The future of Marine Aviation is grim.  The Corps plans to eliminate 36% of its fighter-attack aircraft (F/A-18s and AV-8 Harriers) as part of the Navy-Marine TacAir Plan (pdf) .  The V-22 tilt-rotor remains "in development" and soaring costs allow only half the number desired to be funded each year.  Meanwhile, the Corps will buy new engines to extend the life of its ancient CH-46Es, yet again.  This has delayed plans to overhaul and upgrade 111 of the Corps 165 CH-53Es.  Now there is talk of buying new CH-53Ks, since the ageing Echos may be too costly to rebuild.  However, there will be no funds for years as the V-22 program continues to eat up a half billion dollars a year just for research and development, while the H-1 upgrade program is taking longer and costing much more than planned.  So the Corps must scrap a dozen CH-53Es each year starting in 2010 as they become too old to fly safely.

      Since Marine Air will become smaller, the Corps must trim overhead. The 2005 Base Closing and Realignment (BRAC) round provides a great opportunity.  The Navy/Marine plan is to deactivate three active-duty Navy F/A-18C squadrons in 2003. The Marines will assign six more F/A-18 squadrons to allow one per Navy Carrier Air Wing (CAW).  The Navy and Marines have also announced they will each disband a reserve F/A-18 squadron this year. Regardless of what anyone thinks, this is the plan, and its optimistic since the Corps hopes to increase funding for aircraft procurement from $2 billion in FY2004 to $6 billion in FY2009.  Eventually, the Marines plan to disband seven active-duty fighter-attack squadrons to afford the expensive F-35/JSF (below).

     The best way to save money for more aircraft is to shut down excess air stations.  Looking at all major Navy/Marine air stations, the best candidate for the 2005 BRAC is MCAS Miramar.  MCAS Cherry Point, MCAS Camp Pendleton, and MCAS New River are key installations.  MCAS Yuma or MCAS Beaufort could close, but they haven't the high housing costs, urban encroachment, or air traffic problems of Miramar.  MCAS Kanehoe Bay has high housing costs, but is also used by the 3rd Marine Regiment and many other units, including Navy squadrons since NAS Barbers Point closed in 1999.

     While Miramar is a beautiful base, it is surrounded by a booming urban area whose vocal residents complain about noise, which is why the Navy happily left in 1997.  Newly arrived Marine helicopters generate even more noise than jets, so thousands of local residents are furious.  The Corps plans to replace their F/A-18s with the F-35.  However, the F-35 will be capable of vertical take-offs and landings, which requires maximum thrust to perform these maneuvers.  This will produce intolerable noise so F-35s will have to fly elsewhere to practice.  In addition, Miramar has the highest off-base housing costs of any air station, costing the Corps several thousand dollars a year more per Marine, which also denies junior officers and enlisted a chance to buy a home.  For example, the 2003 housing allowance for a Marine Captain (O-3) at Miramar costs the Marine Corps $17,556 a year, whereas a Captain at Yuma gets $11,220 a year while one at NAS Lemoore gets $10,272. 

     In addition, training is limited by congested civilian air traffic and quiet time for the locals.  Moreover, San Diego needs another airport and Miramar is the only practical location. While these problems are manageable today, imagine the Miramar area in 2020 after the local population, air traffic and road traffic have doubled again.  Dispersing Miramar aircraft to other Marine Corps and Navy air stations will save the Corps hundreds of millions of dollars each year.  Keep in mind that actions approved by the 2005 BRAC will not become reality until 2007-2009.  The headquarters for the 3rd Marine Air Wing can move up to Camp Pendleton to join its parent, III MEF and the 1st Marine Division.  Here is a detailed plan to disperse the two Marine Air Groups at MCAS Miramar:  

Marine Air Group 11

      Since the Navy is leaning on the Corps to provide ten squadrons for its carriers, the Navy can at least host four squadrons assigned to its CAWs based at NAS Lemoore.  After all, the Marines have agreed to host two Navy F/A-18 squadrons at MCAS Cherry Point and two more at MCAS Beaufort.  Since the Navy already plans to deactivate three more squadrons, in addition to four it disbanded a few years ago when four Marine F/A-18 squadrons were assigned to CAWs, there should be plenty of room at Lemoore. 

