Preserving the Marines’ ‘Maritime Soul’
I hadn’t intended on revisiting this subject as yet, but Defense Secretary Robert Gates‘ speech on Thursday was too good to ignore. First here are the relevant points he made at a lecture in San Francisco:
As the service’s new operating concept stated earlier this year, the Pacific campaign of World War II was the only period of history when the exclusive focus of the Marine Corps was on amphibious assault. Yet fundamentally, the Marines do not want to be, nor does America need, another land army. Nor do they want to be, nor does America need, a “U.S. Navy police force,” as President Truman once quipped. The Marines unique ability to project combat forces from the sea under uncertain circumstances – forces quickly able to protect and sustain themselves – is a capability that America has needed in this past decade, and will require in the future. For example, it was a real strategic asset during the first Gulf War to have a flotilla of Marines waiting off Kuwait City – forcing Saddam’s army to keep one eye on the Saudi border, and one eye on the coast. And then, of course, it was the Marine armored formation in the desert – the “second land army” if you will – that liberated Kuwait City.
Looking ahead, I do think it is proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious assault landings along the lines of Inchon are feasible. New anti-ship missiles with long range and high accuracy may make it necessary to debark from ships 25, 40 or 60 or more miles at sea.
I have therefore asked Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus and the Marine Corps leadership to conduct a thorough Force Structure Review, to determine what an “expeditionary-force-in-readiness” should look like in the 21st century. I directed them not to lose sight of the Marines greatest strengths: a broad portfolio of capabilities and penchant for adapting that are needed to be successful in any campaign. The counterinsurgency skills the Marines developed during this past decade, combined with the agility and espirit honed over two centuries well position the Corps in my view to be at the “tip of the spear” in the future, when the U.S. military is likely to confront a range of irregular and hybrid conflicts.
Ultimately, the maritime soul of the Marine Corps needs to be preserved, notwithstanding the imperatives of today’s wars.
Via AOL News, here are a few interesting reactions:
- Tom Ricks-“They are a second land army — and a third air force, by the way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It provides a competing way of operating. What could be more American than such a competition?…”I wouldn’t make a lot of changes to the Marines right now. They tend to be very handy in the first phases of wars — Guadalcanal in World War II, the Pusan Perimeter in Korea.”
- Andrew Bacevich-“(The Marines are an) example of the redundancies that permeate our defense establishment. … Redundancies can be good as long as you can afford them. We no longer can.”
- Anthony Cordesman-“The reality is, when you have one of the most successful combat units in the world,” he said, “you do not conduct fascinating social experiments to see if you can transform it into something else.”
Concerning Mr Ricks’ quote, recall that Guadalcanal and Pusan occurred 69 and 60 years ago respectively. Not to say that the amphibious assault as we know it is obsolete, but clearly the Marines have little experience anymore in this type operation, and it could very well be their techniques are long outdated. Note that the Napoleonic era tactics which were used in the Gallipoli assaults of the Great War were woefully inadequate for that war. Instead of just naval cannon, the Allies had to face new naval mines and especially the machine gun which severely hampered their mobility after the landings.
Now in this missile age there is airpower which can hit you from over the horizon, and bombs launched from jets which are so accurate as to virtually assure a hit. So, the Marines really need to do some thinking. My own take of how we must deal with the missile threat is more ships, close in, (the nautical version of “getting under their guns“) rather than fewer ships further out, as with the service’s own over the horizon strategy. The latter is too complicated, too expensive and there’s no guarantee of success.
Returning to Gates, the Secretary is obviously doubting the feasibility of the amphibious assault in a new era with “ I do think it is proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious assault landings along the lines of Inchon are feasible.” That is a concern with the proliferation of cruise missiles which almost any rouge group, non-state actor can purchase, plus the menace from Chinese ASBMs which could very well be a game-changer in surface warfare. But In June I wrote this:
It may be understandable how some may consider the Marines as irrelevant to current conflicts, if you look at it from the perspective of redundancy. The USMC hasn’t conducted a major amphibious assault against a contested beachhead since 1950, at least not against a well-trained enemy worthy of their huge experience, abilities, and expense. Also, the Corps leadership continues to invest in huge multimission landings ships, which increase enormously in cost while the service howls for increases. The price tag competes with the desire for expansion, as well as the USN’s own construction plans.
Neither are exquisite and very complicated vessels any greater guarantee than smaller, cheaper ships will survive to land their valuable cargo to influence events ashore. During the Gulf Wars of the 80s and 90s, American amphibious ships were hindered often enough by an old nautical foe, the naval mine. Old fashioned “dumb” bombs also made a wreak of the British Landing ships HMS Sir Galahad in the 1982 Falklands Conflict. Littoral waters now team with cheap but effective suicide boats and conventional submarines that threaten our most powerful warships with irrelevancy in such waters.
Speaking of the Falklands, during that period the British Royal Navy proved you did not need a large and costly Gator Fleet to deploy troops from the sea. Possessing only 2 specialized landing ships, the elderly Intrepid and Fearless, also several RFA vessels, sea lift ships, luxury liners, they performed one of the most brilliant and successful amphibious assaults of the Cold War.
So of necessity the Gator Fleet of large amphibs should shrink. Even with their huge individual capability, all together our handful of 30+ Big Ships can’t even load 10% of the Corps at a time, barely 2 brigades. They rely heavily on sealift, and as the British quickly learned, ships commandeered especially for the role, including the giant ocean liner QE 2. Buy many smaller ships as I have proposed which can get in out of danger quickly, also giving a potential foe plenty of targets to worry about.