commander requires to be basically qualified is six more months of training. That’s about the length of a single baseball season.

But the cooperation with the Air Force does not stop there. As MCDP-1 Warfighting also acknowledges, “Better equipment is not the cure for all ills; doctrinal and tactical solutions to combat deficiencies must also be sought.” The Air Force has a wealth of knowledge – including from an increasing number of VMU marines, like Cory Radcliffe, who depart the Corps to join the Air Force – a depth of techniques, tactics, and procedures, instructors, and experience. They have the training and the doctrine. Whereas the VMUs are simultaneously conducting initial training, writing tactics, techniques, and procedures based on minimal experience, training basic instructors with no formalized training unit while attempting to maintain support to operational commitments. But the RQ-21A remains an abysmal disappointment to the supported marines; it is an asset that takes too much ship and deck space and is too limited in range, speed, payload support, and effect to be worth the effort.

So, let’s not let perfect get in the way of damn good enough. Let’s not try to be the Yankees with the budget of the A’s. A “Guardian Angel” like the MQ-9A Extended Range is certainly good enough to satisfy the urgent needs of the Marine Corps since 2004, although a short-takeoff companion that can operate within the year from the Marine Corps’ expeditionary airfield in Twentynine Palms would be even better and still cheaper than any manned aircraft in the Marine Corps today. Quickly, let’s do the math, for 12 aircraft, and 12 ground control stations. To procure these systems between FY19 and FY21 will cost around $388 million for the MQ-9A Extend Range, and initial indications suggest that the short-takeoff version will only be 5 to 10 percent more per unit. But this is to own our own aircraft. In the meantime, VMU-1 can start training unmanned pilots and maintainers, and begin to integrate with all MAGTF training exercises while also eliminating critical shortfalls in current marine joint terminal attack controller training. And we remain “expeditionary,” supporting overseas operations in conjunction with the KC-130J and, with the short-field version landing on the same length of runway. VMUs conduct detachments and construct reaper-pads from which to launch and fly aircraft out to a range of 1000 nautical miles. At this limit, these aircraft can maintain an additional 10 hours of time on station before returning. From these bases, which can be integrated with our preexisting and expeditionary basing world-wide, VMUs patrol the skies supporting marines and the Marine Expeditionary Units who are patrolling the ground and seas below.

In short, to deny the “Guardian Angel” is a disservice to the marines flying unmanned systems, but more critically to the marines we are meant to support.

The “Guardian Angel” is, as marines are drilled to embrace from the earliest days in the Corps, a 70 percent solution violently executed now – and that’s rounded down. MUX, in contrast, is a PowerPoint picture — an already outdated “solution” that some hope will emerge, at the very earliest, 10 years from now. Even if the Marine Corps decides to continue to develop MUX, then it is still imperative that this is done in conjunction with giving our marines an interim “Guardian Angel” today. Moreover, if unmanned aircraft commanders don’t train with an equivalent system, like the short-takeoff MQ-9, then even if a MUX arrives within the next 15 years, it will be another few years before unmanned pilots in the VMUs are sufficiently trained to operate these systems in support of marines. As our ground combat brethren remain prepared to “close with and destroy the enemy” we must be prepared to support in the clouds above as the armed “eye-in-the-sky.”

The VMUs are manned and ready. Put the Guardian Angel in, coach.

 

Olivia A. Garard is an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. She is an Unmanned Aircraft Commander and Aviation Safety Officer for VMU-1. Additionally, she is an Associate Editor for The Strategy Bridge and a member of the Military Writers Guild. The opinions expressed are hers alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government. She tweets at @teaandtactics.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Brytani Wheeler