To the layman in the street the purpose of the United States Marine Corps is to perform big amphibious landings like Normandy and Iwo Jima. (I'm aware that the Americans landing in Normandy were not Marines, but the lay perception is this is what Marines are for ) The movie "Saving Private Ryan" has shown how hellish an amphibious assault can be. What is often overlooked on the western side of the pond is that the landings by British and Canadian forces on other beaches on D-day had less trouble. The main reason for this was that the Commonwealth forces ensured that the first units on the beach were not unprotected infantrymen but armoured engineers with purpose-designed specialised vehicles : the so called "Hobart Funnies".
American forces only had a few DD swimming tanks at Omaha and these were launched too far off shore. Thirty two DDs were launched six kilometres from the shore. The crewmen were not familiar with the sea and more are believed to have fell foul to the currents than enemy fire. Only five reached the shore to support infantry that had already been landed!. Of the fifty one DDs landed by landing craft forty three reached the beach but were landed long after the unprotected infantry had come under heavy fire.
The current USMC has no equivalents of the Funnies. Simple obstacles and minefields will stop a USMC MEU landing its vehicles on a defended beach.
As well as engineering units another priority to land during an amphibious assault is the equivalent of an armoured cavalry unit. This will help destroy defences on the beach then thrust inland to disrupt the enemy and seize the initiative. Such tactics require vehicles with a good level of firepower and protection, so this is not a job for the LAV Is currently part of an MEU's recon element. (These should not be confused with the even less capable LAV III Strykers the Army is planning to buy)
However, there is an even more telling reason why the USMC cannot stage large amphibious landings. At any one time the USMC has only three of its seven MEUs afloat. One for the Mediterranean, one in Japan/Okinawa and one in the Indian ocean. Other MEU units are either in training or reorganisation. Trying to organise a larger force from non-MEU Marine units cannot be done on a short time scale.
Each MEU is equivalent to a supported battalion but the ground element is essentially light infantry with a lot of soft-skinned vehicles. A MEU has only a single platoon of four tanks. By contrast, a Russian Naval infantry brigade has a battalion of tanks, the equivalent of at least a tank company for each infantry battalion.
This page gives us some idea of the equipment of a MEU, although I'm told that in practice there are only four Abrams, 13 LAVs, 15 AAVs and six 155mm howitzers. There are 91 soft-skinned vehicles, 68 of them HMMWVs.
The current Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) consists of four standard elements which together comprise a Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). These include the headquarters element, the ground combat element (GCE), the aviation combat element (ACE), and the MEU service support group (MSSG).
The current MEU(SOC) Ground Combat Element is composed of a Battalion Landing Team (BLT) consisting of a standard Marine infantry battalion with a headquarters company, weapons company and three rifle companies organized as mechanized company, a heliborne company, and a small boat company.
The BLT is reinforced with a tank platoon, an artillery battery, a light armored reconnaissance (LAV-25) company, an amphibious assault vehicle (AAV) platoon, a combat engineer platoon and a reconnaissance platoon.
The Aviation Combat Element (ACE) of the MEU(SOC) consists of a composite squadron formed around a CH-46 (Sea Knight) squadron with a detachment of (4) CH-53's (Sea Stallion), (4) UH-1's (Huey), (4) AH-1's (Cobra), and (4) AV-8B's (Sea Harrier).
Given the MEU's role it could afford to replace some of this tail with more teeth.
An M113 or BV206 occupies much the same deckspace as a HMMWV and less than a LAV-25, while an M1 Abrams MBT takes only a shade more deckspace than a AAV7/AAAV Amtrac or 5 ton Truck.
It is unlikely that all the MEUs would be used against the same target but even if this were so it is obvious they are unlikely to succeed against any prepared position defended by a competent force of regimental or greater strength.
