USMC: Under-utilized Superfluous Military Capability

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Marine photo / Cpl. Jennifer Pirante

Marines practice an amphibious assault aboard an LCAC in California in September.

Marine Commandant James Amos’ recent remarks on the future of the corps can be summed up as: nothing new.

In shorthand, “Rah, rah, the Marine Corps is awesome, and all we have to do is make sure they have the equipment & training & facilities they need so they can always be awesome Marines, rah, rah!”


The Marines as currently organized and equipped are about as relevant as the Army’s horse cavalry in the 1930s and the Marines are not alone. They have company in the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps.

But, first, let’s examine the Marines.

In truth, the Marines have a low-end warfare niche, but a very small one for extremely limited and unusual types of operations.

The only amphibious craft they really need are the next-gen LCACs and LCUs. The only wet-well ships they need are LSD 41s — and those need to be kept in production to gradually replace older LSDs and the troublesome LPDs.

No one will set out to establish a defended beachhead because U.S. aircraft from the Air Force and the Navy will easily target and destroy the defenses.

Today, enemy forces will mine approaches from the sea, and rely on stand-off attack to drive surface fleets away from coastlines. They’ll employ their ground forces, particularly mobile armored forces, inland, away from the coast. These mobile reserves will attack within the range of the defending forces’ own artillery and airpower to destroy elements that attempt to come ashore whether over the beach or through ports.

Most of today’s Marine force consists of airmobile light infantry. This Marine force is designed for use in the developing world against incapable opponents from Haiti to Fiji, but not much else.

The use of Marines to assault Iraq’s southern coast during Desert Storm was dismissed out of hand as too dangerous, particularly when Navy surface combatants struck sea mines in the Persian Gulf. Subsequently, in 1991 Marines were used ashore to augment the Army where Marines followed an Army armor brigade from Fort Hood, Texas, all the way to Kuwait City.

The point is simple.

The capability to come ashore where the enemy is not present, then, move quickly with sustainable combat power great distances over land to operational objectives in the interior, is essential. The Marines cannot do it in any strategic setting where the opponent is capable (neither can the XVIII Airborne Corps!).

The Marines cannot confront or defeat armored forces or heavy weapons in the hands of capable opponents. Nor can the Marines hold any contested battle space for more than a very short amount of time, after which the Marine raid or short stay ashore is completed.

Adding vertical-and/or-short-takeoff-landing (V/STOL)  aircraft like the F-35B, to compensate for the lack of staying power and mobility on the ground is not an answer, particularly given the severe limitations of VSTOL aircraft, and the proliferation of tactical and operational air defense technology in places that count.

The real question is how much Marine Corps do Americans need? The answer is not the 200,000 Marines we have today.

Many of the same observations apply to the Army’s vaunted XVIII Airborne Corps. The Army’s airmobile infantry in the 101st have been used sparingly for similar reasons. Airmobile forces were used in 1991, but most of its value resided in its attack-helicopter force, not in its air-mobile infantry.

Proposals to use Army airborne forces to seize Tallil air field in An Nassiryah during Desert Storm were dismissed out of hand given the threat of Iraqi air defenses. A similar assault planned for Haiti was cancelled in 1994, and the large-scale use of airborne forces in Iraq and Afghanistan was also ruled out in 2001 and, again, in 2003.

There are several reasons for this:

— First, like the Marines ashore, Army airmobile and airborne forces are “soft targets,” extremely vulnerable to long-range air and missile attack, as well as heavy weapons in the form of self-propelled artillery, mortars and auto-cannon.

— Second, the Army’s airmobile division, the 101st, is extremely slow to deploy. Moving it requires as much cubic space as an entire armored/mechanized division. Its performance in Iraq in March-April 2003 was poor. Its alleged combat potential was never put to the test for the reasons already cited.

— Third, the rotary-wing aircraft in the Army are very maintenance-intensive with often-poor readiness rates. The airmobile force in the 101st is also a major consumer of fuel and requires enormous support, as well as expensive contractor help. Their rotary-wing aircraft are also susceptible to detection and vulnerable to widely-dispersed small arms and MANPADS, potentially resulting in substantial casualties and equipment losses even before the airmobile force is ready to engage the enemy on the ground.

None of these attributes make the force attractive for employment against any enemy with a modicum of capability in its armed forces.

In sum, we need airmobile forces from the sea for limited operations, but we can do this job with far fewer Marines than we have now, or even the 182,000 slated to be on active duty on 2017. We also need far fewer airborne/air assault infantry than the 80,000 in the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps for equally-limited and unusual operations.

Clinging to the misguided, wasteful and self-defeating policies of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan as justification for no change in the Army and Marine forces is not an argument. The policies, strategy and tactics were flawed, if not disastrous. Reenacting these operations is about as stupid as reenacting Tarawa, Market Garden or the airborne assault on Crete.

In 110 days of fighting the German army in France during 1918, the U.S. Army Expeditionary Force sustained 318,000 casualties, including 110,000 killed in action. That’s the kind of lethality waiting for U.S. forces in a future war with real armies, air forces, air defenses and naval power.

Ignoring this reality is the road to future defeats and American decline. It’s time to look beyond the stirring images of infantrymen storming machine-gun nests created by Hollywood and to see war for what it is and will be in the future: the ruthless extermination of the enemy with accurate, devastating firepower from the sea, from the air, from space and from mobile, armored firepower on land.