DEFENSE

Future Corps

The Marine Corps, like the Army, has worn out a lot of equipment in Afghanistan and Iraq, and is facing big bills to pay for the future force the Corps says it needs.

National Journal
Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.
Add to Briefcase
Sydney J. Freedberg Jr.
May 9, 2008, 8 p.m.

At the end of April, a squad­ron of the Mar­ine Corps’s new V-22 Os­preys re­turned from the air­craft’s first over­seas de­ploy­ment, a sev­en-month tour in Ir­aq. The Corps trot­ted out pi­lots and ground crews to talk up the $67 mil­lion ma­chine, a hy­brid of heli­copter and pro­peller plane whose re­volu­tion­ary tilt-ro­tor tech­no­logy took 25 years to de­vel­op and claimed 30 lives in crashes along the way.

Largely over­looked in the cov­er­age and the con­tro­versy over the V-22 it­self, however, is the fact that the air­craft was nev­er meant to stand, or to fight, alone. The Os­prey is simply the single most ex­pens­ive ele­ment of an am­bi­tious plan to re-equip the Mar­ine Corps to ex­ecute a new kind of sea-based blitzkrieg.

Mar­ine of­ficers began to de­vel­op the concept, of­ten called “op­er­a­tion­al man­euver from the sea,” a quarter-cen­tury ago at the height of the Cold War, when the rise of ad­vanced anti-ship mis­siles was already threat­en­ing any fleet massed for a con­ven­tion­al, large-scale land­ing in the style of Iwo Jima. Today, the V-22 and key tech­no­lo­gies like it are fi­nally en­ter­ing ser­vice in a world rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent from the one in which they were con­ceived—a world in which some of the weapons that the So­vi­ets de­veloped 25 years ago are now in the hands of guer­ril­las and ter­ror­ists in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

For the Mar­ine Corps, look­ing for­ward to a large-scale pull­back from Ir­aq even as it takes on a new mis­sion in Afgh­anistan, the vis­ion is not merely about new tech­no­logy. It is about re­turn­ing to the Corps’s his­tor­ic role as a ship­borne rap­id-re­ac­tion force after five years of gruel­ing ground war­fare along­side the Army.

“We’re not a second land army,” said Maj. Gen. Thomas Benes, the dir­ect­or of ex­ped­i­tion­ary war­fare on the Chief of Nav­al Op­er­a­tions’ staff. “We can al­ways be used to com­ple­ment the [Army’s] mis­sion on the ground, and we don’t shy away from a fight,” he em­phas­ized. “But our real tra­di­tion­al role of be­ing a nav­al force is what we want to get back to.”

To carry out this old role in a new way with new equip­ment, however, will be ex­pens­ive. Like the Army, the Mar­ine Corps has worn out in Ir­aq much of its in­vent­ory of weapons, air­craft, and vehicles, most of which were bought dur­ing the Re­agan-era buildup. Un­like the Army, which has pack­aged its main mod­ern­iz­a­tion pro­grams in­to a single, high-pro­file, hard-to-ex­plain and heav­ily cri­ti­cized Fu­ture Com­bat Sys­tem, Mar­ine mod­ern­iz­a­tion is scattered across a half-dozen pro­grams, some small enough to fly be­low most me­dia and con­gres­sion­al radars. What’s more, be­cause the fu­ture Mar­ine force will be car­ried in­to battle on Navy ships built with Navy money, about a sixth of the total cost to real­ize the Corps’s vis­ion will not be coun­ted in the Corps’s budget.

Adding up all of the ma­jor ele­ments—the new ships, the V-22, a host of up­grades to con­ven­tion­al heli­copters, and a kind of tank that swims called the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle—the bill comes to about $100 bil­lion. (This total doesn’t in­clude the Mar­ines’ share of the nas­cent multiser­vice F-35 Joint Strike Fight­er air­craft.) That is close to the $129 bil­lion es­tim­ate for the Army Fu­ture Com­bat Sys­tem and well above the cost of the me­dia’s fa­vor­ite poster child for over­priced weapons sys­tems, the $63 bil­lion F-22 Rap­tor fight­er jet.

