The president has said the United States will not put any boots on the ground in Libya.
But if, hypothetically, a decision were made to send forces ashore, most likely they would be U.S. marines.
They would not be storming the beach à la Guadalcanal. But they would be conducting the modern version of an amphibious assault: Marines aboard ships dozens of miles off the coast would load up their equipment on landing craft, helicopters and MV-22 Ospreys, reach the shore and push their way inland, while trying to avoid enemy landmines, booby traps and snipers.
Marine leaders believe this form of warfare is in the Corps’ future. It might not happen in Libya, but it could take place elsewhere. They worry, however, that after 10 years of land wars, marines have become accustomed to flying into combat zones and always being on the ground. They fret that the Corps’ legendary ship-to-shore maneuver expertise has gradually faded.
But the Corps’ leaders are determined to get it back, not because they want to relive World War II Pacific glory, but because they are convinced that future response to global crises will require the ability to deploy on short notice. In hostile areas where it would be unthinkable to mass a military force, Marine Corps officials contend, the only option would be to deploy troops from the sea.
Although there are still 21,000 marines fighting in Afghanistan, the Corps is betting that its next conflict will not be a land-locked counterinsurgency. In the coming years, senior commanders want marines to start training for amphibious assaults, and for life at sea.
During one such exercise last month off the California coast, Corps leaders were alarmed by just how rusty marines have become.
“We haven’t done this in about a decade. Our experience level is extremely low,” said Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Brigade.
Spiese was overseeing “Dawn Blitz 2011,” a simulation of what it could be like to deploy a Marine Expeditionary Brigade force of up to 17,000, entirely from ships.
“I’ve got to tell you, I had forgotten how complex and how challenging large-scale amphibious operations are,” Spiese told National Defense in a telephone interview from the USS Bonhomme Richard, one of the ships involved in Dawn Blitz.
Spiese said the exercise revealed just how easy it is to lose competencies that are not practiced.
“We haven’t had a chance to work this [amphibious assault mission] in a heck of a long time,” he said. “We have all been kind of surprised at what it takes to put a large force ashore, to move it, package it up and get it ashore.”
Even seemingly routine tasks such as moving equipment around a ship can be shockingly strenuous for marines who are not used to doing it, Spiese said.
Dawn Blitz had 700 marines and sailors. As part of the exercise, four-dozen crews were earning their qualifications as amphibian tractor operators. So-called “amtrac” crews are responsible for driving and maintaining assault amphibian vehicles. A rifle company that was preparing to deploy to Okinawa, Japan, joined the exercise to become familiar with ship-to-shore movements and shipboard life as it relates to amtracs, Spiese said.
For anyone who has never been on an amphibious warship — including many marines who joined the Corps in the past decade — the milieu can be puzzling. “Even just getting the smallest of teams ashore is tough, because of the environment and all that goes with it,” said Spiese. “Our current knowledge level of what it takes to do this has atrophied.”
Case in point is the sight of marines struggling to back up a 7-ton truck with a trailer onto an air-cushioned landing craft, he said. “There is nothing easy about that. It sounds simple until you get down there and you see these guys” trying to do it. Similar difficulties are encountered by aircraft crews who have flown from land bases for years, but not operated from ships.
“The experience base has been lost across the force. Marines face a “pretty steep learning curve,” he said. “We haven’t thought about this for a long time. … Even in the best of conditions, it’s extremely hard.”
To be sure, Marine Expeditionary Units, or MEUs, are always at sea, supporting U.S. military operations and humanitarian relief efforts. But those are relatively small forces — usually between 1,500 to 2,000 marines and sailors. Officials point out that a MEU would not possess nearly enough firepower or manpower to assault a beach in hostile territory.
The Corps is looking to “build an experience base across the force beyond just MEUs,” said Spiese. “That’s something we did do before the wars. That was part of our training routine,” he said. “We typically had ships with marines becoming familiar with the technical aspects of being able to operate off the ships.”
A distressing development for the Corps was when the Navy’s Fleet Forces Command on several occasions deployed amphibious ships without marines. “In the old days, that would never have been the case,” said Spiese.
The infantry units that have been at war since 2003 mostly have deployed by air, not by ship, Spiese noted. “The two wars have just taken up the vast majority of our attention, and rightfully so,” he said. “But it has come at a price in terms of our competency to deploy in large scale from the sea. … We’re simply not at sea in large numbers any more.”
The good news for the Corps, he said, is that marines adapt quickly.
