The U.S. Marine Corps—famed for its trademark beachhead assaults—is
shifting its emphasis to preparing leathernecks to fight in urban
areas, in addition to deserts, mountains and jungles.
Traditionally, the Marines have focused on taking the beach and
the terrain directly behind it, not city streets. “The last
time we fought in an urban environment was in Hue [Vietnam] in 1968,”
said Capt. Michael Little, of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory
in Quantico, Va.
Now, in Iraq, most of the fighting—for the first time in
almost four decades—is taking place once again in the country’s
towns and cities, forcing the Marines to reconsider their concepts,
training and equipment, Little told National Defense.
“Of all the environments you might face, the urban is the
most complex,” he said. “It’s asymmetrical. It’s
multi-dimensional. You have to be concerned about what’s beneath
you—in the sewers—and what’s above you—not
in the airspace, but the floors above you.”
The Marines are convinced that urban combat similar to that taking
place in Iraq is the wave of the future. “Seventy five to
80 percent of the world’s population lives within 50 miles
of a coast,” Little said. “If the Marine Corps is going
to continue to accomplish its mission, it has to be able to operate
in urban environments.”
With this in mind, the Marine Corps is introducing new packages
of training for virtually all leathernecks, said the Warfighting
Laboratory’s chief of staff, Col. Douglas J. Jerothe. The
Marines established the lab in 1995, two years after 17 U.S. special
operators perished during an aborted raid in Mogadishu, Somalia,
leading to the collapse of a United Nations peacekeeping operation.
The lab’s mission is to improve naval expeditionary warfare
capabilities. In 1999, it launched Project Metropolis after an exercise
documented a need for Marines to have more training in city-like
Since then, ProMet, as it is called, has developed a two-week basic
urban-skills training, or BUST, course. Until recently, BUST was
restricted to a small number of Marines.
In 2004, however, Marine leaders decided to offer it to all of
the Corps’ four divisions, air wings and force service support
groups. “Eventually, every battalion will receive the training,”
BUST focuses on those combat skills required to succeed in an urban
environment, including specific techniques for patrolling, clearing
rooms, dealing with improvised explosives, dispensing first aid,
handling detainees, collecting intelligence, conducting sniper operations
and interacting with local populations.
U.S. troops must master such skills in order to succeed in operations
such as Iraq, Jerothe said. “We’re fighting an insurgent
in Iraq who is learned, who has seen our weaknesses and who is going
to use those weaknesses against us,” he said. “One of
those weak spots for us is fighting in his cities. We’ve got
learn how to do it.”
To conduct its training in a more lifelike setting, the Corps has
begun holding exercises at two former Air Force installations, George
Air Force Base and March Air Reserve Base, both in California.
“They’re much more complex than most MOUT (military
operations in urbanized terrain) facilities,” Little said.
“The average MOUT has 20 to 30 buildings in a space of 200
meters wide and 200 meters long. That’s not a lot of maneuver
“Both of these places have abandoned office buildings, hangars,
barracks and base housing, all within a square kilometer,”
he said. “You can get a whole battalion in there and train
in a much more realistic urban environment.”
Large, complex MOUT facilities are necessary to prepare troops
for what they are going to encounter in Iraq and similar future
battlefields, Little said. In 2004, he traveled to Iraq, as the
ProMet’s infantry representative, to get a close-up look at
the complex operating situation.
“The battles of Fallujah, Najaf and Ramadi all involved multiple
battalion operations,” he said. “There were six battalions
operating in Fallujah.”
Another lab program that will pay dividends in urban combat is
an effort to improve the fighting capability of small Marine units,
said retired Marine Col. Vince Goulding, director of the lab’s
Sea Viking Experimentation Campaign. The lab was established to
help the Corps develop new training and equipment for joint assaults,
Sea Viking has developed a concept called “distributed operations”
that the lab had planned to try with a single platoon in a Marine
expeditionary unit deploying from Japan to Iraq in 2006. However,
the Marine commandant, Gen. Michael W. Hagee, liked the idea so
much that he ordered it implemented throughout the Corps, starting
later that year, Goulding said.
Distributed operations is a concept that envisions enabling small
units—rifle platoons, squads and fire teams—to operate
more independently, he explained. “In complex terrains—like
cities—small units need to able to operate on their own.”
In block-to-block fighting, small units often find themselves out
of communications with battalion or even company-level headquarters,
Goulding said. “They need to be able to perform many of the
functions usually done by higher levels, such as calling in fire
The term, distributed operations, is widely misunderstood, Goulding
said. “It is not about teams, dispersion or clandestine operations.
It is about improving the education, training and equipment of Marines
in small combat units.”
The concept is not new, Goulding said. He currently is researching
Army Gen. George Crook’s use of distributed operations in
the 1880s against the Apache war chief, Geronimo.
Distributed operations are intended to improve the ability of small
units to locate, close with and destroy enemy forces, Goulding said.
“In Iraq and Afghanistan, we have 19-year-old lance corporals
making life-and-death decisions for their teammates,” he said.
“We have to make sure they have the training and tools they
The distributed operations concept seeks to “instill a patrolling
culture,” Goulding said. “Every Marine unit needs to
be able to move, communicate and shoot at the same time. That’s
what we were doing in Vietnam. We’ve kind of gotten away from
To increase small unit mobility, the lab envisions equipping them
with a new class of highly mobile light trucks called internally
transportable vehicles. The Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations
Command had been planning to acquire fleets of such trucks, which
are small enough to fit into the cargo bay of V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor
aircraft and CH-53 Sea Stallion heavy-lift helicopters.
The Marines, who had the lead in the program, cancelled those plans
in 2002 because of delays in the V-22 program. Recently, however,
they apparently have had a change of heart. In November 2004, the
Marine Corps Systems Command, at Quantico, awarded an $18.3 million
contract to General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems, in St.
The contract calls, in part, for General Dynamics to deliver four
prototype ITVs to the Marines in 2005 and eight in 2006, enough
to equip an infantry battalion. The plan is to arm the ITVs with
heavy or medium machine guns and use them to perform raids and reconnaissance
patrols, Goulding said.
The distributed operations plan also includes providing a “rifleman’s
suite” of equipment, including:
Every Marine needs a compass and GPS,” Goulding said.
The plan would have one man in each squad who calls in fire, vastly
increasing the number of Marines with such responsibilities. Currently,
he said, only three in each battalion are so trained.
The job would not necessarily go to the squad leader, but “whoever
can do it best, whether a corporal or a private,” Goulding
These changes will require enlisted personnel—especially
non-commissioned officers—to perform some of the functions
previously restricted to lieutenants and captains, Goulding said,
and they will need more training.
The concept calls for “minor tweaking” of the platoon
organization, shrinking the squad size from 14 to 12. The two men
taken from each of three squads would be used to create a second
command group to help run the platoon.
The first group would include the platoon commander, his radio
operator, a rifleman and the unit’s logistics specialist.
The second group would be headed by the platoon sergeant, who would
control two riflemen and a corpsman (the Marine term for a medic).
The second command group, if necessary, could replace the platoon
leader’s unit. Or, if ordered to do so, it could conduct operations
independently of the platoon leader.
Overtime, distributed operations will require a reappraisal of
the skills necessary for infantry operations, Goulding said. “The
manpower piece is problematic. How do you professionalize the infantry?”
Infantrymen are called “grunts,” he noted. “The
image is this is unskilled labor. It’s not. It’s very