Victory, Count Ciano said, finds a hundred fathers (defeat is an orphan). So it must be a sure sign of bureaucratic victory that all the armed services are claiming credit for inventing military transformation. Transformation — the application of emerging technology to new concepts of operation and novel warfighting organizations — has become the coin of the realm at the Pentagon. But with so many players claiming credit, that coinage is losing value faster than greenbacks in global currency markets. Some of the claims must be more legitimate than others.
The clearest claim belongs with the Marine Corps. Like the Israelis, the Marines never take their survival for granted and therefore are constantly searching for ways to improve their performance. That has led the Corps to abandon conventional airframes in its modernization plans in favor of revolutionary aircraft that combine the range and speed of fixed-wing planes with the vertical agility of helicopters. If the modernization plan is fully implemented, Marines will be able to go places and do things no other service can — a special-operations force with strategic depth, as it were. Nobody called this transformation when the vision was first devised, but that’s what it amounts to.
The twin centerpieces of Marine transformation are the V-22 Osprey tiltrotor and the F-35B short-takeoff/vertical-landing aircraft, a variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. The V-22 has rotors at the tips of its wings that enable it to ascend and descend vertically, then pivot forward to permit high-speed flight to ranges far beyond what helicopters can achieve. It is the ideal aircraft for carrying personnel and cargo anyplace where airstrip availability is uncertain — from Osama’s mountain redoubts in Pakistan to downed pilots in the deserts of Iraq to Manhattan in the midst of a chem-bio attack. With CH-46D/E and CH-53D helicopters averaging over 30 years of age, and crashing with disturbing regularity (as on Monday in Iraq), the Marines are desperate to field the V-22.
The other revolutionary airframe in the Marines’ future is the F-35B Joint Strike Fighter, a stealthy ground-attack jet designed to takeoff in very limited space and land vertically. It accomplishes this feat with an elegant design that directs engine exhaust downward while also powering a lifting fan in the fuselage off the same shaft that drives the engine. The fan provides 15,000 pounds of cool-air thrust, which when combined with vectored exhaust gases from the engine is more that sufficient to lift the airframe. It’s a remarkably efficient mechanism that can be engaged using a simple clutch at any power setting.
The F-35B is transformational in another regard. It meets unique Marine operational requirements with an airframe that shares the same engine, fuselage and electronics being bought for Air Force and Navy versions of the plane. This high degree of commonality will save tens of billions of dollars in production and support costs over the next 30 years, because by 2025 three-quarters of all U.S. fighters will be some version of the F-35. There isn’t much doubt, though, which version of the plane will be most versatile: the Marine variant will be able to land almost anywhere. It thus mirrors the vertical agility and mission flexibility of the V-22, an aircraft likely to eventually be operated by all the services, but for which — as in the case of the F-35B — the Marine Corps can claim all the credit. Obviously, the Corps was transformational long before it was fashionable.
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