If the president had asked for ground forces in Libya to support NATO’s campaign against Moammar Gadhafi, U.S. marines would have been ashore, and would have been prepared, “even if [the insurgents] had attempted to defend” the beach, Spiese said. “We would be able to flank the enemy in lightly defended areas, and bypass their strengths.”
As a general rule in an amphibious assault, he said, “We would look for a place that was lightly defended or undefended. We would [move around] an enemy that was dug in with mines in the water and barbed wire along the beach. Those are places we would avoid.
“We’re very comfortable we’ve got the capability to go against a defended beach but certainly not like we would see on the 6th of June,” he said, referring to the 1944 invasion of Normandy.
The Marine Corps’ senior leadership at the Pentagon, meanwhile, is having to contend with the financial and political obstacles that stand in the way of their amphibious warfare goals, such as anticipated budget cuts and questions about the relevance of beach-assault missions in today’s world.
Much of the hardware that marines say they need for these operations is vulnerable to budget cuts. The “Gator” fleet, which includes amphibious assault ships, dock landing ships and air-cushioned landing craft, is aging and shrinking in numbers.
Then there is the much-coveted new amphibious vehicle that former Defense Secretary Robert Gates ordered the Corps to terminate after 15 years in development and huge cost overruns. Although Gates allowed the Marine Corps to fund a replacement for that vehicle, the project has been slowed down as further analysis is being conducted on what the required features should be. If Pentagon budgets decline in the coming years, however, a new vehicle might not materialize.
In what was viewed as a big dose of reality, Gates in an August 2010 speech to the Marine Memorial Association questioned the need for amphibious war weapons. He suggested it would be “proper to ask whether large-scale amphibious assault landings along the lines of Inchon are feasible though anti-ship missiles with long range and high accuracy may make it necessary to debark from ships 25 or 40 or 60 or more miles at sea.”
Spiese pointed out that Gates subsequently validated the need for a new armored amphibian vehicle. “I think we’re past that challenge and that debate,” he said.
Another piece of the ship-to-shore war machine that the Marine Corps views as essential is the F-35B short takeoff and landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. That program currently is “on probation” until next year, when Pentagon acquisitions officials will determine whether earlier technical glitches have been fixed. A funding crunch also could threaten this program.
If he had to choose the one piece of equipment that “we have to have,” it would be the F-35B, Spiese said.
It is the program that “concerns me the most,” he said. “I happen to believe today it’s the single most important program in the Marine Corps … and an important program for America.”
The U.S. military’s ability to quickly launch an air war over Libya only was possible because Harrier jets (which the F-35B would replace) were available aboard the USS Essex. Unlike other strike aircraft in the U.S. military, he said, “We’re not tied to [long] runways.
“If I were in the decision-making process, I would find a way to make sure the F-35B was part of the future,” said Spiese.
An anticipated shortage of ships also is a cloud that hangs over the Corps’ strategy for the future.
Deploying a 17,000-strong Marine Expeditionary Brigade with all of its equipment would require at least 16, if not 17 ships, Spiese said. Years ago, the Navy had planned to build enough ships to support a 38-vessel gator fleet. Then the goal was revised down to 33 as a result of budget cuts. But there are now 28 in service, including nine big-deck amphibious assault ships. The Navy projects that it will be able to boost the fleet up to 33 ships by 2017, but that forecast is now doubtful, analysts have said.
“This has been a concern of ours for years,” Spiese said. Although the issue does not make headlines, ship availability is a “problem for U.S. national security,” he said. “As ships become less available, the ability of our commanders to respond becomes more limited.”
The next two years could be make-or-break for some of the Marine Corps’ key programs, defense analysts note. Some experts believe that the Corps is undermining its own cause by staking its future on high-prized weapon systems.
“When we get to the point where we believe the cutting of a single acquisition program will threaten the survival of a service, it’s a graphic illustration that our thinking is off,” said Peter W. Singer, senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. Marines have been guilty of excessively advocating for programs that have questionable merit, such as the new amphibious vehicle, Singer said during a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It used to be that the force would tout what it did regardless of the equipment. Now it’s a very public discourse: cling on to the most exotic technology,” he said. “That’s contrary to the Marine Corps’ heritage.”
Singer opined that the Marine Corps’ mission is “not an amphibious one, it’s an expeditionary one.”
Similar advice came from Rudy DeLeon, a former Pentagon official and now senior vice president at the Center for American Progress. “You never want to see your identity through the lens of one weapon system.”