Tight Budgets

Al­though the Mar­ine mod­ern­iz­a­tion cost is spread over many years, it is still bust­ing the budget of what has al­ways been the smal­lest armed ser­vice in the De­fense De­part­ment. “It’s hor­ribly tight,” said Kev­in Mc­Con­nell, a re­tired Mar­ine ma­jor now serving as a plan­ner with the Corps’s Com­bat De­vel­op­ment Com­mand, based in Quantico, Va. In the long-range fore­cast for the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, for ex­ample, “the in­vest­ment in EFV alone ex­ceeds, yearly, what we would nor­mally think of as the pro­cure­ment [budget] for the en­tire Mar­ine Corps,” Mc­Con­nell said. And in the near term, “we’re fight­ing a war that’s beat­ing the heck out of our equip­ment. So I will very much go after sup­ple­ment­al [budgets for Ir­aq and Afgh­anistan] as long as they’re avail­able—not only to sus­tain the force in-theat­er but to help us mod­ern­ize. If those sup­ple­ment­als don’t come through, the next dec­ade’s go­ing to be kind of tough.”

The Mar­ine Corps has already made hard choices. For the past two dec­ades, the Navy con­tin­ued to buy fight­er planes and heli­copters, but the Mar­ines mostly held onto aging and in­creas­ingly hard-to-main­tain air­craft while wait­ing for the V-22 and their ver­sion of the F-35 fight­er, now ex­pec­ted to enter ser­vice in 2012.

“There were a lot of ar­gu­ments for and against the V-22,” said Robert Work, a re­tired Mar­ine col­on­el who is an ana­lyst at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and Budget­ary As­sess­ments. “Five years ago, I was not a fan. But the bot­tom line is, now there really is no oth­er op­tion. The war has es­sen­tially worn out the Mar­ine Corps heli­copter fleet. The V-22 is the an­swer we’re go­ing to make work.”

Oth­er ex­pens­ive as­pects of the Mar­ine Corps plan are not yet set in stone—above all, the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, which has been cut from a planned pur­chase of 1,000-plus EFVs to few­er than 600, even as the cost rose to $16 mil­lion per vehicle and the de­vel­op­ment sched­ule fell four years be­hind. “There’s still a lot of de­bate over the EFV,” Work said. “Do you really even need it? Could you do it a lot cheap­er?”

An­swer­ing these ques­tions re­quires go­ing bey­ond the prob­lems of spe­cif­ic pro­grams to look at the Mar­ine Corps’s over­all vis­ion of its fu­ture—and, ul­ti­mately, at the ba­sic mis­sion of the Corps.

“Who is this force sup­posed to be used against?” asked Dave Baker, an ana­lyst and au­thor who served in the Of­fice of Nav­al In­tel­li­gence. “Who are we go­ing to in­vade?”

Big Wars, Small Wars

For 200 years, the Mar­ine Corps has had a split mil­it­ary per­son­al­ity. Even the lyr­ics to the Mar­ine hymn de­clare it. “From the halls of Mon­te­zuma”—a ma­jor 1847 land battle in the Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an War—”to the shores of Tripoli”—a pres­id­en­tially ordered po­lice ac­tion against North Afric­an pir­ates in 1805—the Corps has swung back and forth between aug­ment­ing the Army in pro­longed ground com­bat and serving as a glob­al fire bri­gade launched from Navy ships.

The split between ma­jor war and crisis re­sponse goes back to the found­ing of the Re­pub­lic. “In the Con­sti­tu­tion, Con­gress has the au­thor­ity to ‘main­tain’ a Navy but to ‘raise’ an Army,” ex­plained D. Robert Wor­ley, a former mar­ine and a seni­or fel­low at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity’s In­sti­tute of Gov­ern­ment. “The De­part­ment of War was there to mo­bil­ize an army when Con­gress de­clared war. The De­part­ment of the Navy, on the oth­er hand, was a stand­ing or­gan­iz­a­tion the pres­id­ent could use without go­ing to Con­gress.” Com­bat troops who em­barked on Navy ships—mar­ines—car­ried gun­boat dip­lomacy ashore in what a land­mark 1940 op­er­a­tions manu­al co­di­fied as “small wars.” Even the massive con­flicts of the 20th cen­tury, which led to the mer­ger of the War and Navy De­part­ments in­to the De­fense De­part­ment in 1947, nev­er drew the Mar­ine Corps en­tirely away from its clas­sic crisis-re­sponse role, as in Haiti in 1915 and 1994, or the Domin­ic­an Re­pub­lic in 1916 and 1965.

