Work(ing) on the Marines’ Future
The Army has pretty much a stranglehold on the USMC since World War 2, using it to beef up its own numbers to handle hot wars from Korea, Vietnam, and now the Gulf. The Marines haven’t helped themselves much by investing in giant and very costly, also fewer large amphibious ships, which concentrate their unique abilities in very visible and vulnerable packages. The Gator ships are quite handy for things such as glorified troop transports or disaster relief. But the one time the Jarheads planned to use them in a real beach assault, 1991 off Kuwait, the leadership balked at the notion of risking their extreme investment in exquisite landing ships.
So, the Marines can either continue to lose its identity by keeping its “second land army” status, or become increasingly irrelevant in giant floating green zones useful only in the most benign of environments. Though he still loves his Big Ships, Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work thinks there is another alternative to irrelevance, and an ongoing requirement for amphibious ops in the Age of Terror. Robert Haddick at Small Wars Journal summarizes a recent CSBA discussion with the Secretary:
Work explained that the United States needs to maintain substantial power projection capabilities – including the ability to execute large-scale amphibious assaults – if it wishes to maintain the credibility of its security commitments in the Asia-Pacific region. Work dismissed the argument that large opposed amphibious assaults are obsolete because the United States hasn’t performed one since Inchon. Work explained that the circumstances of the Cold War resulted in large forward deployments of U.S. ground and air forces, thus temporarily removing the requirement for large combined arms power projection capability. In the future by contrast, the closing of overseas bases will renew the requirement for combined arms power projection capability, including large amphibious assaults. Work believes that large amphibious assaults will be extremely rare events. But, according to Work, allies will not consider U.S. security guarantees to be credible if the U.S. does not retain and exercise this capability.
I agree completely in the continued viability of the amphibious assault. It has been a part of Marine/Navy warfare since time immemorial. And just as America didn’t invent it, though perhaps they did perfect it, neither will we see its end in our day. It needs a lot of adjusting and rethinking, and special planning to carry it off though, especially in an age of new threats. But Work isn’t deterred by all this:
Concentrated adversary forces, either at a landing site or in a mobile reserve, will be vulnerable to U.S. precision attack. U.S. landing forces, by contrast, aided by platforms such as V-22, LCAC, and EFV, have a very wide variety of insertion options. In addition, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have allowed the Marine Corps to perfect distributed operations, which will also be an effective technique during amphibious assaults. Finally, Work is counting on the participation of Air Force long-range strike and Army parachute BCTs as force multipliers in a joint campaign.
I have little confidence in the platforms mentioned, though the distributed ops concept is genius. Instead of a single massive beach assault, you could utilize numerous landings, widely dispersed, from several locations. In place of the “V-22, LCAC, and EFV”, I would use JHSVs, LCS, and LSVs, plus good ole reliable helos. These latter are affordable, and except for the LCS, uncomplicated allowing the Marines not to bust their budget on wonder weapons, to the neglect of personnel and training, the latter being essential to make the beach assault happen. Here is my earlier thoughts on the concept:
Even the threats of modern mines, missiles, submarines, and precision bombers should be no complete hindrance. The use of specialized landing craft and the dispersal of forces proved the answer to the amphibious stalemates of the Great War, at Gallipoli. Looking at the declining force of very large Gators, which the Marines insist they require for modern landings, their vulnerability to smaller and lethal guided projectiles, their cost and complication, seems to highlight a creeping obsolescence to the entire concept.
Yet, I insist that this is a false assumption. If technology and a change in tactics saved us once before, it can do so again. My own proposals have been, with the giant ships being forced further out to sea because of new weapons, why not take them out of the equation altogether, but building ships which can go directly from port to beach, such as high speed catamarans or even improving the hovercraft we already use? The use of self-deployable landing craft is just one idea, and hardly unique…
Instead of thinking in terms of powerful brigades, regiments, and battalions in a single wave, there might be a smaller widespread beach landings. These would involve numerous landings performed by company and platoon sized units, kept cohesive by networking, the new sensors we talked about. Instead of the few highly visible giant gators, these would be supplanted by many smaller craft, with the enhanced numbers increasing the survivability of your landing force greatly.
So Mr Work is on the right track, and his zeal for the Navy’s infantry is on target. Only scrap the old platforms and wonder weapons, since amphibious warfare isn’t rocket science. By all means keep a few, no more than 10 of the Wasp type. Seeing as how they are so capable, as the military will always insist, you should be able to do more with less. European Nations only deploy a handful each, and the British Royal Navy only 2 such large and specialized craft to conduct the brilliantly successful Falklands Landings in 1982. The USN should be able to get by with only 10, plus many of the craft I mentioned above and sealift vessels.
The Marine soldier preceded the American Way of War and will likely outlast it. No hurry, though, so lets stay in the game.
This discussion is continued tomorrow within the weekly LCS Alternative post.