So if a large scale amphibious assault is beyond the current USMC, what about an amphibious assault on a smaller scale? The key to launching such an operation is surprise. The enemy may know there is a MEU with the Task Force lurking off-shore, and he may know that it is capable of launching such an assault, but the key factor is preventing him guessing where. The first stage of an amphibious assault is likely to be made by airmobile means. Large numbers of troops can be brought to the objective by helicopters, and such an attack can be applied against an objective a considerable distance inland. If the principles of AirMechStrike are applied to the unit, the marines no longer need to fight as just foot infantry but can be supported by M113s, BV206s, Wiesels, Tankitas, 120mm AGMs etc. This increases their mobility, firepower and protection.
We need to remember that AirMechStrike is not some untried classroom theory. The Russian Airborne Forces have been practising it for decades, and more recently Canadian troops have used it in Afghanistan. Russian Naval Infantry Brigades in fact often include a mechanized battalion of airborne-qualified troops with vehicles such as the BMD.
One might ask that if the airmobile element of the MEU is Air-Mechanised (which it is currently not), what function does the seaborne element of the assault serve? The answer is the seaborne element can bring in the heavier systems that cannot be helilifted. What is the point in coming by sea if you are going to bring stuff that could have been flown?
The two elements can work together in several ways. The Air-mobile can land inland and attack shore defenses from the rear. Or the Air-mobile element can seize and objective and hold it until the heavy forces of the seaborne element come to relieve and reinforce.
I've already alluded to the importance of surprise. For the sea-mobile elements this includes being able to exploit as wide a choice as possible of potential landing areas. To achieve this the Hovercraft is a very important system. A conventional landing craft can only land on 17% of the world's beaches, while hovercraft such as the Marine LCAC can access 80%. This also begs the question, "Just how many of the world's beaches can vehicles like the AAV-7 or AAAV land on?" Certainly not as many as the LCAC, and these vehicles are nowhere as well armed or protected as the vehicles that the LCAC can bring to the beach, such as the M1 Abrams and Bradley.
The above leads me to two conclusions.
The air-mobile elements of the MEU need to mechanise with light armour. Platforms such as the CH-53 Sea Stallion and CH-46 Sea-Knight can lift various vehicles.
The sea-mobile elements of the MEU needs to increase its numbers of heavy systems such as AFVs and exploit the advantages that the LCAC offers.
The MEU as a Strategic Force. As many writers have pointed out, an Airborne force can reach a global trouble spot in a fraction of the time of a seaborne force such as a MEU. If such a unit is Air-mechanised it can prove to be even more capable. Reaction time can be decreased further if some Airborne battalions are positioned globally, and not just in the CONUS.
The advantage that a MEU has is that it can loiter. Positioning a Naval taskforce off the coast of a unfriendly power has long been an element of diplomacy. If a MEU is attached to this force it can be used to launch an air-mobile or air-mechanised attack. Because the force is closer to the objective its reaction time can be shorter. Security is another advantage. A sudden rise in activity at Fort Bragg during an international crisis probably gets reported to many foreign ears. Preparations on a ship are seen by less prying eyes. A MEU could also then follow up such an air-assault with a heavier force landed by LCACs.
Raiding By raiding we can mean any operation where the objective is not to secure territory for any length of time. This therefore includes rescue missions, snatches, sabotage etc. Oddly, the American force closest to the Royal Marine Commandos is the Rangers, a US Army formation. A MEU does have the capability to be used as a raiding formation but would be more effective if it included the option of AirMechStrike. The Rangers also need to consider Air-Mechanization.
New Specialist Forces. So far we have looked at the MEUs, but the Marine Corps also provides a large number of special purpose units.
I'm a little dubious as to how much a MEU needs the AAAV. LCACs allow troops to land in more capable armoured vehicles and offer a wider choice of landing sites and faster deployment. What limited swimming needs to be done can be accommodated by fitting Amphigavin kits onto M113s. Since the USMC only ever has three MEUs at sea at any time, and the Navy has twelve amphibious assault ships (seven LHD-1 Wasps, five LHA-1 Tarawa), it is hard to understand how the USMC justifies its request for 1,013 AAAVs. However, I can see the need for some capability for specialised amphibious assault vehicles. I believe that this should be concentrated in a specialist USMC unit and that it should include a tank/ fire support variant of the AAAV. China already fields very capable amphibious tanks such as the Type 63A and Type 63.
