They won’t fall for that again?

Max Boot has an excellent article in Armed Forces Journal about the Marine Corps called “The Corps should look to its small-wars past “. It’s a great article and bears discussion, but I have a nit to pick about Boot’s assertion that amphibious forces are no longer all that relevant given recent history and the foreseeable future.

As is usually the case when talking about this issue, he points out that the only serious amphibious invasion against a contested shore since the Second World War was at Inchon in 1950, and that the build-up of amphibious forces off the coast of Kuwait during 1991’s Desert Storm was just a feint. That’s all true, of course, but this bit troubles Murdoc:

Thus the Marines were kept floating off Kuwait without ever being given the order to land. It was a successful feint that distracted Saddam Hussein from the main coalition assault, but this bluff by now is well known. A repeat would be unlikely to fool a savvy foe in the future. [emphasis Murdoc’s]

Boot goes on to say “this is by no means an argument for getting rid of amphibious assault capacity”, and he’s absolutely right. Here’s why.


The much-publicized amphibious practice in during the weeks before Desert Storm put a lot of focus on all those Marines sitting aboard ships in the Gulf, itching to get ashore. I recall watching news coverage from reporters aboard those ships, interviewing the men and showing the maintenance and prep the weapons were receiving for the big day.

In the end, of course, the only amphibious operations were small, and virtually all of those Marines never set foot on dry ground. However, their mere presence tied down the bulk of six Iraqi divisions stationed along and near the Kuwaiti coast. They basically sat out the ground war along with the Marines, only turning to run when it became apparent that Iraqi units which didn’t flee would die in place.

But, given the same circumstances and a “savvy foe”, what would change in the future? Why would a repeat be “unlikely to fool” the enemy? Keep in mind that the Marines weren’t there to “fool” the enemy in the first place. The only way their presence was merely a decoy operation would be if the decision had been made previously that there was no chance that the landings would take place, and that will hold true in the future.

The Marines weren’t merely a “feint”, they were there to provide options. What if, in the future, we come upon a similar situation? Let’s say the North Koreans are facing US Army and ROK troops along the DMZ and a sizable Marine force offshore somewhere to the north. Do they just laugh and say “we’re not falling for that, stupid Americans!” and send their units down to the DMZ?

Sports analogy time:

Here we have the Red team’s defensive end of an ice hockey rink. Blue is on a 2-on-1 odd-man rush against the goalie and a lone defenseman. The Blue winger has the puck and the Blue center is across the ice, ready for a pass.

Who does the defenseman take?

If he plays the winger, he leaves the Blue center wide open to receive a pass for a quick shot. If he plays the center and tries to cut off a potential pass, he leaves the winger free to advance and shoot at will.

Goaltenders usually react to this sort of situation with a bit of an “oh, shit…not again” attitude, and for good reason. Nine times out of ten they’re left out to dry, attempting to defend against a free shot coming in from one direction or another, and the Blue team has a great scoring opportunity.

Let’s face it. The US military is usually going to be playing in what amounts to a 2-on-1 odd-man rush environment against even the strongest enemies.

But, despite the fact that the Marines in 1991 didn’t land, those enemies cannot just dismiss the threat of seaborne invasion.

What if, in our little hockey scenario, the defender plays the center? Instead of passing across the defense, the winger winds up and “he shoots…he SCORES!” Does the Red team coach pull his defensemen aside and tell them “Well, we won’t fall for that again! We’re savvy. So, from now on, never EVER play the center against a 2-on-1. It’s just a feint.” Of course not. He knows that the threat of the center scoring is very real if his team overplays the winger.

If we replay Desert Storm, would more-savvy Iraqi leadership pull its forces from the Kuwaiti shoreline and redeploy them against the coming land invasion? Maybe. But if they did the seaborne Marines would have the option to land and generally wreak havoc, as is their wont.

We didn’t tip any hand in 1991. Maybe we would never, ever have landed those Marines under any circumstances. But, even if they had suspected this, could the Iraqis have taken that chance? Even if the threat of amphibious invasion has become little more than sabre-rattling, it’s a very real sabre. It still cuts. The enemy knows this and will have to plan accordingly.

So, while the odds of a major amphibious Marine landing have maybe diminished, the threat remains very real and if our enemies discount it entirely, they will pay a steep price while the Corps adds another legendary operation to its history.

Additionally, I’d like to point out this in the article as well:

And how critical is it for Marines to be able to fight their way ashore given the increasing lethality of long-range, precision-guided munitions that could pave the way for virtually uncontested troop landings?

You all know that Murdoc loves precision-guided weapons. “All the better to blow you up with, my dear” and all. But this sort of thinking is the thinking that gets a lot of men killed.

While the accuracy and potency of our arsenal continues to grow, how much better are a few (or even a lot of) well-placed shots going to be than the days of non-stop shore bombardment by 16″, 14″, 8″, and 5″ naval fire (plus large-scale aerial bombing) in World War 2? In some cases we practically de-treed entire islands with savage round-the-clock pounding that, in effect, was sometimes probably the equivalent of nuking the place. Yet when the Marines went ashore, there the enemy was. And ready to fight.

(Great pic of the 5th Marine Division on Iwo Jima from Invest.is)

We should have learned by now that guided bombs and missiles are a great force multiplier and a way of hitting them where we ain’t, but they aren’t going to take the place of boots on the ground. Not today. Not soon. Probably not ever.

It’s all about options. We have the capability to come at you from multiple sides simultaneously. We need to keep that capability at all costs even if the Corps needs to adjust to the wars of the century.

Comments

  1. People have been arguing against the need for the Marine Corps since the day it was born – yet every time they need us – we’ve delivered. Amphibious assault, like Airborne assault, has always been dangerous and costly. Sometimes there is just no choice. Yes, the amphibious assault in 1991 was a feint. Most of the units involved did go eventually go ashore a day or two later and participate in the liberation of Kuwait City. The Iraqi units that moved to block the amphibious assault got some special 16′ treatment from our dearly missed battleships. You hit the nail on the head Murdoc. If those Iraqi units had ignored the amphibious feint and gone straight at the 1st Division coming up from Saudi Arabia, they would have got the crap kicked out of them by a Regiment that suddenly appeared on their flanks and rear. What Mr. Boot is forgetting is the other amphibious assault that almost happened. If Saddam had been smart and bold, he would have rolled right through Kuwait and into Saudi Arabia in the summer of 1990. Nobody could have stopped him. Since we would not have had a friendly neighboring country to build up ground forces at a leisurely pace before the we attacked, the only alternative to leaving Saddam in control of most of the world’s oil would have been a gigantic (probably 3+ Division) amphibious assault (along with simultaneous Airborne assaults farther inland). It would have been the ultimate battle for Paratroopers and Marines. Only the U.S. Marine Corps, augmented by Brit and maybe Dutch Royal Marines, could pull off such a feat. It would have been spectacularly bloody, messy, costly, and glorious. And, most importantly, it would have succeeded because the Marine Corps does not fail.

  2. I agree Murdoc. Just go ahead and retire the amphibious force and sure enough, we’ll have need for them. The British were ready to discard her last 2 amphibs in 82 when suddenly, Argentina invaded the Falklands!

  3. Hey, I think a better analogy is that which master players use in many games (including chess) – a ‘fork’. You trap your opponent in a position where they’re ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’. For example, you set up one of your pieces to take one of their pieces. The obvious solution for them is to move that piece. But if you place another piece so that if they move it, then you can take that piece with your other piece, or take a different piece, or some other bad outcome, they no longer have any good options. The same thing goes for military flexibility. The more options you have, the less options you can give them, allowing you to master the situation and achieve initiative.