     The Marines have yet to announce what they will do about MAG-12 at MCAS Iwakuni, Japan, which has one permanent F/A-18 squadron, and two maintained there through six-month "UDP" rotations; which requires at least six stateside squadrons to support.  Assigning six more Marine F/A-18 squadrons to CAWs will make Iwakuni UDPs impossible, even though the Navy says it will assign three of its F/A-18C squadrons to the Marines to allow one for Iwakuni.  So the only option is to end Marine F/A-18 UDPs and assign a second permanent squadron at Iwakuni, while another Marine F/A-18 squadron will be assigned to the CAW in Japan at NAS Atsugi near Tokyo.

MAG-11 Headquarters - to NAS Lemoore for carrier air wing support

VMFA-232 (F/A-18C) - replaces deactivated Navy squadron at NAS Lemoore 

VMFA(AW)-242 (F/A-18D) - replaces deactivated Navy squadron at NAS Lemoore 

VMFA(AW)-121 (F/A-18D) - replaces deactivated Navy squadron at NAS Lemoore 

VMFA-314 (F/A-18C) - to NAS Lemoore  

VMFA(AW)-225 (F/A-18D) to MCAS Iwakuni to replace UDP squadron

VMFA-323 (F/A-18C) - to NAS Atsugi for CAW duty as planned

VMFAT-101 (F/A-18D) - this training squadron can move to NAS Lemoore, MCAS Beaufort, or MCAS Yuma 

VMGR-352 (KC-130) - to MCAS Yuma; 2005 BRAC funded hanger construction

VMFA-134 (F/A-18A) - disband this MAG-46 reserve squadron as planned

      Of course there could be a dramatic change in plans.  If three aircraft carriers are decommissioned, the Navy will not need MAG-11 aircraft.  However, so long as Marines host four Navy squadrons at its east coast bases, the Navy should host four Marine squadrons at Lemoore.  Since the Marines already plan to disband seven fighter-attack squadrons as the F-35 comes into service, MAG-11 and its four squadrons at Lemoore may disappear by 2020 anyway.

Marine Air Group 16

     Helicopter basing is more complex because of the need to support infantrymen on a daily basis.  It seems ideal to expand nearby MCAS Camp Pendleton.  However, that airbase is located in a valley and expansion onto hillsides is very difficult.  In addition, this airbase suffers from the same problems as Miramar in regards to air traffic problems and high off-base housing costs.  Marines have discussed the value of a permanent air station at its main training base at 29 Palms, California for over 20 years.  They already operate an "expeditionary" airstrip there with metal matting.  Using BRAC money to simply move all of MAG-16 to a new MCAS 29 Palms is possible.  This airbase wouldn't require long runways, just helicopter pads and hangers.  This is an expensive option and may prove wasteful since the Corps must deactivate several helicopter squadrons anyway.  It will be easier to move squadrons to other bases and disband MAG-16 headquarters to trim overhead.

MAG-16 Headquarters - to disband in 2008 to free manpower for squadrons

     Marines need a mix of helicopters in Southern California to support three deployable MEUs with composite helicopter squadrons.  With the loss of Miramar, this will require the addition of an HMM and HMH squadron to MCAS Camp Pendleton.  Fortunately, Pendleton hosts two training squadrons which can be based almost anywhere, HMMT-164 and HMT-303.  In fact, the new V-22 training squadron was recently formed at MCAS New River, so HMMT-164 will eventually disband anyway.  The Corps may eventually cut an HMH squadron from MCAS New River as the CH-53E inventory declines.  Perhaps one can be cut a couple years early to open space for training squadrons in 2008.  Another option is to move an active duty HMH up to NAS Willow Grove where a reserve HMH squadron already operates, or move an active HMM to NAS Norfolk where a reserve HMM operates, or any squadron to MCAF Quantico.

     MCAS Camp Pendleton hosts two HMM squadrons today, plus HMMT-164; yet it hosted four HMM squadrons until 1999 when two were moved to spacious MCAS Miramar, so there is room for two more HMMs at MCAS Camp Pendleton. (see MAG-39 composition in 1998 [pdf page 25])

HMM-165 (CH-46E)- returns to MCAS Camp Pendleton; HMMT-164 to MCAS New River in 2008

HMM-166 (CH-46E) - returns to MCAS Camp Pendleton 

HMH-361 (CH-53E) to MCAS Camp Pendleton; HMT-303 to MCAS New River in 2008

CH-46E and V-22 Shortfall  

      Projecting future helicopter inventory is difficult because of delays to the V-22 tilt-rotor. However, current HMM CH-46E squadrons are already short aircraft.  The Corps is down to 226 CH-46Es for 17 flying squadrons (plus six for HMX-1).  Given this need for 210 in service, 226 are not enough since many are in maintenance depots, especially as the Corps begins a program to replace their engines. Therefore, the Corps should disband at least one HMM squadron to fill out other squadrons and free headquarters manpower.  

HMM-163 - (CH-46E) to disband in 2004 as aircraft transfer to other squadrons

HMM-161 (CH-46E) to move or disband in 2008

     Peacetime CH-46E attrition may require another HMM to disband by 2008; or HMM-161 can squeeze into MCAS Camp Pendleton or move to MCAS Yuma or MCAS Kaneohe Bay or NAS Norfolk, or join the two Marine reserve helicopter squadrons at Edwards AFB.  Perhaps these squadrons can be reactivated after 2020 if enough V-22s are purchased, but that would be a surprise.  Keep in mind that cutting squadron headquarters will not reduce the number of CH-46Es in service.

Three HMH Squadrons

     This leaves three CH-53E squadrons which must move before MCAS Miramar finally closes around 2009.  Plans to reduce the CH-53E fleet will end HMH six-month UDP rotations to MCAS Futnema, Japan; as it did with HMM squadrons a decade ago.  Permanent basing of one HMH squadron from MAG-16 there seems certain. 

     MCAS Kanehoe Bay is left with the worst aircraft in the Corps.  While the average CH-53D is a year newer than the CH-46Es, there are fewer than 40 left in service, which are not needed to support ship-based deployments.  Unique parts are expensive since CH-53Ds are no longer flown by the US Air Force, the US Navy, and not even by the Marine Corps Reserve.  More importantly, the 226 CH-46Es have recently undergone SLEPs, and serve as the backbone for forward deployed Marine task forces.  

      The CH-53Ds were scheduled to retire in FY 2006, now that has been delayed pending the uncertain arrival of V-22s.  The Corps should scrap the Delta's in 2006 and move two HMHs to Hawaii.  The "Delta" Marines can transition to V-22s or CH-53Es, thus increasing manning levels throughout the Marine Corps. If enough V-22s are procured, there will still be room for a couple V-22 squadrons at Kaneohe Bay with two HMHs aboard, although a couple HMH squadrons must deactivate after 2010 anyway as the CH-53E inventory falls.

HMH-462 - to MCAS Futenma

HMH-465 - to MCAS Kanehoe Bay

HMH-466 - to MCAS Kanehoe Bay

      Keep in mind that shuffling helicopter squadrons is not required if the Corps moves a few helicopter squadrons to a new MCAS 29 Palms, which may be the most cost effective solution in the long term since that would save many hours of transit flying time to support exercises there. The Corps can wait until 2005 to access the progress with the V-22 program and plans to triple aviation procurement funding to estimate how many squadrons the Corps will have in service after 2009.  Meanwhile, the Corps should implement a spending and hiring freeze at Miramar while options are considered.

Marine Air Group - 46 (USMCR)

      With the deactivation of the single reserve flying squadron VMFA-134 at Miramar, reserve aviation support units can move northward to train and support operations at nearby MCAS Camp Pendleton.

