The threat posed by radical Islam around the world is forcing our military services to change how they fight — and how they are preparing to fight in the future. Not unexpectedly, the services most involved in fighting, the Army and Marine Corps, have been first to adapt to this new and diabolical threat.
The ground services understand that war is moving into the third dimension. Our enemies will continue to challenge us in the most remote, distant and inhospitable places. As we have seen in both Afghanistan and Iraq, getting to (and staying) in these places often can be done only by air. The enemy understands that they can best survive against American precision killing power by dispersing and distributing their forces in remote mountain areas and in the crowded and narrow urban places. The enemy has learned the advantage of killing the most vulnerable part of our force — the huge and soft ground convoys that we rely on to supply our gas-guzzling iron monsters inherited from the Cold War.
The Army has committed to a very ambitious program to lighten its fighting forces and to make them more agile and capable of fighting against a dispersed enemy. Fighting systems now under development consist of a “family” of very light air transportable vehicles ideally suited for fighting primitive enemies in distant places that can best be reached by air.
The Marines’ newly developed concept of distributed operations envisions a future war in which very small light infantry forces will meet the enemy on their turf. These forces will be inserted and supported in part using the V-22, essentially a rotor craft capable of vertical takeoff and landing like a helicopter and traditional horizontal flight similar to a conventional propeller-driven transport.
Unfortunately, neither the Army nor the Marine Corps have enough aerial lifting power to meet today’s requirements, much less their ambitious plans for the future. Both services are quite literally flying the rotors off their obsolescent fleet of helicopters just to perform the routine day-to-day operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. They cannot fulfill the demands of the future without a multifunctional cargo aircraft capable of getting into the small, unimproved areas where ground forces operate.
Let’s use a commercial aviation analogy to explain the problem. If soldiers and Marines were commercial passengers and cargo, they would be transported most efficiently from hub to hub by big airliners. The Air Force’s biggest carrier is the giant C-5, and it does a reasonably good job of carrying ground forces from big airport to big airport. The problem is that the enemy is far away from big airports. The airlines use feeder airlines to get to smaller places. It’s the smaller places where we will fight our future wars and it’s exactly here that the Army and Marine Corps airline service is least effective.
The Air Force relies on the C-130 prop-driven and the C-17 jet aircraft to move troops and their fighting equipment from hubs to the local airports where the battle is fought. These are good aircraft. The C-130 is a Vietnam veteran and the fleet is getting old. The C-17 carries a very heavy load, but it is too big and fragile to get ground soldiers into distant, primitive and dispersed places where the battle is fought.
The ground services desperately need a “feeder” airliner to fulfill this mission. A simple, rugged aircraft capable of using primitive airstrips would relieve the ground service’s helicopter fleet of its excessive burden.
A fleet of small feeder aircraft would take soldiers off the dangerous roads and highways where so many of our soldiers and Marines are dying every day. Such an aircraft would allow ground forces to outmaneuver the enemy by arriving by air very quickly on some distant battlefield long before the enemy has a chance to dig in.
Think for a moment how the war in Iraq might have played out if our ground forces would have been able to arrive at a number of small airports and unimproved airstrips scattered throughout Iraq almost simultaneously on the first day of the war. In all probability Saddam and his henchmen would not have had the time and space to start a prolonged insurgency.
Military versions of feeder aircraft exist today. It’s not a question of designing them but of buying them. Every service would rather buy fighting systems than trucks, even trucks that fly. But the Army understands the vital importance of this mission and stands ready to buy these planes. Unfortunately, some members of Congress are reluctant to support buying an airline for the Army. Our soldiers and Marines will continue to fly their helicopters into the ground and drive their trucks into ambushes when these jobs could be done by a cheap cargo aircraft. Time is short, and it’s time to start buying these aircraft now.
Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.