U.S. Marines to Return to Amphibious Operations

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 5 months ago

The title of the Navy Times article is Amphibious ops to become default mode for MEUs, but the import is much larger than that.  It’s more than just about MEUs.  The Commandant wants to return to amphibious roots – generally.

Determined to get Marines directly involved with the fight against pirates and other threats at sea, the Corps is reinventing its seven expeditionary units.

Major changes, some already underway, will make the MEUs even more potent and versatile than they are now, equipping them with the latest weapons, gear and capabilities while ensuring they’re thoroughly trained to be the premier on-call first responders for any number of worldwide contingencies.

Officials want to shift their focus away from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — many MEUs have cycled through multiple combat tours during the past several years — and back to being “Soldiers of the Sea.”

A new policy issued in August updates the baseline MEU structure with new and future weapons systems and redefines its core capabilities to include 16 essential missions, along with special operations tasks already in high demand today. It’s the first big overhaul since Sept. 25, 2001, and touches on everything from pre-deployment training to the specialized skills Marines will need to get these jobs done.

“Amphibious forces are increasingly likely to be tasked with counterterrorism, counter-proliferation and counter-piracy missions,” Marine officials wrote in “Amphibious Operations in the 21st Century,” a doctrinal paper released earlier this year. “These will likely involve amphibious raids conducted for the purposes of destroying terrorists and their sanctuaries, capturing pirates or other criminals and seizing contraband, rescuing hostages or securing, safeguarding and removing materials to include weapons of mass destruction.”

Deployed MEUs serve as key “theater reserves” overseas, ready to respond to regional contingencies or crises. Each is designed as an air-ground task force with the capability to operate and launch missions at sea within six hours or operate ashore for a month before needing any resupply.

“A lot has changed in the last eight or nine years,” said Lt. Col. Thomas Impellitteri, MEU policy officer in the Expeditionary Policies Branch at Plans, Policies and Operations at Marine Corps headquarters. “We wanted to streamline the [mission essential task list] to make it basically say … this is what the MEU needs to do.”

MEUs will continue to be centered on battalion landing teams, and while the new policy outlines basic structure — still about 2,200 Marines composing air combat, ground combat and logistical combat elements, plus a special operations element — the MEU commander can tailor the force to fit his expected needs. Increasingly, there is a host of new assets from which to choose.

The 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, for example, left its home at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in May with the MV-22 Osprey, the first MEU ever to take the tilt-rotor aircraft on an overseas pump. Navy SEALs, once a routine component of amphibious ready groups, have largely disappeared, but the creation of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command and the re-emergence of Force reconnaissance offer comparable capabilities.

The U.S. may not need to conduct a hostile amphibious assault on a foreign shore anytime soon, but an MEU’s ability to decimate enemy forces or, with help from the Navy, quickly dole out humanitarian aid in the aftermath of a natural disaster, preserves the Corps’ role among the services as the expeditionary force in readiness.

Moving forward, amphibious ops will be the MEUs’ default mode.

“As the generals are fond of saying,” said Col. David Coffman, who commands the 13th MEU out of Camp Pendleton, Calif., “if there’s a sword to be drawn at sea, shouldn’t a Marine be wielding it?” …

The MEUs’ aviation and ground mix also is in transition.

As the Corps modernizes its inventory with new equipment, such as the UH-1Y Super Huey, AH-1Z Super Cobra and eventually the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, MEUs will begin to look and operate differently.

“You basically have an entirely new [air combat element], platform by platform,” Coffman said. “We have to decide what that mix is like again.”

His 13th MEU was the first to deploy with the UH-1Y, providing an operational test as the fleet grows, but none of the current units training or deployed have a Super Huey aboard. The 22nd MEU has a squadron of Ospreys, but with several years to go before that aircraft arrives at West Coast bases, Olson’s 11th MEU left San Diego with CH-46E medium-lift helicopters as its aviation core.

Coffman wants to see the MEUs expand their ISR — intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance — assets, to include unmanned aerial systems. His battalion landing team had smaller drones, but adding systems such as the Scan Eagle would only strengthen intelligence gathering.

My commentary has been opposed to MEUs as they currently exist, as well as wasteful spending on the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.  The Commandant wants to return to their expeditionary and amphibious roots, but against what enemy?  If the enemy is a stable nation-state with the power and industry to deploy mines, and employ air ordnance and air power against the landing team, sending EFVs and LCACs would be disastrous.  The U.S. is not prepared for the thousands of Marine deaths that would result from a conventional, full bore amphibious assault on a state even smaller than a near peer, much less a large and powerful near peer.

