After prolonged operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. Marine Corps helicopter fleet is in serious trouble with both attack and heavy-lift machines out of production and fleet numbers falling due to combat losses and heavy field usage. According to Corps officers discussing the problem recently, the service does not have enough rotary-wing (i.e. helicopter) aviation to support its ground battalions in prolonged combat. The Marines have already depleted their reserve pool of helicopters and crews, and plan to deploy fixed wing F/A-18Ds and AV-8B Harrier warplanes to make up for the shortfalls. Beyond that, the Corps is discussing about leaning more on host nation forces and coalition forces to fill the gap.
The Marine Corps currently operate a number of different helicopters and for years have been planning to shrink the number of types to save on operational and procurement costs. Medium and heavy lift helicopters such as the CH-46E (239 in service) and the CH-53 A/D (72 in inventory) are scheduled to be replaced by 348 MV-22 Osprey tiltrotor sometime in 2008. The CH-53E remains one of the few heavy lift helicopters that can operate in the high altitudes in Afghanistan, but the marines have only 160 of them. There are also 107 UH-1N light utility helicopters and 147 Cobra AH-1Z attack helicopter in service.
Already, the first CH-53E heavy-lift helicopters have gone into storage because they can no longer be flown safely. At the present rate of ise, the Marines will begin running out of heavy-lift helicopters by 2012. The Marines are considering putting the CH-53 back into production in the next five or six years, and a CH-53X modernization program starting in 2015. Longer-term solutions include putting an armed tiltroter into production (derived from the Bell Agusta BA609 civilian aircraft) and working with the Army and Navy in a joint heavy-lift program. The Army would like a helicopter with a lift capability of around 50,000 lbs and a range of around 3300 kilometers. Doug Mohney