Marines Tired of Playing Army Role in Land Wars

By Dan Parsons
Aboard the USS Kearsarge, 12 miles off the North Carolina coast, Lance Cpl. Lewis Rivera finished a cigarette and stared into the rolling Atlantic. Halfway through a four-year stint in the Marine Corps he had already experienced the stinging sand and dust of Afghanistan.

Only now was he becoming acquainted with the salty air, oily industrial odors and cramped quarters aboard an 850-foot amphibious assault ship. It was a welcome duty shift for a young Marine who had only seen service as a ground troop. If he had wanted to do that, he would have joined the Army.

“We’re there to get in, kick down doors, kill who we have to kill and get the hell out,” said Rivera, with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade Weapons Company. “Everybody wants to get back out here at sea. Everybody.”

That was a popular refrain among Marines bunked for two weeks in early February aboard 25 ships for Bold Alligator 2012.  It was a return to sea for the Marine Corps writ large, and a test of whether it can operate effectively alongside its Navy partners and other nations.

“The whole point of the Marine Corps is to receive a call and get where we need to be,” Rivera said. “We’re trying to give all this stuff back to the Army. We want to be done with being used as an army.”

The Marine Corps is weighed down by theater-specific equipment rushed to Iraq and Afghanistan like mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles, or MRAPs, of which the service has 3,300 in various forms.

“We don’t need those any more,” Rivera said. “They’re too heavy and slow for what Marines are supposed to do. We are not an occupying force. That’s the Army.”

Still, the Marine Corps’ share of the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget unmistakably favors machines over manpower. While the F-35B, the Marine’s version of the Joint Strike Fighter and the most expensive of the three variants, was given a green light to proceed, it cut 20,000 personnel.

The Marine Corps has an annual turnover rate of about 16 percent, Brig. Gen. Christopher S. Owens said aboard the USS Wasp.

“Statistically, that means there is a new generation of Marines every five years,” he said.

With the Marine Corps set to fall from 202,000 to 182,000, that replacement rate could accelerate.

Marine Corps leadership is fighting to avoid a brain drain brought on by attrition and a decade of ground combat.

No less than 14,000 Marines and sailors from the United States and eight other NATO militaries took part in what was the biggest display of amphibious might since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Navy and Marine Corps officers at all levels echoed the refrain that there be regular training for an operation of this size, which is comparable to what would be necessary to invade Iran or North Korea.

“We can’t practice something like this unless we get out here and do it,” said Capt. Dorian Jones, commanding officer of the USS Kearsarge.

In a two-week span, the massive flotilla of ships, including forces and equipment from the United States, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Australia and New Zealand, launched several training operations culminating in a full-scale invasion of Onslow Beach, N.C. Follow-on operations included a 170-mile inland insertion of special operations forces aboard V-22 Ospreys to Ft. Pickett, Va.

Like Rivera, many of the Marines aboard the various assault ships had never been to sea, but most of them had seen combat in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Rivera thought enlisted men would snap back into the traditional role of amphibious warriors their predecessors famously demonstrated during World War II and Korea.

Marines hold battles from those wars in high esteem, and have chafed at being deployed inland. Rivera was confident it wouldn’t take long to get his sea legs back. Everything they trained to do in preparation for Bold Alligator had been a “reiteration of boot camp,” he said.

“We learn portholes and stern and port and starboard, all of that so we can do this stuff,” Rivera said. “Then we get to fleet and they tell us we’re getting on a plane to Afghanistan to fight as a land force. All this stuff is coming back to us, though. Even after only a week on this ship.”

Inside an 850-foot ship, pulling off a full-scale amphibious assault is a dance of incidentals. Well-trained but inexperienced Marines and sailors “are doing very important and complex jobs on a daily basis to pull this off,” said Jones.

“There’s a lot of little stuff that must happen so the launch goes off on time and smoothly,” Jones said. “Even one driver who forgets to bring the keys to his vehicle can really back things up. We have a lot of very young folks doing very important jobs.”

But by the time they had been aboard ship for a week, Marines were chomping at the bit.

The night of Feb. 5, several hundred Marines from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, gathered in a circle in the Kearsarge’s hangar bay. What ensued was a melee of arms and legs as combatants grappled in groups of six — two from each country.