If the nation-state is unstable (or even essentially non-existent), then it’s unlikely that air artillery and air ordnance would be employed against an amphibious assault, and so the EFV is unnecessary.  It’s not that the EFV design is not state of the art, but rather, that the art doesn’t match the need.  But if I’ve been opposed to the EFV and the notion of full bore amphibious assaults, I have also advocated that the Marines be prepared to retool the Amphibious Assault Dock and air power and support to air-based landings farther inland.

That’s why, after seeing the maintenance problems with the V-22 Osprey in Iraq along with its inability to navigate the high elevations of Afghanistan, I have recommended that the U.S. Marine Corps not be so quick to retire its currently fleet of helicopters (Marines can fast rope from the CH-46 but cannot from the Osprey), and plan for a new fleet of helicopters.  The Osprey can serve some functions (it’s faster and can fly higher and further), but cannot replace the helicopter (certainly not as a weapons platform).

But I have also recommended that the U.S. Marine Corps rethink how it does MEUs.  The current practice of deploying entire Battalions of Marine infantry on board amphibious assault docks to float around the Mediterranean, Gulf of Aden and Persian Gulf for nine months so that pilots can get flight time, the Navy can get ship time and the Marines can waste time in every bar between here and there is worse that wasteful.  It’s an immoral expenditure of U.S. tax dollars.

If there is actually a need for a Battalion of Marine infantry in some certain circumstance, e.g., fighting pirates, then a MEU should be deployed with very specific mission orders for landing, sea-based fighting, etc.  But writing white papers about fighting pirates is one thing.  Actually fighting them is another.  I have previously mentioned that I interviewed one Marine Scout Sniper who had a pirate in his sights but refused even to ask for permission to fire because of ROE, and because “no one wants to deal with the lawyers.”  Reality is not the same thing as white papers written by Lieutenant Colonels sitting in the Pentagon.  We will finally have to deal with the issue of ROE or deploying MEUs to fight piracy is yet another waste of time and resources.

Next, I’m not convinced that training to utilize amphibious landing equipment (such as the LCAC) requires nine month deployments of entire Battalions of Marine infantry.  There are better uses of Marine infantry than sitting them on board Amphibious Assault Docks awaiting deployment orders for forces in readiness that never come, and hasn’t come in decades.

It’s one thing to be amphibious capable, and entirely another to be amphibious obsessed.  The future of the U.S. Marine Corps is to be a ready strike force, capable of deployment any time, anywhere, via any platform, with skills that cannot be duplicated otherwise.  This might include an amphibious component, but the focus shouldn’t be only on amphibious operations.

So at least in part I disagree with the vision of the Commandant, and I certainly don’t support the use of infantry trained Marines to perform humanitarian missions.  But I also strongly believe in resourcing the campaigns before us.  The Marines have left Anbar, having done an extraordinary job in what I believe to be one of the most remarkable counterinsurgency campaigns in history.  More than 1000 Marines were lost in Anbar.  They will never be forgotten.  For this fight to have been for the Army alone is inconceivable.  It is equally inconceivable that Afghanistan would belong exclusively within the Army’s domain when so many Soldiers are so exhausted, and so many Marines are currently aboard Camps Lejeune and Pendleton planning for their next amphibious operation that in all likelihood will contribute essentially nothing to the security of the United States.  I know that it shouldn’t be this way – and so does the Commandant.


Strategic Decisions Concerning Marines and Expeditionary Warfare

Arguments Over the EFV and V-22

Navy and Marines to Part Ways Over Expeditionary Strike Groups?

Kill the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle

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12 Comments on "U.S. Marines to Return to Amphibious Operations"

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Perhaps a very effective way to deal with pirates is to scape 99% of the current approaches and think smaller. What if instead of the vast presence of a powerful military naval escort we stationed a anti-pirating well trained, unarmed, crew aboard each transport and let the commercial shipping industry pay and provide for their private service. They would be licensed by a special international agency, and paid for by the shipping industry entirely. It would probably require a 6 to 12 man contingency, reasonable quarters, food and lodging aboard ship. They do not have weapons they have communication platforms that interface with an international militarized strike force which monitors shipping region-by-region with airborne weapon systems which can be called in and targeted by coded commands from the anti-pirating crews (“the private interface crews” or “PIC’s”). The PIC’s have several unarmed devices which they are trained to deploy around the clock away from the ship. These devices include unmanned aerial surveillance devices which can be either shipboard launched or preferably land based launched with command and operations turned over to the PIC’s thus reducing further at-sea logistics needs aboard ship. The PIC’s run 24/7 surveillance with the unmanned vehicles and… Read more »