Marine VIP "Cargo" Aircraft

     The Marine Corps operates a dozen small "VIP" aircraft at MCAS Miramar.  They could move to NAS North Island or into a new BRAC funded hanger at MCRD San Diego, adjacent to Lindbergh Field.  As part of the turnover of Miramar, San Diego must agree to allow these aircraft to use Lindbergh field.  Marines can simply open a gate to allow an aircraft to taxi over and fly away.  If Federal Express moves to Miramar, it will vacate its hangers adjacent to MCRD.  It would be simple for MCRD to establish a Marine Air Facility there for VIP aircraft and the KC-130 squadron from Miramar.

Miramar Annex

     San Diego county has numerous naval facilities scattered about.  While the Marines disperse flying squadrons and close their air station, naval activities may remain as part of nearby bases, such as the Navy brig, buildings used by reserve units, and some family housing areas.  Other buildings may be retained for the Navy, Marines, and US Government to replace leased space elsewhere in the county.  Meanwhile, residents of San Diego county can enjoy safer, cleaner and quieter skies, with many options for new parks and recreational facilities.  

      No city is a good location for a major military airbase, and closing Miramar should be supported by those who oppose growth since it will reduce activity.  City leaders must realize that closing Miramar will benefit over 99% of San Diegans.  They should contact Congressmen and Department to Defense officials to insist that MCAS Miramar appears on the 2005 BRAC list.  Civilian employees from MCAS Miramar can be gradually absorbed by other Navy and Marine Corps bases in the area while Miramar closes from 2005-2009.

     While San Diego takes over most of Miramar, its reuse will be controversial.  The main commercial airport in San Diego, Lindbergh Field, has limited space with just a single 9000 foot runway airport, surrounded by high terrain and dense urban development.  A second airport may not be needed right away, especially if a cargo only airport opened at Miramar to free space at Lindbergh for passengers.  It might make sense to close the small Montgomery Field or the small Palomar airport by moving their operations to Miramar.  

     However, unless San Diego stops growing, it will need a second major airport, and Miramar is ideal.  It will relieve the traffic congestion along freeways as the wealthier people who travel most often will not drive downtown to fly.  Keep in mind that a second airport will not increase passenger air traffic in the county, but it will relieve congestion at Lindbergh, which means flights will be safer with fewer delays.  Flights will also be cheaper as more airport gates mean more competition, with much greater convenience for residents and increased property values for those living near the Miramar airport.  Finally, newer commercial aircraft have engines which produce half the noise of older models, and any jet engine is less annoying that the whomp- whomp of large, slow helicopters.

What if, in 2020?

     In 2020, Marines will be thankful they left Miramar when they had a chance.  Despite dire forecasts of future Navy and Marine aircraft inventories, some officers will express concerns.  What if aircraft prices miraculously fall and squadrons can be reformed?  What if World War III occurs and another airbase is needed?

     There is plenty of open space in California and Congressmen would be anxious to build a new airbase.  However, NAS El Centro is little used, ideally located, and has plenty of space to expand to serve as a major fixed-wing base.  There is also a little used airbase at the Navy's massive China Lake complex.  There are plenty of options for helicopter bases at 29 Palms, and even the Marine Base at Barstow could expand Daggett Field.  The only certainty is that San Diego will continue to grow while air and ground traffic becomes worse, while the inventory of Marine aircraft will drop sharply, leaving the Corps with too much expensive airbase infrastructure. The best way to retain more Marine squadrons is to close Miramar to free funds to procure several more aircraft each year.  The 2005 BRAC provides the perfect opportunity for both the US Marines and residents of San Diego county to improve their future.