Experience has proven that swimming tanks or APCs are not the most important of amphibious vehicles. During the 1943 invasion of Scilly a small numbers of DUKW swimming trucks landed 90% of all materials. During the Normandy landings they landed 40%, and this figure was probably higher when the "Mulberry" Docks were damaged by a storm. Unlike the unfortunate American DD-tank crews, DUKW crews were fully trained in seamanship. The closest modern version of these that the US has are aging LARC-5s and LARC-60s, which are actually operated by the US Army! The availability of a force of swimming trucks, possibly based on an Amphigavin version of the M1108 would be a major asset in any future sea supplied operation. The GKN Aquatruck is close to this, sharing track components with the M113. The USMC seem more logical candidates to run such a force.
Another area where the Marines need to expand is to provide a larger Riverine warfare element. The USMC already has a small force of thirty two brown water boats, but a force with more capable Riverine warfare systems needs to be developed. In many parts of the world control of the waterways is crucial. More on Riverine warfare on this page.
FEEDBACK Carlton Meyer: I agree that more tanks would help a MEU. Many Marines have questioned the value of the battery of six towed 155mm howitzers and their dozen support trucks, especially near the coast where the task force has 5-inch naval guns available for support. The howitzers are too heavy to lift by helos, although on a good weather day CH-53Es sometimes pick them up for a minute just to demonstrate they can do it, but it's a strain on the engines and dangerous to fly around at max gross weight. Even then, they must fly low and straight at less than 50 knots, making them easy targets for all. If landed on the beach, the wheels often become stuck in the sand, mud and gravel ashore.
The idea of an Operational Maneuver Group is that it is a force that can rapidly move deep into the enemy's rear areas and attack soft but important targets such as supply assets and command nodes.
The main changes that will convert a MEU(SOC) into an MEU(OMG) are that the LAV-25 company will be increased to a strength of 32 vehicles and that one infantry company will be equipped with 24 Light Strike Vehicles (LSV). LSV are essentially 21st century Armed Jeeps that can be transported by the MV-22, should that ever become a practical aircraft. In the meantime they are transportable by large helicopters. Other proposals include mounting the infantry in a APC version of the LAV to increase road-speed and simplify logistics and increased indirect fire capability in the form of 120mm mortar vehicles and Fibre-optic guided missiles.
The MEU(OMG) concept is acknowledged as not being without an element of risk. For the MEU(OMG) to be effective then certain conditions will need to be present.
The presence in the operational area of roads or suitable terrain for the operation of the wheeled vehicles.
Opportunity to break through or avoid enemy forward elements. Given the limited combat power of the MEU break through by combat will be difficult.
Low risk of enemy air attack. For speed the OMG will use enemy road networks which will make it very vulnerable to attack from enemy aircraft.
Ether Superiority. Part of the OMG concept is that its elements can move dispersed but mass fires, either of its own indirect systems or from Air or Naval systems. For this to be practical there must have an intact and comprehensive communications network. There will obviously be problems should the enemy be capable of mounting competent jamming operations.
Air Support. Ground elements will need to rely on friendly aircraft both as protection and for delivery of airstrikes.
Terrain that allows stand-off direct fires. Weapons such as RPGs are very common in the Third World so the lightly armoured or unarmoured OMG vehicles will need to maintain a distance of at least 400m between them and targets they attack with direct fire. 25mm cannon, .50 MGs, 40x53mm Automatic Grenade Launchers and 120mm mortars are all suitable systems for such attacks if the terrain allows a sufficient stand-off.
Low enemy artillery capability in the area of maneuver. The LAV-25 has some protection against splinters from artillery fire, though its tires do not. LSVs will offer no protection to crews from artillery. The OMG elements will therefore have to operate in areas where they are unlikely to be in range of enemy artillery.
Another possible limitation is the MEU(OMG) as proposed is a force designed for open country. If it is used in close country such as woods, jungle or urban terrain it will lose many of the capabilities upon which it is relying and its vehicles will be very vulnerable to attack by systems such as RPG-armed infantry. In many Third World operations the objective may be a presidential palace, TV station or group of non-combatants in an urban area.