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The Amphibious Swarm Pt 2

April 20, 2010

US Marine Raiders and crew members onboard USS Argonaut (SM-1), 26 August 1942.

The great proof of this concept of operations was offered during the several months after Pearl Harbor, a period in which small Japanese landing forces mounted a far-flung, amphibious blitzkrieg that ranged from the Philippines and Micronesia through the Dutch East Indies (basically today’s Indonesia) and on to a campaign in Malaya that culminated in the capture of the mighty British fortress of Singapore. This last conquest was the toughest test of the concept of small-unit amphibious operations using powered barges. In this campaign about 100,000 British and Empire troops were thoroughly outmaneuvered and outfought by a significantly smaller Japanese force. Of Gen Arthur Percival’s surrender of Singapore, along with some seventy thousand troops, Winston Churchill said it was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation of British troops in history.”

John Arquilla writing in “Worst Enemy

The Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan probably get the idea of “swarming” more readily today, since it entails the use of proven light infantry tactics against insurgents, and the breaking up of heavy combat teams into small but still lethal units. Greg at Defence Tech, points out the new USMC strategy for “distributed operations” in a post titled “The Incredible Shrinking Marine Air Ground Task Force“:

The Marines appear to be leading the innovation and thought experimentation on adapting small units to battle hybrid enemies – state and non-state armed groups mixing guerrilla tactics with advanced weaponry.
Down at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in Quantico, they’re fleshing out an emerging warfighting concept called “distributed operations”: small units operating independently, at a fast paced, fluid tempo when either dispersed or concentrated. Think here of German sturmtruppen tactics from World War I, or, more recently, Hezbollah fighters operating in small dispersed, yet highly lethal, groups in the 2006 Lebanon war.
The director of the Marine’s thought lab, ret. Col. Vincent Goulding, has a piece in the new Proceedings (subscription only) discussing the experimental Marine company landing team (CLT), a reinforced rifle company intended to be the “centerpiece” of future Marine operations, along with a good TO&E. Although, missing from the chart is a 155mm M777 towed howitzer platoon.

Historically the Japanese used similar tactics, as John Arquilla pointed out, bypassing the heavy industrial fueled landings the Marines performed in World War 2, but with equally effective results. By using using small unit amphibious forces with few specialized landing craft, the Japanese mounted a blitzkrieg across the Pacific, overcoming traditional colonial powers, including the fortress of Singapore but also the forces of General MacArthur of over 100,000 troops in the Philippines, to the very doorsteps of Australia.

The US Marine Corps also has a history with light infantry on a greatly smaller scale, recalling the Raider Battalions of the same war, the famed “Carlson’s Raiders“. First activated on 16 February 1942, they were created for the purpose of attacking Japanese held islands, and used successfully at Guadalcanal, Makin Island, and New Georgia. As the war with the Japanese heated up, the Raiders found less to do, especially with the Marines operating more closely with the Army for the capture of bigger game such as the Philippines and Okinawa.

I think the use of Marines in division-sized land operations today are more of a political decision than an operational necessity. The concept of “Joint Operations” has taken a firm grip on the US Military, with the Marines often thrust into massive land campaigns alongside the Army, frequently forced to be like-armed with heavy Abrams tanks. Today even the Navy and Air Force send sizable personnel to the strictly land fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Perhaps thinking beyond the concept of Joint Operations, save perhaps with the logical Navy/Marine team (and the equally sensible Army/Air Force team) we might better appreciate the uniqueness the sea soldiers bring to warfare. As it is, it might be politically expedient for the Marines to continue fighting only land wars. There is where the big budgets and headlines are going these days. The USAF and Navy not so heavily involved are suffering accordingly with reduced budgets and delayed restructuring plans.

Problems are rising with the dearth in amphibious techniques, specifically from the lack of a clear focus on shallow water warfare, where one might expect the sea solider to be of great benefit. Here is where the Navy/Marine operations has historically shined, as it near the beaches and coastlines. It could be our present troubles with pirates and smugglers, perhaps not as glamorous as the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, but still must be dealt with less they grow into something worse. Anarchy anywhere is a breading ground for trouble and the US Marines have always been a force for good, the spearhead of the President to restore order where needed. We both need and want them back where they belong, on the sea.

“Again in 1941, we sailed a north’ard course
and found beneath the midnight sun, the Viking and the Norse.
The Iceland girls were slim and fair, and fair the Iceland scenes,
and the Army found in landing there, the United States Marines.”


One Comment leave one →
  1. Chuck Hill permalink
    April 20, 2010 6:30 pm

    Don’t think you really want to emulate the Japanese capability. Yes, lots of success early on, against weak opposition or non-existent, but started to show signs of weakness at Wake and were never really good from Guadalcanal on in spite of special built assault craft such as the daihatsu ( and numerous APD and similar small ships. Even if results of the Battle of Midway had been reversed, they would never have taken the island.

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