                                                Carlton Meyer  editorG2mil@Gmail.com

2003 www.G2mil.com

Letters

Dispersing MCAS Miramar

Intriguing article about dispersing Miramar.  Thought I would bring up a couple of points.  I have heard rumors about a possible move to March AFB, Edwards AFB, MCAS Yuma, and 29 Palms.  If I had to guess, I would say it would be March or Yuma.  The big problem I hear about the Stumps [29 Palms] is a lack of available water.  I don't think Pendleton can handle anymore aircraft.  With 2 training squadrons there now (the FRS's for the 46's and skids), the one runway is overworked as it is - and the skids are using the grass area beside it for most of their work.  Maybe move those 2 FRS's (and the 53E FRS at New River) all to Edwards AFB where the Marine reserve 46 and 53E squadrons are.  Also, HMT-164 isn't going anywhere for at least a decade due to the need not only to train new pilots but also refresh those coming back to the fleet.  Likewise, New River has a problem with ramp space that became a problem when VMMT-204 stood up.

I don't think you will see a 53E squadron decommissioned at New River (You have 461 and 464 there now.)  Even with only the standard 4 aircraft det to an HMM when deploying, you are going to need 2 squadrons of 16 - 18 to handle the normal MEU rotation.  When the MEU's get plussed up with 6 or even 8 of the "Big Irons", you definitely need 2 squadrons.

You are spot on about the 53D's in Hawaii.  The aircraft have never been SLEP'ed and are in horrible condition (bad enough that none went to Iraq - or even the last Gulf War).  Likewise, the minimal amount of hours that they fly mean that the pilots are not current, much less proficient in their skills - no knock against the pilots, they just are not getting enough flying time.  They are simply place holders for Osprey squadrons - and if I remember correctly, they are the last scheduled to be replaced by the MV-22.

I do think there are solutions that are overlooked.  Switch the 53D's in Hawaii to the Reserves and send the Reserve 53E's to active duty.  The total number of aircraft should be roughly the same.  Activating the reserves 53E's to augment the MEU's while you have 4 squadrons of 53D's in Hawaii and never deploying is ludicrous. 

Secondly, if you need more 46E airframes, there are 2 solutions: One is to pair down the 2 Marine reserve squadrons from their T/O of 12 aircraft to 8.  This happens often at New River when a returning squadron is stripped of people, planes, and parts.  Likewise, the Navy is retiring their 46D's.  These can either be reworked and brought up to 46E specs, or can be sent to the reserves and the remainder of the 46E's sent to the fleet. 

 Finally, with the number of helos on the East and West Coasts, you are going to need 2 MAG's per coast.  Matter of fact, MAG-16 just returned from Iraq and they fought as a MAG.  Interesting to note that on the East Coast, the MAG's are mirror-imaged (1 53E, 3 46E, 1 skid  each) while due to all of the skids being at Pendleton, the West Coast MAG's are somewhat different.

Anyway, good job keeping everyone on their toes and thinking.

                                                                                            Phrog Driver

Ed:  If the Corps moves to March AFB, it would have to become the host and pay for all that overhead.  Then there may be encroachment problems there by 2020.  I've heard the USAF plans to move more units there anyway after the 2005 BRAC.  Its a great spot for reserve units, with 12 million people living within a two hour drive.  Thanks for the water tip about 29 Palms.  However, four squadrons would add just 1000 Marines to a base with 11,000.

The easiest solution is for the Corps to snap up the 43 MH-53Es, which the Navy has begun to retire in favor of cheap MH-60S.  Just scrap the old Deltas and put the MHs there.  They were built after the Corps Echos, so they are newer.  The big problem with the CH-53Ds is that they have to spend huge amounts to special order custom made parts.  They did that a few years back to stretch them to 2006, but the V-22 won't show up until 2010 at best.  They are very secretive about how many Deltas are in service, but I suspect they've begun major cannibalization to keep some flight worthy. I doubt the Corps wants to touch the old Navy 46Ds, but then they plan to reengine all their Es anyway, so they could include the old Ds.  

     That article is making the rounds.  Everyone agrees the fixed-wing part makes sense.  But the rotary-wing is up in the air as the V-22 drags on and the 53E SLEP is put off. MCAS Miramar should close!  It will benefit the Marines and 99% of San Diegans.  Let's hope the selfish minority who make money off the base and a few hardheaded retirees don't block progress.