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Preserving the Marines’ ‘Maritime Soul’

August 16, 2010

Marines assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (1st MEF) disembark a landing craft utility (LCU) along Red Beach at U.S. Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.

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.


13 Comments leave one →
  1. Slow Down and Learn permalink
    August 22, 2010 12:24 am

    1. Let’s not forget the X factor the USMC brings to the table – capable, flexible soldiers with remarkable esprit de corps and overwhelming dedication. The USMC typifies what the US should want in a military service – it’s lean on officers, it emphasizes “make do with what you have” operational style and has retains a warrior ethos we are at real risk of losing in the ongoing effort to blend solider and foreign aid worker.

    2. The need for an amphibious kick in the door strike capability is a reasonable topic for debate but consider that those “specialized warships” the USMC take account for a small portion of the USN’s overall operating budget and are the most flexible “combat neutral” warships in our inventory. That same LHD which is one day loaded down with a Marine Regimental landing team can the next day be filled to the brim with humanitarian supplies or used as a floating hospital or mobile special operations airfield.

    3. I challenge all of you to explain to me why armchair generals have made it a habit throughout history to devalue the aspects of a military organization they have little experience or knowledge of. Like all of the services, the USMC represents more than the sum of it’s parts and cannot be characterized solely in terms of it’s comparatively small portion of the defense budget. It’s a question of the mission of it’s men and women and the mentality of the organization. The USMC hasn’t been about amphibious landings since Inchon – and the Corps knows that. Quantico, where the USMC is headquartered, is home to some of the most innovative minds in the military. Unconventional ideas and are encouraged and built upon; the blog Small Wars Journal was created by Marines for developing new ideas for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That’s not something you can characterize in terms of dollars or tonnage.

    If you want to be part of the informed debate about what’s going on in our defense community and how it affects this country, join a branch of the service and take the time to actually understand the workings of what you’re talking about. Learn about the armed force’s history, take the time to understand how military ideas change over time in the US and abroad and what those changes really mean when you’re bobbing out there in the Persian Gulf.

    If you’re just not able to bring yourself to do that, then show some real respect to those who serve and discover something about history. Go back to 1945 and learn how our current military came to be, how and why did the current status quo develop and change over time. Then ask someone in uniform what it’s like to do his or her job – what it means to be crammed into tiny bunking spaces on a Nimitz class aircraft carrier or smell the mixture of kerosene, oil and sweat when you’re crammed into the back of a CH-46 with 11 other US Marines. Figure out what lives behind these numbers and do them the honor of honest legwork. You can disagree with each other – that’s incredibly important, but understand that what you’re talking about is not a fancy spreadsheet and that you can’t substitute something you don’t know with a guess, your gut feeling or a flight of fancy.

  2. leesea permalink
    August 18, 2010 9:19 pm

    I see the PASCAT paired with the JHSV for fast movements along the coast. JHSV has the troop and helo capability while PASCAT has the beaching ramp. This would not be part of the main assault but could well be for other OMFTS missions.

    In addition, the PASCAT could supplement the LCAC/SSC/LCAC Mk2 by providing much needed sustainment to the beach at a fractionof the cost.

    But of course the Marines have their blinders on and think any non- amphibious landing craft just wouldn’t work – except for many OTHER navies of the world.

    Anyone seen the LCU(R) or LCH(X) in the Navy’s budget?

  3. DesScorp permalink
    August 18, 2010 1:04 am

    As I’ve said before, I applaud Gates on this, and think this review is long overdue. However, I think Gates… and many other people… are overestimating the potency of anti-ship missiles. If they nullify amphibious landing forces… with small, quick, lightly armed platforms like the LCAC… then the answer is not to hang back and send those forces out on their own, but to get in close to shore where the battle group’s considerable defenses can protect things like LCAC’s and AAAV’s, as well. Bottom line, if these missiles are that much of a threat, then why have a surface fleet at all?

  4. Anonymous permalink
    August 17, 2010 7:22 am

    Mike B said “X-better yet, I’ll have my local library order it for free (connections!)”

    I never know with you Americans what your public services are like as they vary so much state to state.

    “Reasons in Writing” is more a read once; but I think once you have read “Amphibious Assault” you will want a copy.

    As you know I do favour simple hulls and I have said before here the more I look at modern commercial standards and regulations (Lloyd’s Fast Cargo and SOLAS etc.) the less I understand about the need for specialist naval standards (beyond beef up fire fighting and even there there are lessons.) And I am intrigued by the ingenuity show by Britain’s ship yard to convert and make merchant ships ready for war during the Falklands War. See,

    But I don’t think for a moment that COMAW wouldn’t have preferred to have gone to war with a couple of Tarawa’s and a couple of Anchorage LSD’s stocked with lots of helicopters, AAVs, etc. etc.

    Sometimes it is good to make a virtue out of necessity, but not always!!!