“World War I, World War II, those are an­om­alies,” said Col. Douglas King, a seni­or plan­ner at the Mar­ine Corps’s Com­bat De­vel­op­ment Com­mand. King and oth­er mar­ines em­phas­ize that the Corps must be pre­pared for wars big and small, and that the pop­u­lar ima­gin­a­tion still thinks of the Mar­ines in terms of massive seaborne in­va­sions such as the 1945 at­tack on Iwo Jima. But the Mar­ines con­ceived of those tac­tics in the 1930s, per­fec­ted them dur­ing World War II, re­prised them one last time at In­chon in 1950 dur­ing the Korean War, and have nev­er un­der­taken such an as­sault again.

In the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War, the threat of a Mar­ine land­ing kept much of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s army along the coast while the U.S. Army out­flanked it in­land, but Army Gen. Nor­man Schwar­zkopf, the Desert Storm com­mand­er, nev­er sent the Mar­ines ashore for fear of heavy cas­u­al­ties. By con­trast, King said, “since the end of the Cold War, we’ve con­duc­ted about 85 re­sponses to crises, any­thing from raids to hu­man­it­ari­an op­er­a­tions.”

Many of these mis­sions are dis­aster re­lief. But the Mar­ines must of­ten go ashore in war zones to serve as peace­keep­ers or to evac­u­ate U.S. cit­izens. “Non­com­bat” can turn in­to “com­bat” in a leth­al hurry, and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of power­ful weapons in the hands of in­sur­gents and rebel groups around the world only in­creases the risks. In 1983, a single truck bomb in Beirut killed 241 U.S. peace­keep­ers, al­most all of them mar­ines. In 2006, the Corps re­turned to Le­ban­on to ex­tric­ate 14,000 Amer­ic­an na­tion­als from the cross­fire between Is­rael and Hezbol­lah. Neither side at­tacked the mar­ines, but the po­ten­tial danger was un­der­scored by Hezbol­lah’s use of anti-tank and anti-ship mis­siles against the Is­rael­is, weapons that were once de­ployed only by the mil­it­ar­ies of na­tion-states. Hezbol­lah was able to fire a mis­sile that crippled an Is­raeli cor­vette sail­ing 10 miles off­shore.

Such weapons could make a tra­di­tion­al massed land­ing in the man­ner of Iwo Jima look like the Charge of the Light Bri­gade on wa­ter skis. The clas­sic tac­tic is to bring Navy am­phi­bi­ous as­sault ships with­in sight of shore to dis­gorge the land­ing force, which struggles through the wa­ter to seize the miles of gently graded beach ne­ces­sary to land a siz­able force and its re­quis­ite sup­plies. Only then could the mar­ines move in­land to pur­sue their ac­tu­al ob­ject­ives.

At Iwo Jima there was only one suit­able beach, and the Ja­pan­ese de­fend­ers knew it; com­ing ashore this way was bloody even in 1945. Against Ir­a­ni­an or North Korean forces with shore-launched cruise mis­siles, shoulder-fired anti-tank rock­ets, and abund­ant mines on land and in the sea, such a land­ing would be sui­cid­al.

The mar­ines’ solu­tion was to by­pass the beach. In­stead, they would keep the fleet well out at sea, with plenty of man­euv­er­ing room, and then launch a sud­den, sav­age, high-speed at­tack that would come ashore at mul­tiple points—seek­ing nar­row gaps in en­emy de­fenses in­stead of a single large beach—and keep mov­ing in­land without stop­ping to build up a single, vul­ner­able beach­head. The only prob­lem with this plan was that the Corps’s ex­ist­ing equip­ment could not pull it off. So the ser­vice set out to build such a cap­ab­il­ity.