The seemingly chaotic scene was a chance for Marines to hone their martial arts skills, a Marine specialty, before going ashore. Another Marine trademark, proficiency with deadly weapons, was also on display. Days before, in the Wasp’s hangar bay, several riflemen busied themselves disassembling and reassembling an M240-B light machine gun.

“Our training will really begin when we go ashore,” Rivera said. “That’s when we’ll get to really use what we’ve already learned. We’ll be attacking positions and doing combat drills. But we’ll be going ashore, not fighting in bases.”

Should a real-world threat arise, life aboard ship would not be all practice and boredom for Marines. During risky operations like running a contested strait, they can augment ship security with their own weapons.

Were it the Strait of Hormuz, a crucial oil supply route that Iran has threatened to close, each ship could be within small-arms range of land on one side while vulnerable to small-boat attacks from the other during portions of the transit. There was training for that scenario, though no straits were available off North Carolina.

“We’ve got Marines on board and they have a capability that they’re not using,” said Jones. “So they’ve rolled out their Humvees to offer suppressing fire if we’re attacked.”

Scout snipers were deployed to the ship’s island to cover its flanks from small boat attacks during the fictional transit.

While the experience is invaluable training for future operations, Marine Corps brass involved in the operation brushed off the notion that their maritime roots had been abandoned.

Marines have consistently had a maritime presence prior to and after the 2003 Iraq invasion. But those Marine Expeditionary Units are much smaller concentrations of personnel and often involve one or two big-deck amphibious ships. These smaller MEUs, have deployed but have not made large-scale amphibious assaults in a decade.

The 24th MEU, with several thousand Marines, participated in Operation Unified Response, the 2010 humanitarian mission to Haiti in the wake of the devastating earthquake.

The 26th MEU was stationed off the Coast of Libya during Operation Odyssey Dawn, the successful air campaign against forces loyal to now-deceased dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The Kearsarge was the primary amphibious assault ship during that operation. An AV-8B Harrier jump jet stored in the ship’s hangar bay during Bold Alligator bore stamps indicating it had dropped 12 smart bombs during the campaign.

Below the bay, dozens of amphibious assault vehicles on hand for the Libya campaign were ready to storm the North Carolina coast.

Most of those vehicles were showing age after more than 30 years of service. With the recent cancelation of the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, there is no replacement in sight, which was fine with many Marines, including Pfc. Brandon Morin, an AAV mechanic aboard the Kearsarge.

“These machines are our homes where we and a lot of other Marines have been operating for years,” he said from the back of the AAV he was working on two days prior to the landing. “They’re loud, but it puts you to sleep. There’s exhaust fumes pouring in, but you get used to it.”

With a machine that has been in service longer than he’s been alive, Morin said he has plenty of work to do to keep his AAVs running and afloat. Most of the time it’s the same things that break and the same parts that have to be replaced.

“I guess the Marines need to replace them, but that’s not up to me,” he said. “I don’t really care. If they just give us what we need to keep these going, we’ll do that. We’ll get the job done with what we have.”

On the beach Feb. 6, Gunnery Sgt. Gustavo Munoz, landing support chief in charge of the Onslow Beach materiel rally point, waited for those AAVs to trundle ashore.

At around sunrise, he was busy with landing craft air cushions from the Kearsarge. One by one, they kicked up foam and sand as they came ashore and disgorged light armored vehicles, Humvees and beach-clearing equipment. As those vehicles mingled with tanks and trucks from French and U.K. forces landing farther down the beach, Munoz had his hands full directing traffic. The AAVs, would storm the beach in the coming hours.

“We have never done something this big,” said Munoz. “We’re not unused to beach landings, but we’re unused to the size.”

He was worried about heavy fuel trucks getting stuck in the sand. If that happens, the landing craft could be stalled or even run out of fuel. Many were only lightly filled with gas so they could float better and add less weight to LCACs and are driven by inexperienced Marines, Munoz said. If they run out of gas before fuel trucks arrive, then the inland push could grind to a halt.

Bottlenecks were one of the thousands of obstacles that could occur before the landing was complete. Lessons learned will be fed into next year’s operation, which like Bold Alligator 2011, will be entirely virtual. Military leaders want to keep the two-year cycle of live and virtual operations going indefinitely so they are ready when an emergency occurs.

“So far, everything seems to be going on schedule,” Munoz said on the morning of D-Day. “Don’t worry. We’re Marines. This is what we do.”                                   

Topics: Simulation Modeling Wargaming and Training, Live Training

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