  5. Distiller permalink
    August 17, 2010 4:39 am

    I see as the most important question, what should the Marines be able to do, once they are ashore? That is the core of the “second army” question.

    I say the only meaningful and non-duplicated job the Marines can do is in-out larger-scale commando type raiding as the lower end capability, and conquering and holding harbors and airfields for a certain time until the arrival of land and aerial forces as the upper end capbility. Scaling the Marines for de-facto independant combined land warfare (with a tendency to become a full spectrum force) is unsustainable.

    The Marines should concentrate on the amphibous side of forcible entry. That also means that the scope of aerial operations should be fine tuned (probably more towards AirCav than air transport), and that the Army (or Air Force) should (re)gain the capability for mot/mech aerial assault to cover the aerial side of forcible entry.

    I actually like that PASCAT thing. But I’m not sure that just moving the jump-off point further out to sea answers the question of modern amphib assault.

    How many stages of relay are needed? Big slow ocean-going long range amphib ship > smaller fast short range littoral LCU/PASCAT assault vehicle > land combat vehicle. Or would a medium to smallis fast ocean-going transport+assault vehicle > land combat vehicle setup be feasable? I don’t know, though I think dispersed landings are the way to go, coordinated with mot/mech aerial landings in the hinterland. That would force an enemy to watch his back also, and take pressure off the Marines’ basically frontal assault.

    What is certainly important is to keep the expeditionary logistics and engineering capability and all those CSS units at a high level and compatible with the combat forces.
    I wouldn’t rely too much on merchant marine capability, rather build some more dedicated ships and give them to the naval reserve.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 16, 2010 7:46 pm

    X-better yet, I’ll have my local library order it for free (connections!).

    I don’t think I said lets scrap all specialized ships, just most of them. Who could afford an-all battleship navy these days? But sealift is always essential.

  7. August 16, 2010 5:47 pm

    Mike B. I would save your pocket money (sorry allowance) for a copy of this,

    and this too,

    And then re-think that you don’t need specialist ships for a landing.

  8. August 16, 2010 5:05 pm

    That QinetiQ PASCAT vid’ on your web page is fantastic!!!

  9. August 16, 2010 3:53 pm

    A lot of the doom merchants think that military development is one sided.

    As ATGW’s have developed so have a range of passive and perhaps more importantly in this context, active defences. Counter ATGW systems like Trophy could easily be mounted on landing craft and once the enemy has fired they are exposed to serious counter position fires.

    As Juramentado says, landings are not carried out alone but as a complex ‘team game’

    Personally, I think there is a need for more logistics and littoral capability and less pointy spear storm the beaches stuff.

    This reflects the most likely need for amphibious forces in the future

  10. Juramentado permalink
    August 16, 2010 3:13 pm

    It’s disingenious to discuss an amphib assault in a vacuum, which is what a lot of the referenced commentary does. Strike warfare is supposed to suppress not only shore defenses, but the C3I infrastructure that is systematically more lethal because it can coordinate a mobile defense. At a minimum, air parity is established, parrying attempts to destroy the landing forces as the critical point.

    Everyone agrees that no one has a good idea of what an amphib landing in the future would look like or how effective it might be. I submit that at least we have a good idea of how it might go based on our experiences in SWA since 1991. The lethality of modern weapons points out that firepower is now more effective and concentrated such that the numbers for a typical WW2 operation might be reduced significantly. Secondly, increases in rates-of-advance points to a quicker transition to a purely ground-based conflict free of the complexities of putting forces ashore. That’s not to say all is rosy; more sophisticated modelling is required in light of actual events.

    Vertical envelopment using helos can only deliver platoon (-) and maybe company size (-) elements at the greatest. This limits the territory you can seize and control because you lack the ability to deliver effective amounts of logistics and transportation as one of the early follow-up waves. And it’s sustainable in a permissive environment only – not recommended if the opfor has a semi-compentent IADS.

  11. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 16, 2010 1:43 pm

    The 25 mile standoff was predicated on the range of vision from the shore and the range of artillery. Missile ranges are already too great and ISR is now too easy for that separation to guarantee any safety or surprise. It’s time to simply deal with it as we dealt with aircraft attempting to repulse an invasion. Attrit the opposing force as much as possible before the assault and defend against them as you make the assault, and yes there will be losses.

  12. August 16, 2010 12:29 pm

    Um. Just how healthy is the US merchant marine these days?

  13. Hudson permalink
    August 16, 2010 10:42 am

    “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.”

    Am I wrong is sensing a problem here? The LCU, pictured above, is large enough to be a target itself. As well, the hyper-expensive EFV, though better armored. Are amphibs now going to be equipped with RAM packs and the like? Does this mean airborne brigades with more helos and tilt-rotors? And you thought the Marines at Tarawa traveled/walked a long way to shore.

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