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Iwo Jima-style landings are a relic of the past, says top Marine general

Jun. 30, 2014 - 07:57PM   |  
Marines with India Company, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit run on the beach during an amphibious assault demonstration in 2009. The way Marines conduct such assaults is changing, said a top Marine general.
Marines with India Company, Battalion Landing Team, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit run on the beach during an amphibious assault demonstration in 2009. The way Marines conduct such assaults is changing, said a top Marine general. (Cpl. Theodore W. Ritchie/Marine Corps)
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World War II-style full-frontal amphibious assaults are relegated to the annals of history, a top Marine general told reporters Thursday in Washington.

In the future, Marines will conduct amphibious invasions by setting ashore and massing in areas that are not hotly contested before assaulting towards enemy forces over land, said Lt. Gen. Kenneth Glueck, the deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration Command at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va.

“The intent is not to go force on force,” Glueck said. “The intent is to find the seams and gaps. We are not going into the teeth of the enemy. We will go where they are not – where they are weak.”

Some of the most violent battles at Iwo Jima, Tarawa or Inchon, Korea, come to mind when considering Marine amphibious landings. Thousands died establishing beach heads during those assaults. But today, the difficulties of taking a contested beach are compounded by advances in missile technology; missiles can strike not just the Marines storming ashore, but also the ships from which they launch. The wide proliferation of cheap but deadly systems has forced amphibious ships out as much as 100 miles from the beach.

Glueck acknowledged the challenges posed by relying on Navy ship-to-shore connectors, which have limited speed and capacity. Only two of the Amphibious Combat Vehicle 1.1, now under development as a replacement for the Amphibious Assault Vehicle, will be able to fit on an Landing Craft Air Cushion, he said. Marine officials are working to make more space on the next generation LCAC, officially called the Ship-to-Shore Connector, so that it can carry three or four ACVs.

Critics of the ACV have cited its inability to swim ashore under its own power and the slow speed of an LCAC traveling 100 miles over open water as reasons to scrap the ACV and focus on a platform that would be light enough to airlift ashore. Two retired Marine infantry officers turned industry armor experts recently authored a paper arguing in favor of that, but Glueck says rotary airlift has never been used to move vehicles; tactically, that is not being considered.

For now, distance, water speed and cargo space remain barriers to quickly massing forces ashore. For that reason, the service will use advanced “high-speed – low signature” forces as part of its new Expeditionary Force 21 doctrine to maneuver ashore and secure a noncontested or lightly-contested area for the follow on forces to land and aggregate for battle. EF-21 aims to preposition gear near flash points and quickly aggregate scalable forces — ranging in size from a company to a Marine Expeditionary Force — to move ashore.

The idea of landing uncontested and assaulting over land is not without precedent, Glueck said. It was done on Tinian in the Pacific during WWII. There Japanese forces had heavily fortified the island’s southern beaches, where they believed Marines would land. Instead, Marines were able to traverse barrier reefs on the opposing side of the island. By putting ashore on the north end and flanking the enemy, they secured the island with little contest.

Landing where enemy forces are lightest will also allow for minimal risk to some of the Navy’s more vulnerable ship-to-shore connectors like the joint high speed vessel. The catamaran is capable of traveling 40 miles per hour, which is significantly faster than 24 miles per hour for amphibious transport dock ships. But catamarans are constructed with a light aluminum hull that some critics have said makes them vulnerable to enemy fire.

While the Marine Corps continues to bet much of its future on amphibious landings, they will bear little resemblance to those in the past.

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