High-Tech Am­bi­tions

De­vel­op­ing tech­no­lo­gies to ex­ecute the Mar­ine Corps’s new tac­tics has been a 25-year-long or­deal. The V-22 Os­prey pro­gram began in 1982 and first de­ployed to Ir­aq last fall. The Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, still at least sev­en years from field­ing, of­fi­cially began in 1995 but is the suc­cessor of two am­phi­bi­ous ar­mored vehicle pro­jects that were aban­doned. “This is the solu­tion they came up with 20-plus years ago and have been try­ing to field ever since,” said T.X. Hammes, a re­tired Mar­ine col­on­el who wrote an icon­o­clast­ic book, The Sling and the Stone, on how low-tech foes can de­feat ex­pens­ive Amer­ic­an hard­ware.

The Corps suffered through all of the clas­sic dif­fi­culties of com­plex mil­it­ary weapons pur­chases and through pain­ful budget cuts in the 1990s. But its fun­da­ment­al prob­lem was the re­volu­tion­ary nature of what it wanted to build. Both the V-22 Os­prey and the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle are hy­brids, whose ma­chinery must be phys­ic­ally re­con­figured to op­er­ate in two dis­tinct modes.

The V-22 tilt-ro­tor, as the name im­plies, uses gear­boxes and hy­draul­ics to tilt its ro­tor blades at dif­fer­ent angles, al­low­ing it to take off and land like a heli­copter but fly long dis­tances like a tur­bop­rop air­plane. The EFV trans­forms from ground vehicle to wa­ter vehicle by fold­ing up its sus­pen­sion, re­tract­ing its tank-like tracks, de­ploy­ing sta­bil­izer fins from its back and sides, ex­tend­ing a met­al bow plate to bet­ter cut the waves, and rev­ving its en­gine to 2,700 horsepower, which kicks the 40-ton ma­chine bod­ily out of the wa­ter to skim across the sur­face at about 30 miles per hour. “It’s not just a swim­ming tank,” Hammes said. “It’s a wa­ter-ski­ing tank.”

It’s no won­der that get­ting such ma­chinery to work takes money, time, and—in the case of the V-22—lives. The Os­prey’s worst crash came in April 2000, when a Mar­ine pi­lot brought his air­craft down so steeply—drop­ping much faster than he was mov­ing for­ward—that one ro­tor des­cen­ded in­to its own down­wash of tur­bu­lent air and stopped provid­ing lift (a phe­nomen­on called “vor­tex ring state” or “power set­tling”). Be­cause the V-22’s test pi­lots had re­leased the air­craft to op­er­a­tion­al Mar­ine squad­rons to try out new air­borne tac­tics, the crash killed not only the pi­lot and co-pi­lot but 17 young rifle­men rid­ing in the back.

Wheth­er the V-22’s unique design makes it more or less vul­ner­able to this par­tic­u­lar kind of ac­ci­dent than a tra­di­tion­al two-ro­tor heli­copter is an opaque tech­nic­al de­bate. But an­oth­er crash, in Decem­ber 2000, began with a leak in the air­craft’s hy­draul­ics sys­tem that turned deadly be­cause of a glitch in the flight soft­ware—and both of those sys­tems are un­usu­ally com­plic­ated in or­der to handle the air­craft’s trans­ition between two modes of flight.

“The Os­prey is a won­der­ful concept,” said Philip Coyle, a former Pentagon chief of op­er­a­tion­al test­ing who over­saw the air­craft’s tri­al flights, “but in prac­tice it has in­tro­duced all kinds of new is­sues that I don’t think the de­sign­ers ap­pre­ci­ated or even con­tem­plated. It has lots of re­li­ab­il­ity fail­ures. The Mar­ine Corps will tell you that all new air­craft de­vel­op­ment pro­grams have prob­lems. Not like this, and not after 20 years of de­vel­op­ment.”

Coyle cites news re­ports and a leaked Mar­ine Corps memo on the Os­prey’s more re­cent prob­lems: land­ing gear that failed to de­ploy, en­gines that wore out pre­ma­turely, and even a poorly sealed fil­ter that clogged eas­ily and will cost an es­tim­ated $54,500 per air­craft to cor­rect. The Mar­ine Corps in­sists that fixes are in place or un­der way and cites fig­ures show­ing that the Os­prey’s main­ten­ance de­mands and break­down rate com­pare fa­vor­ably with the less com­plex but of­ten geri­at­ric heli­copters it is slated to re­place.

The Swim­ming Tank

The Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, mean­while, is years be­hind the V-22 in solv­ing its mech­an­ic­al prob­lems. In a 2006 test, the main gun jammed, hy­draul­ics leaked, elec­tron­ics froze up, struts cracked, and the pro­to­types com­pleted only three out of more than 20 planned events.

