I have been known to review Harpia Publishing volumes with the words “it is certainly possible to read the books cover-to-cover, though I find it more enjoyable to head straight for the aircraft I am currently interested in”. However, while it could be reasonable to assume that this review as well is heading down that path, when it comes Joe Copalman’s “Modern USMC Air Power” I must confess I just opened it at the beginning and kept turning pages over the next few days until they ran out.
The book opens with ten pages on the history of USMC aviation, after which it describes the complete current ORBAT and structure as well as training arrangements, before getting to the meat of the book. This is a rather detailed overview of everything the USMC has that has flown at some point during the 2000’s (including both manned and unmanned systems). As is well known, that includes the Great War on Terror, where different Marine Corps assets have played important roles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and a number of other locations.
The book takes an interesting approach in that it goes through the force by squadron type, starting with the HMH (heavy helicopters) and running through the whole list (HMH, HMLA, HMM/VMM, VMA, VMAQ, VMFA, VMFT, VMGR, VMR/H&HS, VMU, and HMX/VMX, for those that were wondering what that includes). For each squadron, it discusses the state of the fleet in that particular kind of squadron at the turn of the millennium, before going in largely chronological order through their missions (naturally with a solid focus on operational missions, be they in combat or e.g. as part of disaster relief efforts), upgrades, changes in organisation and tactics, and keeps doing so until it reaches the very present day. And by that I mean the very present day, the book goes well into this year, including discussing the implications of general Berger’s visions for a new and leaner force structure. Granted there is something of an issue here, as always when writing about current forces there is a risk that parts of the book will become aged rather soon. Still, having been able to include the plans of Force Design 2030 means that there is a good chance that the overall trends for the near future are understood, and unless the whole concept suddenly is ditched it makes the book rather well-placed in time.
Part of what makes the book so enjoyable to an aviation geek like myself is the unique nature of the USMC air arm. It is often seen as the little brother in comparison to USAF and USN aviation, but that largely says more about just how large the two former are. In fact, the USMC is a rather large and well-rounded force in and by itself, and the specialised nature of the Corps as a whole means that the aviation it has to support the key missions is similarly optimised. Everything from the helicopters to the KC-130 fleet is tailored to support the ground component as effectively as possible, often while operating from ships, and this leads to a host of rare or even unique solutions that (at least to me) isn’t immediately obvious. GPS-guided manoeuvring parachute retarded pallet-dropped supply packages coming out over the rear ramp of a Hercules? Sure thing! It is called Joint Precision Air Delivery System (JPADS) by the way, and as the name says is a joint system.
As the story of Marine Corps aviation can’t be told without some insight into how the aircraft are cooperating with the ground units, much is also spent on how exactly missions such as forward air control (nowadays often JTAC) takes place, including the changes brought in by digitalisation and linked video feeds. It is also interesting to follow the development of the less often discussed world of electronics and signals, which plays an important role on today’s battlefield and has changed greatly over the last two decades.
As said in the beginning, what easily could have become a great reference work but not-so-great for page turning kind of book positively surprised me in actually telling a coherent story despite splitting it up according to unit type. Much of the thanks for this goes to Copalman, who manages to keep the story flowing in a smooth and interesting way, intermixing technical details and abbreviations with eyewitness accounts and personal experiences from the people who flew these machines. Coupled with a very high overall quality of the book, nice pictures (modellers will need to check out a very nice picture of a heavily weathered green CH-53E from VMX-1 at low level, it also sports mismatching grey engine panels!), I might actually have to go as far as to say that this is my favourite Harpia-volume to date.
The book was kindly provided by Harpia Publishing free of charge for review. The ISBN is 978-1-950394-02-9