Yes I meant “scrap” 99% of the current approach not “scape” 99%…

I did 22 MEU in ’92-’93, and 11th, 31st, and 15th MEUs in ’97, ’98, and ’99. During each one of those MEUs we were involved in at least one real-world contingency. Based on my experience, you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Nobody is proposing we re-enact Tarawa or Normandy. We need more practice operating from the sea, the definition of amphibious operations. Remember Afghanistan in 2001? That was an amphibious operation — our forces attacked into a country from the sea. Just in the decade of the 90s, how many raids, evacuations, humanitarian interventions, show-of-force operations, etc. did the Navy-Marine team conduct? Dozens? Hundreds? All amphibious operations. The money, time, and effort keeping trained Marines on the high-seas for six months has been shown to be well worth it. The problem recently has been a lack of corporate knowledge on how to operate from the sea because the Corps has been doing an army’s job for so long. I’m not going to argue what gear is best (MV-22, EFV, etc) . But we need the people trained to use those tools. You don’t just wake up one morning and suddenly know how to invade a land-locked… Read more »
Two points. You’re probably right about humanitarian efforts, they will likely need special consideration. But the entire commercial fishing and transportation fleet is in large part controlled by the Insurance Industry that carries the risks. The commercial industry has enjoyed a military partnership for several hundred years. That partnership needs to be revised and rebuilt and the commercial maritime insurance carriers needs to be part of the solution in its rebuilding. We need to de-link military operations from policing operations which nearly all the piracy falls under. Our historic nature is to view piracy as an act of war, which it was reasonably classified as when the militarization of the pirates was on par with nation states powers. That parity no longer exists in most of the lawlessness on the high seas. …. although the Mexican and Columbian drug cartels almost, but not quite rise to those levels of power parity of the nations in which they operate. The other important point is that the PIC crews are not armed. They operate various communication platforms beyond and mostly separate from the ships’s communication crews. The PIC’s sole function 24/7 is security awareness not security enforcement. Blackwater has to my knowledge… Read more »
Herschel, thanks for ignoring the second sentence of my first paragraph above. Should I take your position to be: “There will never be another large scale, conventional, full bore amphibious assault on a near peer state. Any time or money spent on such a concept is wasted, and the USMC will either adapt or become irrelevant”? That training for any operation from the sea is a waste of resources? For one, how does that jibe with one of the missions of the Marine Corps: “Develop the doctrine, tactics, techniques, and equipment employed by landing forces in amphibious operations”? If you take that away it looks like we’re another land army. Your idea of what constitutes an amphibious assault is outdated. Again, in November 2001, less than 3 months after 9/11, we conducted a significant amphibious assault into Afghanistan. In 1995 we conducted an amphibious withdrawal of UN troops from Somalia, under fire. Not a near peer, but we’re not training to only conduct operations against a near peer. Your idea of taking the infantry off the MEU doesn’t make sense. That’s like putting skis in an embark box, sending them to Bridgeport, and then saying your unit is now trained… Read more »
“As for your amphibious operations listed, none of them involved major combat operations from sea to shore, and thus my point is proven concerning the EFV.” You’re the one stuck in the past – Normandy won’t happen again. Why do you hold that up as the justification for the EFV? The Marines need some sort of APC/IFV, at least some of the time; how do they get ashore? “The V-22 cannot be “in combat,” for it isn’t a weapons platform – per se. It is for transport.” Then CH-46s have never been in combat either. Tell that to the Purple Foxes, past and present. “We can train in the states”, yeah, except when you’re providing a forward presence around the world. My point is that there is training involved, too — when there isn’t shooting. It’s not all bar girls and SCUBA diving. What “is”, is the Navy/Marine team has done over 100 amphibious operations since 1990, including at least 6 amphibious assaults or raids. “You are still merely barking about what has been done in the past, not what should be done in the future.” So let’s assume that real-world amphib ops are going to completely go away over… Read more »

I noticed in this morning’s paper no less (Sat, Oct 24, 2009) aerial surveillance of hot-spot regions off the African continent are being covered 24/7 with MQ-9 Reapers to give the early warning needed to ship captains of possible Pirate threats.

It does not seem likely that one solution can be applied to all areas of the world where pirating is occurring. It does seem likely however, eventually some of this over-the-horizon 24/7 functions need to be addressed by the insurance industry in partnership with trade partners.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Expeditionary Warfare,Marine Corps and was published October 20th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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