“I didn’t have a smoking gun,” said Mar­ine Col. John Bry­ant, who took over as pro­gram man­ager in the de­mor­al­ized days after the ‘06 test. “I didn’t have one or two things I could fix. I had a very com­plex plat­form with fail­ures spread throughout. There were a sig­ni­fic­ant num­ber of fail­ures in the hy­draul­ics sys­tem”—used to ex­tend and re­tract the EFV’s as­sor­ted flaps, bow plate, and tracks—”which is pretty much unique, but the single largest source of fail­ures was the gun tur­ret. We know how to make tur­rets.”

In part, the Mar­ine Corps was pay­ing for de­cisions made earli­er in the pro­gram, when budget cuts forced the Corps to fo­cus on the crit­ic­al chal­lenge of get­ting a 40-ton ar­mored vehicle to skim the wa­ter like a speed­boat and skimp on the more-mundane re­li­ab­il­ity work. In part, the sheer com­plex­ity of the ma­chine over­whelmed the man­age­ment skills of the smal­lest mil­it­ary ser­vice, which his­tor­ic­ally re­lies on the Navy to de­vel­op its air­craft and on the Army to de­vel­op its ground vehicles.

“For the most part, in the past, the Mar­ine Corps was not in the de­vel­op­ment­al busi­ness; they were in the pro­cure­ment busi­ness,” said Col. Wil­li­am Taylor, a Mar­ine ac­quis­i­tion of­fi­cial widely cred­ited with help­ing to over­haul the V-22 pro­gram. “We’re in a trans­ition phase where the pace of the Mar­ine Corps’s de­vel­op­ment­al ef­forts is slightly out ahead of their cap­ab­il­it­ies.”

Since the 2006 test­ing flop, the Mar­ine Corps in­sists it has got­ten re­li­gion on re­li­ab­il­ity: The ser­vice ac­cep­ted a four-year delay to do a top-to-bot­tom re­design and set up its first ac­quis­i­tion of­fice, headed by Taylor, ded­ic­ated to over­see­ing ground-vehicle pro­grams. The re­vamped EFV will go be­fore the Pentagon’s De­fense Ac­quis­i­tion Board in late May; if it is ap­proved, the Corps will is­sue con­tracts for a new set of pro­to­types.

Skep­ti­cism re­mains in power­ful places. “We’ve seen a real em­bar­rass­ment,” said Rep. Henry Wax­man, D-Cal­if., who as chair­man of the House Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee has made the EFV a par­tic­u­lar tar­get. “It’s hard to be very con­fid­ent after look­ing at the his­tory of this tank.”

Even the EFV’s top sup­port­ers on the House Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee, Mis­sis­sippi Demo­crat Gene Taylor and Mary­land Re­pub­lic­an Ro­s­coe Bart­lett—who head the pan­el over­see­ing Mar­ine pro­cure­ment—have leaned hard on the Corps to con­sider ma­jor re­designs of either the hull or the en­gine to bet­ter pro­tect the vehicle against the kind of im­pro­vised land mines that have proved so deadly in Ir­aq. “Every­body’s com­mit­ted to the vehicle,” Bart­lett told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “[But] the Mar­ines are go­ing to be liv­ing with this for 30 years, and we feel it’s worth a little ef­fort now to make sure we’ve got it as good as it can be.”

So what does all of this ef­fort, ex­pense, and mech­an­ic­al com­plex­ity ac­tu­ally do for mar­ines in com­bat? And con­sid­er­ing the Mar­ine Corps’s var­ied op­er­a­tions, ex­actly what kinds of con­flict are the V-22 and the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle suited for?

Seaborne Blitzkrieg

The V-22 Os­prey was con­ceived at the height of the Cold War for sweep­ing, high-speed man­euvers from the sea. It entered ser­vice 25 years later in Ir­aq, an all-but-land­locked coun­try where U.S. troops are slog­ging through a long, slow fight, one neigh­bor­hood or vil­lage at a time. Some of the ex­pens­ive cap­ab­il­it­ies that the Os­prey provides are simply ir­rel­ev­ant to Ir­aq—but by no means all.

The V-22’s ad­vant­age comes from its hy­brid flight. There’s an old joke among avi­at­ors that heli­copters don’t ac­tu­ally fly, they just beat the air in­to sub­mis­sion. The abil­ity to take off and land ver­tic­ally, without the need for a run­way, comes with a price: Heli­copters per­form poorly in long-dis­tance flight com­pared with fixed-wing air­planes. By tilt­ing its ro­tors at dif­fer­ent angles, the V-22 can dis­pense with an air­strip and still fly faster, high­er, and—be­cause air­plane-style flight is much more fuel-ef­fi­cient—farther than con­ven­tion­al heli­copters. (See map, this page.)

The Os­prey’s speed and range are ar­gu­ably overkill for Ir­aq, where most mis­sions are short-range hops in and out of the many U.S. bases. Its aptitude for alti­tude, however, has already proven use­ful: In­sur­gents have shot down con­ven­tion­al U.S. heli­copters with ma­chine guns, but the V-22 can climb to 13,000 feet, too high to hit with small-arms fire. In­sur­gents have oc­ca­sion­ally used shoulder-fired anti-air­craft mis­siles, which can reach high­er tar­gets, but fly­ing high­er than con­ven­tion­al heli­copters gives Os­prey pi­lots more re­ac­tion time to drop flares and evade.

A rumored de­ploy­ment of V-22s to Afgh­anistan, where U.S. troops are spread thin over vast dis­tances and at high alti­tudes, should be a bet­ter test of the V-22’s per­form­ance. But where the Os­prey really shines is at even longer ranges. When the mar­ines first de­ployed from their ships to Afgh­anistan in 2001, for ex­ample, they had to move in la­bor­i­ous stages from the In­di­an Ocean with the help of land­ing areas in Pakistan. With the V-22, the same force could have flown over Pakistani ter­rit­ory and hit the Taliban strong­hold of Kanda­har in two hours.

Over such dis­tances, however, the V-22s can move only mar­ine rifle­men, their per­son­al gear, and small loads of vi­tal sup­plies. (Work is pro­gress­ing on a mini-jeep that can fit in­to the Os­prey as well.) The lar­ger loads needed to sus­tain a ro­bust fight­ing force—bulk sup­plies, ar­til­lery pieces, Hum­vees—still have to be slung un­der hulk­ing heavy-lift heli­copters, the CH-53s. The Corps is budget­ing $16 bil­lion to buy a more power­ful “K” ver­sion of this es­sen­tial air­craft, but it will still be a heli­copter, which means it will fly slower, lower, and at short­er ranges than the tilt-ro­tor V-22.

Farther Off­shore

The heav­iest Mar­ine Corps equip­ment—tanks and oth­er ar­mored vehicles—can­not be de­livered by air to a battle zone un­til in­fantry troops seize an air­field large enough to ac­com­mod­ate Air Force trans­ports. If the Mar­ines need ar­mor in the first phase of an am­phi­bi­ous land­ing, it must come ashore either on vul­ner­able land­ing craft or un­der its own power—which is where the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle comes in.

Like the Amtracs of World War II and the cur­rent Am­phi­bi­ous As­sault Vehicle, the EFV can roll off the back of a Navy trans­port in­to the wa­ter, mo­tor to the beach, roll onto land, and start fight­ing. But the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle’s mech­an­ic­ally com­plex trans­form­a­tion al­lows it to skim the waves in­stead of wal­low through them, mak­ing it eas­ily three times as fast as its pre­de­cessors. So rather than come with­in sight of shore to launch the cur­rent am­phi­bi­ous ar­mor—thus ex­pos­ing it­self to at­tack—the fleet could de­ploy EFVs from over the ho­ri­zon, 25 or 30 miles away.

But is that enough? “Twenty years ago”—when the Corps’s new tac­tics were con­ceived—”we were talk­ing about 25 miles,” said one ana­lyst who works for the Mar­ine Corps. “The EFV is based on the idea that the en­emy can’t reach out 25 miles. Now they can.” The C-802 cruise mis­sile used in Hezbol­lah’s suc­cess­ful strike against the Is­raeli cor­vette in 2006, for ex­ample, has a max­im­um range of about 75 miles.

The Navy is so wor­ried about shore-based mis­siles, mines, and swarms of mo­tor­boats armed with sui­cide bombs that it is de­vel­op­ing a new class of “Lit­tor­al Com­bat Ship” spe­cific­ally de­signed to ven­ture in­to shal­low wa­ters while the rest of the fleet hangs back. (See NJ, 3/15/08, p. 26.) “Once the en­emy gets guided weapons, the whole [scen­ario] be­comes totally dif­fer­ent,” ana­lyst Work said. “You ain’t go­ing to be op­er­at­ing 25 miles off the coast. You’ve got to op­er­ate a hun­dred miles off­shore, and you’re go­ing to use, primar­ily, air­craft.”

Even at 30-plus mph, the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle can­not bring troops ashore from 100 miles out. The Navy has a massive hov­er­craft called the LCAC (Land­ing Craft, Air Cush­ion) that can carry one heavy tank or sev­er­al ar­mored cars over 200 miles of ocean at 45 miles an hour. But the hov­er­craft is ef­fect­ively un­ar­mored. Un­like the EFV, which can shrug off ma­chine-gun fire—al­though not rock­et-pro­pelled gren­ades or large road­side bombs—the LCAC can come ashore only on beaches already se­cured.

A Nar­row Niche

So how would mar­ines get ashore? The V-22 Os­prey can take off from a ship 100 miles out at sea and carry troops 400 miles in­land; even the CH-53 can man­age 200 miles bey­ond the shoreline in this scen­ario. (The CH-46 could reach only 40 miles in­land, a ma­jor reas­on for its re­place­ment by the V-22.) But any en­emy with enough anti-ship weapons to keep the Navy 100 miles out could prob­ably af­ford enough anti-air­craft mis­siles to shoot down in­com­ing Mar­ine Corps air­craft.

“You wouldn’t take a land­ing force and fly them in­to an in­teg­rated air de­fense without hav­ing done something about it first,” said Col. Glenn Wal­ters, a seni­or avi­ation plan­ner at Mar­ine Corps headquar­ters. Cruise mis­siles, un­manned drones, and jet air­craft—not only from Navy and Mar­ine Corps ships but also from Air Force bases on land—would have to sav­age an en­emy’s net­work of radar and mis­sile launch­ers first. Only then could tilt-ro­tor air­craft move through the gaps in en­emy de­fenses—us­ing their speed, range, and alti­tude to go around or over the re­main­ing threats—to land rifle­men in areas thor­oughly “san­it­ized” by smart bombs.

Those troops in turn could tear big­ger holes in the de­fenses to let the CH-53s, fly­ing lower and slower than the Os­preys, bring in heav­ier weapons. Thus re­in­forced, light in­fantry should be able to se­cure sites for the LCAC hov­er­craft to land heavy ar­mor.

Where the Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle fits in such a scen­ario is not en­tirely clear. Un­like tilt-ro­tors, con­ven­tion­al heli­copters, or even hov­er­craft, the EFV can­not be launched from ships 100 or 200 miles out at sea. Be­fore the Navy would come in closer—even a small am­phi­bi­ous as­sault ship costs $1 bil­lion and car­ries 400 sail­ors, not count­ing mar­ines—it would want en­emy de­fenses thor­oughly beaten down, which would not leave much for the EFV to fight.

The Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle’s re­volu­tion­ary tech­no­logy ends up mak­ing it suit­able for a fairly nar­row com­bat niche: at­tack­ing en­emies who have enough anti-ship weapons to force the fleet to stay 25—but not 100—miles off­shore, and who have enough ma­chine guns to keep the un­ar­mored LCAC hov­er­craft from land­ing but not enough rock­et-pro­pelled gren­ades or im­pro­vised land mines to pen­et­rate the mod­er­ately ar­mored EFV. On top of that, the Mar­ine Corps won’t buy enough EFVs to at­tack such op­pon­ents on a large scale.

“Would you ever do a clas­sic am­phi­bi­ous in­va­sion with this? We’re only go­ing to have just over 500,” said Ro­ger Smith, the deputy as­sist­ant Navy sec­ret­ary who over­sees Mar­ine ex­ped­i­tion­ary war­fare pro­cure­ments. Even the ori­gin­al plan to buy 1,000 or more would hardly al­low the Corps to rep­lic­ate Iwo Jima, Smith ac­know­ledged: “We’ve got a com­pletely dif­fer­ent force.”

The Old Is New Again

The Mar­ine Corps, and the Navy for that mat­ter, are simply smal­ler than they were dur­ing the Cold War, let alone World War II. Even the planned, highly ex­pens­ive ex­pan­sion of the Mar­ine Corps from its cur­rent strength of 189,000 to 202,000 will only re­turn the ser­vice to its 1980s peak. The Navy, mean­while, has gone from hav­ing enough am­phi­bi­ous as­sault ships to de­ploy three Mar­ine bri­gades sim­ul­tan­eously—a frac­tion of the force at In­chon or Iwo Jima—to not quite enough to carry two. Two bri­gades happened to be the size of the Mar­ine feint dur­ing the Gulf War.

“You could not stage an am­phi­bi­ous in­va­sion of Ir­an. You couldn’t stage an am­phi­bi­ous in­va­sion of North Korea,” said Baker, the former nav­al in­tel­li­gence ana­lyst. “God knows, you can’t in­vade China.”

In the con­text of the “small wars” and non­com­bat crises that have his­tor­ic­ally been the Mar­ine Corps’s forte, however, a two-bri­gade force looms lar­ger. The Corps’s plan for the “long war”—the Pentagon’s term for the battle against ter­ror­ism after the Ir­aq con­flict—calls for re­turn­ing to the tra­di­tion­al ro­ta­tion of small, flex­ible Mar­ine Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Units stand­ing by on Navy ships around the globe, aug­men­ted by new form­a­tions spe­cially tailored for “se­cur­ity co­oper­a­tion” mis­sions: help­ing al­lied mil­it­ar­ies to train, to hunt ter­ror­ists, and to re­spond to nat­ur­al dis­asters. In the fu­ture, one Janu­ary 2008 strategy pamph­let says bluntly, “there will be few­er high-spec­trum com­bat op­er­a­tions that will re­quire our mar­ines to bring the full force of our com­bined arms cap­ab­il­it­ies to bear.”

Such a fu­ture of small forces op­er­at­ing over long dis­tances against re­l­at­ively lim­ited threats would of­fer many op­por­tun­it­ies for the $67 mil­lion V-22 Os­prey. The Ex­ped­i­tion­ary Fight­ing Vehicle, re­l­at­ively cheap at $16 mil­lion apiece, would see less real-world use for the dol­lar.

What We're Following See More »
SCARAMUCCI INSINUATED PRIEBUS LEAKED INFO
Two of Trump’s Top Advisors Feuding
5 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"A long-simmering feud between two of President Trump’s top advisers reached a boiling point Thursday, as White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci publicly insinuated that chief of staff Reince Priebus is a leaker."

Source:
ECON RETRIBUTION AFTER HEALTHCARE VOTE
Trump Admin Threatens Alaska
51 minutes ago
THE LATEST

"President Donald Trump isn't going to just let go of Sen. Lisa Murkowski's no vote on Tuesday's health care. Early Wednesday, Trump took to Twitter to express displeasure with Murkowski's vote. By that afternoon, each of Alaska's two Republican senators had received a phone call from Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke letting them know the vote had put Alaska's future with the administration in jeopardy."

Source:
WILL WORK ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOM ISSUES
Trump Names Brownback Ambassador at Large
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

President Trump has nominated Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback to be ambassador at large for international religious freedom at the Department of State. Governor since 2011, Brownback worked on religious freedom issues while a U.S. senator from 1996 to 2011.

MADURO THREATENED WITH MORE
More Sanctions, This Time on Venezuela
2 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"The Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on a host of current and former senior Venezuelan officials on Wednesday and threatened to take more stringent action if President Nicolás Maduro proceeds with plans for a constituent assembly on Sunday that critics consider a danger to democracy."

Source:
UNCLEAR IF IT WILL BE OFFICIAL POLICY
LGBT Groups Threaten to Sue Trump Over Trans Ban
2 hours ago
THE LATEST

LGBT groups are unsure how literally to take President Trump's tweet on Wednesday that he wants to ban transgender persons from the military, or whether it will be followed up by an official order. But if so, groups like Lambda Legal and the American Civil Liberties Union "are ready to take legal action."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login