ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD, SAILING IN THE PACIFIC — Marines calmly marching off a C-130 aircraft onto a tarmac has been a relatively common sight recently.
As for storming a beach from a sea-faring landing craft — not so much.
While many pundits contend that ship-to-shore fighting is fast becoming archaic, Marine Corps leadership insists that future conflicts may again require amphibious skills. They admit that training for a forced entry operation has atrophied during the last nine years of conflict and the Corps’ alliance between ships and sailors is not what it once was.
“In order to capitalize on the Navy-Marine Corps relationship, we need concepts like ship-to-shore maneuver in order to get the best out of both sides of the equation,” said Brig. Gen. Robert F. Hedelund, commanding officer of the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.
The trick in the future is to conduct a beach landing from a ship sailing beyond the horizon, miles away from shore where it is safe from anti-ship missiles. That means marines not only will have to stomach a longer journey to shore, but also they will have to operate ashore knowing that supplies, medical evacuations and fire support will take more time.
In an experiment during the biennial Rim of the Pacific naval exercise in Hawaii, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory put to the test a revamped concept of storming the beach. It gave a company landing team, enhanced by an artillery platoon, a suite of advanced communications and robots to help them fight, resupply and evacuate casualties.
“We’re taking the things that marines are doing in Afghanistan and sprinkling saltwater on them,” said Vince Goulding, director of the experiments division in the lab. “We’re taking them from the sea base, bringing them ashore to do the things they’ve already learned how to do.”
Marines know how to land on a beach. The challenge is sustaining them on the shore when the ship is a hundred miles at sea maneuvering with the naval force, said Goulding. “How do you get food to them? How do you take care of injured marines? Can you command and control them adequately? How do you provide fires for them?”
Some of those questions were answered during a four-day amphibious assault exercise on Oahu. In the early morning hours of the first day, marines from Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment and Alpha Battery, 1st Battalion, 12th Marine Regiment lined up in the hangar of the amphibious ship. They loaded up with packs that were stuffed full of experimental communication gear and batteries. One by one they marched down into the lower vehicle bay and onto the three landing craft docked in the well deck. As the ship rocked on the heavy seas, sailors aboard the craft greeted them by saying, “You will get sick.” They instructed the marines to vomit into the plastic bags provided or to use their helmets. So warned, the marines dispersed. Some climbed into truck cabs for the hour-long ride; others sat inside the windowless passenger areas.
For many of the marines, it was the first time they had ever operated aboard a ship, much less ridden to shore in a landing craft.
More than an hour later, an innocuous bump marked when the LCAC hit the beach. The marines ran off the deck and collected ashore as the artillery vehicles were unloaded. Many troops had radio handsets tucked underneath their helmets and strapped into place over their ears. There was a little bit of shouting, a name here, a name there, but mostly it was quiet as the marines spoke discreetly into their radios. It was an amphibious landing unlike any other that had preceded them. By the end of the next 72 hours, they had accomplished their mission of rooting out a terrorist training compound.
The experiment is analogous to what the Marine Corps did in the 1930s, in trying to get ready for amphibious fight in Pacific, Goulding said. “We’re preparing for the amphibious fight, wherever it might be, in 2020.”
The experiment proved that the company landing team concept is feasible, but that improvements are needed in the size, weight and power of the infantry gear.
“We’re still on the curve where the technology we’re getting for individual marines is driving up the weight,” said Hedelund.
The demand for water was a significant concern for commanders both ashore and at sea. A large number of helicopter sorties from the ship were carrying water. When they dropped off the supplies, troops did not have vehicles to transport the goods.
“I am convinced now more than ever that a MV-22 Osprey-borne dismounted marine infantry company inserted into rough terrain needs some sort of organic, internally transportable ground mobility asset,” said Goulding. Whether it’s manned or unmanned is beside the point, he said. Dismounted troops need a way to move supplies.
“When those infantry platoons were resupplied with 5-gallon cans of water, except for what they could put into CamelBaks and drink, they now had this stuff with them, and it became a mobility impediment to them,” explained Goulding.
A small vehicle, such as the John Deere Gator, could fit inside an MV-22 Osprey. It could be driven by troops and help them transport supplies, he said.
The amphibious landing concept from a ship sailing beyond the horizon is viable, Goulding said in an interview after the exercise concluded. But “we need to get hot on ship-to-maneuver logistics,” he pointed out.
“This is a problem from two ends: It ties up a high-demand low-density aviation asset that we could better employ by providing mobility to marines on the ground,” said Goulding. “It also demonstrated that we need to do better foraging for water.”
Goulding, a retired marine, flew over the mountainous Kahukus Training Range twice in a helicopter during the exercise. “There is water everywhere in the Kahukus,” he pointed out, but the marines had to rely on drinking water supplied from the ship.
In a separate effort, the lab is experimenting with a tactical reverse osmosis water purification unit that would have turned the free flowing Hawaiian water into potable water for the squads.