The Marine Corps That Should Have Been

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Tuesday, May 07, 2024 - 11:40 PM

Authored by Gary Anderson via RealClearPolitics,

Say what one wants about the Israeli incursion into Gaza, but not a single rocket or missile has been fired from what is left of it since the start of fighting. Compare this with the relative ineffectiveness of American efforts stop Yemen's Houthis from slinging missiles at shipping in the Red Sea. The difference is simply geography. The Israelis simply have to cross fencing and concrete barriers to directly confront their attackers, the Palestinians of Hamas.

If U.S. wanted to launch such a large scale punitive operation against the Houthis, it would have to be done from the sea with a large scale amphibious assault. An amphibious assault of this scale, requiring sea borne tanks, assault engineers and bridging capabilities that have been divested by the U.S. Marine Corps. Instead, the Marine Corps is building a defensive force built around anti-ship missiles designed primarily to contain the Chinese Navy.

This defensive force is a stark departure from former Marine Corps Commandant Al Gray’s vision to modernize the Marine Corps for future wars.

Back in the 1980s, General Gray had a vision for what he called Over the Horizon (OTH) operations using tilt rotor aircraft, long range helicopters, more capable long-range amphibious vehicles, and air cushioned landing craft. Gray realized that advanced defensive weapons would make traditional linear amphibious operations launched just offshore problematical, but OTH would enable landing in column in places that the enemy did not expect. Gray had the Marine Corps experiment with these capabilities. Throughout the nineties, numerous war games and field experiments took place to explore the physical and intellectual challenges. OTH gradually evolved into Operational Maneuver from the Sea (OMFTS) and a whole new philosophy of littoral campaigning.

In traditional amphibious operations a relatively small portion of potential landing sites in the world's littorals were open to the kind of linear landings done at Normandy and Iwo Jima. It was relatively easy for a defender to determine which beaches were vulnerable to amphibious landings. OMFTS were designed to open over seventy percent of littorals by landing in column across remote locations such as boat ramps and small coves with access to paths inland. This made the defense against OMTFS far more difficult.

To achieve OMFTS, we planned to use a grid of small micro-robotic ground scouts located at key road intersections, choke points, and bridges. The robotic sensors would give the landing force a map to exploit the gaps in enemy defenses as well as be able to designate targets at enemy strong points and call-in accurate fire on them. We called this advanced reconnaissance and scouting system the Reconnaissance-Surveillance-Target Acquisition (RSTA) Grid. Platforms such as the V-22 Osprey and heavy lift helicopters such as the CH-53E could give a vertical over-the-horizon dimension to this "expanding torrent" of operational capability with the RSTA Grid identifying safe landing zones.

OMFTS and RSTA would only require small assault force initially that would not need an "iron mountain" of logistical supplies on the beach before moving inland. Just-in-time logistics would keep the initial landing force moving until more traditional beaches and ports could be opened by attacking them from the rear. During the initial operation, fire support would come from precision strike until more conventional artillery could come ashore.

One key element that made OMFTS different from traditional amphibious operations and more compatible with the existing Marine Corps' maneuver warfare approaches, was flexibility. Once the line of departure was crossed in traditional operations, the force was committed; it was "do or die for old Semper Fi." We saw OMFTS as giving us the ability to launch several probes. The most promising would become the main effort. The rest could be withdrawn or remain for a while as deception to confuse opposing forces. Worst case, the operation could be scrapped enabling us to choose a more promising set of operational targets without causing a Gallipoli-like debacle. 

This amphibious blitzkrieg would be led by relatively small, fast moving task-organizations comprised of elements from infantry and armored battalions. However, more traditional infantry, armored, and artillery units would be needed to defend the eventual force beachhead, assist army follow-on forces in sustained operations ashore, and potential counterinsurgency operations.

All these years of planning never led to the radically reduced Marine Corps that we have today. By 2020, there should have been newer and better tanks, artillery, and amphibious vehicles as part of ongoing Marine Corps modernization, but I came to believe that OMFTS could initially be accomplished with existing Navy LCACs, Ospreys, and CH-53Es. The Advanced Armored Amphibious Vehicle (AAAV) was a failure, but I think most of us came to believe that its absence would not be an operational "showstopper".

The real technological challenges were in the robotic sensors needed for the RSTA grid, sufficient over-the-horizon communications, some advanced naval mine clearing capabilities (with unmanned underwater systems), and some enhanced just-in-time logistics assets. None of these things were science fiction, and the technologists assured us were doable by 2020 and have been used during the current Russo-Ukrainian war.

We needed to use surrogates for war games and field experiments to simulate OMFTS.

In 1998, a small Special Purpose Marine Corps Marine Air Ground Task Force (SPMAGTF) conducted an over-the-horizon landing in column from the USS Germantown across a boat ramp in Okinawa using Landing Craft Air Cushioned (LCACs) and long range CH 53 helicopters. Later that year, a MAGTF staff from III MEF used LAVs in a force-on-force operation against a Red Team led by students from the Expeditionary Warfare School -also employing LAVs- on the peninsulas of the Virginia Capes. The surrogate RSTA Grid allowed the Blue force to land in an unexpected location and maneuver quickly to defeat the Red Force. Other war games conducted during the period caused us to believe that OMFTS would provide wicked problems to future opponents. By the turn of the century, many of us in the developmental and experimental community believed that OMFTS could be fully implemented within two decades. Indeed, the technologies needed all exist today. What we did not envision was 9/11 and General Berger.

The root of the problem really goes back to 2001 and the 9/11 attacks. At that point, the George W. Bush administration undertook the war in Afghanistan and in 2003 invaded Iraq. The Marine Corps was forced put aside its work on the next Marine Corps to support the war effort, which lasted until 2019 when virtually all conventional units had left Afghanistan. Many serving and former marines hoped to finally get back to work on OMFTS, but the new commandant at the time, General David Berger, had another vision that the dubbed Force Design 2030. OMFTS might have evolved differently if General Berger had chosen that path; the name might even have changed, but OMFTS remains the Marine Corps that could have been, particularly for operations other than island hoping in China’s first island chain.

If it had been allowed to evolve, OMFTs would have been the perfect tool to suppress threats such as the Houthis at the source. A group of retired general officers calling themselves Chowder II have put together an alternate approach to Force Design for the Corps that they call Vision 2035; much of it is based on work done before 2001. Commandants come and go, but the Marine Corps continues to look forward. Under new leadership, Vision 2035 may again include OMFTS or something like it.

Gary Anderson was heavily involved in OMFTS design and experimentation as the Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab.